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Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Looking Back: Why Did Linden Lab Get Rid of Last Names?
By Bixyl Shuftan
It was one week ago in which Linden Lab announced they would be bringing back last names to new accounts. It was a move that was cheered by the residents. Though some were asking why did they get rid of them in the first place?
As most longtime residents remember, before 2011, when someone made an account in Second Life they were asked to give it a first and last name. The first name they could make most anything they wanted (slurs were not allowed, and profanities were usually not). The second name was from a list. Originally, once 150 people chose a particular surname it was no longer available. But that limit was later dropped. It was possible for a noted person, such as Newt Gingrich, to get the Lab to have his account named after him. But most didn't have that choice.
According to the Second Life Wikia, "Last names often refer to significant people, places, or events, either in history or in popular culture and literature." Examples include Baker, the name of the actor who played "The Fourth Doctor" on "Dr. Who," Maginot, referring to France's Maginot Line built between the World Wars, Trudeau, a Prime Minister of Canada, Trumbo, a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted for refusing to testify before Congress, Pascal, a 17th Century French mathematician, Protagonist, which refers to both the central character of a story and the name of a character on the cyberpunk novel "Snow Crash," Rand, a Russian-born American novelist, and thousands of others. But just as often, "the names can reveal much about the mindset of the Lindens." A website named "SL Name Watch" gave a list of 10,888 last names that were offered by Linden Lab. The most common one was "Gossipgirl" with over 163,000 residents choosing that. Over 400 were chosen by more than 10,000 residents. My own, "Shuftan," was chosen by a total of 594. According to this list, there were dozens of names, such as Goodwin and Parkinson, that not a single resident bothered to pick.
Some of the names were a bit odd. While many liked them, others didn't. So why were some occasional odd and offbeat names put on the list at times? Perhaps many were a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Though Hamlet Au, whom was once Linden Lab's embedded reporter, stated that at times the person in charge had to struggle and ended up pulling names from unusual sources, "In my Linden Lab days, I sat next to former community manager Daniel Huebner, and enjoyed watching him wracking his brain to come up with new last names, for a time going through various desserts of the world -- which is why many oldie SLers are named, say, 'Tiramisu.'"
It made sense to many, just as in real life, one had two names. And this system would put residents in a kind of "extended family" whom were roughly the same age and presumably the same level of experience. And it certainly gets the attention of most pre-2011 residents when they see someone with the same surname. But not everyone was happy with this system. When signing up, if you didn't like any of the last names on the list you were given, there were only two options: bite the bullet and accept a name you thought was bad, or turn around and not sign up to Second Life after all.
As James Cook, the former James Linden put it, "Whenever you have a registration flow for any service you lose signups for each additional step." There was also that this naming system was different from most MMOs, in which you simply used one name. And of course some people were confused as why couldn't they use their real name.
2010 was a year of change to Second Life when the Lab realized it was no longer attracting media attention, and people signing up, like it did before. So it made a number of big moves, such as laying off a third of their staff and merging the Teen Grid with the main one. Seeing that many people weren't bothering to sign up due to the naming process, Linden Lab decided a change was needed. So the old naming system was dropped in favor of just one name that you could more or less make whatever you wanted too, unless it was obscene or a slur, as long as it was unique. They also added "Display Names" that one could make whatever the resident wanted it to be.
But just like the Teen Grid merger about this time, which led to most of Second Life's younger residents leaving (aside from those who were faking their age), the move had consequences the Lab failed to foresee. Seeing older residents with two names, and with all new accounts given the default surname "Resident," newcomers felt like second-class citizens. Linden Lab had in effect created a dividing line between Second Life users who had signed up during when it had the old naming system, and those who signed up under the new one. Seen as newbies, they were treated differently from older residents, and even made unwelcome as some places were so fearful of griefers they threw them out as they were instantly recognizable as recent accounts. Less important but still a problem was that while there was now one name like most MMOs, the new system brought with it some of the problems associated with them, such as names with numbers and repeated letters, such as John777 and XXXcalabuRRR.
Linden Lab soon realized they had a problem. And in December 2011, then CEO Rodvik Linden announced the Lab was looking into how to bring back last names. But a few months later in March 2012, they announced they couldn't find a way to do so that was best for everyone. While some acknowledged the new system was a better one than the old, the general feeling was that the Lab could have easily made some improvement, "The Lab has just blown off one way that could have given a greater degree of engagement and building community – without costing residents money."
Since then, the issue wasn't really mentioned by Linden Lab. It's easy to assume they were waiting for the residents to forget about it. But they never did, occasionally discussing the issue. So why is Linden Lab addressing this issue at this particular time? Did it really take them several years to figure out how to bring back surnames for new accounts, or did they just not bother to try after their initial attempt until someone suggested they could charge a fee for it? Could recent questions about if Linden Lab was having a "cultural shift" away from Second Life and to it's newer (and far less successful) virtual world Sansar have spurred the company to do something. Talking to various residents, all were happy overall with Linden Lab's announcement. The one complaint I heard was that those who signed up after 2010 would not be able to get a last name for free but would have to pay to get it. They felt those without surnames in their account names should be able to get one for free
And so, as Second Life approaches it's fifteenth anniversary, those stuck with the surname of "Resident" will finally get a chance to have a real last name like older residents. But, it will cost them.
Sources: New World Notes, Second Life Wikia, SL Name Watch