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Second Life Community: We REALLY Fear Change

It was good enough for me in 2004, it's good enough for me now, dammit.

Wagner James Au, one of the most relentless boosters for Second Life (he used to work for the maintainers, wrote a book on the subject and runs a long-running blog/news site) tells the collected user base of Second Life to dear god, just get over it already.

Virtual worlds the size and scope of Second Life need millions in annual revenue to survive, but Second Life’s existing revenue model, while currently successful, is not sustainable into the medium or long term. There are simply not enough people in the real world willing to pay hundreds of dollars a month for virtual land, and those who do now will slowly but inevitably leave for many and various reasons, making Second Life a candidate for lingering death from a thousand cuts.

The reason for this is because Second Life users like Second Life just the way it is, thank you, and kindly stop putting your Facebook in our Farmvilles. In fact, recent mishaps by Linden Lab (Second Life’s owner/maintainer) which I documented here essentially have turned the Second Life community into a battered spouse. “Just *stop hitting us* already! Leave us alone and let us do our thing, OK?” It got to the point that a casual mention of Second Life users maybe possibly looking into this newfangled Facebook thingy on their community site caused a frothing mass of panic and tears.

There’s a few points of failure here.

  • Failure of community management. Community management is a key part of keeping the users you already have, if not happy, at least not rioting in the streets. Yet Linden has gone through several community managers and several reorganizations in the past year and there hasn’t been a lot of outreach, at all, to the opinion shapers. What little has been done has been to the comfortable commentariat – like, well, the linked-above W. James Au – and not to the more irascible, rougher – and sometimes more noteworthy – opinion shapers. Why is there no one from Linden Lab posting on SLUniverse? Why is there no one from Linden Lab talking to Prokofy Neva? Part of community management, inherently, is talking to your community via outreach. And that doesn’t seem to be happening, and in its stead the community is shaping its own opinion outside of any input by Linden – and that isn’t particularly pleasant for Linden’s future growth.
  • Failure of implementation. The initiatives Linden’s done in the past year have not gone well, to put it kindly. The highest-profile – the much-hyped Viewer 2 revamp – has still only been adopted by a minority of users by most metrics. Things such as web-based clients have been announced with great fanfare, prototyped quietly, and then faded away without much notice. Other engineering improvements (such as the ability to import 3D meshes into the grid) have languished. It’s a fair question to ask what, particularly, is planned next, and it’s also a fair question for SL users to *fear* what is planned next, given recent history. Which leads into…
  • Failure of vision. Simply put, Second Life has been devolving from the mass media’s poster child for virtuality into a footnote. Linden doesn’t seem to have a plan for turning this around. To its great good fortune, its potential competitors have done even less well, but “hoping no one else looks in our direction” isn’t a particularly sound business strategy.

To turn this around, Linden needs a two-pronged strategy – one based at keeping their current (and at this point at least profitable) customer base happy, and one based at capturing the imagination of the media and users who have previously left/not been interested in Second Life.

The first is easy – well, that’s not particularly the right way to express it. Knowing what to do first is easy, actually iterating on it less so. What Second Life’s current users need more than anything else are small, easily added quality of life improvements. Nothing that changes how they use the service on a daily basis, but fixing what they already do. Community outreach is key to this – don’t assume you know what your users want. You don’t. Go ask. This is something that has served many MMOs well in customer retention; it’s not particularly undiscovered territory.

The second involves leveraging what Second Life already does well – the ability to be a platform for sometimes unhinged creativity – and moving that to a more accessible place. Be that Facebook, or the greater web, or whatever – but Viewer 3 (or maybe Viewer Reboot or whatever) needs to be *different*. Easier, more accessible, able to run on netbooks/iOS/whatever. And most importantly, not forced on the current user base, but concurrent to/alongside the now-hard-core-by-necessity user base. The beauty of client/server architecture, after all, is that you can have multiple clients. (which SL has already due to the open source nature of the Viewer publishing cycle).

But whatever is done, it needs to be communicated, and it needs to be communicated well, and that communication will be hard, and uncomfortable. Because, Linden, as even your best friends are telling you – you’re dying.