Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Land" ownership

The strangest thing I encountered when I first entered Second Life was the concept of "land" ownership. A "sim," ostensibly a physical computer serving as a server in a network of other computers, included the opportunity for a wee avatar to have 65,536 sq. m. of horizonal space, which included the privilege to drop about 15000 prims on to that space.

Well, the concept of place didn't phase me in the least. I had been on a MOO. We had networked our rooms and homes through a series of doorways leading "n," "e," "s," or "w." The space, in and of itself, constituted one object. The consideration of trading quota for services rendered or currency was not a consideration, though I am sure some engaged in the former. Therefore, when I entered SL, the idea of paying for land did not seem absurd. The idea of paying someone who was not the holder of the server, however, did.

What was the deal with the "land barons"? Were they actual land owners, with all the worries, costs, considerations, mortgages, taxes, and maintenance (or lack thereof) that is involved in that?

Turns out the land barons do have a lot of duties. They argue on behalf of their residents with Linden Labs over their sims, they parcel the land, sell it, improve it, and generally police it. But what they are maintaining is strictly a function of the features provided to them by the program. They are middle men (or women, if that applies).

Lately the land owners have been up in arms about the new sim pricing. As we all know, the cost to get a new sim went down from $1675 to $1000. The cost for tier has increased for new mainland from $195 to $295, equivalent with the cost of tier for island sims. What this has done, according to sim owners, is lowered the value of land they currently owned by 40%. A huge hullabaloo has arisen over this as estate owners look at the multiple sims they have purchased, added up the extra $675 they spent per each, and tallied the "loss" they think they have incurred because they will now not be able to push this set-up fee, in the form of "land sales," off on the next guy.

We need to remember in RL terms that Linden Labs is a company with approximately 250 employees, on track for very fast growth and trying to wrangle a relatively new paradigm in virtual worlds. They are physically in an office full of people on computers linked up to colocations full of servers with all the same crap we all have our offices: guys like Dwight, people with toys on their desks, hushed conversations in the lunchroom, higher co-pays on their health insurance, some weirdo who silently steals other people's lunches. Linden Labs is a company, a private enterprise, with bills, employees, overhead and all the rest that Real World companies have to put up with. Well, heck, they are--us!

If we remember they are a private enterprise, we can see this for what it is. What Linden Lab's move *really* has done has allowed them to lower pricing for entry-level sim ownership, and it's potentially providing more income for Linden Labs through increased tier on mainland parcels (which, for some reason unbeknownst to me, are very popular for settling).

Back to this "land" thing. It's kind of a misnomer to call it land. What "land" owners have "purchased" is actually the set up of a server with their tier payment going towards "maintenance" (like the electricity to run the server, the health insurance with the increased co-pay, Philip Rosedale's hair gel). It's not a lot different than someone renting space on a server for a web page. In fact, it's nearly identical.

If you think about it, all Linden Labs really is is a glorified web hosting company. They have wrapped it in this magical package of Love Machine and kumbaya, forced us to use their browser, branded their name legally and literally. They are not "God" (God wouldn't have opened up Gaeta right when he lowered prices on sims). They are not the police state, as some would have us believe. They are a private enterprise.

This is the thing, my fellow residents of Second Life: we are not residents (as Robin Linden's clever name so makes us believe); we are consumers.

If my web hosting company announced that they were lowering my set-up fees and raising my maintenance fees, I would think about this two ways: first, I would be bummed that I paid an increased set-up fee on my other web sites and second, I would think darn hard about whether I wanted to continue with that company and would look to either move or get out of it altogether. Complaining that Linden Labs has not treated you well as a land owner by not announcing a price decrease with enough advanced notice, which has lowered your land "value" as a "resident" is like me whining to Volkswagen that they have not given me enough Fahrvergnugen (which they haven't, but that's another story). Put up or leave!

So land owners, think hard. Please stop complaining at public meetings and deluging the Lindens with requests to change their policy. It ain't gonna happen. Act like responsible business people. Adapt to the change, come up with a new strategy, pull in your belts. And consider: maybe you *would* be better off There.


Danton Sideways said...

Harper -

Since Prokofy has indicated on Twitter that he will not comment on your post, I'll do so.

You present the standard "platformer" point of view (see the old article on SL politics by Aimee Weber). Platformers holds that LL provides only software and servers, and is otherwise free to set whatever rules they like. The opposing point of view is that of the "interventionists," who hold that second life residents have inalienable rights, and that LL should intervene to protect those rights. Notable interventionists include Gwyneth Llewelyn and Prokofy Neva. Prokofy for instance has long said that LL should establish a sort of Magna Carta as a foundation for SL avatar rights. See also Raph Koster's Declaration of Avatar Rights, which includes the right to virtual property.

According to the interventionist point of view, LL has responsibilites to the resident community, including the responsibility to protect in-world property rights. A responsible government would think twice before devaluing all existing in-world property. By this arbitrary and unilateral decision LL once again shows its lack of concern for the resident community.

Harper Beresford said...

Danton, your post is much appreciated. I hear what you say; however, I disagree with you. Linden Labs, as a private enterprise, has responsibility to its self-survival first. It will really suck when they fold and your land will not only be devalued but worth nothing as the PC servers they have used are sold off to geeks who will plumb them for extra fans.

A belief in avatar rights is a nice belief, but one based on a belief in a God that grants those and a self-representative government. Linden Labs isn't God (thank God--I don't think I could bear lag in my real life); we are self-representative through our engagement with this provider through direct economic pressure.

In other words, if you don't like it what your provider has done, complain directly. If they don't respond, decide if you want to remain with them.

Dale Innis said...

Ooh, fun discussion. I do think that residents have some inalienable rights, just because residents are people and people have inalienable rights. But I'm not at all convinced that those rights include (how would ya even phrase it?) the right to a stable and artificially inflated cost of land.

Such a putative right doesn't seem to relate in any convincing way to any of the traditional right (even alienable ones); life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. It's hard for me to see the outcry as anything other than that of investors sorry to see the value of their investment go down. But investment is always a risk; actions that lower the value of an investment are not per se (or even eo ipso) a violation of some right.

Did LL make a *mistake* by lowering the price of land? That's entirely possible; I haven't analyzed their business model or their complex relationships with the various stakeholders enough to be able to say. At first glance it seems perfectly natural; the market is maturing, the part of the cost that consists of IT resources is becoming cheaper, competitors are appearing, so of course prices fall. But that's just a first-order take, and could be deeply wrong.

A rights violation, though, I'm pretty sure it isn't... :)

Ordinal Malaprop said...

I have heard this position a fair number of times and I'm afraid to say I am never terribly convinced - first of all, it is clearly the case that LL provide a lot more than your average web host, and are not replaceable at this moment in time. If Dreamhost start to mess about with my account I can download everything, sign up with someone else and upload it; such things are a bit of a pain but not insurmountable. All of these hosts work with common platforms after all, that is part of their selling point. LL offers a lot more including ongoing development and a unique platform; one simply cannot get this anywhere else.

The second part is that once a service starts to involve other people and their society as part of its existence, it _does_ develop an ethical dimension. For instance, moderating even a simple discussion board involves one in all sorts of ethical dilemmas as to what should be allowed, what should involve restrictions, what is offensive, how far privacy should go and so on. And these aren't just issues of people trying to use moral philosophy to gain advantage; they really _are_ perfectly valid issues, moderators and users agree on this unless a bit sociopathic, real people are involved here. The situation of an immersive virtual world with no real alternative can only be more extreme.

SL "land" may not be "land" as RL law understands it (I would certainly say that it wasn't) but decisions relating to it, as well as other issues, have an ethical dimension - and Lindens themselves do recognise this, or at least most do.