Earlier today I had a long phone conversation with Mark Kingdon, new CEO of Linden Lab, in which we mostly spoke about the first grassroots uprising to test his leadership: the ongoing rebellion over the fate of Openspaces, which are currently set for a steep price increase in January. In the next few days, however, Kingdon says the company will post an update to this policy which will incorporate feedback from Openspace owners.
While Kingdon won't say what exact percent of the world is now comprised of Openspaces ("That's not a number we publish"), he acknowledges it's been a significant portion of SL's geographic growth. However, in response to Resident speculation that the price increase has a hidden agenda, such as preparing for an IPO or seeking further venture capital, Kingdon said this:
"We've been straightforward about our rationale," he told me. "The reason we're doing this is because when we did a review of the land, we saw that there were many, many, too many cases [of misuse]... That's the sole motivation for this. There's no conspiracy theory or underlying motivation... this isn't about making a short term bump in revenues or cash. No hidden agenda."
Somewhat related to that, he spoke to a point mentioned in my GigaOM article about the protest, which described the steady decline of Premium subscribers as a subject of great concern for the company. According to him, my inference there isn't accurate: "That's one of the only figures that's going negative," he said. "You can't use that as an indicator of the overall health of the land market... Premium subscriptions are immaterial in our overall business."
We returned several times to the theme of Linden-to-Resident communication. "One of the things we don't have is a mechanism for more formal or regularly proactive dialog," he told me, "and I think that's the thing we've been thinking about before." This latest controversy, he suggested, will motivate them to do so even more.
After the break, Kingdon on more Openspace questions I put to him, including: the mixed message of prim allotments, Resident feedback (positive and negative)... and his plea to estate owners considering an exodus to OpenSim.
What advance land use research/surveying did company land manager Jack Linden do before announcement this price hike?
"We know how they're being used, because the teams survey.... there's a wide variety of usage of the land... the majority of the Openspace properties are owned by larger multi-island landowners, and it's in those cases that the land has been loaded up with more content and activity than we anticipated... it's specifically designed for light usage."
Isn't "light use" a vague definition?
"I think we need to put more definition around it and be clearer about what we mean by it... I think we articulated what the intention was [when they were first put on sale]."
Didn't giving Openspace owners a several thousand prim allotment tacitly or even explicitly suggest they could build on them?
"That's a far lower prim count than our [standard] island product... some of the larger landholdings you see, the content is far more extensive than we expected."
What percent of Openspace owners were abusing their land?
"In some cases they have beautiful builds so I'd hardly call that abusing the land... I don't have a percentage of that for you, but it was substantial enough that it led to us repricing the product."
What do you think of the Resident response to the announcement?
"We've gotten a lot of feedback from Residents. Some of it's been painful obviously to read, and fairly inflammatory, and at least in one case, literally inflammatory... [Many Residents have] put forward some very constructive thoughts about how we can handle this and meet their needs.... there's been some really constructive dialog with landowners... we'll have a clear point of view about how we're going to proceed in the middle of the week.
"This is one of those things that's incredibly challenging, and we have an incredibly passionate group of Residents out there who are very good about sharing their points of view.
"... We got a lot of constructive feedback, it came in all forms... [such as] incredibly thoughtful notes I received and e-mail from residents that I've met before who put a lot of thought [into them]... I was really impressed."
Why didn't you have any advance communication about a possible price increase with Openspace owners?
"I guess what I'd say is... it's clear the product needs repricing, a lot of folks have built extensive businesses [on them], so it's not like they're going to turn the prim count [down]... There wasn't a lot of dialog about the price change beforehand, but there is advance notice around the price increase."
Were you expecting this degree of protest and anger?
"We're always concerned about [it]... I've been here for six months but I've remembered a long time before that the community has been incredibly passionate... We expected Residents to feel strong because the Resident community is so passionate. I wouldn't say anyone thought it would be a non-issue. I don't think anyone here is that naive."
Many educational institutions "misuse" Openspaces based on the ambiguous definition of "light use". With education a core component of your strategy for growing Linden Lab, won't this harm their trust in the company?
"I don't think so. Read Jack's original announcement, I think he said that educators who were having challenges should reach out to him. Educators have long been a vibrant part of Second Life and are doing some really innovative stuff."
In retrospect, would you have done anything different with this Openspaces policy?
"One of the things I want to be thinking about is how we get a more continuous dialog going with Residents, because one of the challenges is that we have such a large and diverse population... we're too large to have conversations Resident by Resident... when you get to a certain size (and we're still a small company) how do you put in place some approaches and processes that enable us to have a thoughtful dialog with our user base?"
What would you tell angry estate owners who are now considering moving their land to OpenSim?
"[Second Life] is a large and vibrant platform with a very robust economy, we're making really significant investments to make sure it's the best platform... I think that's worth their focus. Think about how much land mass has grown... so even with the added burden placed on the substantial [land] increase we've improved our stability... our customer ratings have been extraordinarily high. I'd hope that all of the Residents look at the commitment we're making and the size and health of the in-world economy. And we're focused very much on improving the experienced for new Residents. So I think we're focused on the right things."
Note: My questions have been slightly edited for clarity, but Kingdon's quotes are direct citations. Many thanks to Residents who offered question suggestions for this interview, especially on my Plurk stream, including Crap Mariner, Alidar Moxie, Night Flower, and CodeBastard Redgrave.