METANOMICS: INSIDE LINDEN LAB -
AN ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY BY THOMAS MALABY
JUNE 3, 2009
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I’m Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University’s
Johnson Graduate School of management. Each week I have the honor of hosting a
discussion with the most insightful and the most influential people who are taking Virtual
Worlds seriously. We talk with the developers who are creating these fascinating new
platforms, the executives, entrepreneurs, educators, artists, government officials who are
putting these platforms to use. We talk with the researchers who are watching the whole
process unfold. And we talk with the government officials and policymakers who are taking a
very close look on how what happens in the Virtual World can affect our Real World society.
Now naturally, we hold our discussions about Virtual Worlds in Virtual Worlds. How else
could we find a very real place where our global community can convene, collaborate and
connect with one another. So our discussion is about to start. You can join us in any of our
live Virtual World studio audiences. You can join us live on the web. Welcome, because this
ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hello, and welcome again to Metanomics. Today we are joined
by anthropologist and author Thomas Malaby, who spent many weeks inside the offices of
Linden Lab, had the opportunity to examine Linden Lab’s internal communications and, best
of all for us, got permission to write a book about what he learned. It may not be too
surprising that the unusual and idiosyncratic Second Life is brought to us by an unusual and
idiosyncratic company. But the details are fascinating. Thanks to all of you who are
attending Metanomics today, including those who are viewing live on the web. Please join in
with your comments and your questions.
ANNOUNCER: We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome
discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show.
Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell
University and Immersive Workspaces. Welcome. This is Metanomics.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Before we get to behind the scenes at Linden Lab, we’re going to
take a few minutes to explore some of the amazing things that are happening in the World
that is Linden Lab’s creation, Second Life. Bettina Tizzy joins us today as Metanomics
cultural correspondent and helps us put user content creation in the spotlight. Bettina,
welcome to Metanomics.
BETTINA TIZZY: Hi, Beyers. I’m glad to be here.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Bettina, you appeared on Metanomics almost a year ago. It’s
great to have you here. I guess you were here to tell us about Not Possible In Real Life,
NPIRL, a community of some of the most elite content creators in Second Life, who are
dedicated to creating and celebrating Second Life creations that are, well, not possible in
real life. And I guess before I ask you for an update, can you tell us a little bit about the Not
Possible In Real Life dress you’re wearing?
BETTINA TIZZY: Oh, well, thank you. This dress is by Eshi Otawara, as is the hair. And I
suppose it could be possible in real life, but it certainly is fantastical and, therefore, very
much to my liking, not to mention the fact that it is low in ARC. I think it’s at about--
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Avatar rendering costs.
BETTINA TIZZY: Right. So it’s easy for you to render and doesn’t cost a lot of lag on a
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Also, you were kind enough to put a variety of things from NPIRL
creators on our island here at Metanomics, and Treet will be showing those as we talk, but
I’d like to start by having you tell us a little bit about the chandelier that is directly over my
BETTINA TIZZY: This is a favorite piece, and it’s actually a smaller version of the original
sculpture by Cliff Graves, and it reminds me a little bit of a chandelier. He calls it raindrops,
and I think it’s exquisite. It just is suspended in midair, for those who cannot see it--can
anybody not see this, will they just be hearing audio? And it has rotating textures. It’s
crystal-like and quite lovely.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, it really is. It’s something. I guess, Second Life is amazing
this way, that this is a creation that changes. You can zoom in. You can get different angles,
and it’s changing dynamically as well as--depending on exactly where you are.
BETTINA TIZZY: It presents the opportunity to have--a lot of kinetic sculpture, in Second
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: To our viewers, I’d like to let you know that you’ll see some of
these various creations by NPIRL members throughout this short segment, and do come to
the Metanomics Sim, the Metanomics island, after the show, and you can tour the island.
We’ve got these things scattered all around. Let’s get an update. You were on for the
anniversary of NPIRL just after July Fourth last year. How has NPIRL changed?
BETTINA TIZZY: A lot has happened. I mean content creators and those who love them
have been doing a lot of growing up since we were on your show a year ago. And there’s
been some good things and some bad things. For example, as committed Virtual World
residents, we’re often living two full lives, and that’s really costly, in terms of sleep and
eating a balanced diet, generally living a healthy life. We’re also beyond the “oh, my god,
can you believe this” excitement, and now we’re tinkering under the hood. So a recent blog
post that I did, I called, “SL Is Killing Me,” spurred a lot of in-world discussions with many
exhausted content creators. So now we’re looking for ways on how to regain that balance
and our fire and our sense of wonder. And this is an ongoing challenge.
Another thing that happened is, a little over a month ago, French virtual artist
Vanfarel Kupfer died in a car accident, and, had he not given copies of his creations to his
in-world girlfriend, his artistic legacy would have died forever. So avatars in Second Life
devote thousands of hours to creating all this content, and all that work is lost when they die,
even if they backed it up, and even if they gave it to an alt. And even if they give their
account password to someone, when you die and, unless you’ve included your virtual
content in a real-life Will, or given copies of it to a trusted virtual friend, no one, not even
Linden Lab can legally access your work. It’s simply lost forever. And so I wanted to
generate some awareness of this and an annual reminder to residents to take appropriate
measures. So I created Will Your Workday, which, I hope, will be observed every May 18th.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: It’s actually a pretty straightforward process. You just need to
make sure that you have a Will that specifically mentions your Linden Lab account?
BETTINA TIZZY: Yes. And if you refer to the blogpost about Will Your Workday, there are a
couple of new suggestions. There’s--I forget what it’s called, something about locker. It’s a
new web service that makes your passwords available, but I think, even in that way, Linden
Lab would not look happily on your sharing your password to someone in real life without
their having received confirmation via actually a copy of your death certificate and your Will,
that clearly states you were willing your virtual content.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, thanks for that advice. I do hope the content creators who
are spending so much of their time in creating so much value in Second Life will follow you
up on that. I know it’s something that people don’t usually like to think about. So it’s a bit of
an “eat your vegetables” recommendation there.
BETTINA TIZZY: Yeah. And we are in that mode right now. We really need to eat our
vegetables, both literally and figuratively.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let me ask about a couple other things. First you mentioned
creator fatigue, and so one question I have: Is what’s happening the issue that it’s just the
same old creators who are still around, and they’re get tired and bored, and it’s this
scrambling to find work?
BETTINA TIZZY: Boredom is not an issue.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Or is the issue that there is so much, sort of the pains of success,
that there’s just so much work to be done and so on?
BETTINA TIZZY: Well, boredom is never an issue, I don’t think. But I think it is part of living
two full lives. And, yes, the economy has hit some individuals who were making some
money in real life and some money in Second Life, and who are now devoting themselves
full time to content creation in Second Life. I mean it’s a variety of things. But the bottom line
is, is that content creators are getting tired. And, as they become more famous, more
celebrated and their content, shall we say, more widely known, they’re also more easily
available. They’re so easily available via instant message, that this represents a lot of
interruptions. If I had one wish for the user interface--well, there’s a few--but certainly one
that is very big in my book, it would be the ability to automatically turn off visibility to
everyone in Second Life while I’m onboard.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Well, that doesn’t sound like an incredibly difficult change to the
capabilities of Second Life. Do you know has anyone made a formal request for that?
BETTINA TIZZY: I believe there are-yeah, I think there are--I can’t point to that JIRA, but
I’m pretty sure there is one. It is something that needs to be done, I think. One other thing:
The day before yesterday, Larry Pixel--he’s Dr. Larry Johnson and the CEO of New Media
Consortium--published a guest blogpost on NPIRL, inviting the artistic community to explore
mutually beneficial ways for artists and their patrons to promote each other and then to
encourage patrons to provide land and support for large-scale installations. This is a
concern because a lot of Sims that were available to us just one year ago have vanished.
And we had a really good conversation there in the comments so, as a result of that and as
part of four hours that I’m curating and programming for Second Life’s sixth birthday, I’m
planning a panel discussion on this topic, with the director of a real-life art museum, who is
going to chair that, and who will surely give us some good insights.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I guess when I think of patrons in the Real World, an art patron
may be providing anything from a stipend to just a place that people can use for a studio or
a gallery, do a little promotion. What would a patron be doing in Second Life?
BETTINA TIZZY: Well, for the most part, sponsors and patrons provide land. Land is
extremely desirable, and what creators want the most is a full Sim so they can terraform it
and set the ground texture at will. They could do all kinds of interesting things with the entire
look of a simulator. But the [CATS?] provide support in additional ways. That means
providing infrastructure, promotion, a number of other ways. What was in this discussion
and what Larry was blogging about was that so many content creators accept the land and
create great content and then don’t promote their patrons. And so we’re looking for ways to
scratch each other’s backs, and I think that is part of the growing-up process. In fact, I think
that we’re outgrowing our aversion to real life businesses in Second Life. I mean I think
there was sort of an aversion to that earlier. We want to see them flourish. And the majority
of people I have polled don’t think that this is an important part of the progress of Virtual
Worlds and opportunities for content creators.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: So thank you so much for bringing that issue up. I saw, in one of
the many comments that were on Larry Johnson’s blogpost, someone points out that
Second Life is a new phenomenon. This is John; I’m citing from John, “Second Life is a new
phenomenon and does not have an established set of patronage and sponsorship structure
that are analogous to what we see in the real life art world.” So hopefully, maybe you could
work with Larry Johnson, you and NPIRL, and sort that out a bit. So the best of luck to you
on that. And let’s see. I guess we’ve talked a lot about the content creators. We only have a
minute left, but I’d like to turn to the people who like to consume the NPIRL content. You
have another group called IMPIRL. Impossible in real life. And you have about 2,500
members in that; I think I have that right.
BETTINA TIZZY: Yes, with the web-based group and the in-world group. And it’s my goal, I
may be dreaming, but I think it should be ten times that size. We are looking at some of the
best content on the grid, and it’s a group effort. We pool all these landmarks and great tips,
and so I’d love to invite everyone to join; it’s Impossible In Real Life, and you can look for it
in search and then join.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And, in fact, we have that. Eshi Otawara made a fascinating
spinning object right here on the Metanomics studio stage, that you can come by after the
show. Click that, and that will join you in with the group. I suppose I should also mention, by
the way, that Metanomics has a group as well. It’s not quite as big as IMPIRL, but we’re well
over a thousand members, and we’d love to have you all join that as well--
BETTINA TIZZY: An invaluable group.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: --so swing by the Sim and join Metanomics. And, Bettina, thanks
so much for joining us on Metanomics.
BETTINA TIZZY: Thank you for having me.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And I’m looking forward to seeing you again soon.
BETTINA TIZZY: I look forward to hearing Thomas.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now it’s time for our main event. Our main guest today is
Thomas Malaby. Thomas is associate professor in the department of anthropology at the
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He’s published a number of works--articles and
books--on Virtual Worlds, games, practice, theory and indeterminacy. He has studied quite
a bit on the relationships between institutions, technology and unpredictability, which is
going to be a topic that we will discuss today, as we talk about his most recent book Making
Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life, which is forthcoming this month from the
Cornell University Press.
Thomas is also an active author at the Virtual World blog Terra Nova. Thomas, welcome to
THOMAS MALABY: Oh, thank you for having me, Rob.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I know that a lot of work goes into a book like this, even at a
slight, what is it, something under 200 pages, maybe more like 150, but still quite an
accomplishment. From a methodological perspective, I understand you’d call this
“participant observation.” What did that involve?
THOMAS MALABY: Right. Well, participant observation is the primary sort of tool in the
ethnographer’s toolkit so the research methodology was not the graphic research, and,
within that, participant observation’s kind of the centerpiece, and that is spending time with
the people you are interested in understanding. It includes not only conversations with them,
but also the being with, the observations of their practice; but also the participation, the
learning how to do, not just how they make sense of things, but how they go about their
business, go about their day, move about, live, work, all of those kinds of things. So I spent
a lot of time at Linden Lab over the course of 2005 and a little bit on either end, and
participant observation filled my days. I had a desk at one of the little clusters that they had,
and there I was in the midst of it.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And you would go to meetings?
THOMAS MALABY: Attend meetings, yeah. And their Friday lunches and grab people
when they were heading out for coffee and see if I could have a word with them. I did some
work, very briefly, on the grid. There was a Thomas Linden, who was me, as I did some
utterly mundane tasks helping out the community group to actually do some participating in
what being a Linden is like.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And you also had access to their electronic communications. You
were part of the various libraries and so on?
THOMAS MALABY: That was an enormous part of this research. There were just so many
kinds of digitally mediated communications that they used. Their JIRA, which is their
software management development tool, itself is full of documentation. A Wiki instant
messaging IRC. Numerous email lists. It just goes on and on and on. That took a great deal
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And so did you have to sign some sort of nondisclosure or
confidentiality agreement, and what was it like then actually publishing? Did they have to
sign off on this?
THOMAS MALABY: No, they didn’t have signoff authority on publishing. The nondisclosure
agreement was really about their technology, and I wasn’t really interested. I mean I was
interested in the technology, but not so much the kind of marketable details, right. I was
interested in how they lived and worked, how they went about doing this strange task of
making and maintaining this Virtual World. The nondisclosure agreement really didn’t cover
what I was talking about.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I think it’ll be pretty clear to everyone as we discuss the book, you
didn’t go out of your way to make them look bad or anything like that, but you’re saying, if
you had wanted to, they couldn’t have stopped you. Is that right?
THOMAS MALABY: I supposed that’s true. I kind of wanted to show them warts and all, as
human beings like all the rest of us, with all the good and all the shortcomings that maybe
we know. That’s what I was striving for, I guess.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: As you know, there’s already a book called The Making of
Second Life, by Wagner James Au. He’s a journalist, and you’re an anthropologist. How do
the books differ?
THOMAS MALABY: I think they’re different books because they come from different
traditions, but also because we’re different people and different writers. It was wonderful to
have Hamlet at Linden Lab while I was there. He was still under contract with Linden Lab at
the time, and we collaborated. One of my favorite things I did at Linden Lab was to, with
Hamlet, initiate a history Wiki for the Lindens, to prompt them to write, to contribute to this
Wiki, which was chronologically organized about the history of their company, from the
earliest, the glimmer of the idea in Philip Rosedale’s eye, from that all the way through. That
was a wonderful kind of collaboration that we did.
His book is trying to do a bit of a different thing. My book is part of an ongoing conversation,
set of conversations really, amongst them, a set of conversations about high tech
organizations and how they run themselves. Conversations in anthropology about games
and social practice. Conversations within the realm of Virtual World and games scholarship
certainly. So that’s kind of the discourse I was inhabiting. And Hamlet’s book is written for a
broader audience than mine. Mine, I’m sure, suffers from plenty of obscurities from time to
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: I enjoyed it very much. Let’s start by just jumping into chapter
one. Before getting into Linden Lab, you talk about Second Life. Chapter one is titled The
Product. Now one of the common questions that everyone talks about with Second Life and
that you address in your book is: Is Second Life a game? When we spoke last week, you
defined a game. You said it’s a legitimate arena for the unpredictable.
THOMAS MALABY: Yeah, that’s right.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: How would you use that definition to answer whether Second Life
is indeed a game?
THOMAS MALABY: Yeah, I would say that Second Life, at the end of the day, I would say
it is game-like, very importantly game-like, but not necessarily a game. Perhaps the best
way to answer the question is just to consider for a moment how game-like our lives are
generally. It’s certainly a metaphor that many people have reached for over the years,
including some of the most distinguished social theorists the 20th century saw, people like
Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. They talked about life as game-like. What was that?
Well, we can start to observe that, that life is unpredictable in a bunch of different ways. We
have random events, just purely random events that impact our lives. We have the guesses
that we have to make about what people know around us and what they think, a kind of
informational game that’s part of life. We have a challenge to perform in our everyday lives,
to set about to not look stupid, to be effective, to be competent. All of those things are part
of the unpredictabilities of our experience and they’re part of what makes it possible even for
our experience to be meaningful.
Now let’s think about games for a minute. Games, even to think about offline games for a
minute, very interestingly incorporate all of these forms of unpredictability into their
structure, into their design. The pure randomness of our lives is the same kind of
unpredictability as what tumbling dice, a well-shuffled deck of cards or a spinner on a board
do for a game. That performative challenge that life confronts us with is not a different kind
of unpredictability at the end of the day, from that to performing in a sport, to make a shot in
basketball. The informational unpredictability of our lives, the guesses we have to make
about other people’s points of view is not very different from how poker controls the visibility
of resources and sets up a situation in which you have to make such guesses. So games
are not so very different from our lives, even to start with, when we look at them in a
And then what happened when we had computers come along, and we had computer
games come to be created, which, itself, I think, was probably a very difficult thing to begin
to be able to do. It became possible to create games that have all of these kinds of
unpredictabilities and then in a far more complex array, but yet they were still games. They
still had established and shared game objectives. That’s an important piece of what makes
a game a game.
But then you can almost say, “Well, what is Second Life?” And you say Second Life is a
computer game, but with the shared and established objectives removed. It has all of the
other elements in it. It has the performative unpredictability, the challenge to not mistakenly
toggle off your flying while you’re moving across a Sim and exhibit that rather embarrassing
flailing animation as you tumble to the ground. It’s got the guesses that we have to make
about other people because it’s a social environment, and the software makes certain
information available to us but not others. It has the randomness as well. Certainly lag is the
prime example of that.
So it’s an environment that owes an enormous amount to game design and then computer
game design, to make a world that is much more like our everyday experience, and it was
the path of games to get there. That is something maybe we’re not used to thinking about
because we’re used to thinking of games as so very different and so very set apart from our
everyday experience, but I come from a point of view that holds that what makes games
compelling is, in fact, how they share so much with the rest of our lives, rest of our
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One of our viewers on the web, Partially on the Web is the name,
says Second Life is a game of survival. Which sounds very consistent with one of the things
you emphasize in your book, which is that the possibility of failure is really a key aspect of
the Second Life experience.
THOMAS MALABY: Yes, and failure is extremely important in games. It’s part of what
games legitimize to a certain extent. They legitimize it often to a greater degree than failure
is legitimized in everyday life. That often has to do not with the utter lack of stakes in games,
but with a differently arranged stakes that games have. Certainly, if you studied gambling,
as I did, for my first book, one comes away from that utterly convinced that any argument
that says games are consequence-free is not a very helpful argument.
But what we can observe about Second Life is how, as a persistent spaces and as an
open-ended or indeterminate space contrived to be such, it is possible that those things
make it possible for stakes to accumulate in Second Life, where various forms of capital to
accumulate, not only material capital in our familiar cash and commodities, but also the
social relationships themselves, the moral relationships, the relationships of obligation, the
reciprocity that’s involved in that. That social capital accumulates in Second Life.
Cultural capital as well, in the form of competencies: what we learn to do, how we learn to
be able to perform as I mentioned in relation to the game-like way in which Second Life
prompts us or challenges us to perform. And credentials, on top of that, which is very
important to see arise in Second Life, as institutions start to make headway in Second Life,
either homegrown or from the outside. All of those things raise the stakes of Second Life. I
think that may be why some people react strongly to a notion that it may be a game
because they feel that that somehow downplays all of these stakes.
I come at it from a different angle. I think only if we understand to what extent Second Life
owes a lot to what games are, can we even understand how it became a place where such
stakes could accumulate at all.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One of the things you mention in your book is that Cory Ondrejka,
who used to work for the Lab and has written extensively about Second Life and Virtual
Worlds, he wrote about how Second Life overcomes the constraints of geography and how
you can replicate goods, sort of traditional notions of capital in an unconstrained way. But
you say no, it’s not the lack of constraints eliminating the stakes and the risk of failure; it’s
just changing them radically.
THOMAS MALABY: That’s right.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Your focus on that is on how social and cultural capital become
far more important.
THOMAS MALABY: Right. Right. The relative, so the configuration of those various stakes
changes radically in Second Life. That’s right.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Let’s see. I’m just looking at the time, and we have so
much to talk about. I’d like to move from Second Life to the Lab itself. You have an
extended discussion about Stuart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the
new communalism, as it’s called in the book From Counterculture to Cyberspace. So I’m old
enough, I must admit, to remember the Whole Earth Catalogue, and it was very interesting
to me to see that you see some very close parallels between Linden Lab and Stuart Brand’s
founding of the Whole Earth Catalogue. So I guess, first, for our younger viewers out there,
can you summarize what the Whole Earth Catalogue was, and then just tie it to Linden Lab?
THOMAS MALABY: Sure. And much of this piece of the book owes a great deal to
Fred Turner’s excellent book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which I highly
recommend, where he talks about Stuart Brand and many of the people around him,
Ken Kesey and the like. In relation to a kind of post World War II moment in the United
States, the United States comes out of World War II with a kind of confidence on the world
stage, with an increased emphasis on technology. But one of the interesting things, and it
even goes back to the Manhattan Project and to the radiation lab at MIT, is a new style of
work, a new set of ideas about collaboration, the ability to be creative as necessitating a
lack of hierarchy.
The Manhattan Project was military and industrial and academic people coming together to
try and innovate in a way that could not be bureaucratically kind of mandated. They had to
find new ways to do that. And what Fred Turner does a wonderful tracing is how, in the kind
of echo of that, in the aftermath of that, you had people like Norbert Wiener who talked
about complex technical systems as connected to the people who used them as
socio-technical systems. Almost really the ancestor of our current idea of a gamer is this
notion of an individual--and really underscore “individual”--interacting with technology,
seeking to master and able to accomplish tremendous things, able to express themselves.
Well, Stuart Brand and that group, in the Whole Earth Catalogue, emphasized technology to
an enormous degree. The subtitle of the Whole Earth Catalogue was Access to Tools. And
the fundamental ideals that informed this piece of the counterculture in the ’60s were a few
things. One was a great distrust of vertical institutions, a great distrust of the Military or
industry and all the rest. But also a great faith in technology, an enormous faith in
technology. So what you have from that is a great desire to avoid any institutional
governance, any traditional top-down governance, and also a drive to increase access to
And, when you sort of put those things together, you end up with something basically like an
ideology that has this faith in technology, that has this distrust in institutions, but what is
more, believes that, if you just make universally accessible powerful technology, then these
people who have access to it, acting again as individuals looking to express themselves
creatively, will, in aggregate, just like the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s market, generate
social goods. That’s the conviction. That’s the idea of the Whole Earth Catalogue, that we
don’t need in government--we don’t need any plan. We don’t need anyone in charge. We
don’t need any policy. We need access to tools, and everyone will create from them, and
good things will happen.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And that’s what you mean when you call Linden Lab a quote
THOMAS MALABY: Right. The kind of descendants, the homebrew computing movement
in the ’70s, just an enormous imprint on Silicon Valley that these ideas of Stuart Brand had.
It is in the woodwork. Before the show, there was some discussion about how idiosyncratic
Linden Lab is, and I replied that it’s not as idiosyncratic as it seems at first glance, and that
is because these ideals that informed the creation of Second Life and the way Linden Lab
sought to govern themselves and sought to prompt self-governance in Second Life are not
unique by any means to Linden Lab. They are all over high tech companies in Silicon
Valley. There’s no question about it. It’s an attitude that is still very suspicious of institutions,
still with enormous faith in technology, and still with a conviction that we don’t need to
implement any policy. We just need people to have access, and then all of the things we
want will be things that arise.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: There are a number of books that you mention in your book, that
were very influential in Linden Lab. I always love to get academics to talk about books. So
let me just run through the titles, and you can talk about how you see them as being
influential. The first is Malone’s The Future of Work.
THOMAS MALABY: Right. I always think of that in connection with James Surowiecki’s The
Wisdom of Crowds, and both of them were--
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, which is the next one on the list, but string them together.
THOMAS MALABY: Right, if I can talk about them together. Yes. They circulated around
Linden Lab--all these books that you’re raising did, recommended, say, from one person to
another that, if you’re there, you feel a certain pressure to know about them. I did as well. I
had read the Surowiecki. I hadn’t read the Malone before I was there. And these are books
that are definitely the descendants of those Stuart Brandian ideas. They are books that
pushed the idea that we don’t need, we should even give up on the project of running our
organization in some kind of intentional and top-down fashion. We should instead trust the
crowd, trust the collective wisdom of letting a lot of people decide, letting a lot of people
choose what they want to do what they think is important.
And one of the things that comes out of those arguments is it becomes very important when
actually the rubber meets the road and you’re trying to run a company like Linden Lab, the
devil is in the detail of what is the mechanism. All right. So now we all believe, we have a
conviction that this kind of collective wisdom is what should guide our company. It will be a
better guide to our company than any charismatic CEO, than any traditional bureaucratic
structure. That was the idea at the time. But what’s the mechanism? How can you possibly
tap into that collective wisdom in a reliable way? So those books were kind of in the
background there. And then what you saw frequently around Linden Lab, not just for
themselves, but also for Second Life, were attempts to contrive, through technology, often
game-like systems that would incent participation so that the people participating in them
would each generate certain kinds of results and outcomes, and that, in aggregate, those
results and outcomes would divine, they would reveal what the collective wisdom was.
The best example is the chess-ranking algorithm, and I use it frequently, but it’s too perfect
to avoid. They had recently moved from an older system of organizing their work called
Achievements and Objectives to putting all of the tasks that everyone in the company was
doing into JIRA, their software management development tool. And, of course, actually not
all tasks could be in JIRA, but that’s probable a conversation for another day. But the
mandate was that all would be in JIRA. So then this has thousands of tasks in JIRA. Well,
this strikes Rosedale as an opportunity to take advantage. You’ve got technology, and
everyone has access to it. This is a chance to find a mechanism through which we can
actually tap into the wisdom of crowds.
So they tried voting on tasks. So the idea was, all these tasks are there, why don’t people
vote on the ones they think are the most important. But it’s very revealing that a
straight-ahead vote was not acceptable around Linden Lab. It created too many social
effects. Again, think back to that notion of the individual with access to technology seeking
to master that technology. That particular notion of a gamer, really. The social lobbying, vote
lobbying and talking up your task to get votes, that struck them as really distasteful. That’s
not what they wanted. They didn’t want the social. They wanted the aggregate individual. So
they programmed a chess-ranking algorithm behind the scenes.
There’s a web page that all employees were told to go to, and it would bring up two tasks for
you, two tasks from these thousands of JIRA tasks, and you would pick which one you
thought was more important, and you were effectively picking the winner of a chess game
between these tests. So then, in aggregate, because of the way the chess-ranking algorithm
works and it’s famous for it, it would, after a bunch of people doing this ten times a day for
several days, it would generate an emergent ranking of what the most important tasks were,
the most important, the least important for the company. At least that was the theory. But it
When you looked at the list, when you saw what was on the top, it didn’t ring true socially so
it was abandoned, and other attempts were made. But that’s the way they were trying to
govern themselves because all of these other more familiar forms of governance were
unavailable to them because they were subscribing to that particular set of ideas. So the
Surowiecki and the Malone were very much a part of the foundation of that.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Another book was Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great
American Cities. I understand that was actually influential not just in behind-the-scenes
work, but in how they viewed the architecture of Second Life itself.
THOMAS MALABY: Yes. And that’s an incredibly important book. It’s a famous book. I
recommend it to anyone. It’s really one of the great works about urbanism in the 20th
century. And Jane Jacobs basically, at the end of the ’50s, early ’60s, is castigating people
trying to engage in intentional urban planning, top-down urban planning, all of that which
gave us differently zoned areas and the separation of things into industrial, commercial,
residential and housing projects and all the rest. And she says the reason why New York is
such a fantastic city is because it wasn’t planned in this way. So much of it was accidental.
So much of it was “catch as catch can” contingent overlays of different kinds of initiatives at
different points in its history. And these various arrivals of these different populations, who
settle in different areas just because they happen to be available.
So what she’s arguing is that the vibrancy of an urban community of a city depends to a
great extent on its inefficiency, on the way that people forced to walk from their apartment
two blocks to a subway station are likely to pass a whole row of stores and see a new flower
shop that they didn’t know was there before. They’re likely to encounter that which they
might not otherwise set out to encounter, if they were allowed to choose to get to work as
efficiently as possible.
Now this informed Linden Lab in interesting ways. On the one hand, Jacobs sounds like
she’s kind of like Malone and Surowiecki because she’s saying that these kind of not
intentionally designed features are the things we like. But there’s much more of an attention
to history for Jacobs, much more of an attention to the specificities of: What were these
group? Where did they come from? What was the story here that unfolded over time? It isn’t
about trying to find a way to get a whole bunch of people to vote kind of like in the
chess-ranking thing in order to tap into the wisdom of crowds. No, it’s more about what
history can generate sometimes, maybe, if we’re lucky.
Now what Linden Lab takes from that book, interestingly, is the argument for telehubs. That,
if you force people, you let them teleport from everywhere, but you force them to arrive at
certain locations. Then, in their travel from that location, not only will that location be a place
where things build up, which is very important, in the travel from that location to where they
want to go, they will encounter the contingent, encounter the things that they would not have
otherwise set out to encounter. So that insight from Jane Jacobs informed a lot of the ways
that Linden Lab set about to try and contrive social vibrancy in Second Life. And the
telehubs were part of that effort.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Okay. Very interesting. There are a couple comments you make
later in the book that I just found to be very interesting. This is in relation to another book
The Soul of a New Machine, by Kidder. You write in your book, “Kidder claimed to have
found quote ‘disorder masquerading as order in a corporate department.’” And then you say,
and this is a direct quote, “I saw in Linden Lab order beneath a claim to disorder.” So what
do you mean?
THOMAS MALABY: Well, I don’t want to give the impression that everyone around Linden
Lab felt the same way; far from it. And much of my book is concerned with many of these
tensions in between employees and departments within Linden Lab. But, on the whole, it
was a company that was characterized by this deep dislike and pushing away of traditional
hierarchy, of traditional structure. They were trying to celebrate disorder. Disorder is what
would allow for all of those individuals to pursue their enlightened self-interest as they used
the technology they had access to express themselves creatively.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: But within a company that is supposedly very, I guess,
THOMAS MALABY: Yeah, that’s right. In Soul of the New Machine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
book, fabulous book, you have this very top-down driven software company in the ’70s,
early ’80s. And Kidder writes about how one of the managers, he knows that this innovation
could be done. They could do something totally different to a new product, a new way, and
he can’t get approval for it. So he’s presenting upwards that his team is doing exactly what
they’re asked, but yet he’s fostering and creating all of this open environment, these open
demands for his team members to try and innovate in this way.
Whereas, in Linden Lab, the surface claim was, “No, we don’t have departments. It’s all
disordered. You choose your own work,” as one of the statements from the mission said, the
mission of Linden Lab. But, when you actually look at how things are done, there were
departments. People reported to other people. There were numerous ways in which people
who were at the top had enormous amounts of influence over what people below them did.
So what you had, in fact, was a far more ordered company environment than they would
typically have been ready to acknowledge underneath this claim, this venire of just utterly
free-form disorder: Everyone choose your work. You’re your own boss. You do what you
want, and that’s it.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Toward the end of your book, you talk about that there was an
often-heard quote around Linden Lab, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” And, in a footnote, I
don’t just point this out to demonstrate that I read the footnotes to books, but I thought this
was a really interesting footnote. You point out, first, that the real quote from Chairman Mao
is, “Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought content.” But then you go
on to say, quote, “There are multiple ironies in Linden Lab’s invocation of the phrase, given
its original use, but I do not discuss them here.” So my question, Thomas, is: Will you
discuss them here?
THOMAS MALABY: Oh, sure, I guess. Well, on the one hand, this is a quote from Mao so
it’s coming from a particular version of communism, a particular era where there was
certainly an enormous commitment to top-down planning and control that was married to a
celebration of the common celebration of the proletariat, in that case, the peasant; in the
Chinese case, the rural. So it was a very, very different context than Linden Lab. Linden Lab
is not trying to plan and dictate an economy with the same confidence and self-
acknowledgement and awareness as a Marxist kind of effort, but, at the same time, they
I mean the deep contradiction, the deep irony of Linden Lab is that they were constantly
talking about how they shouldn’t govern Second Life. They were constantly trying to get
their hands out of it, but yet they couldn’t deny the practical fact that they had access under
the hood that users did not. In the same way Philip Rosedale would frequently say, “In an
ideal world, I wouldn’t exist.” Right? He hoped that they could tap into the wisdom of their
own crowd, to such an efficient degree finding just the right mechanism, that he wouldn’t
have to make any decisions or, at least, so he claimed. But, of course, that couldn’t happen.
There was no question that he exerted enormous influence over what people thought was
important or what projects people pursued, just by the favor of his interest.
So for them to frequently say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” is ironic because, on the one
hand, yes, they are saying, “Everyone do whatever you want,” but, at the same time, they
can never get away from the fact that they have more control than they claim. And that
leads, to me, an enormously important point, which is, and a point just about Linden Lab,
but about very similar kinds of companies, Google, all these companies that are architecting
are increasingly our digital lives. And that is that we have an emerging social distinction
between the users and those who are the creators. Even users in Second Life, who are told
that they have all the agency they would ever need, that they have all the tools, access to
tools, to make whatever they want to make, they yet do not have access under the hood in
the same way that Linden Lab does. Of course, some things are changing with the attempts
to kind of open it up.
But this is a general problem, an issue with technology today. Most obviously, Linden Lab is
engaging in public policy in some of its decisions about the architecture of Second Life and
its policies. Google is engaging in public policy with some of the decisions it makes about its
architecture. For us not to zero in on this distinction between users who only have access to
the technology at a certain level and the creators who are under no political accountability
demands, who have all that kind of access and make those decisions, this seems to me to
be an urgent issue, and Linden Lab is just one way to demonstrate it.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: We’ve got a bunch of questions and comments from the
audience, and I guess--one I’d like to ask you is from Wyn Galbraith, “Would you want to
work at Linden Lab with all its weirdnesses?”
THOMAS MALABY: Well, I can’t speak so very well to it now. Certainly a lot has changed
as they’ve grown as a company.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. And we should point out, as some other people have
mentioned to me, that you were there in 2005. Listeners who are listening to this, keep in
mind that this is not a description of the current state of the Lab.
THOMAS MALABY: Right. When I began working with them in December 2004, I think
there were 12,000 registered users, 11,000 something like that, people who had ever
created an account in Second Life. And when I took my last trip there in January or
February of 2006, I think there were 120,000. It was a very important year, in terms of the
increase of scale of the residents in Second Life, but, yeah, it was a different time. The
company moved from being about 35 employees to being about 70 employees over that
time. And that’s a very important sort of change in scale for these kinds of challenges about
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Actually I’d like to talk a little bit. Let’s see. We’re going to go over
just a few minutes, but that still doesn’t give us a whole lot of times. I think the question I’d
like to ask, as we just have time for a few quick answers. One is the last chapter of your
book is called Precarious Authority, and you refer to the mutiny against Captain Cook, and
this is a quote, “For techno-liberal institutions struggling to adjust to post-bureaucracy, a
similar precariousness may obtain. My sense that Second Life was always on the verge of
flying apart at the seams appears as a strong contrast only with the bureaucratic era on the
heels of which it has arrived.” And a few pages earlier, you also expressed the feeling that
Linden Lab itself was a hair’s breadth away from flying apart at the seams. So what is it that
gave you that feeling, and do you see this type of precariousness as being part and parcel
with their overall management style?
THOMAS MALABY: I do. I think it follows from the incorporation of the open-ended as a
kind of design goal, as a management goal. When you draw upon game-design techniques
to try to run your company and to try and run a product, you’re intentionally incorporating
legitimate unpredictability into how your product and your company work. Instead of doing
what used to be the case, which was to say that you weren’t allowing unpredictability at all,
and then it would kind of naturally be there just because that’s the way people are.
Peter Drucker’s ideas about management reflected that kind of claim back to the people
who thought very highly of a very rational and procedure-driven organizational management
and saying, “Look, they find the wiggle room.” They’ll always find it, no matter how much
you and try and govern the procedure. So yes, I think that institutions that are trying to
cultivate open-endedness as part of their strategy for innovating and managing their
products are necessarily a bit unstable in that way.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Let’s see. Another topic I’d like to touch on is the relationship
between Linden Lab and Second Life residents. One of the surprises to me, on reading your
book, was finding out that Linden Lab management was surprised that Second Life
residents developed such strong communities. What were they expecting?
THOMAS MALABY: That is such a revealing issue. I remember an interview I had with
Philip, and I had asked him whether they set about to create a digital society, and he said
the most remarkable thing, at least from the point of view of a social scientist. He said
something like--I don’t remember the exact quote--but it was something like, “I didn’t go into
it looking to create a digital society, but I knew that none of it would be interesting unless a
lot of people were involved.” Well, what does that mean exactly? It can only mean that they
were not prepared for, looking for, desirous of, the social. The tendencies of groups to form
bonds of common identity and, therefore, to exclude others. The rise of politics. Gossip. All
of these kinds of things that are such a core feature of societies everywhere were somehow
not really imagined as they set about to make this World. But that shouldn’t really be a
surprise, given what I said before.
They were operating from a set of assumptions about technology and people as individuals,
people as gamer individuals, who, given the access to the technology, would master it as
individuals. So what they imagined, I mean there would be a lot of people involved--what
they imagined is that people would be creating experiences for other people, but they’d
never stop being individuals in doing so. And there would be kind of cool effects from that.
But the social kind of took them by surprise.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: And clearly is--I know, for me, Second Life is all about
community. For me, of course, it’s Metanomics community. So actually following up on this
a little bit as we talk about Linden Lab and residents, you talked about the research that you
did, talking with Linden Lab employees and spending time in the offices of Linden Lab. Did
you also do research on the resident side? Did you immerse yourself in Second Life and
THOMAS MALABY: No. It wasn’t part of how I conceived the project. I didn’t feel that I
could do both well. I felt that Second Life and its residents were a topic worthy of more than
one ethnographic attempt. After all, Second Life is not even just one community; it is many
communities. So I knew that other people were doing that work, people who I had the
greatest opinion of, people like Tom Bukowski--Tom Boellstorff.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Yeah, Tom Boellstorff in real life.
THOMAS MALABY: Right. I knew that that work was going on. I trusted those people, and I
had the access into Linden Lab during that frame of time, and I wanted to make the very
best use of that access I could, which, for me, was a feeling that every spare moment I
would be involved with Linden Lab, whether it was remotely or onsite, to try and get a
handle on what they were all about. And I feel if I had spent moments less doing that, the
puzzle would never have fallen into place about who they were.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Great. And congratulations on getting this book published by a
fantastic institution, Cornell University’s publishing wing. So great work on that. Can you tell
us when the book is coming out?
THOMAS MALABY: The book is coming out this month. I guess I saw in chat that maybe
Amazon would have it July 1st. But, yeah, so I should be seeing a copy myself very soon,
and it should be available next time you hit the web perhaps.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Fantastic! Well, Thomas Malaby, thanks so much for taking the
time to talk with us about your book. As you do your book tours, this will be one of the few
that you can do without travel. So I hope it is successful for you, and I hope we’re reaching
an audience. I should say I enjoyed it tremendously, learned quite a bit from it, so I definitely
recommend to our viewers. We really only scratched the surface here so, if you find this
discussion interesting, please do pick up the book.
I actually have a question from my partner in Metanomics, Dusan Writer, who’s asking,
“Would you be able to answer follow-up questions on the Metanomics site?”
THOMAS MALABY: I would love to. I would love to try. I confess I’m in the middle of not
only a move, but a couple of very imminent conferences that will be pulling me out of town,
but nothing would thrill me more.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: One must be the State of Play.
THOMAS MALABY: That’s right. State of Play in New York and the Games Learning
Society Conference in Madison next week. But I would love to follow up.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Fantastic! Thomas Malaby, thank you for joining us and talking
about your new book.
THOMAS MALABY: Thank you.
ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Now it’s time for our regular closing comment, Connecting The
Dots. Today I connect two dots you might find a bit surprising. Thomas Malaby’s book about
Linden Lab and the making of Second Life and the United States intelligence community’s
new research program, the Reynard Program. The line connecting these dots runs right
through Thomas’s discussion of social and cultural capital. Economists are familiar with the
traditional notion of cash or other goods serving as capital when they’re employed to
generate income. And Thomas Malaby, following the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu, argues
that the decreased importance of physical goods in Virtual Worlds raises the importance of
social and cultural capital, the ability to generate income from social relationships, from your
ability to perform acts that are valuable in the local culture, and finally from the credentials
that will lead others to rely on you, your judgment and your work.
Now mine is the language of accounting and not sociology, but the notions of social and
cultural capital are not new in my field. Few accountants would dispute their importance; we
just call them by different names, like goodwill, intellectual property, human resources,
human capital, and we debate whether they can be measured with enough reliability, that
they should actually be incorporated into financial statements. But thinking about social and
cultural capital in a Virtual world raises some new questions about reliability, namely how, in
a World in which residents prize their anonymity and identities can be created anew at will
and which many people actually possess multiple identities, by using multiple avatars, how
does one build a social relationship strong enough to actually generate income? How does
one establish credentials that can be trusted?
The answer, I think, is that people, who value their reputations, work hard to establish and
maintain them, whether it’s a reputation tied to their real name or not. Many Second Life
residents have maintained consistent avatars for years, have repeatedly demonstrated their
trustworthiness through hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions. And those interactions
can’t really be called anonymous, even though real-life names are often not involved
because the avatar name has effectively become the person’s brand name. You know, that
toothpaste that you use? It’s actually not a company name. It’s just a brand name. It’s made
by a company that really exists, but you’d hardly call the name of the toothpaste you use
Now it’s harder to build credentials than a reputation because credentials, almost by
definition, are conferred by someone else, often an organization. Linden Lab’s an
organization that could, if they wished, provide credentials to residents, and they flirted on
and off with the ideas of licensing builders and scripters and developers, and they have
some of that now. But, more often in Second Life, credentials come in the form of group
titles, being the owner or officer of a group with thousands of members can be a pretty
impressive credential. Simply being a member of the group Not Possible In Real Life is a
credential for a builder.
The real problem with anonymity is that not everyone who values their reputation does so in
good faith. To put it bluntly, how hard would it be for someone to establish a trustworthy
reputation in Second Life, even though in real life they’re a con artist, a stalker, a corporate
spy or a terrorist? The answer, not very. And this brings us to the Reynard Program, a call
for research proposals by IARPA: the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity.
Reynard, from folklore, is a trickster fox. To quote from their solicitation, “Starting from the
premise that Real World characteristics are reflected in Virtual World behavior, the IARPA
Reynard Program seeks to identify behavioral indicators in Virtual Worlds and massively
multiplayer online games that are related to the Real World characteristics of the users.”
One value of this research program, to us, will be to help us understand how sincere people
can distinguish themselves from the trickster foxes. Right now, many do this in Second Life
the way I have. I freely import my Real World information. Anyone who deals with me in
Second Life knows that, in real life, I’m Rob Bloomfield. I’m a professor of accounting at
Cornell University and so on and so forth. But the Reynard Program will let us go much
further than that. Can we look at typing patterns and make a good guess about age, gender
and nationality? I understand that no one under age 25 actually uses punctuations or spells
out the words “you” and “are,” but I’m old enough. I find it hard to break habits like that.
But how much can we learn about people from the way they dress? Is that woman avatar
really a man? Maybe we can tell. Group membership and other profile data would also
seem to provide a lot of useful information that we can use to identify who’s who. In the end,
the Reynard Program will help the sincere among us in two ways. By helping us uncover
tricksters and perhaps more importantly, by helping us devise new ways to establish our
reputations and our credentials more reliably within the rather unusual sphere of Virtual
Worlds, and Second Life in particular. And, by the way, don’t be surprised if later this year
you see researchers in Second Life asking you to fill out surveys that will help them
correlate your real-life characteristics with your Second Life behaviors, profile data and other
information from the World. I hope you will all cooperate with them, as this is a research
program that I think can really help all of us. But, one caution, before you provide any
personal information: double-check their credentials.
That’s all we have for this week. Join us next week when we are joined by Kevin Werbach,
who headed up President Obama’s transition team for the Federal Communications
Commission, the FCC. The FCC’s taking a very close look at internet policy, in ways that
will affect all of us who call the internet our home.
This is Robert Bloomfield signing off. Take care. And, we’ll see you next Wednesday.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com
Second Life Avatar: Transcriptionist Writer