“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Gwyneth Llewelyn.
You know how it is. You are in the middle of some activity — building something creative, enjoying a chat with friends, attending an event — and all of a sudden you get an IM from someone you haven’t seen in a long while. Probably someone who has a profile from 5 or 6 years ago. Someone with whom you enjoyed several weeks or months of in-world chats and common enjoyments (maybe even a virtual lover!). Then, after a while, they logged in less and less, and suddenly disappeared without a trace. After years they come back, see that you’re still on their friends list, and decide to drop you a message. In some cases, they go away again — for months or years at a stretch — and come back much, much later. On other cases, they promise to become “more active again” but, after a few days, you never hear of them again.
While you pick up the conversation interrupted for (possibly) years, the comments are usually of the kind: “oh, it still looks pretty much the same, but this viewer is so awkward” or “I see that Linden Lab hasn’t fixed the lag issue” or “what, we’ve still got the 100-avatar-limit?”. Sometimes you might get some feelings of surprise: “oh wow, meshed content looks so awesome!” And after a few days, you might get some final messages of the type “nobody I know except you seems to be around” or “all the places I’ve used to go to have disappeared”. In my case, I tend to point out that things like the Governor Mansion at Clementina, the Ivory Tower Library of Primitives or even the International Spaceflight Museum are still around, mostly because I don’t remember anything else (YadNi’s Junkyard is allegedly still around too).
On the other hand of the spectrum you have the 10,000 newbies that register themselves every day. Of the very few that actually log in, their in-world experience is usually measured in nanoseconds, or a few minutes at best. Only an exceptionally tiny amount of newly registered users actually remain for a few days. Even less than that stays for weeks or perhaps months. Like many other similar online things, getting bored after 2-3 years is common.
Or perhaps not. Considering that so few new users remain active for so long, one would expect that Second Life had long ago emptied. But this clearly isn’t the case. The population is declining, yes, but not so dramatically: it’s just that not all users who leave SL after years of being around are replaced by new residents with the same long-term stance.
Why is that so? What makes a “core group” of residents remain around, year after year, while the majority of new residents hardly complete the whole registration procedure? This, in fact, is Linden Lab’s most challenging question. And while they have been trying to answer it since at least the SL Viewer2.0 has been developed, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘right’ answer.
Hamlet Au recently spotted that LL’s CEO, Rod Humble, has been asking variants of this question on the ‘veteran’ forums SL Universe. Now some have criticised that this is the ‘wrong’ place to ask, since the issue is about newbies, not veterans — and veterans have quite different ways of looking at SL. Many (Hamlet included) think that ‘asking the FIC‘ will give LL a distorted view on what the majority of residents want, and that LL should simply listen to the majority instead of a strange ‘elite’ with their twisted views.
Well, I thought a bit about that. And then I saw many of the comments on Hamlet’s article, as well as some discussions popping up here and there. I cannot really make a summary of all that’s ‘wrong’ and the ideas that residents are constantly giving to LL, but I think that there is a very interesting pattern that is forming, which sort of reinforces my hypothesis — one that is little shared by others! — and, strangely enough, maybe Rod Humble is aiming for the same thing.
Five years ago, I tried to think a bit about why we are so special. I mean, it’s a good question to ask! If you look at any blog, e-zine, forum, and so forth, you will see a large number of outcries against Linden Lab, its policies, how they are constantly breaking things for their loyal customers, and how the technology never catches up with MMOGs and FPSs. This has gone on endlessly for years and years. Nevertheless, with some hiccups now and then, Second Life still thrives. There might be a small recent decline, but it’s not so huge and could be accounted for many reasons, most of which external to Second Life.
However, people are constantly bringing up the same reasons for SL’s lack of growth. Linden Lab even ‘believed’ some of them. Strangely enough, they don’t seem to correlate with the real reasons. Let’s look at some of them…
Front page photograph by Cat Boccaccio: “The Docks”, art installation by Scottius Polke, 2011.