A remarkable use of a virtual world

Doctors in the United States have put a virtual environment to a remarkable use. The double-handle of physically “cancelling” the visual / audible stimulus that can trigger fear and heighten the sensations of pain together with the more subtle psychological factor of placing the user into a “cool” environment far removed from any association with the trauma he faced is extremely clever.

The medical potential of virtual worlds, at least for those who can afford / have access to such treatment, really is staggering, and move something like World Builder – which some find “creepy” or manipulative – into a more practical and achievable use, the benefits of which cannot be denied.

Some thoughts on Second Life

Last week, I commented on people’s impatience to hear something from Rod Humble, LL’s new CEO. In doing so, I followed a lead set by Tateru Nino in outlining why Mr. Humble is facing such an uphill struggle, even if he does listen to the platform’s own user base.

Since then, I’ve been cogitating a bit (aka sitting up very late at night, logged-in to Second Life and doing next-to-nothing as I’m simultaneously nursing a poorly cat at the same time). Inevitably, my thoughts turned to what is going “wrong” with Second Life / Linden Lab – or more correctly, why things are failing.

As I’ve also said before, there seems to be a perception that Linden Lab are somehow both malicious and – in their communications at least – mendacious. Certainly, when one looks at the damage caused by ill-considered acts such as the changes to Adult Content & Policy when a fair simpler solution was readily available (create a G-rated continent), or when one looks at the way in which economic reports are currently being re-jigged to the point of becoming almost meaningless, one can be somewhat forgiven for thinking along both these lines.

I don’t actually ascribe to either viewpoint. Rather, I take the view that the board of Linden Lab are – for people heading-up an allegedly “visionary” and “forward-thinking” company – frankly remarkably backward in their thinking.

I don’t say this as an insult; I seemly mean that they have fallen into the trap common to many start-ups: they don’t actually understand their own success, and so they spend far, far too much time looking at the data – the peaks in user numbers and the like – and then try to extrapolate future trends which become the basis for their next set of strategies.

Or to put it another way, they try to reverse-engineer the future.

And it doesn’t work. Never has, never will. Why? Because the focus is too narrow and tends to ignore one important factor: the existing user base.

Take just one of the peaks Second Life has enjoyed over the years: the rise in increase in concurrency throughout 2008 that saw daily numbers topping the 80K user mark, with the Grid groaning under the strain.  When looking back at those figures (which have been at best flat after a long period of decline), one suspects that those at the top of LL started wishing along entirely the wrong lines, their thinking going something like this:

We need more users. If we have more users, then they’d invest in land and the land owners would be happy; they’d but more simulators from us and drive up our revenues. More people mean more consumers of content, which means growth in the economy, grater revenues, more success and….more users! So how do we get those users through the door? Obviously we need to simplify the sign-up so they get in-world quicker. If we’re getting them in-world quicker, we need to give them a simplified interface…

And thus is born the overhaul of the “First Hour Experience” under Mark Kingdon which, after it failed, became “Fast, Fun and Easy” under Philip Rosedale (with a similar lack of success), and will, if we’re very unlucky, become some other sound bite in the near future.

Yet, if you look at it, nothing LL identified as a “barrier” to growing the user base actually stopped people signing up throughout the 2007/08 “boom period” in the first place! Some may have found it annoying – sure. But it didn’t stop them.

The fact is, “Fast, Fun and Easy” is not a strategy – it is a strap line, nothing else.

It’s been said a thousand times before in a thousand different ways, but the key to Linden Lab’s success is its existing user base. Rather than looking back at the past peaks of concurrency or the number of Big Businesses that popped their heads into SL (however briefly), and looking at the means to attract and retain them once more, Linden Lab should really be focused on one thing, and one thing only: providing a better experience for its existing user base.

Now, to be fair, Linden Lab has done this to a degree: the platform is a lot more stable overall that it was just two years ago. Yes, we’re seeing hiccups along the way – the “resolved” teleport / sim freeze issue seems to have made something of a return – but on the whole, things are better. The RC server release cycle recently introduced has helped in this regard. We’re also seeing server loads reduced through the transferral of things like Profiles to a web-based system; Linden Lab are also embracing much-needed technology improvements such as Mesh (with caveats I’ll come to) and more standardised scripting languages. Its here that overhauling the Viewer is valid: if it enables users to take advantage of new tools and functions and enhance their experience – go for it! Just don’t dumb it down for the sake of dumbing it down in the *hope* of attracting mythical “new users”.

That said technology improvements are only a part of the equation. Second Life is a social platform (I’ll not say “social network” because of the Facebook connotations people seem to get uptight about) – and yet the social tools it provides for us to engage with one another are chronically weak – not just in-world, as anyone trying to manage their Group will tell you – but in trying to reach a wider audience. Again, while many are anti-Facebook (myself included), there are times when tools that connect Second Life to other social environments are useful.

This is where LL should take a more holistic view to things, rather than repeatedly trying to fit them into discrete boxes. The technical and the social need to be considered together. But, over the last few years they haven’t. Sure, LL has acknowledged the social aspects of SL, but when it comes down to it, they’ve been trying to meet these needs by actively pushing users away from SL and towards the likes of Facebook  – witness the Valentine’s Day Hunt last year and the equally insidious “advertising opportunity” for people to promote SL.

This approach – whether initiated by the Board or solely by Mark Kingdon  – was a mistake. What should have happened was that LL should have worked to provide such tools within the framework of Second Life and give the users with the choice of whether or not to use them.

User choice should always be about that: choice. But that doesn’t mean that LL shouldn’t seek to provide links to other social environments for those that wish to use them, so long as it is done in a manner that the user choice isn’t compromised or in such a way that it comes at the expense of our in-world experience, or is foisted on us as a fait accompli. Again, this is where the move to web-based Profiles has something of a “fail” mark against it: while there is nothing wrong with providing options to have our Profiles shared with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – it should be done in such a way that we have the choice as to whether or not the buttons to link to such external networks appear on our Profiles.

Other social aspects are being handled in-world: we’re shortly to get an improve Group Chat function. But again, it’s been tackled as a purely technical exercise, not part of a wider understanding of what we might want or need to make SL an effective social tool for us to more easily reach people in-world and, if we wish, elsewhere.

This lack of any holistic view or understanding of the complexities of Second Life can be illustrated further if we examine the forthcoming arrival of Mesh imports.  When talking about it last year, Jack Linden and Philip Rosedale came out with comments that still stun me whenever I read them. When asked about the potential impact on in-world content creation, Jack’s reply was that it would change “very little” in regards to in-world content creation because the number of content creators is “very small”. Philip Rosedale, in a separate interview, stated his belief that the majority of “new users” will (quote), “never rez a prim”.

Leaving aside Rosedale’s statement amply demonstrates LL’s overwhelming obsession with the “new user” demographic, both of these statements were, and are, alarming because they most clearly demonstrate the overall lack of understanding those at the top of Linden have when it comes to what makes Second Life vibrant and engaging.

To paraphrase a former US President or two, it’s about the content, stupid. The reason many people involved in Second Life in the first place was not because the sign up process was simple, or that the Viewer was easy to use or that the “first hour” experience was particularly gratifying. The reason they got involved in Second Life is because they could a) meet people and b) they can create. Whether they did so for commercial reasons or simply for the sheer pleasure of being able to doodle, play and have that warm inner glow of being able to say, “Wow! *I* did that!” is utterly irrelevant.

There was a time when those at Battery Street understood this; sadly, that understanding seems to have died a death. All that is left is that one narrow focus “new users”. One can almost hear the mantra at Battery Street: Mesh is good, as Mesh will bring in users… wash, rinse, repeat…

Well…yes, Mesh will bring in some new users. But it won’t, in and of itself, retain them or lead to sustained growth for the platform because, fundamentally, it doesn’t really significantly add to what people can do in-world.

Again, within a more holistic framework – providing the means by which we can more effectively use these shiny new things and tell our friends in-world and out world about them – LL would do so much to both improve the user (new or established) experience and empower / encourage users themselves to become LL’s best means of promoting Second Life, potentially up to the point of it going viral in a positive sense.

At the end of the day, Second Life has succeeded because of its users – and not in spite of us, as one sometimes feels is how some at Linden Lab seem to think.

It grew because  – for a time at least – the company was focused on ensuring that those who came could participate and have fun. Over the years, Linden Lab has – in the manner of many start-ups – drifted away from the nucleus of what made them a success in the first place. And that nucleus was never the Viewer or the signing-up process or the “first hour experience”. These were, are and remain, means to an end.

While it would be impossible to listen to each and every one of our views on things, this is no reason for LL to go entirely the other way and utterly ignore what we say, even when we are united and what we have to say makes sense.

Nor is it justification for the company to cut itself off from the platform. Being ready and willing to spend more time in-world – to travel, to see, to participate and engage with us – would go a long way to helping the company define a better, more rounded strategy for the future. It might even finally break their approach to “growing” Second Life that has, for the last three least in particular, repeatedly failed to achieve any significant success or growth.

Statistics – they are what you want them to be

I’ve held off commenting on the recently release of the 2010 Q4 economic statistics released earlier this week because, well, I didn’t want sarcasm to get the better of me.

Over the last 12-18 months, we’ve seen LL repeatedly not only move the goal posts when it comes to reporting economic stats – but damned-near change the entire playing field at the same time – as Hitomi Tipomi points out with a link to 2010’s Q2 economic stats. With the current figures, things have reached a point of near ridicule.

Concurrency was, for a very long time a key measure – now it is gone, leaving us only with “repeat log ins” which are promoted as being “good” as they are “up”.

But how, precisely, is “repeat log ins” a “good” economic measure? People log in and out all the time for a variety of reasons – up to and including crashes. Ergo, far from being a “good” measure, all “repeat log-ins” tends to indicate is that:

  • Second Life is not as stable as LL would like (and this is certainly supported by anecdotal evidence)
  • People actually have lives outside of SL which require them to log in and out several times a day.

In this respect, concurrency is a far better measure (although not perfect, as, like repeat log ins, it doesn’t differentiate between Main accounts and Alt – both are considered “unique” even if operated by the same user) in that it shows an overall trend in SL usage. But – concurrency has been more-or-less flat (around the 70K mark at peak hours, dropping to around 20-30K at the more “unsociable hours”), therefore it is now a “bad” measure, it would seem.

Similarly, while a rise in online sales volumes is something of a useful indicator, it is still very limited in its overall value. While I won’t be as uncharitable as some and say the only people it benefits is LL (as they get the commissions), I would agree that it is questionable as a statistic if it is not published alongside a measure of total volume/value of in-world sales.

Again, as has been noted in the comments following the figures, vast increases in web-based sales are actually potentially bad for the SL economy and the Grid as a whole. Let’s face it, LL is largely dependent upon tier for its revenue. Push the web side of things, and merchants are going to start moving away from their land holdings and focusing solely on web sales, with Linden Lab losing the tier revenue as more and more Mainland is abandoned and the demand for new private sims tumbles to the point where that market stagnates – or even shrinks as estate owners cut losses and divest themselves of sims.

Certainly it is worrying that, despite LL’s best attempts to fudge the figures, we’re seeing around 48-49% of Mainland effectively “empty” and non-revenue generating (the land is either abandoned (7-8%) or Linden-owned (40-41%).

In many respects, the figures published are reveal more for what they don’t include than anything else. LL have been busy tooling around with the stats for a while now, largely under the guise of “trying to get more meaningful information” out to us. I don’t doubt there is some truth in this, but things are now pared back to such a degree, it fuels suspicion that overall, SL is in worse shape than LL would like to admit.

And whether that is true or not is beside the point; it’s simply a very damaging perception that in turn fuels people’s reluctance to invest in the platform – and that is bad for SL. Period.

 

Storming the fire….

firestorm-logoJessica Lyon over at Phoenix has announced that a pre-Alpha version of the Phoenix Firestorm Viewer will be released on Monday 31st January. Over on the Phoenix website she states:

Speaking of Firestorm!As most of you already know, we have been very busy working on the Firestorm Viewer. Most of you seem to also know that we plan to put out a “Preview” build of firestorm at the end of this month.. and most of you seem to be very eager to try it out. A lot of work has gone into Firestorm already but is mostly interface improvements and changes. It is critical that you understand the Firestorm Preview is just that… a preview, it is not yet ready for full-time use. But this will give you an idea of what’s in store in the future. If you would like to try out the preview of Firestorm at the end of the month, please join our in world group named Phoenix-Firestorm Preview Group. The build will be announced in that group and you can find help there as well.

Do understand! The Firestorm Preview build should be considered Pre Alpha! Not beta, not Release Candidat.. it is pre alpha and as such it has a lot of bugs that still need to be worked out.

To aid those eager to get their hand on it, Jessica and the team – in a move Linden Lab really, really, really should have thought of for themselves prior to the issuance of Viewer 2.0 a year ago – have released a video introduction to the new Viewer.

The highlights are:

  • Phoenix has adopted a broad Viewer 2.x front end that is robustly “clean” in its overall look.
  • They have followed Kirstenlee Cinquetti’s lead and completely re-sized the Sidebar so that it no longer takes up the entire right-side of the screen, but fits into its own window
  • The Sidebar is now accessed from a set of tool bar buttons – again like Kirstenlee’s Viewer2 hybrid, but with the buttons actually embedded in the tool bar, rather than on a floating palette – and those buttons that are not required can be “turn off” (hidden)
  • In a further improvement, the behaviour of the Sidebar is more persistent: if a specific Sidebar tab (say, HOME, is undocked, moved and closed, Firestorm will remember the last used position and size of the tab, and will reopen it again at that size and position rather than pushing it back into the Sidebar once more (one assumes this behaviour is persistent between log-ins)
  • Within the Inventory tab on the Sidebar, there is an additional button to quickly and easily open a further Inventory window – no need to remember keyboard combinations
  • The chat bar / tool bar combination at the bottom of the screen is re-sizeable, thus allowing those who wish to have more room for their chat entry to have more room – again, especially useful when the more useless Sidebar buttons are hidden
  • Viewer 1.x camera control / movement control window functionality is retained – both can be open at the same time, although both use the Viewer 2.x layouts
  • Firestorm retains the Viewer 1.2x combined window for chat / IMs and your Contacts list (avoiding the need to use the “Nearby Friends” Sidebar tab) and which includes the local chat entry bar that has been conspicuous by its absence in Viewer 2.x
  • Further, there is a PREFERENCES option that removes the space-wasting Viewer 2.x “headings” from the chat and IM windows, leaving you with the more user-friendly Viewer 1.2x appearance – and in keeping with Viewers like Phoenix 1.5.2 and Imprudence 1.4 et al, the tabs for chat and IMs in the chat window can be stacked vertically
  • Viewer 2.x’s Navigation Bar / search bar is retained, and by default includes a LAND button (sorely missed from early iterations of Viewer 2) and:
    • Includes a SKY button for quick Windlight tweaks
    • Can be controlled from the LAND display at the very top of the Viewer window, allowing you to turn the Navigation, Search and Favourites elements off or on
    • The bars are all semi-transparent, further lessening their impact on the main display window
  • Other items that are familiar to current Phoenix / other Viewer 1.2x-based TPVs will be familiar with include:
    • RLVa support
    • Ability to disable the login, logout and Tp splash and “progress” screens
    • Double-click teleporting
    • Running multiple Viewers
    • An option to quickly and easily change the UI skin (including a skin that retains the Viewer 2-style little Sidebar tabs on the right of the screen for those who like (!) them. A nice touch with the Skin option is the automatic inclusion of Hitomi’s Starlight skins (although there may be issues using Starlight with the pre-release of Firestorm)

There are some things that are potentially missing from Firestorm at present – Jessica states it currently retains the Viewer 2.x behaviour of having media streaming ON by default, something people don’t like – but this will be altered in a future release. The LAND display at the top of the Viewer window, while allowing you to turn things like the Navigation Bar off / on, appears to lack the ability to open the ABOUT LAND window if the Navigation Bar is turned off.

Overall, I have to say this Viewer has me excited. It appears to combine the best of Viewer 2.x and Viewer 1.x to present a crisp, clean Viewer environment that is highly customisable. Certainly, I’m looking forward to trying it out from Monday.

For those who wish to try the pre-release, it is recommended that you join an in-world Group that has been set-up specifically for the Firestorm release – as Jessica states, the Phoenix support network is still itself ramping-up on the new Viewer and so may not be able to provide the necessary support.

Maturity ratings change in the Marketplace

It would be nice to get an E-mail on this, rather than having to trawl the forums in the off-chance of finding it – especially given the overall significance.

Please, LL, sort out your bloody communications with users! And why wasn’t this set to happen ahead of the merger?

Hi all,

As  many of you know, the teen grid was shut down on Friday. This week, we  will be rolling out some changes in Marketplace to ensure Residents  under 18 will not be exposed to adult content. Here is a quick summary  of what changes will be occurring.

Phase 1: 1/27 Release
On  Thursday, the Marketplace will move to the General, Moderate, and Adult  content levels already in use in the Viewer. Just prior to this release  (starting on Wednesday), we will be running a process that will add a  content level to existing items. Once the release has been completed,  you will be able to review the ratings set on your Marketplace listings  by viewing your inventory: there will be a new column “Maturity” showing  what level the item falls into. Search will now support viewing general  or moderate/adult content. Please view the updated listing guidelines (link points to the current guidelines) on Thursday for more details.

Note  that, in addition to automated process to migrate listings, it will  continue to be possible to flag listings. Please take some time after  the new guidelines are posted to review your listings and make sure they  comply. People will be able to start flagging listings based upon the  new guidelines on Thursday (though I do not expect that we will see much of this right away), so the sooner you can do this, the better!

Phase 2: by 2/28/2011
Before  the end of February, Marketplace will be updated to allow setting  maturity level preferences at a more granular level than is currently  supported, such as allowing Residents to view moderate content without  adult content included.

Why was this done in 2 steps? Timing, pure and simple. We  wanted to ensure we had the proper controls in place as soon as  possible for the teens entering the main grid. Phase 2 will provide  further refinement.

A quick update on Maturity is on the agenda for the Marketplace Office Hours on 1/26.

Regards,
Brooke [Linden]

ADDENDUM- 27 Jan

It appears someone at LL was listening, as an E-mail containing the above was circulated today…

Storm, meet teacup …?

People are getting a little bent out of shape around the idea of being “outed” on Facebook as a result of the “new” web-based Profiles.

Now, I’ll say up-front that I don’t like Facebook. I don’t like Zuckerberg’s attitude that amounts to people wanting a degree of privacy around their private lives are somehow “less trustworthy” than those who put the entire mundanity of their lives online (or more pointedly, on Facebook).

BUT.. that said, this whole thing is coming over as something of a storm in a teacup in many respects. The issue in question is that an SL user who has a Facebook account went to his SL web profile and clicked the Facebook LIKE button and – quelle surprise – it linked his SL web Profile to his Facebook account. Ummm… well, what else did he expect?

Whether or not he was signed-in to Facebook at the time is irrelevant – and it is certainly not a reason to go screaming about the “wrongness” of the Profiles. Let’s face it – these buttons crop up everywhere; they are there for Facebook users to record things and places they like. Cookies are used so that information can be collected, recorded and displayed without the need for people to constantly log in and out of Facebook in order to do so.

As such, the user got precisely what he indicated he wanted: his SL Profile linked to his Facebook account and RL identity. No one outed him but himself. As Darren Caldwell points out in the thread:

This is because You clicked “like” on your own Profile. 

Only You can link your SL profile to your FB profile.  Other people clicking “Like” on your profile will not link the two.

And even then – he really didn’t “out” himself at all.

All he actually did was create a link between his avatar’s Profile and his real life identity on Facebook. Unless both contain information that specifically links one to the other, anyone else looking at his Facebook page will simply see that he happens to “Like” someone called “Perrie Juran” who is a Second Life user.

To claim that LL, in including these buttons, are putting people’s privacy and anonymity at risk smacks a little of histrionics. Certainly, it’s not a reason for people to decry the new Profile system.

That said, I would have preferred it if the Facebook and Twitter buttons were something that we could opt-in to and display on our Profiles, rather than being presented as a fait accompli. This latter point is apparently now being addressed according to comment from Fredrik Linden in a comment on JIRA WEB3494 – although I have yet to see any sign of an ability to remove the two buttons in question on my Profile. In the same JIRA, Yoz Linden has indicated the 1st Life tab is not longer displayed on the web Profiles – which is a good move – and hinted that it may not be back out of respect for people’s privacy.

A lot of finger-pointing is going on here, but at the end of the day, this is something of a two-way street. While Linden Lab may be acting somewhat precipitously in providing these buttons, equally those opting to use, say both SL and Facebook – as with the user generating the above thread – really should take responsibility for their own actions, both in using the tools and, frankly, in what they put in their Profile.