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The answer to that is a little tangled, but it isn’t Linden Lab.

Without its users, Second Life is almost entirely tabula rasa (a blank slate). It’s users who create the content, produce the goods, provide the services, and are responsible for pretty much everything you see and hear while you’re logged in. Yes, that also includes a couple hundred or so Linden alts. The users are, for all practical purposes, beyond any reasonable control.

But does that mean that the users control Second Life? No, it doesn’t.

Users are like drivers. I decide I want to go someplace; I drive there. You want to go somewhere; you drive there (just work with me on this analogy for a moment). Everyone drives themselves wherever they need or want to go, whenever they want to do it.

We each decide where and when we do that, based on our personal desires, needs and circumstances.

Sometimes that leads to traffic snarls, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Linden Lab is like the office of the Department of Transport, in this little analogy

It can set speed limits, put in (or take out) speed bumps and road-signs, issue licenses, and even change some roads around, but it can’t tell drivers where and when to travel. It can, however, make a complete mess of things if it tries to exert too much control over traffic patterns.

In a sense, then, Second Life is a collective expression of our activity as users, and that’s beyond any effective control.

The closest Linden Lab can hope to come is to influence it slightly with pricing, policy, features, support and enforcement; and those can be powerful influences, but they’re not controls, and they’re not remotely precise or predictable. The only genuine control that Linden Lab really has over Second Life is the power to switch it off, and that’s probably the last thing that it would ever want to do.

Now, remember what I just said about making a mess of things?

That’s what happens when the goals of the transport authority fail to align with the goals of road users. You get vast, tree-lined avenues or freeways that are largely unused, while drivers struggle with impossible tangles of one-way streets and dead-ends instead.

You cannot have all those drivers without the transport authority, though. The Web wouldn’t be what it is without standards-bodies, domain regulatory authorities and the like. A certain amount of regulation improves things for everyone, when it is properly aligned with the needs of users, even if it means that you grumble about speed-limits and seat-belt laws.

There’s talk of Second Life having lost its “frontier feel” and in a sense that’s partially correct. What it has lost is the sense that Linden Lab is in partnership with the users of Second Life and has those users’ collective goals in mind. The relationship between the Lab and the users feels unnecessarily adversarial at times, perhaps due to the impression that Linden Lab’s direction is diverging from the needs of its users – whether that perception is actually correct or not.

But if Linden Lab tries to control Second Life, rather than just influence it, or the Lab tries to influence it in ways that are increasingly incompatible with the aggregate direction of users, then Second Life eventually will effectively cease to exist, as surely and as inevitably as if it had been switched off. Which is no good for anybody.

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