Tuesday’s ‘Meet the Lindens’ interview between Saffia Widdershins of Prim Perfect and Patch Linden and Dee Linden happened last night at the SL12B Dreamitarium. Despite listening to the hour of conversation (and re-listening to my full recording after that) I failed to find one item of compelling interest that’s worth writing about, except perhaps that Dee Linden doesn’t like the system avatar’s “ugly virtual toes”. Yes, these are the depths to which I sunk while seeking a scant glimmer of interest in what was a conversation I can only describe as lacklustre.
The real story here, however, is Miss Widdershins softball interviewing approach, with too much focus on what we already know about the past at the cost of trying to learn new things about the future. If Ms Widdershins can be just a little more direct, persistent and future-oriented with her questions (and follow-up questions), it might actually result in considerably more interesting interviews over the next three days.
No, I’m not suggesting this be an episode of “Hardball”, but at the same time, getting an interview with Linden Lab leadership isn’t something that happens on a daily basis (except this week), so it behooves the journalist with such a golden opportunity to make the very best of the time she/he has.
Monday’s conversation with Oz Linden wasn’t exactly a rollercoaster of thrills by comparison, but perhaps the format of Oz acting as piggy-in-the-middle between Ms Widdershins and Jessica Lyons (Firestorm Project Manager) served to narrow the discussion into more specifics, which led to more interesting discussions. Fellow blogger Ciaran Laval has a summary of the talk with Oz Linden, and you can see the full video of the interview here:
One very important way that the interview with Oz Linden differed from the one with Patch and Dee was the use of prompting and follow-up questions. Here are 5 examples from both interviews – 4 show where follow-up questions might have helped, and 1 that shows where a follow-up question helped a lot.
Example 1: Not asking for specifics
In yesterday’s interview with Patch Linden, he said that Linden Lab is using Second Life as a ‘test bed’ for its decision-making for Project Sansar – Linden Lab’s next generation virtual world. He mentioned that Linden Lab has lots of plans for Second Life over the “next 2, 3, 5 years.” He added, if that also helps us grow Sansar and help make Sansar be the very best it can be, then that is just an accolade and a checkmark in both columns, for both products.
To which Ms Widdershins responded: “Hmm…”
Ok, hindsight is always 20/20, but I even at that very moment, I was asking Patch (in my head):
- “Can you sketch out what these plans for Second Life might be?”
- “What has Linden Lab learned from Second Life’s past that it will be bringing to Project Sansar’s future?”
- “What do you expect will happen as a result of these different approaches with Project Sansar?”
- What have you learned from SL’s past that you might leave out of Project Sansar?”
- “If these learnings are good for Sansar, are you going to apply them to Second Life as well?”
- “Why, and why not?”
Whether Patch Linden answered these questions or not would have been up to him, but that’s what interviewing someone is about: Asking questions with the aim of revealing genuine answers that might be of interest to the audience; answers that might not otherwise be already available. If it wasn’t, what is the point of the interview?
Instead, Ms Widdershins left Patch’s answer unchallenged, and turned to Dee Linden, and asked her what she thought might be happening in the next 5 years in Second Life. This is at least a future-oriented question. Unfortunately, Dee dodged it and joked about something she read in local chat – about an audience member’s question about an easier way to remove all clothing from your avatar, to which Ms Widdershins then proceeded to give tips about making a base avatar outfit!
Dead air followed, followed by Ms Widdershins further expanding how making a nude avatar outfit might be accomplished in different viewers.
More dead air.
Needless to say, Ms Widdershins did not go back to her question about Dee Linden’s vision of Second Life’s future again – and it was – as expected – left unanswered.
By this time, I started to wonder if the interview was over. I realised it wasn’t, when Ms Widdershins finally steered the conversation into what I hoped would be more relevant waters, by asking whether Patch Linden made his own clothes or not. Disappointingly, this question is hardly relevant to his job at the Lab as Senior Manager, Product Operations, is it?
Now, in fairness to Miss Widdershins, Linden Lab might have laid out certain rules about what they would talk about and what they would not talk about – which is fairly standard in interviews like these (I would think). However, Project Sansar and the future of Second Life were clearly on the table as Patch Linden himself was discussing it. To leave such juicy threads so loosely untied frustrated me to no end.
Example 2: Not focusing on the future
I became even more frustrated when the conversation devolved into what might be easily found on a website’s FAQs (e.g. “How old do you have to use Second Life?”), which eventually prompted Ms Widdershins to ask if Linden Lab might bring the teen grid back (again, more about the past).
Because this question wasn’t directed to anyone in particular, a few moments of silence uncomfortably hovered, until Dee Linden mercifully diverted the question to Patch – who seemed to have stopped listening because he had to ask Ms Widdershins to ask again. When she did, Patch answered saying that this was a complicated area involving maturity ratings and age-access (the answer one might expect), but then he said:
“With where Second Life is currently positioned as a product, the legalities around trying to introduce anything under the age of 16 into Second Life could be extremely challenging for us.” He then dangled: “Thinking forward to other products, there could be something, and we’re considering all of those options but I don’t think any hard decisions have been made just yet.”
Now there is something! But yet again, Ms Widdershins redirected the line of questioning away from the issue of the future, retreating back to the shelter of the past, mentioning that some teen grid regions are still out there in Second Life. She then spent a few moments trying to remember the specific names of these regions from long ago.
Backing up, when Patch said what he did, I’d have asked:
- “You said ‘With where Second Life is now positioned as a product’ – where indeed do you feel that Linden Lab positions Second Life as a product relating to age of adoption?”
- “Does Linden Lab position Second Life as a product only for adults?”
- “With regard to other products, do you mean Project Sansar?”
- “Does Linden Lab aim to position Project Sansar as something other than a product for adults?”
- “If so, why would you want to introduce users under 16 to Sansar?”
- “Why is having users under the age of 16 so challenging for Linden Lab? Can you explain the challenges?”
- “Do you think Linden Lab might be able to overcome these challenges with Sansar?”
I’m not saying that Patch Linden or Dee Linden would, or would have been able to, answer these questions. I do, however, think they’re worth asking – if at least to see what bounces back. Don’t you?
Example 3: Where a follow-up question helped, but how it came from the audience
An example of an effective prompt might have led to Oz revealing that Second Life would get 24-days, and it’s a good example showing why they’re important:
When Ms Widdershins asked Oz about his favourite project he’d worked on (again, from the past), he said it was working on developing region windlight settings (circa 2007). He then went into the possibility of setting them at parcel levels as well as the region level, in the official viewer. Right, this is a more interesting area, especially given the fact that we’ve been able to do this in Firestorm for a relatively long time now. To her credit, Ms Lyon prompted him by saying she had assumed this was an ongoing project for the Lab, to which he agreed, and qualified it on the basis of minimum parcel size (which is something I would assume that the Firestorm team has figured out, since we don’t often see the kaleidoscopic changes that Oz warned about should someone set a 1m square parcel a different windlight than the surrounding parcels).
Oz then said Linden Lab would not likely enable windlights according to altitude ranges in the official viewer. Why? Again, this is something that we can do in Firestorm now. I’d have pressed Oz to share why it wasn’t easily doable in the official viewer, when a volunteer “herd of cats” (to use Ms Lyon’s term when describing her team at Firestorm) was able to manage it. In fairness, Oz said that one of the fundamental assumptions baked into the official viewer design is that settings (including windlight, I presume) take effect according to X and Y coordinates, and not on Z (height). This confused me, because I then wondered how the Firestorm team had been able to do it by adapting the open-sourced viewer code? Might this be something Linden Lab could just copy and use? At this point, Oz must have seen a question in local chat from Jo Yardley in the audience, and then revealed that Second Life will be getting 24-days. See? The squeaky wheels get the grease! Way to go, Jo: Good follow-up question!
This is fairly typical of good interview questioning technique. While it’s important to arrive at an interview ready with a list of questions, you must be equally ready to throw away that list, and respond to the interviewees’ answers by asking deeper questions about their responses. People are like onions – you can peel them one layer at a time, and for this follow-up questions – and especially future-oriented questions that compel them to think on their feet – are critical. Further, if they don’t answer your first question, you need to ask the question again (at least once) or find out why they are not answering your question.
It’s not about being a rude, it’s about being persistent.
Example 4: Not pursuing a promising line of questioning
A good example of the effective use of a follow-up question was when Ms Widdershins asked Oz if the day length would be a choice for residents. Good! A specific, future-oriented follow-up question! Oz answered that it would be and said it wouldn’t be hard to change, to which Ms Widdershins said it would be “awesome”.
Again, while it’s fine to show your appreciation for an answer, I can think of a few good follow-up questions on this subject alone that would have followed this path to perhaps more interesting areas of discussion:
- “Will region owners be able to set the clock to start when they wish – so that we can have local time zones?”
- “Will we be able to use custom or preset windlights with the 24 hour day cycle?”
- “Will we be able to set custom or preset sunrises and sunset times to better mirror the effects of different seasons?”
- “What prompted this change, apart from Jo Yardley’s nagging, that you felt it was worth implementing?”
- “What do you see as the benefits of this change to users?”
- “Is this part of a trend towards higher fidelity to the real world in Second Life?”
Example 5: Not mentioning an elephant in the room
A little later in the conversation, Oz revealed that he was not a very artistic person and that he delegated customising his avatar’s appearance to his young son (with instructions to simulate his [Oz’s] appearance in RL). I’d have jumped on that to ask Oz the question that many residents might have wondered for years:
“Do you feel that your avatar’s appearance – which let’s be honest, hasn’t changed much at all since 2010 – might not benefit from an update (apart from the Ho Chi Minh beard)?”
You might say: “Oh, that’s a bit rude, Becky! Who cares what his avatar looks like?”
Well, I’d counter that as the person in charge of Second Life’s development – shouldn’t he look a bit more… err… developed? I know, he’s not a male fashion model, and neither should he aspire to be, but avatar appearances are important – especially for those who represent Linden Lab. I don’t even really care if they’re attractive – they should at least be availing themselves of the best that today’s Second Life creators have to offer, no?
The elephant in the room is not that Oz Linden’s avatar is just out of date and that wouldn’t it be nice if he got some new mesh feet – the real issue is that he is a visual representative of what Second Life has to offer, and it’s under-representative.
Further, avatar appearances are especially important as first impressions to outsiders (e.g. news media). The mainstream news media might not be as forgiving as many oldbie Second Lifers are about avatar appearances that look half a decade out of date (yes, 2010-2015 is half a decade!).
Many of us complain that the media chooses to use screenshots that make Second Life look like it’s still 2007, how about helping things along by upgrading the first impressions of its leadership? Patch Linden seems to have an up to date avatar. Ebbe Linden dresses in Zaara mesh suits for goodness sakes. Xiola Linden is one of the more fashionable Linden’s on the grid. Couldn’t the rest of the Lindens get with the program too?
With that said, Oz, if you’re reading, I hereby volunteer to give you a personal makeover. I know you’re really busy, and if our schedules don’t easily link up then perhaps my Zero to Hero: 2-Hour Men’s Second Life Makeover Style Guide might help?
I do hope that the next 3 interviews – today with Xiola Linden, Lead Community Manager, and Pete Linden, Senior Director, Global Communications at Linden Lab – will be more illuminating than yesterday’s interview. I recommend Ms Widdershins to use this opportunity to respectfully prompt and question the Lindens to share as much as they can about the future of where the company is going, and likewise its products.
As a last note to all of you who might think I’m being too hard on MsWiddershins, let me be clear that I respect her as someone who has greatly contributed to the Second Life Community for many years. She also seems to be a very pleasant lady. Further, I suspect these interviews might not even be happening if her magazine Prim Perfect was not sponsoring them, so kudos to her for taking the initiative to make them happen in the first place.
Now, let’s just make use of them.
I appreciate that it’s easy for me to sit here and say what could have, should have, would have been done better. But at the very least, if this serves as constructive criticism for how the next 3 interviews could be handled, then I’ve succeeded in my aim.
To finish off with a little visual eye candy, here’s a video from yesterday’s interview with Dee Linden and Patch Linden, filmed by Caitlin Tobias: