Second Life is ahead of its generation, but very traditional in the fact that it enables creativity, and I believe that that is the most powerful form of entertainment.
So speaks Rod Humble in the seventh segment of The Drax Files. which aired on Monday June 3rd.
The plan had been to keep the guest a surprise for as long as possible (I was sworn to secrecy back before the segment had even been filmed), but word started leaking out after Rod made several in-world appearances using both his primary account and some of his alts.
Featuring footage shot both in-world and at the Lab’s main offices in Battery Street, San Francisco, the segment is a rapid-fire overview of Second Life, its impact on the world and how senior management at the Lab view what is happening to the platform and how they think it is fairing. As such, it is possible that some of Rod Humble’s comments may come across as superficial and be critiqued as such. However, this is only a five-minute piece, and the established format of the show isn’t suited to any in-depth analysis or reporter-led interrogative, and to expect it to be so would be unfair.
What does emerge from the segment is a picture of a man who has both the responsibility for ensuring Second Life maintains a comfortable level of success which at the same time and who – contrary to popular belief in some quarters – does actually “get” Second life in many fundamental ways, even if he may not have a complete understanding of its appeal.
There is admittedly a juxtaposition here; on the one hand, Rod Humble has spent more than two years of hard grind at the helm of Linden Lab, and has steered the company into new waters of unknown depth while at the same time pushing for very real investment in their flagship product and driving forward a range of new technical initiatives for Second Life. All of this does speak of someone who has an eye on the future for the platform and who recognises its many technical weaknesses.
Yet, on the other hand, he talks with disarming honesty about the bemusement he feels towards SL’s continued success and longevity and the fact that why it is successful remains something of a mystery – and something which appears to be completely missed by the tech industry and media as a whole.
There are some familiar themes in the piece which anyone who is reasonably familiar with Rod Humble and his past commentaries is likely to instantly recognise. His comments on matters of privacy and anonymity, for example, are pretty much echo what he said at the last of the Second Life Community Conventions in 2011. Similarly, the numbers quoted are pretty much the same as we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years. But repetition alone doesn’t invalidate what is being said.
Things like avatar identity and pseudonymity / personas are matters which concern many SL users, so the fact that Rod Humble hasn’t shifted his stance of the matter in the course of his tenure at the helm of Linden Research should be taken as a positive sign.
Similarly, while many of us within SL would like to see more visible moves towards getting more of the 400,000 monthly sign-ups to stick, we also need to remember that this video isn’t about dissecting Second Life this way or that: it is about presenting the world with a better understanding of the platform and why people enjoy it so much – and hopefully encourage people to come and give things a try. As such, Rod’s message is very much on topic and in keeping with past segments of the show.
Another aspect of the anonymity element in the segment is the way in which it serves as a reminder that just because we don’t people moving around and through Second Life wearing “Linden” tags doesn’t mean actually mean Lab don’t spend time in-world and among users. As Rod comments:
I love flying around with my alts. Sometimes I’m dressed as a Greek philosopher, sometimes I’m a spaceship, sometimes I’m dressed as an animal! I mean, it’s great! And [in] each one of those personas you can fully engage in a way community in a way that you can’t when everybody knows it’s Rod Humble.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean Lab staff are in-world every minute of the day – but it is a comment which should be born in mind when critiquing the Lab with claims that staff are “never” in-world.
As noted at the top of this piece, the show also demonstrates that Rod Humble still intuitively “gets” the power of Second Life, even if he doesn’t by his own admission fully understand why the appeal is the way it is (something I think true of a lot people, even if we each have our own ideas and theories). Not only does he “get” it, he is actually leading the charge to make SL a better, more enjoyable experience for all of us, old and new.
The fact that LL have invested considerable time and effort into SL over the course of the last year or more should stand as a reminder that the company still believes the platform is viable – and that is good news for the platform and its future, even if the projects concerned aren’t that visible or what people might view as being “sexy” (which has been used at times as a reason to bash this work and the Lab). While such efforts may not solve all of SL’s woes, they do at least demonstrate that the Lab’s commitment to the platform is still there.
And as we approach SL’s 10th birthday celebrations, that really is worth while remembering.
A Conversation with Drax 3: CEOs, Users, Numbers and Retention
The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. After seeing the first segment, I took time out with Drax to find out more about the man behind the show and also about the series itself.
Last time around, we continued our discussions in general terms, but having Rod Humble make a guest appearance on the show meant that our chat started out on the topic of the show, it quickly spread to matters which are often the subject of debate within Second Life – new users and retention.
Inara Pey (IP): As we are all aware, 2013 is a significant milestone for Second Life, marking the platform’s tenth anniversary since it was opened to the public.
Let’s start by looking at this segment of the show in that context, and in the broadest terms before we perhaps focus down on some things in more detail. What are your general thoughts in being able to film a segment of The Drax Files around Rod Humble?
Draxtor Despres (DD): I’m excited that we – the people who collaborated on this – have been given the opportunity to shape the face of Second Life for some time now for the tenth birthday with this video, and I do hope that the mainstream press has a little bit more to choose from, media-wise, you know, than just some snapshot from 2006, which is just really embarrassing for the media, to be quite frank; that they take these old snapshot to put in their articles. It’s a sad statement from my friends in journalism.
IP: Indeed. As a tool for outreach to the media, there is perhaps nothing quite as powerful as the CEO of a tech company talking so openly about his product, and in such a disarming way.
Now, in the piece, Rod mentions some familiar figures: half a billion US dollars in user-to-user transactions per year, some 400,000 sign-ups per month. As soundbites go, these strike positive notes. However, the sceptic might point to them and say, “Yes, but how many of those 400,000 sign-ups per month actually “stick” with Second Life?” How would you respond to that in light of spending time at the Lab?
DD: In the interview Rod admitted that they have not figured out how to get folks to the content right away and I see it this way. We today not only face overwhelming entertainment choices, but we are also conditioned to have spoon-fed polished entertainment not an open sandbox where we can freely choose to create. We have been conditioned over a long time to not be creative, and video games have continued the trend of telling the player what to do.
IP: We live in a world where it is easier to be led by entertainment, rather than create our own entertainment, you mean?
DD: Yes. People are not used to unlimited creativity. Games and platforms like Minecraft or the whole “app” phenomenon is successful because it curates content and it curates limited creativity. A blank piece of paper is scary – for adults. For kids it’s not. They draw whatever comes out of them. But then they get conditioned by their peers and by society that there is good and that there is bad, and they stop expressing themselves creatively. And that’s kind-of sad, and it takes a lot of guts to go back to that state of openness. And I think that’s why something that is so uncurated…
DD: Yes, as Second Life is, right now cannot be as successful as something like Minecraft, where it’s a clear aesthetic that is being offered, and you work within that aesthetic.
IP: But these are not new challenges that the Lab faces in terms of getting users to engage in the platform; they’ve been around since SL was conceived and first opened its doors. But there is something that many people do intrinsically get about Second Life and which does keep them logging-in to the platform day after day, week after week, on through the years. Yet it does seem that the Lab never quite harnesses or understands what it is that keeps us doing so – and at times they appear unwilling to actually try to find out.
DD: If I could make any suggestion to Linden Lab, it’s to hire two sociologists and one psychologist to be on staff – not to counsel their staff, but to look into the world and decode the world and be a mediator between the engineering staff and the world and the residents. I think that is missing; people from other disciplines, people from non-engineering disciplines who have an ability to translate between the population and the “rulers”, if you will. I think there could be a lot of benefits to that; just [having] somebody from a social science background would be fantastic.
I actually studies sociology … for like, four months! (laughs). That’s cool, eh? Maybe I’ll get an honorary doctorate at some point! (laughs) It’s something which totally fascinated me and I still read a lot of books about the subject. And again, we’re not dealing with an engineering problem per se, we’re not even dealing with a technology problem. Primarily we’re dealing with the relationship between the governed and the governing bodies. And that needs to be understood.
IP: It’s a valid observation. Even among SL users, there is a perception that the way to get more people to engage in SL is a technical problem …
DD: Right! “Step One, make the UI simpler; Step Two, get people to the content quicker”, as if it is some kind of Facebook experience. But we cannot compare to two experiences …
IP: Exactly. And it the case of the UI, that has always been SL’s biggest weakness and greatest barrier to engagement. However, it didn’t stop you from getting involved & engaged. It never stopped me, or Kriss or Engrama, or Eshi or anyone else using it today. So there is a point to make that the problem isn’t necessarily about getting people past the UI per se.
It’s about helping people to understand what is attractive about Second Life, and provide the means for them to get to that attraction. Offer that, and there is no reason why they should view the UI as some kind of insurmountable problem. And you’re right – it is something which needs to be looked at outside of any engineering or technical thinking. So you might say it’s about looking at whole issue of new users and user retention more holistically.
DD: Yes. I think the orientation experience is something that needs to be continuously thought about and debated. The hand-holding thing, I think that’s important; the need to have real people in-world all the time who can help you out. That’s what helped me and others to stick around.
You see, this is an interesting thing, and goes back to what we said earlier about people “getting” Second Life. A few weeks ago I helped newbie friends with a couple of kinds – ten and thirteen – and my friend Max came to me and said, “My son is playing Minecraft, but it’s so limited, and you talked about Second Life, so I looked into it, and it seems really cool, so could you do a tutorial?” So this is a guy who looked into Second Life and saw what it can provide, and his family did as well as I went through things with them. And these are not rocket scientists, these are normal people; they’re not dumb, but they’re not Albert Einsteins either!
And this is one of the things I object to, that it’s so “difficult” to get what Second Life is. I think people have no patience. We live in a terrible age when it comes to expectations and patience; especially in the digital world. And we need to steer against it, the expectation that everything is curated and directed for us. And that’s the hard thing for the Lab to overcome.
IP: Making the sign-up process easier and getting people in-world quicker is only half the equation.
DD: Yes. Find out what people’s interest are, why they come to SL, and then kind-of hold their hands until they are ready to take off on their own while making sure they can find the support they need to stick. But that takes manpower and manpower costs money, and they’re probably thinking it’s not worth it to task people to be in-world all the time and wait for newbies. But I think it’s wrong. Users are a long-term investment for Linden Lab which directly benefit the Lab’s revenue flow.
IP: It’s not necessarily a massive investment on the Lab’s part, either. There is still a surviving network of mentor groups and programmes in Second Life which could do a lot to assist in this and provide the support you describe.
DD: Right. And there was the Gateway Programme, and there are a lot of dedicated folk who would jump at the chance to help others; maybe get a little badge as a Newbie Counsellor or something, so yeah. There’s a lot that could still be done.
IP: We’re almost out of time for this round of our chats. Coming back to episode seven of The Drax Files. Having spent time interviewing Rod Humble over the course of an hour, and getting the opportunity to film him at work and see the Lab for yourself – have you come away from this particular segment of the show with any specific thoughts on his stewardship of Second Life?
DD: The sense I got was that he’s the right man for the job right now at this juncture of Second Life’s development. After talking to him, it seemed more ridiculous to think, as the community often says, that Linden Lab has abandoned virtual worlds. He said they are working on a large virtual world investment that’s two years out, and we don’t know anything other than that. But virtual worlds is their core product.
IP: It’ll certainly be interesting to see what form that large investment takes, as the hints are currently so vague – and intentionally so, as Rod Humble has explained. Perhaps doubly so, given their investment in Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity venture.
DD: It’s going to be an interesting future!