Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Gentrification of Second Life®

As most of us are these days, I too am much preoccupied with the recent developments regarding the new pricing of Openspaces. This is not something which directly affects me at the moment but I can see that it is seriously shaking up a world which I hate to see subjected to such tremors.

My contacts list: There are maybe 10, - 15 at the very most, that I can count on to be online more or less everyday - and every single one of them is someone engaged in creative activity of one kind or another. A good few are builders, some of whom are artists and others designers, while the rest is made up of writers and bloggers. So, what is so remarkable about that you might well ask. After all, I am myself a builder and birds of a feather do tend to flock together and hardly surprising that quite a few if not indeed all of my contacts in Second Life are engaged in creative activity. Right?

Wrong! My contacts list in Second Life® is enormous. I have hardly ever deleted anyone that I have befriended from my newbie days onwards. There are names in there that stem back to my days on Help Island, women I met in the changing rooms of NCI Plaza, people encountered in malls and at concerts, in the distant days when I had not even yet managed to purchase my first AO. I have kept them all. Avatars whose handlers came from every imaginable walk of life. None of them around anymore. Only the builder/writer folk seem to have stayed the course.

And now, every then and again, while logging in I get this little notice from Linden Labs calling out to the business world to use Second Life as a virtual platform for meetings, product simulation and so forth. Needless to say, I am talking totally out of my hat here: I have no data, no market analysis or stats to know whether any of my assumptions hold up in any way. But, I really wonder whether this strategy is paying off in a big enough way to get Second Life out of the red? Does it really work?

Can it really work even? It would seem to me that for Second Life to survive and to prosper Linden Labs would first need to deal with the colossal fall out rate, of which my friends list is but a humble example. Makes for a most unattractive sales pitch you know? Most of my "friends" are gone for ever. And as for the precious few others that do make the rare appearance: A person who logs in every 3 months or so to attend a virtual meeting doth not a true Resident make. Cultivating the involvement of a strata of society from which would emerge true hardcore Residents would seem to me the only way to salvage the situation here.

In other words bring in the artsy crowd...

And no, I am not talking about the "full-time-acknowledged-in-Real Life-professional-artist" here. I know a few of those, and they seem to me to be even worse than the business types. With them it is all about running in, rezzing a "project", shooting a quickie machinima or two, to be shown on an LCD display at some "important" Real Life art event or other, and then rushing back out again. And all of this faster than you can chat the word "biennial" at that!

I am not talking about going to art educational enterprises either. I happen to be smack in the middle of all of that particular malarkey and trust me - again, it would be a huge big waste of your time. For my idea to really work, the artistic individuals in question would need to be motivated enough to stick around, to become part of the social, which would mean the metanomic fabric of a virtual life. And those would be the ones that are doing so already - only elsewhere.

What I am talking about is Web 2.0 creative activity. Web communities that gather around portals such as Deviant Art. How many subscribers does Deviant Art have? Millions for sure, but exactly how many millions? And how many more of these communities are there the world over? Hundreds? Thousands? That, I think, is precisely where your potential client base resides oh ye good Lindens! And maybe you have already made outreach efforts and I am just babbling on about the obvious here? But then again maybe you haven't?

Now, this is of course a long-term strategy: Small budget Residents, as these persons will in all likelihood be, may or may not be in a position to buy land. Or those that do may only manage to be modest small parcel holders - initially. So, in terms of land purchase activity, obviously getting some wonder corporation to sign up and buy 20 islands straight off the bat has a glamorous ring to it that my little plan here could in no way match - initially. And what's more, you may even have to provide quite a few more sandbox islands - initially...

However, my guess would be that a good portion of this new blood would very quickly start designing stuff to be sold in-world. (Just take a look at the 3D modeling pages on Deviant Art and you will see evidence of what I am talking about right there). So, maybe not straight away but in due course they would seriously be bolstering up metaverse economy, which would necessitate the purchase of land for shops and entertainment venues where the purchased goodies could be flaunted; which would brighten up the real estate market, and so on and so forth... And who would be purchasing all of these nice new products, you want to know? Well, that is the beauty of the whole thing: They themselves would, of course. Isn't that precisely how all of these portals survive? Members sell things - prints, posters, skins, widgets, gadgets - which other members - who in their turn sell things also - buy! Teeeeee heeeeee...

And then secondly, artists also do this wonderful thing called the gentrification of decayed city spaces in Real Life. You turn loose a sizable group of artists in a totally run down inner city area: They fix up, they renovate and of course - indeed most importantly - they also bring style and coolness to the place. Next thing the realtors step in, the artists get ousted out - the neat little cafes and things stay (of course) and the fat wallet types move in. The earliest example I guess would be SoHo, NYC but there are literally thousands of examples of this the world over.

Thus, once bitten twice shy, all of these communities would be wise to demand some serious reassurance (preferably in writing) that land prices would be guaranteed and that policies would remain stable. In other words, that what happened to their counterparts in Real Life would not also end up happening to them in a virtual world.

So, Dear Lindens, this was my two cents worth of input to your, to me fairly obvious, conundrum. If you promise to not to throw us all out on our virtual ears once we have gentrified the place, please do take advantage of what our ilk has to offer! Anything we can do to help - really and truly...


Pandora Wrigglesworth said...

Having been involved in the founding of a very similar type of grassroots art movement before, I think that what you are describing fits the behavior of the long-term SL residents very accurately. That passion is certainly a strong driving force for an underdog community. But artists alone will never be enough because what is an artist without an audience. And an audience of artists is a poor audience and by "poor" I mean "not having any money". You've got to have lots of non-artists so that they can give the artists the money they need in exchange for the artists giving non-artists the art that they need.

Artists are only half of the equation. A very important half but it won't work without both halves.

Unknown said...

Dearest forgot, you have one friend who is neither a builder nor a writer. But instead, a comedian. BTW my current blog is about these new Metalands within the Metaverse. And again, thanks for a great Halloween you left your candy at my place.

Alpha Auer said...

Hi Lauren! The one who wrote this post is Bettina's co-blogger, Alpha. So do not worry, Bettina has certainly not forgotten about you...

@ pandora: I am afraid that I am going to have to disagree with you. That is the beauty of virtual economies: A few dollars buys art! And WHAT ART at that! I have an amazing sculpture of Glyph Graves's rezzed on Syncretia and I would be really ashamed to tell you what the equivalent in RL currency would be of what I paid for it in L$'s. And I should add that regardless of the fact that Glyph is a friend of mine I paid the full amount of the asking price. So, you can indeed be a creator as well as a collector of art.

But more important than art work in terms of metanomic activity to me is design output, which let's face it, costs what? Nickels and dimes?

And in any case, this really is how places like Deviant Art do survive: Creator = consumer = creator...

Alpha Auer said...

Dirk Lemon said...

An excellent post Bettina and what you say makes perfect sense.

I have heard SL described as a potential "petri dish of user generated content", and LL would be wise to pursue this course a bit more.

Yes in theory SL is a great place for company meetings, but in theory are the operative words here.

There is so much collaboration software around now, and SL is out of the comfort zones of so many people who work in business, I do wonder if it's a realistic scenario and if the learning curve isn't too high.

Having said that, if SL would attract more artists I could see it being of interest for businesses as a kind of marketplace where you can hire creative talent

Unknown said...

Excellent post, Alpha!

This is *exactly* the audience LL needs to cultivate to create a stable, successful community.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that they have no intention of doing so, and in fact want the exact opposite, for reasons I've detailed in a recent post.

Sometimes all the logic and common sense in the world is powerless...

Jo said...

Actually, speaking as one of those corporate types, Second Life is probably the best platform out there for running business stuff. We just finished a big conference on our Second Life shard. Given the shrinking travel budgets due to the financial flip flops this quarter it's quite certain it won't be the last virtual conference we do. There probably isn't another virtual world we could have done this in.

Linden Labs took the brave decision to create a world where all content is contributed by users. It's produced an interesting result, but is, in my opinion, directly responsible for the lack of retention you see. Most people want to consume content, not create content. And the content creators in Second Life, for the most part, are creating content that other content creators are interested in, not what content consumers are interested in. This blog is a perfect example of this. It lauds the esoteric boundary pushing fantastic creations of visionaries. The average person who passes through Second Life is not likely to find this as compelling as, say, "NFL Island".
The only way artists will up the retention in Second Life is if they start producing things that Joe the Avatar wants to consume.
If anyone is game for that talk to me about designing race track segments. :-)

Alpha Auer said...

Hey dirk, I am glad you agree with me that Second Life is intrinsically unsuited for the needs of the business world, through the sheer steepness of the learning curve, especially when put into competition with all else that is available out there and that serves the same ends.

However, what I was really trying to address up there is that with a fallout rate of something like 95% (I believe), SL would have to be an extremely tough product to market to anybody - businesses or otherwise. So, before all else the Lindens would need to see their way to rectifying that, I would say.

But I want to add something else here as well: Linden Labs is not running a non-profit venture. Just thinking about the cost of their overhead is making my head spin, to be honest... Does that justify the whole Opensims pricing policy change debacle? Of course not. They have pulled out the carpet from underneath people's feet big time. And surely, if there was over usage on some of those sims there would have been many different ways of rectifying that. So yes. Without a doubt what they did there is completely unjustifiable.

Again, these people need to be making a clear profit or the whole thing goes belly-up, folks. And with the fallout rate high as it is I am pretty sure that the whole system is up against the wall. And let's all face it, it is a brilliant system that they have set up - the few odd glitsches here and there notwithstanding. So, I feel that if we can help through brainstorming here we should.

My idea is bringing in creativity based web 2.0 communities. Other people will certainly have other and certainly better suggestions or solutions to offer. We are after all the Residents of SL - for better for worse, at least for the time being... Will they take any of our efforts into account? As Soph says, most probably not. Hey... So, what? Let's do it anyway!

Alpha Auer said...

@ Jo: Hardwarehacker Hoch designs gorgeous race tracks.
And THAT is precisely the type of design based creative output that I am talking about. Not "esoteric" art stuff but cars, clothes, race tracks, flowers... You name it!

Solo Mornington said...

I offer a simple question for consideration:

If there is not a community of builders, who is it that you'll hire to build the company virtual meeting place?

Will your employees appear as Ruth and meet on a big flat barren terrain? Will your virtual product demonstrations look like freebies because no one can build? Will someone have to keep notes on a notepad because there's no scripter to hire?

Even Rivers Run Red will have to hire out eventually. Building SL is specialized knowledge. If there's no community to tap which has this knowledge, then the business model fails.

I propose a build-in. Everyone meet at Morris sandbox and start building stuff. Make beautiful, intriguing things. Invite your Linden friends to come see. Ask them to imagine the Great Autoreturn in the Sky that would swallow up your inventory when you leave SL.

Pandora Wrigglesworth said...

Alpha, I certainly agree that artists can be an audience too an audience of nothing but artists would produce a completely stagnant economy.

There's only so much money in the collective pockets of the artists. If the only artists buy art from one another, that same amount of money just moves back and forth between the same people. There's no source for economic growth. In fact, the only overall change in the total money level inherent in that model is that, while the artists keep passing the same money back and forth between themselves, little by little the total amount dwindles off as it is used to pay server maintenance fees to Linden Labs. Eventually, the artists would run out of money to pass back and forth between each other and it would be over. Unless the artists are just going to pour all of their money into it themselves. In which case, it doesn't really matter if the people in SL are artists or not, just as long as they keep giving money to Linden Labs.

I suppose the success of this plan depends on the goal in mind.

If you see the only goal to be putting more money into Linden Labs' pockets and the artists should be happy for the sake of art without ever making a net profit, it does achieve that goal.

But I would prefer to see both Linden Labs AND the artists profit from their work. I love to produce art but I also love getting paid for my art as well. Money is the sincerest form of flattery.

In my opinion, the money needs to get to both Linden Labs AND the artists. It has to be new money all the time and that money has to come from somewhere. That's what non-artist audiences are for.

Everybody loves art. You don't have to be an artist to love art. We all need art in our daily lives just as much as we need food and shelter. The non-artist audience vastly outnumbers the artists and always will.

Jo said...

Solo said:
"If there is not a community of builders, who is it that you'll hire to build the company virtual meeting place?"
Building in Second Life isn't that specialized. And you make the assumption that no one in the corporate world can build "artistically". For the sixteen sims of our internal shard we mostly built it ourselves. (Some of the people involved have even graced this blog before.)
It was certainly very, very useful to be able to nip onto the grid and pick up stuff to round it out. And that's the primary reason that I say Second life is the premier virtual world platform for business. But there was no way we could stock the whole thing from the Grid. People in Second Life just don't build the sorts of things we needed.

I took photos of the 77 or so avatars at the opening session. Only one or two came close to being "Ruths". However it was difficult enough to find shops to send these people to. There is so much "alternative" stuff out there that we'd rather not expose people to that we're trying to impress with the business value of Second Life.

I'd love to show you around. But it is private and there is actually no way to do so. That was the point of the architecture. I think if you search on "AOT" on the world map you might find a birds eye view of them.
Pictures will probably surface eventually.

Unknown said...

Everyone is an artist in Second Life, merely by turning the program on. The designing of their avatars, selection of furniture, use of prefabs, scripting and blocking out of their second lives -- it's all art. That's what user-generated content *means*. of course, to your eye, much of it is tacky, middle-brow, suburban, mass, etc. and it annoys you, but then, too bad, it's still art.

The gentrification already took place. Wealthier people for whom $75 or $85 instead of $25 wasn't too big a jump and too few lattes already rented the open sims, which are a kind of petty bourgeois class of rentals agents, small stores, and arty types moving into the Soho after the real pioneers already left or died.

Real gentification would involve taking over a beat-up mainland sim and restoring it to beauty. That has sometimes been done on SL.

LL already sold to artists, at the beginning. They already went through a period when they gave grants to people putting on events that were supposed to be "art". Most of the time, they weren't, but the Lindens decided to end those subsidies of pre-2005. Free accounts was also their way of "subsidizing art". In fact there was an explosion of art galleries that opened when they let in so many free accounts so that especially people who had trouble getting and using credit cards could participate in SL.

But now they have to pay the bills. So you do, too.

Alpha Auer said...

@ Pandora: Far be it from me to have anything as ambitious as a goal... Just trying to somehow see a way to getting more people that sign up to actually stay in Second Life. Because this much I firmly do believe: A system that has a fall out rate of over 90% is not a terribly saleable product. Cannot be! I am not an economist or anything but common sense should really prevail here, no? And unless LL can continue to "sell" Second Life, we will all be out on our ears - artists or not.

Also I am talking more about "designers" than "artists" here, I guess. The design output is the one that interests me far more when viewed from this particular perspective. Not to mention that I am a designer myself and thus I am just simply very interested in the process in itself anyway.

@ Jo: I am thoroughly startled by the fact that you do not seem to have been able to find shops that sold non-"alternative stuff". I am going over the grid with a fine tooth comb here, because reviewing NPIRL design output - from cars to hair is a sort of niche that I am trying to cultivate for the purposes of this blog. And I have to say that the bulk of the merchandise that I find out there could easily have come from any middle of the road Real Life department store. Again from clothes to cars...

Aaaah well, I guess all I can say is "oh you guys!" No fun to go shopping together with are you?

But seriously, if you contact me in-world I will be delighted to pass on some landmarks that I may have kept... Or indeed help you find places. Because please trust a shopaholic woman: That is just about all that there is out there. The alternative stuff is but a drop in the bucket. It may stick out more simply because it is in fact "alternative", but in terms of quantity surely no match to all of the more conventional attire and gadgets to be found in SL.

Alpha Auer said...

Oh and also, and very very importantly: I have made it very clear from the onset that I do not have professional artists or designers in mind at all. I am talking about creativity based Web 2.0 communities, which for the overwhelming part are composed of artistic amateurs. These individuals are already engaged in virtual economic activity. Thus developing marketing strategies geared towards attracting them to SL would give Second Life a most beneficial booster shot, I feel.

I am most certainly not chasing any "esoteric" artistic content creation, of the kind that would benefit this blog, for instance. Indeed I am not even chasing quality! The bulk of the creative activity on portals such Deviant Art revolves around cute kittens, for goodness sakes! What I am after are NUMBERS! WARM BODIES!

The rest will follow from that. What we need first is new blood! So hello kitty!

Pandora Wrigglesworth said...

Can you give me some more detail on those numbers? You said that there is a 90% fall out rate, right? Are you saying that current active population of SL is now 10% of the active population at your previous measurement?

Anonymous said...

After reading your post I posted the below on my blog, but though to share it here since I have fewer readers ~L~

Two quotes worth tying together

Below highlights what I see as a clear change in customer focus by Linden Lab's new CEO.

From: Virtual Worlds News

A Quote from CEO Mark Kingdon:

"We’re currently focused on three primary groups – consumers, enterprises, and educators – and we’re dedicated to providing those groups with the specific tools and services that allow them to best make use of the virtual world," Kingdon reiterated. "The increase on Openspace pricing does not represent a shift in resources from supporting one group or use over another, but rather is just an adjustment of the cost for that type of land to match the way in which it is actually used."

My Read is: 3 groups? What happened to the content creators? They are not just consumers but creators. They obviously don't fit "the plan" anymore?

From: Silicon Alley Insider

"In the short term, this was probably a smart move by Linden. The company introduced "Openspaces" months ago as budget option with reduced performance, thinking most of its customers would still prefer the more robust experience of being on Second Life's mainland. Many more users went for the cheap low-performance virtual land than expected, so much so the company can't even sell its more expensive product anymore. (That would be the credit crunch. Or the end of a fad.) Second Life's avatars are already screaming and howling over the price spike, but even if a few customers are lost, the company will most likely score a net positive.

That being said, there's only so much blood that can be squeezed from a stone. For Linden Lab to survive, it can't keep raising usage fees, and it can't try to con business users into teleconferencing in Second Life when the product is so poorly suited to enterprise use. In the end, Linden needs to pull off an image overhaul and make Second Life once again a hip place to be, with a growing population and a steady influx of new land-owners (read: paying customers). If Linden can do that, it prospers. If it can't, it's doomed."

My read is: Without the "independent" content creators who are the major paying customers ie: the land owners in Second Life, the lifeblood of the economy, the experiance will not be hip, fun or creative at all and anyone left will be just corporate, students/teachers or consumers. AS PLANNED

Ergo: Second Life is DOOMED

Alpha Auer said...

@ pandora: A 90% fallout rate means that while something like 15.7 Million people created an account at Second Life, only 1.3 million people or so have logged in over the past 60 days. So, from this it would follow that out of 15.7 million 14.4 million are highly dissatisfied customers that have tried the product and then discarded it:

@ JeanRicard:
"For Linden Lab to survive, it can't keep raising usage fees, and it can't try to con business users into teleconferencing in Second Life when the product is so poorly suited to enterprise use. In the end, Linden needs to pull off an image overhaul and make Second Life ONCE AGAIN A HIP PLACE TO BE (!!!!!!!! :-)))), with a growing population and a steady influx of new land-owners (read: paying customers). If Linden can do that, it prospers. If it can't, it's doomed."

Precisely! Thank you for sharing this.

@ Jo: You said: "Building in Second Life isn't that specialized. And you make the assumption that no one in the corporate world can build "artistically"".

I have been considering whether I should respond to this or not, since responding will inevitably put me in a position of blasting a horn on behalf of all the builders whose output merits respect - and not only in Second Life, but throughout the history of mankind. So, I really have hesitated on this one but I am now going to dare and respond to this anyway:

Firstly, any type of "artistic" activity, if it is to be undertaken with any level of expertise, needs a formal education, which is a specialized area of higher education covering a gamut of subjects starting with a study of formal visual design principles ranging from Gestalt to color to contrast to the formal relationships of visual components and on and on and on... This has to be supplemented by an understanding of art history/design history, semiotics, and the principles of aesthetics - all of which will hopefully give the student the basic ability to translate abstractions of thought and language into visual form. And this is just the basic information which needs to be acquired before the rare individual, who emerges from within the crowd receiving such an education, can even proceed to develop his/her own visual language and narrative skills.

Now very important: This does not mean that an individual who has not undergone this formal training on an institutional level cannot produce art work of merit. Far from it! Indeed Second Life is teeming with extraordinarily gifted builders who come from vastly diverse walks of life and who create visual output of extraordinary sophistication. However, I seriously doubt that any of these individuals would take their skills for granted. Indeed I would imagine that they have gone the distance and given themselves this formal education which I described above. In other words they have in all likelihood "home schooled" themselves to become the extraordinary designers and artists that they are today! Quite needless to add that undoubtedly there are many individuals who are from the corporate world who have undertaken such a home schooling also and have become extraordinary builders in Second Life or indeed elswhere.

Secondly: Sorry, but building in Second Life is THAT specialized. It is a three dimensional building platform devoid of two of the most crucial components of three dimensional visuality: Shadows and atmospheric perspective. Thus, it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve a sense of spatial depth in Second Life. The lack of atmospheric perspective sees to it that all objects, regardless of how close or far they are from from our point of view are equally sharp and foregrounded - on top of which they do not cast any shadows. And compounding all of this is the fact that that there are no reflections or refractions! (And I do know enough about computer graphics to know that present day bandwidth and processor limitations would make any of this pretty much impossible in a real time rendered environment. So, I am not asking Linden Labs to hurry up start and start implementing these wonders or anything of the sort here ;-).

So, unless you really and truly put in the time and experiment and thus gain the specialized experience of being a builder in a three dimensional environment devoid of all the good things that a three dimensional environment inherently posesses, what you build ends up becoming cartoon-like and flat. And this lack of specialized skill, I would say, accounts for the bulk of Second Life building being of such very poor quality.

I have 30+ years experience as a designer, having been involved in and indeed even lead million dollar projects in advertising, covering sub-domains such as graphic design, 3D design and video. For the past 15 years I am also a full time university professor in design, with a special focus on hybrid educational strategies between computer science and art + design curricula. So, please believe me when I tell you that I do have a bit of an inkling as to how to muddle my way through quite a few of the visual problems that life throws at me. It took me almost a full year to start being able to build in Second Life at a level which is even remotely satisfactory to me. Indeed I am most certainly not there yet by any definition of the word satisfactory or even adequate...

Note: I honestly did not know how to put all of this in such a way that I did not come off as a totally obnoxious, preachy, sanctimonious pratt. But, I also feel that these are things that do need to be emphasized, particularly on a blog that takes the examination of quality content creation as one of its main operational premises.
;-) ;-) ;-)

Pandora Wrigglesworth said...

So the question becomes "Why do 90% of people who try Second Life not stick around?"

Of course, we have to assume that some percentage of those users are the single-day-old avatars that marketers and griefers create. Since those people tend to create a lot of them, it's going to skew the results but I would guess that there are still a lot of legitimate users who didn't like what they saw.

You have to keep in mind that Second Life is completely free to try. That brings a lot more potential users in but it also means that people are more likely to try it out on a very casual basis than if they had to pay for it. That means that they are also going to be much quicker to give up on it if they don't like it immediately since they will have lost nothing since it cost them nothing. So the free entry means more potential users but that they are also that much harder to please.

I think the biggest factors working against keeping people are the interface and the content.

The interface needs a lot of work. The initial learning curve for just learning how to get around is very steep and the inventory never ever gets easier to manage. From what I understand, LL has hired some interface design people to help so maybe it will improve soon.

The content is where we have some control. Once people are actually in Second Life, it's a vast, sprawling, disconnected metaverse serving a wide array of interests but how does a new user find something that will actually interest them?

The focus you seem to be suggesting is to take the a particular type of content that we already have and look for new users who want that content.

That's a good approach but I think that a more wide-reaching approach would be to try to that with ALL of the content in Second Life. Maybe what we really need are more Help Island mentors who can truly help newbies find exactly what they would enjoy. Something really tailored to their individual tastes instead of a quick list of hot spots that appeal to the lowest common denominator.