too early in the game

Last month, I wrote about why Second Life failed so I didn’t have to write about why Second Life failed. I mean, that post wasn’t about reasons for failure, it was about the fact of failure. My thought was that there are many people who simply assume Second Life failed, and they’re wrong, and there are many who will passionately argue that Second Life has succeeded … and they’re wrong too. Failure can only be judged by the ones who were trying to succeed.

It would be safer for me to say that failure is a matter of perspective, for surely failure passes through the same lens as beauty in the eye of the beholder. I do understand that many SL Residents were on their own journeys, and so of course they are their own best judges of the success of those journeys. But it would be an artful evasion to claim that any of those journeys, or even all of them together, constitute the sum total equation for the success of Second Life. We were trying to do something more – or at least, something else – and we failed. (Of course, I’m talking about the team and the company that I knew, years ago. The team there today is on their own journey, which I know next to nothing about.)

So if I’m willing to be this myopic and insular about judging failure, you can bet I’d be just as parochial in reviewing the reasons. I’ve seen and heard a lot of speculation that I don’t agree with: poor strategy, worse execution; lack of focus, misplaced focus; poor technology, doomed architecture; dumb marketing, uncontrollable PR; niche market, bizarre customers; crazy culture, undisciplined development; bad hiring, bad management; feckless board, dominating board, ignorant board. I’ve heard it all, and while there may be a grain of something like truth here and there, none of these things holds real explanatory power as a reason for why Second Life failed.

We failed as people. We failed as a team. Our failure was intensely personal, particular to each person involved, and ruinous to the overall team.

I’m going to switch now from “we” to “I” but I want to be really clear about why. We Lindens were all in it together, and there is a broad sense in which all credit and blame goes to all of us … but not in this post. Here, I’m talking about maybe half a dozen people, and so it would be too much of a personal attack for me to try to describe the failures of anyone other than myself. I’m willing to attack myself in this forum, but not my former colleagues, all of whom I still respect and a few of whom I love like my own family. But I want you to remember the “we” because otherwise the rest of this post is going to seem incredibly egocentric: there’s a certain kind of self-blame that’s really self-aggrandizement, and though I regard my own failures as critical, even the most deluded version of the story couldn’t claim it was all about me.

So. I failed as a person. I failed the team. I was responsible for many elements of our strategy, execution, culture and management, and those decisions aren’t the ones I regret. What I regret, to the extent that I’m capable of regretting such a rich learning experience for me, is giving up. I don’t mean at the end, when I was tired and disillusioned and looking around at a company I didn’t recognize and a future I didn’t want to live. A lot earlier than that, I gave up on people that we needed, people who were flawed and fragile but necessary. I let people fail, I let people go, I let people hide in their illusions and fears, I let them give up because I’d already given up.

The irony was, when I joined the company, I was supposed to be an experienced hand that would bring some sanity to a crazy world. But I indulged my own worst instincts – throughout the craziest times, when I could’ve done the most good, I just brought more crazy. I was having fun, but I chose my own twisted growth over a higher goal, and at times I was just plain mean or selfish or drunk. I really wasn’t ready for the opportunity that Linden Lab presented to me. I really wasn’t the guy I should’ve been when I got there; I didn’t know what I needed to know until I left.

Too many of the key leaders at the Lab were working through similarly damaging personal limitations. You might ask whether this really points to a failure in culture or hiring or leadership, and that would be a fair question. It’s true that Linden had a way of hiring certain kinds of people and forcing them to confront their own deepest flaws – but I think that’s beautiful, a feature not a bug. What we needed was one or more or all of us to conquer our flaws, to enable the entire team to rise above the limitations of each of us. But none of us defeated our own demons, and so all of us perished.

I’ve been gone from Linden Lab for over two and a half years, and still my failure haunts me. The last day of the year is always a good moment to come to terms with the passage of time, and this New Year’s Eve I’ve decided I should finally accept the fact that I’m never going to let it go. I’ll try to reach peace through the zen realization that peace is unattainable.

20 thoughts on “too early in the game

  1. Thank you for this post. In many ways hugely inspirational. All the best to you and yours for 2012!!


  2. Your honesty is remarkable, and a testament to your character Ginsu. I think anyone who has invested any appreciable length of time in Second Life knows where you’re coming from. There are things I wish I would have done differently, and things I wish I hadn’t done at all. As intense as the Resident experience can be, I really can’t imagine the intensity and the emotional experience that the Lab must have been during those critical and formative years.

    It’s natural to look back at moments where you now realize you could have taken a better path, a better direction, but it’s still useful to also reflect on the positive moments, and the efforts you undertook to help build something that had never been built before.

    Mistakes are particularly unfortunate when they impact others, and to acknowledge these as personal failures in such broad company is honorable, and shows you to be a man of integrity. It also shows you to be an actual human.

    Cheers, and all the best to you and yours this New Year.


  3. Without a doubt, the wises – and most poetic – words I’ve heard coming from a Linden (and most anyone else reflecting on a past career). Wish I’d known you… or perhaps I did. The alt thing is a delicious and perennial mystery, isn’t it?


  4. I have always felt that the largest failure of Linden Lab has been its lack of understanding that Second Life primarily is a community, a social network and not a “place”. A lot of the thinking about healthy communities should have been, could have been applied to Second Life but were not. People want to participate in communities with lively events and content. Linden Lab took itself out of the content creation role. That’s fine. But then they didn’t do what healthy communities do: foster and support organizations that bring rich cultural, arts and entertainment content to the community. I’m a very tired volunteer event host myself, hosting an event a week or more since 2007, free value-added content that Linden Lab never had to pay for. Why don’t they provide incentives for people like me? But they don’t and so I have seen person after person drift away and venues close.


  5. Ginsu, I went back to your earlier column, and I found a golden sentence:

    “Perhaps it was always the destiny of Second Life to be an innovative niche product for a select group of people, a worthy subject of serious study, a constantly evolving emporium of edge cases.”

    Indeed. So are the best universities. So is the group of driving enthusiasts who can tell you why the suspensions on last year’s Civics and Jettas are SO superior to this year’s models. So is the cadre of those who drink good single malts, read Edith Wharton with gusto, can distinguish a hint of Latakia in their tobacco, or can tell you why both well-aged Manchego cheese and Joey Ramone matter.

    I like my fellow “edge cases.” The “old Internet” was full of them. I am sorry you guys did not change the world as Philip Rosedale envisioned it. That happens to visionaries all too often, but remember that the Linden Alpha-Team changed many hearts with SL. Thank you for helping us all start our journeys.


  6. wow !!!

    u just one big amazing cool dude

    i wish u all the best in whatever u do

    u going to make a great ceo of some big company one day if u go down that way and lots ppl will want to come work with u


  7. Dear Ginsu:

    I address you avatar to avatar as you seem to have achieved an insight.

    “I’ve been gone from Linden Lab for over two and a half years, and still my failure haunts me. The last day of the year is always a good moment to come to terms with the passage of time, and this New Year’s Eve I’ve decided I should finally accept the fact that I’m never going to let it go. I’ll try to reach peace through the zen realization that peace is unattainable.”

    In SL, I am DeNovo Broome. When I’m not in SL, I cannot fully be DeNovo Broome. And you may tell by the arch pun that is my name that I had no idea what I was in for either.

    Now, I’m a mere user, one of little renown, but I do know one thing that took me a while to realize. SL is not a tool, it’s not an experience, even. It’s certainly not a game platform. It is a distinct and useful reality. And it is magical in the sense that things – insights, personal development and connections – happen there in a way that could not happen in any other way. I’d venture to say that nobody could have expected anything like that to happen, so it’s not at all surprising to me that everything seemed to go sideways and pear-shaped.

    And you miss it. And you miss being part of it. You found limitations and capabilities you would never have discovered in any other way.

    You were brought in to “fix” things – and were transformed yourself.

    But I have another, most persuasive insight. When Second Life started out, it was indeed a blue sky, experimental project. It still suffers from all the duct tape and bailing wire that was used to put it together. It is a magnificent kludge in just about every way; a series of grand plans and wonderful optimism that frequently failed in the face of users – and infrequently, but surprisingly often, “failed upward.”

    I view SL as being very much a first-generation thing – like looking at the very first practical steam engine. Useful, just barely. It seems almost more trouble than it’s worth, until you realize that as horrible and as inefficient as it is, there is no practical way to do what you are now doing without it, nor would you ever willingly go back.

    So the absolute and most compelling proof of the success of Linden Labs and Second Life is the proliferation of grids, each determined to “get it right.” Most won’t. Some will – and each in different ways.

    I do assume you wish to be part of that, I’d be stunned if you were not in some way.

    Just remember – it IS a Zen thing. The Grid is not about doing, it is about being. So my dear Ginsu – perhaps you need to become Ginsu Linden again. Or perhaps a different last name will be needed… but in some way that is deliciously inexplicable, this is now a part of who you are. It’s not just a login or a username. It’s part of you… and I assure you, that part will keep kicking you in your hindbrain until you pay attention.

    Well, at least, I know *I* would.


  8. I stopped reading your blog when you said “Second Life failed.”

    It didn’t fail and I don’t know what measure you are using.

    We have used Second Life as a form of media for the past six years. By doing so, we introduced people to the idea of 3-D virtual reality.

    Kurt Vonnegut gave his last sit down interview in Second Life, in front of an audience of 100 people (avatars) from around the world, and it’s memorialized for all of those who didn’t hear it on NPR’s The Infinite Mind. Suzanne Vega, Howard Reingold and John Maeda appeared as well.

    We built a replica of the Holocaust Museum’s brilliant live photo installation, on the side of its building in Washington, and held a teach-in with Mia Farrow on the Dafur crisis.

    We brought Antonio DiPietro into Second Life to hold a live press conference with the Italian media to challenge the media tyranny of Silvio Berlusconi.

    We are working in Second Life to help find ways to re-orient those newly released from prison to life outside, and to help those who have been traumatized to heal.

    Second Life is part of a process I wrote about in 2006 in my seminal essay: “The Transmission of Experience.” See:

    Soon after, Harvard Business School called and asked that I come explain it all to them. See:

    So please do tell (and I did go back and finish reading your post). What is this talk of failure? Please be clear as it’s a disservice to all of us who use and cherish Second Life as a place where, as I often tell clients, if you can dream it up, we can build it quickly and inexpensively.

    Best wishes for a great 2012. Bill Lichtenstein


  9. I have only been one of the many people who in 2007 became part of the world of SL. The experience was one of the most intense of my life. I learned how to build and, in time of greatest splendor, I built an archipelago of three islands. These three islands were the fruit of my dreaming mind. Share with all visitors was my joy. There was a time when I entered SL and, looking at what I built, I felt proud of what my imagination had been able to create. I do not know which is why SL is a failure, I do not know whether it really failed. I only know that the day when the price to keep up my dream became unbearable I cried. When (probably with a simple “click”) my islands have been cleared a part of me died. I do not know how to find the words to describe that feeling. The Lindens just wanted my money (real ones) and the value of all my creativity was not worth anything. I could not pay for the three islands had a price equal to the monthly payment for a luxury car. When everything is gone, when SL has only become a world of brothels and ugly buildings to be seen … I felt humiliated and useless. Nothing that I had done to make SL a unique value for the Lindens. If there was a failure was neglecting the lifeblood of SL: the best creative than ever to have inhabited a virtual world.


  10. So Second-Life didn’t work out. Moving onto better things is much more productive than hanging onto the past.

    I like the ability to create anything. But I don’t like all the muck and guck that came with Second-Life and it’s pseudo reality mixture. The pricing for land is Draconian and everything is trapped in Second-Life(only importing no exporting own objects). People can become obsessive/weird with this virtual reality fiasco and seems more about money than creativity. Something that I didn’t sign-up for in Second-Life.

    Boredom has a tendency to creep up and new people end of leaving simply because they log into a hub/sim and avatars are just standing around with nothing fun to do or clustered in individual groups. Socialism is lacking in-world and communication is key. There’s plenty of times i’ve felt out of place for simply chatting in a dead-zone with folks that just stood around.

    I would very much like the ability to actually keep what I create in Second-Life but that is why I use my own 3D programs.

    Linden Language is choppy and unreadable. Information is scattered everywhere so for a fresh beginner it would be hard to find what they want or how to make it work. There could have been scripting workshops by Linden Labs that could have given users a better grasp on how things worked in Second-Life or at-least some videos to create something other than the very basics. I’m just use to getting into the swing in a day or two but scripting takes weeks or months or years to learn.

    Mine-craft is successful because the player can literally build a world with no/very little rules and in-game mechanics which they can host their own worlds that interact with the player. Creativity in a sense is not blocked and rules are determined per server, not per person/land mass. Second-Life discourages the use of regular mechanics which would be deemed normal in any other mmo related client or chat. Something I find overall to be a little too restricting. Unfortunately some of these witch-hunting “Patrol” groups have gone over borderline obsessive for Second-Life which is not good at all for any game or client.

    I wish Second-Life would take the approach like Open-Sim has and give the ability of users to upload/connect their own regions to Second-Life(with a bridge fee) but that’s very unlikely to happen. Until then i’ll continue with minecraft and other mmo’s that continue to push a high entertainment value without the $1,000 tag.


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