A little while ago, Nalates Urriah pulled together a set of statistics from diverse sources (all of which are duly credited) which help to paint a decent picture of where SL stands away from all the hype over falling region numbers, etc.
When taken together, the stats – which cover daily sign-ups, concurrency (daily / monthly), region numbers and even forum usage, all for periods of at least a year – present an interesting picture of Second Life which Nalates interprets in her own inimitable way. While they show that Second Life has in many respects been on a steady downward slide (particularly in terms of overall usage), the situation is far from unrecoverable. Indeed, some of the figures are, at least for a moment, trending upwards again – although without more detailed data and a wider breakdown, it is impossible to draw any conclusions as to what this might signify in the short-term and thus how it might be projected in the medium-, or long-term.
Certainly, Rod Humble did state at in his first (and last) SLCC address in August 2011 the rise of user sign-ups did coincide with an upswing in identifiable uniques (i.e. genuine new users, rather than alternate accounts), which he clearly defined as people signing-up, downloading the viewer and logging in to SL.
The user concurrency chart is somewhat more meaningful, in that it charts concurrency for a more extended period from December 2009 through to the present day. As such, any trend shown is liable to be somewhat more reliable, although there are still problems in interpreting the data as a whole. For example, it does show a consistent downward trend in concurrency since the late “boom” period when SL was at the height of its own Hype Cycle “peak of over-inflated expectations”; but precisely what this means is still somewhat open to interpretation.
Less Doesn’t Automatically Mean Fewer
A decline in concurrency doesn’t automatically mean a substantial drop in overall user numbers (although it is hard to completely divorce the two). There have been a number of factors which have contributed to some aspects of the decline outside of falling user numbers. Linden Lab caused something of a decline when they clamped-down on the use of bots. More recently, factors such as changing demographics and changing user habits appear to have also contributed to falls in concurrency.
These latter points were indicated again indicated by Rod Humble in his SLCC 2011 address, when he drew attention to the fact that the overall demographic of SL users was shifting, age-wise, more toward people in the mid-to-late 20s, and that they were collectively logging-on to SL for shorter periods. He also indicated that LL had charted a noticeable increase in the way SL users were interacting without actually going in-world – through the mechanism of profile feeds, for example.
From my own experience, I’ve found my pattern of SL usage did alter somewhat through 2012. Whereas my in-world time was largely marked by extended periods log-in to SL, I’ve trended towards shorter, sharper periods in-world. I still log-in daily (as a rule), but a lot of these instances can be for periods of 45-60 minutes rather than an evening. I’m also logging-in at more diverse periods than I was previously. Part of this has been due to RL circumstances; part of it was – for a few months at least – due to my engaging with other SL users more through the medium of Twitter.
While more latterly, my habits have swung back more towards slightly longer periods in-world (and conversely, my time on Twitter has shrunk enormously), my habits are still somewhat changed, as I’m far more focused on “burst” activities – logging-in, visiting regions I’m lining-up to blog about or attending meetings and events, and then logging out. Nor am I alone in this. I’ve witnessed many friends change their log-in habits over the last 12-18 months, with some cutting back from spending time in-world daily, to logging-in 3 or 4 times a week (and for shorter periods).
If such habitual changes are widespread, they could be contributing to the drops in concurrency. Nevertheless, it could be a mistake to completely dismiss the decline as not being indicative that there is a small but steady outflow of users from SL which is not being matched by the influx of new users.
The Failing of Engagement
That people’s habits may be changing is perhaps also indicative of a wider malaise – that the platform is no longer able to captivate and hold people’s attention like it once did. This is in part to be expected among those who have been around the platform for a while. However, if it is also true of those relatively new to SL, then that is worrying when it comes to matters of long-term user retention.
And therein lies the rub. Just as there are many ways of interpreting the data we get to see relating to Second Life, so to are there many different symptoms affecting the platform which may appear to be limiting its ability to once again grow. What’s more, symptoms are often easier to deal with than underlying causes, and while they clearly need to be addressed, the risk is that they themselves become the be-all and end all of efforts.
That LL are dealing with many of the symptoms is clear. They are tackling lag and so on, and are trying to introduce more capabilities to make the platform more usable and more amenable to a wide variety of uses. They are committed to making it a lot more stable and a lot more visually appealing. In short, they are addressing the very issues many have banged on about as both spoiling their SL experience and limiting the platform’s appeal. Frankly, they deserve more recognition in doing this, and it does irk me that some commentators still persist in complaining about lag, stability and so on, while simultaneously being almost completely dismissive of the work LL are carrying out in these areas.
However, while this work is very welcome and should serve to offer users even more opportunities for the creative use of SL and to radically alter its in-world appearance, the fact is that technical updates and improved capabilities alone aren’t going to lead to an upsurge in take-up of the platform among new users arriving at SL’s doors, howsoever they arrive.
And this is where my concern lies. The bottom line is that the underlying cause of in SL’s slow decline isn’t actually lack of capabilities; it’s that a good proportion of those coming into the platform don’t appear to be engaging with the platform sufficiently well enough for them to stay (or as Rod Humble puts it, “stick”).
This isn’t actually a new problem; it has been the bane of Second Life for years now and a myriad of possible solutions have been tried over the past five years, none of which have succeeded. So much so that it now appears as if LL has withdrawn entirely from the issue, and simply left matters down to near-blind chance with the current process of having a user log-in and then teleport to a random destination based on a bland category (“music”, “games”, etc.) in the hope that someone at the receiving end of the teleport will be there to provide help.
What strikes me as odd in this is that Rod Humble actually squarely put his finger on the major issue of user engagement – putting users coming into SL directly in contact with the activities and people they find most appealing. Yet eight months on, nothing really has been visibly done to address this issue. There has been no engagement with those communities with SL who could – most likely would (particularly among the remaining mentor groups) – work with LL to enhance the new user throughput. There has been no effort to seriously sit down and look at how the current “log them in and teleport them elsewhere” process could be constructively re-worked to ensure that those coming into SL can better identify the opportunities which align with their interests and have a better chance of meeting people ready to engage with them and help them settle-in to their Second Life.
Perhaps there is yet some hidden plan to address these latter points; I simply don’t know. However, Nalates concludes her piece with the stated hope that in 2013, SL will see something of a reversal in current downward trends and once again enjoy some growth. My worry is that Linden Lab also shares the same hope, but actually has little idea on how to actually convert that hope into a meaningful drive to build SL’s user base once more.
Right now, SL is somewhat ill – that cannot be denied. But it does have some way to go before it enters the ICU, despite the fact some do tend to see it as already being on life support. However, the slippage cannot be ignored. As welcome as dealing with the various symptoms which have long afflicted the platform is (and I do stress that I applaud LL’s efforts in attempting to bring better stability, services and capabilities to SL), the fact remains that until practical steps are taken to try to address matters such as user retention, it is hard to see how the platform can be revived sufficiently for it to once again enjoy widespread appeal – or reverse the more widespread media perception that Second Life is “dead”.
Note: I’ve deliberately avoided mention of region numbers / tier in this piece; I’ve covered a good portion of this already, and don’t want to rake over the coals yet again. Suffice it to say that while tier is a longer-term concern, it isn’t something which can immediately be dealt with. Nor are tier cuts themselves, even if they could be supported, necessarily the “magic bullet” to cure SL’s ills.
- Second Life Statistics:L 2012 – Nalates Urriah
- Rod Humble on helping new users to “stick” – SLU
- Tier cuts: looking from the Lab’s perspective