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What can we learn from Kitely?

April 10, 2011

Recently, burst onto the Virtual Worlds scene.  If you will forgive me for borrowing an overused term from another virtual world company, the response has been “passionate!” Unfortunately for Kitely, and for Virtual Worlds as a whole (in my admittedly humble opinion), the response has been based less on the actual product and more on other arguments that were raging before anybody ever heard of Kitely.  Still, there are some positive and negative lessons to take away from where Kitely finds themselves now.

Virtual Worlds Accessible Via MainStream Venues Are Important.

Look, if nobody cared, we wouldn’t be having all this passion.   The appeal of Kitely is that you can create a (small, so far) Virtual World via a web interface that is accessible to the mainstream, and that users can create a character and log in  using an existing online identity.  This is something that many people want, and even the energetic detractors of Kitely’s practices seem willing to concede that the concept is a good one.   Getting people into Virtual Worlds that first time, whether it be for business, education, or fun, can be challenging.  Streamlining the process and putting it in the context of things that are familiar is a good option to have.  “Hard-core” users will still prefer more traditional models, and for them it is going to be more cost-effective, but we need “Lite” options for virtual worlds hosting.

When Marketing to a Community, Know the Group Dynamics

As I say in the “About” tab of this blog, I work at intersections.  I work where Virtual Worlds, Education, and Disability Issues (among other things) meet up.   Each of these groups has a culture, or more properly, multiple cultures that tend to find themselves in close proximity and, too often, conflict.  If you want to work effectively with those groups, you need to have a fair understanding of how the group dynamics work so you can avoid a serious faux pas.

That was a bit obscure, wasn’t it? I’ll restate it plainly: politics. Education, Disability Issues, and–oh yes!–Virtual Worlds are all fraught with politics. Linden Lab cannot seem to learn this lesson: they have ignored the group dynamics of Mentors groups, Disability Groups, Business Communities, Community Gateways, Educators, Adult Communities, Teen Communities….  Really, I could write a book about all the different groups where Linden Lab has blundered around and played poor politics, but it would just be another War and Peace: very long, more talked about than read, and in the end the company dies–or at least is much less than it was and could have been.

Sadly for Kitely, they wandered into a couple of political arenas that have already been well and truly stirred up.

One is the “Copybot” controversy, which has been with us for some time: a small number of people ripped copyrighted content out of Second Life and ported it over to OpenSimulator grids, where they put it out in “Freebie shops” under their own names.  Content Creators are (rightly) upset about this.    One of the first big news articles about Kitely’s Open Beta included a screenshot with some Copybotted content front and center.

The other is Facebook. While it is true that millions of people use Facebook, most do not understand Facebook’s privacy and data-mining practices.  Enough people do, or have had other negative experiences with Facebook, that when Linden Lab was perceived as trying to link Second Life identities with Facebook identities (which, per Facebook’s TOS, are required to be “real” identities, though they seem to have eased off on enforcement of that), the whole thing blew up.   This ties into a lot of other politics: Many Business and Education users either use their real names as their avatar names or openly link the two names.   Others, whether it be out of a desire for simple privacy or because they are part of groups that traditionally have faced prejudice and discrimination, want to keep the two identities separate.   The mainstream media has weighed in on some of the problems that Facebook and other social media sites have created for us: they are used by Human Resource Departments vetting potential employees, for instance.

Kitely did not create and should not be held responsible for either of these issues.  However, discussion of their actual product is being overwhelmed by discussion of Copybotting and Facebook Connect.  Had they been more aware of the community dynamics surrounding these two issues, they would be better prepared to address them.  They have stated, and I do believe, that they are working to address DMCA and TOS concerns, and that they will offer other ways to use their service outside of Facebook Connect.  Still, we must consider the final lesson:

You Must Take Control of First Impressions

Whether it is your product launch or one user’s “First Hour Experience”, you simply must retain control over what the public sees for the first time.  As I understand it, Kitely planned a small public Beta before moving to a formal launch of their product.  For the purposes of Public Relations, Beta is over for them: people are judging the final product by what they see now.

How did this happen?  The Good served the Bad: the first lesson I pointed out was that the concept is something the public really wants!  That’s the “Good”: the product as envisioned is definitely viable and marketable.  That’s why it went viral among the Virtual Worlds Community.  Sadly, this meant that the “Bad” happened as well: the concept as it exists in open Beta skidded into a glass-shattering collision with the hot topics of Virtual Worlds Politics.  Because the concept was Good, lots of people want to see it, and seeing the Bad was inevitable.  The First Impression came from that, and it’s going to be a rough road to get past it.

In hindsight, they should have tried a longer Closed Beta, carefully identifying some key players who could give useful feedback, binding them with NDAs, and listening carefully to their concerns.  They could have entered Open Beta with at least one other login method and clear and accessible policies relating to things like illegal content.  They still would have come under fire from somebody: nothing can prevent politics!  However, they would be in a better position to answer it, rather than hopping from blog to blog and trying to do damage control.

I hope Kitely succeeds, I really do.  Virtual Worlds need to grow and be more accessible, and I think this is a worthy experiment in how that can be accomplished, though only one of many.    I’m going to keep an eye on it, and I hope that six months or a year from now, the controversy will have faded and the Good allowed to shine through.


It Takes A Village To Rez A Child

April 8, 2011

This is the title I originally planned to use to introduce Fiona. 🙂

The subject of kids in Virtual Worlds is a controversial one, in part due to the way Teen Life was merged into Second Life.  However, this is mostly reflective of how concerned we are about predators online and the possibility of children being exposed to inappropriate content.    These are valid concerns, but they can very easily be blown out of proportion.  There are some simple and effective ways to allow kids to enjoy Virtual Worlds and other environments on the Internet, techniques I learned when I was a young man with a 300 baud modem and that have yet to fail me [mumble] years later.

I was 13 when QuantumLink (“The Commodore Connection!”) started up, and I was one of the first people in the door.   I will admit that I spent a little time downloading a few games that were the digital equivalent of hiding a Playboy under my mattress, but most of my time was spent in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy rooms and playing an ElfQuest RPG in the messageboards.   The adults managing the areas I hung out generally knew how old I was, and they watched out for me and the other teens in that area.  We were not little Angels by any means, but we didn’t have to worry about perverts trying to get our real names, our phone numbers, or our addresses.  Looking back, I can point to that as my introduction to Sci-Fi Fandom as a culture.

I got to College, and the Internet was being born.  In due course, I was introduced to MUDs, MUSHes, and MUCKs, and it was there that “Talvin” became my nom de plume.  I eventually became a “Wizard” (administrator) on a MUCK, and there I found that–oh, horror!–KIDS were coming online!

“Great,” I said, “Let’s make them welcome.”  And we did.  Yes, we had some inappropriate language and behavior at times.  We simply made it clear that we could not have that and why and how it would put the MUCK in danger to permit that sort of thing.  We also selected some of the brighter and more responsible young people and made them members of our HelpStaff, an organization similar to the Mentors groups, and that had a huge impact: maturity was visibly rewarded, and any member of the HelpStaff, of any age, had a way to contact us if there was a problem.  Over time, we saw more kids, teens, and entire families joining us.  Yes, there were problems, but because we had clear communication between ourselves and the young people and their families, problems were dealt with quickly and appropriately.

Later, when I played World of Warcraft, I found myself in a Guild (The Emperor’s Thousand) that had several players in their early teens raiding alongside people old enough to be their Grandparents.  Some of the best fun that I recall from those days was when they wandered into the swamp outside Theramore (in way over their heads) and yelled for help.  I and the Grandparently Paladins went to rescue them, and we decided, “Ah, heck!  Why go back? We’ll take you THROUGH!”  Getting a couple of thirteen-year-olds out of a swamp turned into a minor Guild event, and much fun was had by all.

Finally, things came full circle, and Dianna and I had a child.  We never planned to allow her to come online at such an early age, but Jokay extended the invitation, and we decided to give it a chance.

And she was off like a shot!

She has learned in-world etiquette better than some people who are several times her age.  No pushing. Don’t TP into a group of green dots on the map: they might be having a meeting or a class, and it is rude to interrupt.  Don’t leave stuff on other people’s land.    Be polite.  Stuff we wish all newbies could learn, right? 😀

All the lessons I had learned about kids and virtual communities over the previous quarter-century still hold true.

  1. Kids are going to be part of your online community.  Recognize that, and decide how they will be included.  It is easier to regulate than to forbid.  Face it: impossible to forbid.
  2. No matter how many verification systems, background checks, sex offender registries, rules, etc. you put in, none of them can equal the value of having adults in clear and open communication with young people. Those other things should be regarded as the second line of defense.
  3. We value Mentoring of young people in what we call the “Real World”.  It is valuable in Virtual Worlds as well.
  4. The parents need to be involved.  They are responsible for what their children do.  The younger the child, the more important this is. (Jokay prefers that anybody under 13 be chaperoned in-world.)
  5. Kids and teens will be kids and teens, and they will try to push limits.  Do not panic just because one or two kids tried to do something that is inappropriate for their age and for the rating of the area.  Only panic if you did not foresee this possibility and create policies to deal with the problem while minimizing disruption.  Above all, don’t blow it out of proportion: testing boundaries is part of being a growing human.   Deal with it and move on.
  6. You would not let your child go out to play outside your yard if you did not know your neighbors.  Use the same logic in a virtual world.  Our Virtual Neighborhood is a good one: populated by college professors and staff, public and private school educators, people who work in non-profits, and the like.  We talk to one another, we keep an eye on each other’s children and students, and we are all committed to making this experiment work.  Yes, I have had to pack a high school student off to Jokay and his teacher for inappropriate behavior! They do the same if Fiona is out of bounds.   All part of it.

Fiona loves playing in JokaydiaGrid.  When she is not working on Vocabulary assignments or pretending to be a Pirate, she is relaxing at Western Institute’s virtual resort, or watching Starlight Harbour build, or perhaps playing Hide and Seek with Jokay. (Jokay cheated! She cammed around and found her! No fair!)  She reinforces reading and computer skills by using her inventory and chatting with people.

She also has learned to create Snapshots.  She took over 50 snapshots in one session (eek!) and asked me to put them online so other kids could see them and maybe they would want to come play with her in Callahania.  I did a little culling, but Fiona now has her own Flickr account (managed by me!) with pictures she took of her explorations of our region.

If you have a kid and you are looking for a safe place they can explore online, try JokaydiaGrid.  I’ll be happy to introduce you to other members of the neighborhood!  Having been on all sides of the situation–child, administrator, and parent–I can say with authority that it really does take a Village to Rez a child. 🙂

As promised: pictures.

April 3, 2011

I still need to add some furnishings, poseballs, etc. And cannonballs, and crates and bags in the hold. 😛

376 prims?  Stick a fork in me, I’m done.  For today, at least. 😛

Most of this is my work. Credit for the windows in the Captain’s Cabin is to Trevor Meister: I had picked them up somewhere a while back, and they were *exactly* what I needed.  The Fiona’s Pirate Crew flag/sail: I modded that from a public domain image in GIMP under Fiona’s stern and exacting direction.  The mural along the back is “The Battle of Trafalgar” by J.M.W. Turner, showing the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship.

Yes, the sails are pink.  The Little Captain demanded it.

It’s a 16-gun “something”.  It is about as period and accurate as Mel Gibson in Braveheart.  Hey, it’s fun. 😛  I do not plan to sell or give away copies of this ship.  I might, if given a suitable incentive, let some modified copies out there for people to play with, but Fiona’s is and shall remain unique to her.

View from above

The view from above.

Entering the Captain's Cabin

Entering the Captain's Cabin

Captain's Cabin, and stairs down.

Captain's Cabin, and stairs down.

Looking aft through the Gun Deck

Looking aft through the Gun Deck

Looking forward, through the hold

Looking forward, through the hold

View from the aft of the ship

View from the aft of the ship

Pink Pirate Flag.  This should inspire terror in anybody.

Pink Pirate Flag. This should inspire terror in anybody.

Walk the Accessible Plank, Matey!

April 3, 2011

Fiona has watched me do other builds, and she asks a lot of questions.  Apparently she has picked up some of the Best Practices, but I have to admit I did not see this one coming.

Our daughter is also a Disability Advocate. If she goes into a public restroom and there is no handicap-accessible stall, somebody is going to hear about it.

So, there I was, building her “Pirate Ship”, and I asked, “Do you want a plank you can make people walk?”

“Well, yes, but I want it to have invisible sides, the kind that turn red when you hit those keys and ‘t’, or people will fall off the sides!”

The kind that “turn red when you hit those keys and ‘t'” refer to what happens when you hit CMD-OPT-T (or CTRL-ALT-T in Windows) to “Highlight Transparent”.  In this, Fiona is using a Best Practice in Accessible Design: when you have a ramp or other narrow area, or anything where people are likely to fall off the side, use railings.  If necessary for the look of your build, make those railings invisible.  People who find it difficult to navigate precisely, which can be from a disability or just being new to Virtual Worlds, tend to fall off the side of things fairly often.  This prevents that.

So, at our child’s insistence, her Pirate Ship has a Plank that is Accessible.  Nobody is going to fall off the side: they are going to go right to the end and fall to the sharks circling below.

Only Fiona would think of something like that. I love this kid!

Highlighted transparent rails for the plank

From the keel up.

April 2, 2011

Our daughter took it very well.  I was especially proud that at no point did she insist that it wasn’t fair, she wanted her old ship back, etc. etc.

It was stolen. That’s not right. We can’t keep it.  That’s just how things are.

We’ve had several offers to build her a new one.  However, for the moment at least, I am trying my hand at it.  She has been watching me fumble through this, and she likes what I have done so far.  It’s not going to be authentic, accurate, or seaworthy, but it doesn’t need to be any of those.  It needs to be a lot of fun for her to play with, that’s all.  And it is built with love, and that makes it special.

Those who are able to build such large and complex objects: ships are a popular item right now, and nobody has set up a shop for them.  If you are looking for a good niche, this one has potential!   Money can be made doing custom work, as I have never known a virtual Captain who didn’t want to personalize their ship.  Vehicle code/physics are still a problem, but there’s plenty of room alongside the wharf!

Me?  Hey, I’m a scripter.  I build and even occasionally play around in GIMP, but I don’t normally brag about it on the Internet, if that tells you anything. 😉 This is a special case.

Partially completed ship.

Obviously, I have a few lines to splice, sails to hoist, and decks to swab yet.  This is just where I am stopping for the night.  She’ll have a proud…well, as I told a friend, “8-gun something!”  And it will be all hers, and she’ll know that it is honest work, even if it isn’t as pretty as what the pros do.

When I finally raise the Jolly Roger, I’ll post some completed pictures.

Proudly teaching my little girl that a woman’s place is before the mainmast and fire as you bear!

Why the Grid owners CANNOT do it.

April 1, 2011

The conversation is still going strong. 🙂  Here’s two things that occurred to me:

First, the obvious reaction is “Grid Owners have to find this stuff and get rid of it!”  That sounds logical, but is it safe for them to do so?  I am not sure it is.  Again, I am not a Lawyer/Attorney/Solicitor/Barrister/Student of Law.  You want professional advice, seek it elsewhere.  However, I do keep my ear to the ground, and I see a “trap” that a Grid Owner could fall into if they make a habit of proactively removing content that they deem suspicious.

It might–MIGHT, I say!–violate the Safe Harbor provisions of the law.  I’m not sure how a judge would view it.

Here’s the thing (as I understand it): whether it is YouTube or Facebook or GenericGrid, they are not considered to be responsible for content that is created within or uploaded to their service–the person who actually does the creation or uploading is.  The “service provider” here is a neutral third party whose obligation is to remove content when the procedures in the DMCA are followed by the IP owner.

So what happens if the service provider starts playing detective?  What if they say, “I think this is stolen, I think this is not” without receiving a formal complaint from someone?  Are they still covered by Safe Harbor?

I don’t know, but I’d be scared to try it in that position. Safe Harbor means that, so long as the Grid Owner follows the DMCA, they are covered.  From what I have seen of the law, sometimes when you get too creative and proactive, the courts decide you are on your own.

Second, and even more convincing:

I have 3,151 objects in my inventory in JokaydiaGrid.  We won’t talk about what I accumulated in SL!  What size staff would a grid need just to monitor one avatar with an inventory like that? Let’s face it: my wardrobe is pretty empty compared to some of you guys out there!  Even if they wanted to proactively monitor, and even if they could safely do so?

Labors of Hercules, man.  And the stables fill up with twice as much while you are shoveling out the other end.  A corporation with a thousand employees couldn’t do it.  There is no scale at which it can work.

Please don’t yell at the Grid Owners.  They are in an unenviable position in all this.

“But how do I know if it is stolen content?”

April 1, 2011

The conversation about stolen content making its way into OpenSimulator continues. For the most part, it has been a fairly healthy (if lively!) discussion, and good points have been made by all sides. One thing I have been asked is, “But how can I know if a freebie is a creator’s generosity or something somebody ripped out of SL and offered illegally?”

Many times, you can’t. Sometimes, you can make a good guess.

Grid Owners can’t screen content, nor (as I understand it, AndIAmNotALawyer) are they legally obligated to do so. The task is impossible: they would have to comb through every item in the database and compare it to the SL Marketplace, plus all the inworld shops. A thousand people couldn’t do that for one medium-sized grid. What they can and must do is respond to complaints under the DMCA or similar laws. They can also educate their residents about the problem, and some actively encourage content creators to make legal alternatives.

What about Average Avatar? What is s/he supposed to do? Unless you build all your own stuff from prim hair to plants to scripts, you can’t be 100% certain you are getting the real thing. In this, OpenSim mirrors Real Life. However, there are some things you can do when you are shopping around the Metaverse.

  1. Quality Inspection.  This is what tipped me off about the boat in my previous entry: it is a very high-quality piece of work overall, but there are some odd flaws in it when you look closer.  Poseballs–with no animations or scripts inside.  A sliding door–stuck in the open position, no script.  The name of the object is “Nave Pirata”, which is either Portuguese or Spanish (according to Google), but some of the component prims are named in English, which is odd but not unheard of.  A railing is missing on the aft section. If you see missing prims, textures, or scripts, it doesn’t prove it is an illegal copy, but it is likely a poor copy, and people who do this sort of work take pride in it.
  2. Look at the name and description.  Some copybotters are just sloppy: I once found some hair marked “Sirena”.  I have done business with Sirena in SL, and I admire the work–but I don’t recall that much free hair being given out. 🙂  Certainly not copy/mod/transfer!
  3. Relevant to the above: in OpenSimulator, much like in SL, people usually don’t name all the pieces, they just name the linked-together object.  If something is named “Primitive”, the prim probably came from an OpenSimulator grid.  (This says nothing about the textures and contents.)  If it is named “Object”? That probably came from Second Life.  Again, not proof that it is illegal, but evidence that it was likely exported from SL.  This could just be someone who took their own creations with them from SL, of course.
  4. If you are looking for something that you just can’t live without, take the extra time to check into where it came from.  A chair, a potted plant, maybe your hair: these can be replaced quickly enough.  If you are going to be running a dance club, you might want to take a little more care selecting your dance animations!
  5. Keep in mind those (like me!) who are doing business on the HyperGrid.  If we want this great experiment of ours to survive, we have to have our own content creators, not rely on content from elsewhere regardless of the legality of copying it.

None of the above prove anything.  They just give you some questions to ask when you find things that you are unsure of.   There is no perfect solution: the current round of discussion  started with stolen plants, something that my little detection techniques aren’t likely to spot. They are so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even think about them much. You can’t be expected to dissect everything you find on the shelf, but you can be more aware.

Finally: Don’t, please don’t, continue to use something when you suspect it is stolen.  Yes, you can stand on your legal rights and wait until the owner of the Intellectual Property digs through all the different venues and files a DMCA notice.  The problem with this is that it feeds the flames between Content Creators and the OpenSim community, and that can’t end well for any of us.  If we are going to move past this period, we need to continue to have healthy dialogues among Content Creators, Grid Owners, and Residents, dialogues based on mutual respect.  If the Content Creators can’t get that respect for their rights, they are going to push for harsher restrictions to protect themselves.  Wouldn’t you, in their position?  If you need that content that badly, try to track down the creator, explain what you found, and ask if a deal can be made.  I have seen this work to the benefit of all.

Have you found any other tips and tricks for spotting copybotted content?