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.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Second Life

  1. You can only say the same things so many times before you start to suspect that it isn’t that you aren’t being heard, you are being actively ignored. The tales of lab staff regarding the ‘residents’ as counter culture freaks rings more than a little true, half the problem is that most of the staff at the lab don’t drink their own coffee outside of panels and focus groups (and those that do, get grief as there is little to indicate a line of distinction between their personal ventures and what the lab promotes).

    The board (King Philip included) are clueless, they have no idea what they have, only that it isn’t facebook or twitter or in the cloud something or other. If nothing else, “Fast Easy & Fun” smacks of someone at the top of the tree who hasn’t bothered to work out how stuff works and its just frustrated with the whole mess.

    SL is for the most part fast, easy and fun. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be bothering to log in everyday, we wouldn’t put up with the insufferable lag and poor client side performance hour after hour after time dilated particle infested 3 whole frames per second hour.

    Mesh is white elephant. No reason it shouldn’t be in, no reason it’s not been in from the start. Don’t just give us mesh upload, give us mesh editing, give us mesh creation.

    Empower the user to create and they will. No more. No less.

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    1. It is a little head-meet-wall at times. And the tales have more than a grain of truth to them: Mitch Kapor famously intimated at SL5B that the current user base are “pioneers” (aka socially inept individuals), and that while we’re the first to have embraced the platform, it was time for us to step aside and let the “pragmatists” take over (i.e. “big business”). So I think the attitude that the long-term users / residents are an annoyance rather than an asset stems from the top.

      Certainly, anyone present or watching Philip Rosedale’s SLCC10 keynote speech cannot have missed his look of outright annoyance (which appeared to border on contempt) when an educator stood up and asked him to reconsider the closure of TSL.

      You comments on “Fast, Fun, Easy” put my own point succinctly – only someone who hasn’t a clue would come up with that as a slogan – let alone the foundation of a strategy. I also agree that SL is “easy” – as you say, if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here; indeed, we wouldn’t have bothered after the “first hour”.

      Mesh is long overdue; at times I wonder if it is being looked at as the next “saving grace” for SL (as were “new users”, “big business” and the rest before it, and as the mythical hordes of teenagers waiting to join SL are currently). If it is, then it’s going to be another fail in that regard. You’re probably better placed than I to comment, but that said, I thought in fairness that while initial Mesh imports would not be editable, the plan was to introduce limited editing capabilities in-world down the road? If so, this may help popularise Mesh to a degree. Overall, though, you’re right: LL needs to start empowering their users to be able to do thing in-world.

      That was always a core attraction of SL; it’s a major reason – as I said above – why people stayed, and it is one of the strongest means of encouraging growth down the road.

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