Quo Vadis, Secunda Vita?

Arrr, whar is our captain gone?In the same day, two bits news were widespread across the SLogosphere: Philip “Linden” Rosedale is going to start another company and Eshi Otawara, a long-time resident and superb content creator, decided to leave Second Life® forever. All this just before the Burning Life festival started.

We usually expect the captain to be the last one to jump ship when things are not going well. But in this case, is Philip really leaving? Are things really that bad?

How can we then explain the latest press release from Linden Lab (from late September), where it shows a lot of statistics demonstrating how big Second Life actually has become?

If there was a more confusing week than the past one, I don’t remember. On one side, Second Life is definitely growing — but it’s not a mainstream product yet. As 2009 slowly comes to an end, and we await some of the neat tricks that Linden Lab is planning to release — like meshes, or the new viewer with an easier-to-use interface — we continue to see 8-12,000 new users registering every day, and the user concurrency climbing slowly back after the “bot purge” which occurred when Linden Lab decided to make “traffic gaming” illegal. Monetary transactions are on the rise. As the new school year started, more and more universities open up their classes with Second Life somewhere in their curricula, slowly displacing other technologies in the area of virtual worlds, but also bringing virtual worlds to completely new areas where it had never been employed before.

But even inside the many communities in SL, things seem to fare well. It’s not just Burning Life — once one of the major events throughout the year (SLCC and the SL Anniversary were possibly two of the others), but these days, with so many events, often attracting dozens of thousands of residents without being mentioned on the media (SL or RL), they don’t seem to be the focus of activity any longer. People have so much more to do these days. Intriguing new models of business have slowly emerged, of which, for me, the most fascinating is the new cover charge system for live performances, where the money from tips gets split between the artist and the venue. But I’m sure plenty of other systems are being tested right now of which I’m not even aware.

So all seems actually going quite well in Second Life…

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that content theft is topping the list of concerns of residents, while explicit adult content is probably much lower in priority. This means that the non-SL media gets confused — instead of talking about sex, they now have to tackle copyright law, which is way harder to understand or explain to their audience. Almost everything else pales in comparison — this is indeed the #1 priority at the top of the residents’ minds, and the first reason being given for content creators to leave — like Eshi among them.

Sadly, it’s the only one that has no technical solution. But at least there are things that Linden Lab can do: limit the distribution of content, and start dealing with content theft more seriously than before.

And, of course, residents still demand the impossible from Linden Lab: getting a thousand avatars in the same region without lag. Server-side lag itself could be reduced if they moved to a platform that dynamically allocated computer resources to sims needing it (instead of wasting CPU power on empty sims), but this is not likely going to happen soon, probably not even in the next decade. It’s a complex problem because of the insanely huge amount of content in SL that could break. This is, in fact, Linden Lab’s most terrible nightmare: how to improve SL without breaking content? Of course there are a few things that will be released in the coming months that will bring some improvements, but don’t expect miracles. And, of course, there is no way you can prevent a thousand 7,500-polygon-avatars, plus thousands more from attachments, from lagging your SL client. The current generation of graphics cards is simply not powerful enough for that.

Granted, the first-hour-impression is still a problem. I would like to suggest that all Linden Lab employees actually spend half an hour per week on Help Island. They could use their own avatars or an alt disguised as Mentors. It’s going to be an eye-opening experience. The first thing they’ll immediately notice is that the majority of new residents don’t speak English. They might have their SL client translated into their own language, but there will be few around able to help them — even though the network of Mentors is quite fast at locating someone who actually talks a specific language. And, in the mean time, they can use the cute new feature from Snowglobe that automatically translates all public chat using Google Translator (or, if you don’t like Snowglobe, you can always pick one of the many Translation HUDs available out there).

But it’s not the same thing. The first question these days is not “how do I get money?” in Second Life, but very likely “where can I go to meet people?” Figuring out what new residents’ expectations are and delivering them to the right place — e.g. people that speak the same language, have the same tastes, and have created a community around it — will be the most crucial, beneficial change that Linden Lab can introduce to limit the huge rate of dropouts. Yes, of course a simpler viewer will help, too. And so will all sorts of agreements with SL communities to set up their sites to attract new users directly to their spots. But it’s important to understand that the only real way to attract a large amount of users is through Linden Lab’s own channels. There is no third-party SL-related website with as much traffic as Linden Lab’s own — they don’t come even close. This means that either LL helps residents to be correctly sent to the right places, or nobody else will (except marginally so).

10,000 people per day are a lot of people, just think about it: every 6 seconds, a new resident pops in. Of those, perhaps 100-300 remain. They’re often people that have a goal in mind: either they know their friends are already in SL, or they are logging in from their university/corporate campus, or they were lucky enough to get someone to explain to them how to search for groups or places (to the best of my knowledge, until you leave Help Island, you can’t even see the Map — a lot of new residents simply think that the Help Island is all there is to SL, and give up in disgust).

The rest simply give up. They lost the opportunity to get in touch with anyone. Second Life is an empty, barren place for them — not worth fighting against the interface and the lag to stay any longer.

Linden Lab should take a look at how all other social networking tools (and even some virtual worlds like Kaneva) actually work. The first thing they do is access the user’s contact list to send emails to all their friends — and, reversely, search among all the users on the system to see if any of their friends are already logged in. Then the next step is to figure out the new user’s tastes, and make sure that they can find any groups/pages/communities to join. And, lastly, make the personalisation of their “space” as easy as possible.

Now imagine what this would mean for Second Life. While they wait for the SL client to download in the background (which just takes a few minutes anyway), the registration page should give them the chance to pick their avatar. Not just 20 or so choices: personalise it. Pick one of several skins, one of many shapes, and an assortment of clothes, so that people can tinker with the choices before they log in. At the same time, figure out among all residents the ones that are on the new user’s contact list, and allow the new user to send them a message. This would be a “invite your friend” kind of message — something that tells your in-world friends your avatar name and your email address (so that they can confirm they know who you are!). With luck, some of them might even be in-world, and pick the new user up…

Then a simple database query would be run across the list of groups that your friends have joined, and, say, list the top 10 (public) ones. It’s highly likely that you share at least some of the same interests of your friends. At the same time, a second query would collect all Picks lists from your friends and create landmarks for each — with the new viewer, landmarks and bookmarks and SLURLs will pretty much be the same thing, and the result would be that at least you’d know where to go! And, of course, select a specific Help Island, one where people will be speaking your language — but not an isolated island in the middle of the ocean, which gives the totally wrong impression. The great thing about SL in 2004 was that you would walk out of orientation into a welcome area and into a sandbox where people would be doing creative things.

Of course we all know that “welcome areas”, infohubs, and sandboxes are crammed full with griefers and pesterers and residents soliciting all kinds of shady deals. But not all are like that! Several communities on the Community Gateway programme are providing safe places for new users; NCI has been doing so for over five years. Some infohubs are set up inside private land on the mainland, and are properly maintained by their owners, who take good care of the new residents (Ross is a good example that comes to mind).

It’s not as if LL doesn’t have the means for dealing with the first-hour experience; they just lack the knowledge on what will actually work or not. And that’s just because most of them don’t really have patience to stay on the many welcome areas and help islands to help new users. Or, if they do, they don’t have real executive power to push their feedback to the Director’s Board. It’s time that M Linden, after a year or so in SL, does a round of mentoring every week! I’m sure he’ll gain quite a lot of experience towards understanding why people leave SL.

And so, ultimately, we come to why Philip is “leaving” SL. I’m putting it between quotes, not because I’m in denial and refusing to believe that LL’s founder is going away. Philip was actually quite clear saying that he isn’t going away, just leaving his duties as part of the engineering team at LL, and spending his free time to start a new company, which he claims that would have been impossible without SL existing at all. The reaction, at least on LL’s blog, hasn’t been too bad. We all shed one tear or two — or copiously cried like Dusan Writer in the best article I’ve ever read on the SLogosphere. It’s a very moving article, and it addresses one fundamental point: in a virtual world where creativity is king, who is going to bring the vision now for the future? We have this feeling that M Linden is probably a much better CEO than Philip ever was, but Philip is the visionary — M just executes the plan. Now who will steer Linden Lab into the right direction? And remember that the right direction is not merely making Linden Lab profitable (which it is, and M will keep it that way). No, LL’s mission is to advance the capabilities of the many people that use it, and by doing so affects and transforms them in a positive way. These are bold words, but they represented the effort of a decade of work towards a certain goal, which is quite unusual to see from a company. This is effectively what Linden Lab might have lost as Philip steps down from his current role.

Although we might not really have “lost” Philip (whatever he’s doing; my own amusing poll on the sidebar of my blog is just really trying to guess wildly at what he might be doing; creating a new virtual world will very likely be impossible for a few years, due to non-disclosure agreements that I’m certain he’ll have to sign when resigning from the company), we might have lost Philip’s vision. This is, for me, the most worrying aspect of the announcement. We all know that Philip hasn’t done much for SL in the past few years, except for the Snowglobe project, which can only be described as a success so far, and something with a lot of promise, albeit it plods along at a slow pace. But we also know that Philip was talking to M every day; imbuing him with the same spirit that Philip brought to Linden Lab, while allowing M to take a perspective on things and manage LL more efficiently. We also know that Philip disagreed with many things (he doesn’t hide it, not even on his last article), although we might never know what he disagreed with.

We can only speculate what will happen next. I think that at this stage, Linden Lab needs a new visionary to step forward, and they have one person able to fill that role: Mitch Kapor. He’s an old-time visionary who carries a lot of weight. Between Mitch and Philip still sitting on the board, and with M at the helm, we might see a renewal of the efforts of Linden Lab to continue to steer the virtual world to shores unexplored and unchartered, and keep up the expectations of being a one-of-a-kind virtual world that still baffles the competition that has no idea what to do with the technology.