Skip to content

Inside Linden Lab – a new book by T. M. Malaby, 2009

Thomas M. Malaby (2009): Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. (165 pages, incl. appendix A: The Tao of Linden; and appendix B: The Mission of Linden Lab; notes, bibliography, and index).

Thomas M. Malaby is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is also the author of Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City.

In the Metanomics Second Life talk show Inside Linden Lab –broadcasted June 3rd 2009– Professor Robert Bloomfield, alias the avatar Beyers Sellers, interviews Thomas Malaby. The video as well as the full transcript of the interview can be found following this link:

This book is an ethnographic study of the Linden Lab organization and the “Lindens” – the preferred notion of the firm’s employees. Mainly, it is targeted towards an academic audience; Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault, Max Weber are among some of Malaby’s theoretical references. However, the book is also written to address audiences outside of academia.

Thomas M. Malaby has followed the emergence of the Linden Lab every month from December 2004 to January 2006 for one to three weeks at a time. Among the many methods applied in his study, face-to-face participant observation has been the most important, while formal and informal interviews, conversations over coffee during breaks, email, IM exchanges (in-world and outside), research in-world, and some light work for the Lindens also have formed part of the study.

In the Introduction, the author suggests the term “techno liberalism” to denote the kind of economy and organising of firms that characterises “the halls of Silicon Valley”, and among these the Lindens. It differs from the concept of “creationist capitalism” as suggested by Tom Boellstorff (2008) in his book Coming of Age in Second Life; a difference also addressed in Malaby’s book (pp. 99-101).

The first chapter, The Product, is about capital and the possibility of failure in a virtual world. In this Malaby, among others, discusses market capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Continuously, he asks the questions about similarities and differences between in-world Second Life conditions as compared to those of the outside real-world economy. He concludes that the boundaries that seem to separate the real and the virtual are fading fast.

Thomas Malaby invites the reader to follow him inside Linden Lab in chapter 2, Tools of the Gods. In the analysis, Malaby illustrates how the ideals of the Lindens, that is, horizontal rather than vertical power, the individual freedom of a creative and self-organising work style, and a collective outcome of individual work continually is challenged by the relative success of the project. The project success results in a rapid increase in the amount of customers/users/subscribers and renders it necessary to scale both product and organization. Malaby also opens for a view of how the collective wisdom of the organization, the knowledge sharing and daily work is organized by the physical environment, the particular tools that keep track of achievements and objects (As and Os), and the introduction of the project management tool Jira, a contentious issue in the development of the organization. Likewise, Malaby shows how the organizational practices of the Lindens are governed by a belief that technology and tools – the “proof of concept” style of working – can solve the various organizational problems, contradictions and paradoxes that continuously arise.

In chapter 3, Knowing the Gamer from the Game, the close interrelations of gaming and the Linden’s product and practice is analysed. In doing so, Malaby argues that we need a different understanding of gaming than the most frequent, which sees gaming as a specific kind of playing – an activity with no obligations and consequences. As opposed to this conception of gaming, Malaby’s definition is:“A game is a semi-bounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.” (Malaby 2009, 84) With this definition in mind, Malaby argues that gaming constitutes a vital part of the firm’s knowledge base and experience since many of the developers enter the firm with a background in game development. Also, gaming practices constitute a part of the everyday work life in the firm. Malaby suggests that games and gaming will inspire the strategies of contemporary and future business and organizations, such as Linden Lab. He does so with reference to the above mentioned understanding of games as not primarily a kind of playing and entertainment but rather as a way of balancing inavoidable rules and orderlinesses opposite to unforeseen outcomes and various sources of contingencies. Thus, Malaby sees gaming experience as vital to the understanding of creative and knowledge intensive businesses.

In the next chapter, The Birth of the Cool, the many paradoxes of the organization are analysed with regard to the question of status. How is status established when creativity is the benchmark for making one’s influence count? The hardcore coders and developers form the centre of the organization in the picture Malaby paints. Those working with infrastructural issues, running the servers, answering customers’ problems and complaints are under recognized in relation to the tool-creating developers. These developers are valued due to their creativity and ability to solve problems by the “proof of concept” methods of working so vital and influential in the firm. This method favours those who are working with projects, in particular the “secret projects” – an important managerial tool for the Lindens. In accordance with this self-organising and self-managing style, each employee is allowed to work on his or her own, or in teams, with secret projects they find important; projects that might succeed or fail. One fifth of the working hours are thus committed to secret and personalized projects.

In the last chapter, Precarious Authority, Malaby draws the contours of future work in digital organizations and in a digital society characterized by contingency and increasing sources of contingency. As opposed to the bureaucratic hierarchies, Malaby sees Linden Lab as an example of more general future conditions that organizations will have to deal with. Producers and creators will for example have to take into consideration their users’ and consumers’ creativity and co-design. Linden Lab is such an organization that provides a tool, Second Life, for such user-generated content while at the same time navigating and managing the organisation so it is capable of coping with changes in scale and with the unforeseen.

In this book, Thomas Malaby’s study opens up the doors to let us have a look inside Linden Lab. On the one hand, he loyally describes the self-understanding of the founders and the employees while he, on the other hand, continuously analyses the many contradictions between the Linden’s ideology, which seems to be inspired by New Communalism, and the work life and practices of the firm – for example the problems that follow from rapid success and the scaling of activity and organisation. The theoretical references to sociology and anthropology are many, but the reader may lack a more thorough theoretical analysis of this knowledge-based firm that creates an open-ended product that encourages user-driven content creation, and a firm that does so in a work life full of contingencies. However, many highly relevant questions for the study of contemporary and future work life are raised. Particularly the chapter about gaming and the part it plays in an organization such as Linden Lab, not only as a kind of practice but also as an analytical strategy, offers new insights.

Surely, I can recommend this book.

Since Thomas Malaby conducted his study in Linden Lab 2004 to 2006, many things have changed in the firm not least the fact that the founder Philip Rosedale no longer is the CEO but Chairman of the Board.

A Metanomics interview with Philip Rosedale about this can be found following this link:

Posted in Blog, Reviews.

Tagged with , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.