Self-entertainment and the end of newbies

Sometimes, discussions after the Thinkers meetings prove to be even more interesting than the meeting itself (sorry, Extie! 🙂 ) — mostly because the group tends to become very small and we can throw around a few wild ideas to see if they stick 🙂

One of those is something that has bothered me for several years. You might remember that one of the major strategies for M Linden was how to deal with the first hour experience. From SL Viewer 2.X to Avatars United (and strangely getting rid of the Mentors because it was impossible for LL to support them…), or even planning Facebook integration, pretty much every approach was attempted to make sure that the 10,000 users that register every day don’t immediately leave. The ideas around the first hour experience have sometimes been wild, sometimes ingenious; some ideas seem to be solid and make good sense (and a few might even be implemented!); others, by contrast, seem to be utterly insane (and some of those might get implemented too!). Ideas about how that experience should actually be abound; there is really no limit to our imagination.

Nevertheless, after two years, none of the strategies implemented by Linden Lab has worked. New registrations are still at 10,000 per day and SL has crossed the mythical line of having 20 million registered avatars (and no, they’re not all alts and bots — they’re almost all real human beings, who just registered, logged in once, and gave up just a few minutes after being in-world). But they don’t stay. No matter what we do and say… they simply go away. Some last minutes, some hours, some days, a few sometimes are bold enough to stay for a whole year… but ultimately they go away.

Why?

Linden Lab critics simply point out that the ‘Lab is not good at figuring out what newbies need, and put on them all the blame. They criticise the difficulty of using SL’s viewer (specially the SL 2.X viewer, which is now the default). They say that the viewer is too “heavy” anyway, and these days people haven’t got powerful computers to run it, and expect applications to be light-weight, easily installed (preferably running from a Web page), and simple to understand. They claim that only hard-core gamers are able to have sufficient raw CPU & GPU power on their “tuned” desktops to be able to log in to SL, and they correctly point out that the SL resident population has long since been more mainstream and not really “power gamers”.

The truth, however, is that, strangely enough, you get non-gamers into SL all the time, and in spite of all their alleged difficulties, they remain in-world for a long time (measured in years, not hours or days), are very engaged in the community, and outlive most “casual” residents. Some are 80-year-old senior citizens, sometimes subject to several illnesses, with low computer literacy — and nevertheless they have been active for 2, 3, 4, 5 or more years, became fully integrated in their communities, and can use SL proficiently. I know of so many examples of 80-year-olds coming to SL 2-3 years ago and establishing themselves as musicians or performers, event hosters, or content creators that I’m really appalled at how little work I actually do in SL compared to them; only last week, someone I met in-world 4 years ago, and that I thought long lost (even in the physical sense!), has actually created a new avatar two years ago and has set up an art gallery besides opening a business selling skins and clothes to support the tier costs of the gallery. And has done so successfully for two years! He’ll be 78 in a few months.

While at the same time I have a very, very hard time convincing some of my former colleagues, allegedly with similar backgrounds to mine, all of them supposedly “power users”, to come to SL. They simply don’t “get” it. Why?

A short, informal query made to some of my friends reported the same thing: their success in bringing their own friends into SL is limited at best. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that most of you have around 100 friends and relatively close acquaintances, and have talked to all of them about SL. At most, 1-2 of them might have joined to SL and became regular, active residents. In many cases, the number is zero. Most have tried it out, been around for a while, but quickly lost interest. Now, we would assume that all those people share some of your interests (that’s why they’re your friends), have similar backgrounds, similar education, similar computer-savvyness, and, of course, would not hesitate to add you as a friend on Facebook and log in to that every day. Nevertheless, the experience of a virtual world like SL says little to them. They just register to please you, might exchange calling cards with your avatar, and then quickly lose interest. Why?

If you have had the experience of addressing audiences and talk about SL, you’ll see that the number of people in the audience that will actually register to SL is significant — let’s say 10-30% if you’re not a bad speaker. But none — or at most 1 or 2 — will befriend you, meaning that most did not, indeed, survive the first hour experience. On the other hand, they did come to your presentation — so one would expect they would be interested in SL. So why don’t they remain active residents?

Or you might have helped people out to log in to SL and go through the first steps. Either as a mentor (a formal or informal one), or doing it in RL (among friends, colleagues, students, etc.), you might have patiently gone through the whole process of registering an avatar, going through the first steps, teaching them how to move, how to tweak their avatars, and so forth. How many come later — say, after a few days — and thank you for all your work in getting them through their first-hour experience? My own estimate is that I have helped out perhaps 1000-5000 people (of course, some just to a very small degree) in the past 6 years. Only a handful faithfully remain as active friends on my list and exchange sporadic IMs with me — and in those few cases, it’s not because they dropped out of SL, but because they are so excited having fun with SL all the time that they quickly forget about me (and I forget them). All the rest never return. Although I’m always happy to see a very few who log in to SL every couple of years or so just to see what has changed. Their veredict? “Nothing much”, which is astonishing, when you consider how SL looked in 2004 and how it does today. How can they possibly fail to notice the huge differences?

So that made me think a bit. What have all those people who abandoned SL very early after registration in common? I have no access to LL’s statistics so I don’t know; perhaps it’s easier to ask the other question instead: what have we active residents all in common?


It’s also a tough question. There is a vast diversity of residents, all with completely different goals, needs, and interests. They are so diverse, in fact, that it seems impossible to find one thing in common. Even when looking at your friends list — and assuming that you keep it properly pruned (I don’t!) — how much do you have in common with all of them? In some extreme cases, they might belong all to the same community. But I’d be hard pressed to believe that everybody just adds friends from their own community. There will be a few who aren’t in any of your communities. You might just have found them by chance, under a completely different context, but still keep in touch regularly — even though apparently you don’t share anything in common with them.

Since there are so many variables to account for, the question seems to be impossible to answer, and I have for long wracked my brains to find it. Perhaps I was trying too hard. It would have to be something simple, and yet universal. It couldn’t be related to age, education, culture, background — because all of those active residents come from quite different ones. It couldn’t be related to jobs, hobbies, interests, causes, or anything like that — again, the spread seems to cover pretty much all possibilities. It doesn’t have to do with religion, or philosophy, ethics, politics, and so forth. In fact, even more so than in real life (where I have the oddest friends!), in SL I befriended people from all religions, philosophies, and political stances. And it even cannot be related to intelligence (both intellectual and emotional).

Some fun articles (like this one from Lum) tend to create stereotypes about SL’s residents, and assume that for some reason, all of us actually are some kind of strange weirdoes who have a special affinity with SL because it allows us some sort of escapism. Of course, most of those articles are really not written by active residents (but just casual visitors). Although I don’t know all RL lives of all my friends, it’s really, really hard to fit a “stereotype” that applies to all of them. Yes, some are overweight men pretending to be fashionistas — but others are really RL fashion designers having fun in SL. Some are really top models in RL, and some are retired beauties, finding SL fun to relive their days on the runway or on stage. For a time, there seemed to be an overabundance of 50-year-old moms who had nothing to do at home (as their kids went away) and just happened to have fun in SL; but this stereotype quickly crumbled to dust. We really get all sorts, from poor homeless who run their SL business from public Internet terminals on schools or libraries, to super-rich wealthy corporate CEOs who have fun singing jazz in SL. Some are indeed escapists, other merely immersionists, others are utterly shocked that people would wish to “escape” their real lives (nevertheless, they still have fun in SL!). Some still look upon virtual worlds as a way to shatter the limitations of the real one — and this happens in politics and arts! — others, by contrast, utterly reject that notion and want a SL that recreates RL as faithfully as possible. Some look upon SL as providing a replica of a friendly, familiar environment where they can discuss “important” issues, or use it to promote some RL causes, raise funds, etc — while others just see SL as the ultimate platform for role-playing. And finally, some people from all ages and countries just log in to have some fun on parties and events, while others just see SL as a money-making platform and their notion of “fun” is to make a living out of SL. So, the more we try to fit a “stereotype resident” that applies to all those cases, the harder it seems to be — if not impossible.

Strangely enough, it was Philip’s new motto for SL that gave me a clue (and if you paid attention to the previous paragraph, you’ll get a hint!): “Fast, Easy, Fun”. Well, SL is not fast (unless you have a supercomputer under your desk and unlimited bandwidth). It certainly is not easy, even for highly-trained computer professionals — it takes some time to learn. And it’s not just the user interface that you have to learn — it’s the whole immersive experience that requires some learning, and that takes way, way longer.

But… there is fun to be had in SL, there’s no question about it. Oh, Philip is right, there are things that should be more fun (and often, because they’re neither fast nor easy, the fun is missed). Nevertheless, SL is fun. That’s why I log in to it every day.

Suddenly I realised that I was not different from the other residents. Hey, it’s fun for them too! Prokofy Neva, Ann Otoole, or Morgaine Dinova might complain about SL and LL all the time (all with their quite different personal styles, of course — and disagreeing with each other), but they log in frequently. All have fun — in their own way. In my recent interview with Terran Magic (which I’m not sure if it’s published already 🙂 ), he told me one of the secrets of his success with Crystalwood (an advertising agency in and for SL): treat everybody (customers and employees) as a big family, and, most important, make sure that everybody has fun. Terran Magic might be running a business, but he’s having fun doing so. I’m sure that Anshe Chung has fun, too — and nobody could embody the spirit of doing-business-is-great-fun as Desmond Shang with Caledon in SL and Caledonia in Blue Mars. He might be a ruthless, very astute businessperson, but he positively oozes fun from all pores — and makes sure that every single one of his customers is having fun, too.

Now, “having fun” seems not to be such a huge requirement really. I mean, except for your work, and perhaps the house chores, one assumes that most of what you do on your leisure is to have fun. And this is universally true for all users of all virtual worlds or online communities; if they stop having fun, they leave. So why did Facebook grow to half a billion users while SL just has a million active ones?

Three years ago, I tackled this question from a different approach. I tried to list the reasons why the SL residents are such extraordinary people, and, as a consequence, since SL is a virtual world created by its users, why SL is so special. But I think that I came way closer to the mark with another insight, a few months earlier: people in SL that get bored leave quickly.

Let me quote myself (which is terribly bad form, but I’ll do it nevertheless!):

Sometimes the answer is misleading: “I’m here, I don’t see anybody, but I can talk to the others, is there anything to do in SL beyond chatting in Group IM Chat?” It takes a level of abtraction — or some luck with a friendly helper/veteran — to understand the whole concept of SL. It’s so unlike anything else — even for an experienced gamer! — that the options don’t make any sense. And, ultimately, this leads to frustration. Not being able to go where the fun is — not even figuring out what is fun, and where it is — is another major reason for people simply leaving. They get bored. They turn the TV back on, since it’s easy to zap across channels.[…]

Second Life is perhaps the most demanding mainstream entertainment platform ever devised. For creative artists and programmers, it’s definitely the best thing invented since sliced bread… but not for the “TV generation” which demands instant gratification at a push of a button. […]

I think I can now complete the thought. It’s not really just because SL is incredible complex (like Philip repeats now so often — yes, SL is very, very complex, both from a technological point of view, but also from its socio-economic analysis) and it’s hard to do all those things. It’s just hard to have fun.

Why?

Well, the surprising answer is that SL is really not to blame. We are.

It’s time to do a bit of time-travel — just a few decades back, before the era of Playstations & Wii, easy-to-access-and-rent DVDs, 500 TV channels, or even the whole Internet. In my country, my parents were the first generation to take TV for granted — almost everybody in the then-called middle classes owned a TV, and although there were just 2 TV channels, people lived with it as part of their daily routine. Even on the most remote places you’d find a TV set somewhere — sometimes just black-and-white, but it was there. I remember that the only exception, some 35 years ago, was a tiny apartment that my daddy used to rent for the summer vacations, and we had to bring our own semi-portable TV with us — a few years later the landlord did indeed install a TV set too, as that particular location became more tourist-friendly. But the point is, my parents were already used to TV (like their own parents were used to radio) as a form of cheap entertainment, easily available.

While I’m not so sure how advanced the research about the impact of TV on children was in the 1970s, at least I know that my parents thought it would be inadvisable to let my brother and I spend all the time in front of the TV. Granted, there was far fewer things to watch on TV those days, but nevertheless we had some rules. We never watched TV during dinner or lunch, for example, until our late teens (with very few exceptions). We had to do our homework first, or do our share of the house chores. There was a limit to how much time we were allowed to watch TV. And we were not too different from other families — most parents in those days had similar house rules. In fact, in my high school days, anyone boasting that they watched TV for “several hours a day, every day, because they had cool parents” would be seen as a weirdo — although, of course, someone without TV at home would be as weird as well! The notion that you would just see the adequate amount of TV was part of our education, at least in my community of friends, and we just took it for granted.

What did we do in our spare time when we were not watching TV? Well, we had all sorts of games and hobbies. Lego was perhaps the most inspiring way to spend our time, since we could build our own cities; my brother and I used to have a rather complex imaginary economy running on some of those cities! Since my parents were not exactly filthy rich, and toys were expensive in those days, we never had many (compared to the sheer amount of toys every kid gets today like the complete Fisher Price car range). I learned how to sew because I wanted to have new sets of clothes for my dolls and plushies — and no, I wasn’t any good at it, I’m not good at anything that requires talent. But I had great fun just doing that! (even if at the end the clothes would just rip apart at the seams after constant use) And I think that I became attracted to the novelty of computers because you could do so many things with them which didn’t require any talent whatsoever; the computer doesn’t force you to create aesthetically pleasing things — they can be ugly, the computer will not complain! — but at least I got some sense of fulfilment while learning to programme it. In my later teens, the ability to typewrite my own stories meant that even if I couldn’t afford a new book, I could at least write my own — to the utter despair of my poor parents, since mechanical typewriters are not exactly the most silent device on Earth. (In those days, portable laptops were still science fiction.) And I had to drag it to the holidays as well!

But at a younger age, the notion that we kids had to invent our own games was quite widespread. Most of the time spent with neighbours, friends, or family was spent inventing games. A bit like Calvinball, the rules would change all the time. While I was not particularly a “physical” kind of person, the games would involve mostly disassembling bits and pieces from different toys and put them together in ways their designers would have never approved. Blowing up Lego walls with electric trains running very fast was a favourite one, played at my neighbours’ place (they had more rail tracks and we could get it run longer to gather speed!). Boxes from toys, with a bit of cardboard glued on, bits and pieces from all sorts of different things, all were “assembled” together to make unexpected and utterly surreal things, all turned into great fun, but mostly because we were always coming up with new unexpected designs. “What if we could put the Snoopy plushie on a Lego catapult — how far could we throw it? Will it be able to derail the electric train?” That sort of thing would give us hours of fun 🙂 And pretty much everybody I was in close contact with used to think in a similar way. We really didn’t need many toys, we just needed to tweak the ones we get (often to the despair of our poor parents, as tweaking often meant breaking them). And in a sense we were not much different from the previous generation, who had even less toys, but perhaps more skill in tweaking the ones they had.

So for us the idea of spending a lot of time in front of the TV was a bit alien. Sure, it was “fun” too — but it was not the right kind of fun. Watching hours of TV would “distract” us from the real fun, which came from coming up with novel ideas on how to destroy our toys 🙂 Nevertheless, TV was always a great inspiration. Science fiction and fantasy series, detective stories, war movies — all those were inspirations for the next day, when we would attempt (and utterly fail!) to reproduce the designs and city layouts we saw on TV with our poor, limited toys. It’s no surprise, thus, that when I found out about pencil-and-paper role-playing games, where we could just imagine things in our minds, but didn’t actually need to recreate them physically, I became an addict quite quickly 🙂 And, again, so did most of my friends who had a similar background — even during college days.

But it was perhaps during my college days when I started to look around the group of colleagues and neatly split them in two types. One, which was our “losers’ gang”, discussed philosophy and literature, played role-playing games, and devised our own forms of entertainment; the rest watched TV, went out dancing in clubs, or roasted their skins at the beach. This second group was, by far, the largest. It doesn’t mean that we were that different; we did all those things, too, just to a lesser degree, and they weren’t high on our priorities. What the two groups had as a fundamental attitude was that my gang was never bored; while the rest seemed to complain about it all the time, and we couldn’t really understand why. They vaguely alluded to our own activities to spend time engaged in creative things (and just talking about Life, the Universe, and Everything was also counted as “creative talking”!) as being either futile, a waste of time, intellectual snobbery, or, well, just plain boring. In our minds, however, we had just replaced our toys from our youth with some more “serious” toys, more adequate for our age; but in a sense we were a bit ashamed for never having stopped to play and have fun playing.

There was — and still is! — a crucial difference. Our group had learned, from their tender age, the ability to self-entertain. We never required others to entertain us — we could always create our own entertainment. Also note that we weren’t really good at it. Few among us were actually talented (although a few were, and took up artistic careers later on). Most were not even really creative. Nevertheless, at the root of all that was the ability to self-entertain, and that is never a passive activity, but always an active one. We would just fall back to watching TV (or going to the movies) if there was no other option; it’s not as if we scorned TV, it was simply the last type of entertainment that was on the bottom of the list, because it simply wasn’t engaging. Still, if we watched it, we would at least talk while watching — something which requires some explaining: in my country, everything is subtitled, so you can actually turn the sound off and continue to chat with your friends while you watch TV. (I might one day look for some research done on the advantage of subtitles. When I was around 4 years old, one of the reasons for learning to read on my own was to be able to watch the cartoons on TV, because every single one of them was subtitled. And I had to learn to read very fast, because the subtitles are just on for seconds. Later, the ability to multitask and follow several conversations, while you are watching TV with your friends, was another necessary skill to develop. I wonder if anyone has seriously studied this!) “Watching TV” was not the ultimate passive form of entertainment but just really a conversation piece.

Time has passed. Over the years, TV has become more and more widespread, has more and more content, and instead of having to wait a whole week until you got the next episode of a series you liked (as we had to do in our early teens), you can basically get them all the time, at all hours. Or you can just buy (or rent) DVDs with all the episodes. Or watch it on the ‘net. And, of course, we also have computer games to entertain ourselves (even though they require some ability of self-entertainment and are not at the same level as TV).

This is really not a rant against TV 🙂 but just an admission of facts. They do indeed lower the expectations to make one believe that everybody in the universe is out there with the only purpose to entertain us. Just drop into any adult chatroom some day. What you’ll notice is that most people there are bored all the time, and they join the chatroom expecting to be entertained (and leave for the next chatroom when they don’t find enough entertainment). When I started joining chatrooms regularly, back in 1997, the first thing that got on my nerves was that I had to type all about myself, over and over again. These days we have profiles on pretty much every social networking website, but back then, I just wrote a short biography of myself, put it on some static webpage, and sent them a link. I was always surprised how people almost never read it. After all these years, this feeling has increased — with the difference that nowadays people tell me that they got bored reading my profile, and gave up. They wanted to be entertained, not bored. And I was supposed to provide that entertainment — reading things is not really what they wanted to do.

And indeed, the other thing that shocked me was to see how violently people react when they do not get entertainment out of a simple chat. They become aggressive and rude. It’s not that they expect to be entertained, they demand it. Ironically, if you drop into an average “generic” chatroom, the most curious thing you’ll notice is that the whole conversation is incredibly boring, as people tell each other how bored they are, and how they wish to have cybersex at least to spend their free time… the irony is that if they would engage in any kind of conversation (instead of constantly demanding cybersex and getting frustrated when they don’t get it!), they wouldn’t be bored. But they cannot even understand the concept. Every type of conversation is boring to them. I usually label this as “the bored generation”, people who completely lost the ability to entertain themselves, and, except for TV and the occasional party or night out at a club, their whole lives are successions of boredom, from work or school to home, punctuated with a few moments of passive entertainment which becomes less and less fulfilling. I think that people are much less addicted to TV than we think — they even get bored with TV — but these same people still spend 6-7 hours watching TV because they don’t know what else to do to have fun.

It’s also not surprising that there has been an emergence of more adrenaline-pumping activities. Adrenalin is great to fight boredom, and physical things are naturally great for getting adrenaline rushes. Some people I know hang out in gyms and similar popular “sweatshops”, not because they want to become more physically fit, but because they get bored too easily, although they convince themselves and their friends that it’s the idea of becoming fit that appeals to them. I’m sure that there is a mix of reasons, but “not getting bored” is one of them.

One thing that always amazes me is the notion of going out to clubs every night listening to eardrum-splitting music all the time and “hanging out with friends”. I’m not really talking about the way kids spend their time these days; my own generation did the same in their teens, and I still have some friends in the 40-50 age range who do it as often as they can (more often than they did in their teens, as a matter of fact — they have more money to spend as adults!). Strangely, it’s not about the music. For some it might be a hunt for a date, but most simply say that they go there because they want to stop thinking for a while and forget about their horrible lives. This is something that fills me with pity — the idea that you have to immerse yourself into some sort of extreme physical stimulation to forget about yourself. But, of course, that’s also the reason why people resort to legal and illegal drugs all the time, so I shouldn’t be surprised. A strong workout in the gym following a routine from
FitnessTrainer.com; extreme sports; or loud music at a club are just variants of the same theme: ways to stop the boredom of being on your own and having to think on how to get some sort of entertainment.

Now let’s get back to Second Life. When I first logged in, everything was new and shiny, and immediately appealing — I love to retell the story on how I spent 90 minutes just tweaking my avatar’s shape, before even taking a step into this brand new virtual space. And then spending 20 hours on my first day in SL. What did I do? Besides some exploring, what fascinated me most was watching people building amazing things on the sandboxes. For many, watching other people building might be incredibly boring. It is — but I wasn’t really passively watching: I was observing how fantastic this virtual world was, where one could create all those amazing things, and how all these talented, creative people were so engaged in doing their amazing work that they could spend hours and hours on it. Naturally enough, after a few days, and some struggles with the user interface, I did my own attempts (with zero success, but it was nevertheless fun all the way!) — and while doing so, I naturally engaged in conversation. I remember sitting on the ground with another newbie, and we both were figuring out what magic combination of keys would link two prims together (none of us had any previous experience of virtual worlds or of 3D modelling tools). Then we tried to understand how to get a chain of links set to physical so we could wear it as a necklace (it was impossible — it just became barely possible much later on, when Havok 4 was introduced — but we had no way to know that). All these were pretexts to engage in the virtual world with each other.

When it became apparent that I had no talent to build anything (or create clothes!), that didn’t mean that SL all of a sudden became boring. Not by far! Exploring it lead me to find new people, and those would point me to some communities, which in turn would build things together, arrange specific times to do some events, or just hang around at each other’s places and chat. The build-explore-communicate feedback loop worked all the time — even when communities split, some members would explore further, and find new people, and new things to do, and so forth. Also remember that in those days few people wrote about SL — we had New World Notes and the official forums, and little more. There was no in-world search (really!) — events were announced by LL every hour via a broadcast notice to all residents, and events were the meeting places where you exchanged ideas and met new people.

There was really no “need” of a specially-arranged “first hour experience”. You were just dropped on a welcome area, and got greeted by the veterans. There was just one welcome area anyway, and it would be staffed by a Linden Liaison and groups of Mentors — I never saw any griefing there, although not many weeks afterwards I was told it was not uncommon (Linden Liaisons worked in shifts and were not all the time at the welcome area). It was quite frequent to have “your personal Linden” — one of the Liaisons would greet you, and for the first days, it would be the person to ask questions about SL and get some help. Of course, it was only months after that first experience that I knew what a “Linden” was.

The whole point was that most people back then didn’t really need much “help” in the sense of aiding them with the immersive experience of SL. They figured it out on their own, and had fun doing it all the time. My own PowerBook Mac just got 3-6 FPS on a good day; 6 months afterwards, I found out about Preferences, and managed to tweak it to a whopping 9-12 FPS, which came to a shock to me! (Today, that very same PowerBook from 2003, which hasn’t died yet but has little use, can get 15-20 FPS out of Snowglobe — that’s how much SL has improved!) And understanding that you could actually turn the camera around also took me half a year. Nevertheless, in the mean time, before I figured all those things, I never stopped from having fun all the time!

On my 2007 article, I focused more on the ability to create our own world — as opposed to having it “imposed” by some corporate designers upon us — as one of the secrets of Second Life’s success. I now think we don’t need to go that far. Most of the million active users are not talented, not even particularly creative or otherwise gifted. However, they all share the ability of being very good at entertaining themselves, and of figuring out ways to get some entertainment, or create it on their own. I remember to read on the old official forums that people complained all the time how there were never enough events of type X or Y. I, among others, usually asked back: “Why don’t you host them yourself?” They couldn’t really understand that. They expected entertainment to be provided for them, as part of SL’s service — not to work on SL’s behalf. Needless to say, a few actually did exactly that, and they’re still around; the others, failing to get others to entertain them, have long since left SL.

Scarp Godenot, with whom I discussed this, suggested that there was another dimension to SL: community building. I’m not exactly persuaded that this is a separate dimension. My theory is that community builders have to be self-entertainers first; people who join communities just to derive some entertainment from them do not create communities, and for them, SL is not different than anything else. They join SL to get entertainment, and when they don’t find it, they leave — bored. They will not even create their own communities. In fact, they are the kind of people who will leave SL saying “there is nothing interesting in SL to see, and no interesting people around, so I left”. What they actually mean is that they were completely unable to get any passive entertainment out of SL, and since it’s far more easy to turn on the TV, they do exactly that, and attribute SL’s success from having just a gang of fanatical weirdoes without any social life and a desire of escapism.

Ironically, a lot of journalists think exactly that way, and that’s why so many people, with so many different backgrounds, simply don’t “get” SL. To “get” SL you need to be good at self-entertainment.

Community is also about communication, but it’s not only about communication. It’s quite interesting to see a lot of people with an amazing talent for communication, but being utterly unable to self-entertain themselves; these are, however, a minority. Usually, good communicators are also people who are adepts at deriving a lot of fun from merely chatting to others. But there are two kinds of chatting. In one case, the sole purpose of the chat is to convince the other to entertain you — this is, by far, the most widespread case, and, as said, the chatrooms worldwide are crammed full with uncountable millions who spend all their time looking for a date online (the only form of entertainment that comes to their mind). They come to SL too, although they usually don’t last long. The second group, far smaller, is able to chat about pretty much any subject, because the sole pleasure of the chat is just to figure out things to talk about. I have to admit that I have joined some quite adult webcam chatrooms where there are these people around who, instead of pestering the girls to undress, just idly chat about pretty much everything, from the weather in Australia, to the last home-cooked meal they had, or their favourite band, and so on, and switch themes and topics as “oldbies” in the chatroom are welcomed. The fun thing about one particular room I have in mind (which shall remain unnamed) is that some of the experience there is incredibly similar to SL, although it’s an adult room — their revenues come from a share of earnings from the camgirls. People are supposed to have cybersex there! And, indeed, every day, hordes of “newbies” come in to watch the camgirls, until they understand they’re not free to watch, and try to persuade the “oldbies” to undress. The “oldbies”, in turn, just laugh, and continue with their chat, which has absolutely nothing “adult” in mind — they have all sorts of topics to talk about, and continue their chatting, never minding the newbies looking for free cybersex. I have to admit that I love the idiosyncrasy of that! It’s like imagining a strip club in Amsterdam where a group of people would come every day to drink some coffee and discuss Spinoza or the latest football match, while the rest of the “customers” would rush in and out having wild sex with the girls, and be completely baffled about that crazy group who just sits there all day and talks. The point here is that the scenario, the surrounding, the environment is completely irrelevant. People with the ability to self-entertain can do it anywhere.

In SL this can be even more extreme. More unlikely than having furries chatting about Wittgenstein or the latest trends in post-modernist architecture in Slovenia in the middle of a BDSM club in Zindra, is what happens when SL utterly fails. Some of the more bizarre conversations I had were during very fun grid failures — like the gravity reversal bug, where suddenly, for no reason at all, Havok got insane on a sim and everything would slowly rise into the sky instead of falling to the ground. These very exceptional circumstances would immediately attract crowds of people, all teleporting their friends into the sim, and there would be some huge conversations going on, while we’d watch our avatars slowly floating away into the sky, as well as any vehicles or physical prims. Similar things happened when everybody would suddenly be Ruthed (or cloudified). And I believe I spent more time chatting on sim borders outside the old Town Hall meetings, which were always overcrowded and nobody could walk in, but we patiently waited suspended in the air on the sim border, banging our heads onto the thin (virtual) air, and chat about all that we would be going to miss.

All those surreal examples show that self-entertainers don’t even need the virtual world to be working at all 🙂 Everything — even a broken grid — is a pretext to get some fun together. Self-entertainers would laugh at each others’ avatars when we had those crazy “rubberbanding” bugs, or the famous bug where your avatar would be split in half and your head appear under your torso. The whole grid might be coming apart but we would still have fun. Extreme lag and time dilation of 0.02 prevented us to visit a popular sim, but we would still talk about it — even if we would, very likely, be complaining about the lag all the time.

There is, indeed, a series of “levels” of engagement with SL, but at the lowest level is the ability of self-entertainment. Next I would agree with Scarp and say it’s the community-building aspect, but not everyone who has the ability to entertain themselves is a social butterfly. Most are, but some very few are lone content creators, who are either shy or not interested in socialisation. Nevertheless, they log in to SL for hours and hours, because they have fun building. And here comes the next level: creativity. There is an inherent degree of creativity in self-entertainers, in the sense that at the lowest level, you need at least some imagination to figure out fun things to do on your own. But being imaginative is not necessarily the same is being creative (although, reversely, anyone with creative abilities most certainly has to have a vivid imagination!)

And at the uppermost level is, of course, talent. The vast majority of creative people are not talented at all, they just think they are 🙂

Now, Second Life, when it was under the control of a younger and more naive Linden Lab, was somehow just addressing this very small and special niche group: the talented, creative, imaginative, community-building self-entertainers. Linden Lab thought that they could create a business model where these people would pay to connect to a virtual world that addressed their needs. This almost lead them to bankrupcy in 2003; fortunately for us, Philip was able to gather some funding to bring SL to the next stage. Which came in 2004 — by a stroke of luck, some developer at LL created a way for SL to connect to the “outside world” via XML-RPC, and this lead to the creation of the first L$/US$ exchange and to the webshop known as SL Exchange. Both contributed dramatically to add a new dimension to SL: talented, creative people are artists, and there is nothing that an artist likes more than getting paid for their work (yes, I know, some work for the greater glory, and not only for money; they’re, however, an exception 🙂 … and at least they expect someone else to pay for their bills).

The virtual economy gave SL obviously a big push, and created huge, complex layers inside SL’s society. Ironically, SL’s growth happened when SL made Basic accounts free, which lead to SL’s exponential growth. But most didn’t stay. The biggest advantage is that we got a whole lot of potential active users: people who had this self-entertainment ability, but who avoided SL because you had to pay to be in it.

There is one mistake done by LL at this point in 2006/7 — usually known as the Golden Age of Second Life, because the exponential growth benefited everybody (even though the pains of growth were very hard to bear!). It’s not an obvious mistake, and we’ll have to read about a similar situation on a different company to recognise what can go wrong.

During the “gold rush days”, content creators and land owners — and then LL itself — all of a sudden exploited this market as never before. The advantage of exponential growth was an infinite supply of newbies. And all of them had a few L$ to spend (L$1000 in the early days, later just L$500, but all of them got L$50 weekly if they logged in during that week). That meant you could push anything to them — the same dress could be sold over and over again, months after months after months, as newbies came in, bought it, and then left, never to return. In those days, “herding newbies” by driving them and their easy L$ to one’s shop/venue was a major drive for the economy. Becoming an established business overnight was easy. Just imagine: since those days, we have been having 10,000 user registrations every day, but back then, they would come in with L$1000 or so to spend. That meant ten million L$ that would be spent, every day, split among all content creators — there weren’t so many back then, but still, there was plenty for all. They couldn’t produce enough content to please all those masses of newbies — the demand was huge, way way higher than the capacity of production.

Nobody was really worried that none of those newbies actually remained in SL. That was not a problem. They just came in, spent their L$, and never returned. Content creators became richer and richer and bought more and more land. The economy was growing at an incredible pace, and the beauty of it was that you didn’t even have to be a talented creator. Since during those days gambling and banking was still allowed, you can imagine the economical paradise that SL was…

Well, the irony is that we could get all that back. LL would just have to give the newbies L$1000 when they start 🙂 We still get over 300,000 new registrations every month — almost none of which remain at the end of the month — and that would mean that content creators would get richer every month by over a million dollars just by selling to newbies. But of course it would also mean inflation… or wouldn’t it?

Instead, of course, content creators have to aggressively compete for the few active residents who are still willing to buy content from them. By doing so, they have increased the quality of their products to levels never seen before, defying all limits of SL’s technology, and lowering their prices to as little as possible. Content was never so cheap and so good in SL as nowadays. And since the market continues to be fiercely aggressive, over time, more and more lower-end SL businesses close, and the competition level is raised another notch as the remaining content creators try to establish their hold over the customers of a former business. It’s tough and it’s hard, but, as Philip said on the SLCC keynote speech, a lot of the top content creators are really making money out of it.

What seems to be completely out of the picture are the newbies.

Once they were the focus of interest. Pleasing newbies was actually important, because they had free L$ to spend. During those crazy years of explosive growth, newbies were pampered and treated like Gods. It would make sense, since the ability to please them would mean their money would be spent on you and not on your competitors. Even though the vast majority wouldn’t remain in SL after a few weeks, it would be irrelevant — their money would already have changed hands.

Newbies without money are not so interesting. There are a lot of altruistic organisations like NCI who patiently teach newbies everything they can, but it’s really pointless: in my theory, we have reached the upper level of all possible people in the world with self-entertainment abilities and that have the possibility of connecting to Second Life. LL could offer Hermès handbags or Patek Philippe wristwatches for newbies to remain in SL for a year, and it wouldn’t make any difference.

All newbies that have self-entertainment abilities are already in Second Life. In a way, this is both a blessing and a curse. One one hand, it means that LL has already got all possible residents that will remain active. On the other hand, it also means that SL won’t grow much more — of course, there is always the odd person with self-entertainment abilities who has never heard about SL, or heard about it but never bought a sufficiently powerful computer to run it, but suddenly got one and gives it a try. These are the ones that join SL and make it grow very slightly, barely compensating for attrition. And there is not really that much attrition. The residents who were gone — and we all have lots and lots of missing SL friends from our lists — were the ones that really had no self-entertaining abilities, or just very low ones. They might have survived one year, some perhaps even two years (perhaps because they found a partner who entertained them for a while) — but then eventually got bored and left.

Of course, some self-entertainers also left SL, for other places where their innate abilities are better employed; I would like to be optimistic and believe that’s actually the major reason why some people remain in SL for 3 or 4 years and “suddenly” leave. I don’t think they’re back to watching TV — instead, they found other, more appealing things to do. Most were disappointed with something related to SL: loss of a partner or catastrophic failure of their SL business are the most common reasons, being angry at LL for some reason and being unforgiving is another one. Luckily for LL, these are not that frequent — we’re talking about thousands and thousands, but not hundreds of thousands — and are compensated by the odd newbie who all of a sudden discovers SL and finds out that this is the best (if not the only one!) outlet for their self-entertainment abilities.

So what can Linden Lab do about it? Give up? Well, they should take the valuable advice from Will Harvey, former founder of There.com and founder of IMVU. Let me quote the relevant section from that interview:

I had believed when starting a virtual world company that people would want to invest in having a virtual life. I thought that was true, but it was just an assumption. It turned out to be false. Only a very small number of people actually wanted to invest in a complete virtual life. Most of the people who had that predisposition were already playing massive multi-player video games which were more entertaining than virtual worlds. The market was smaller than I thought, and in that smaller market the competition was better in the entertainment factor.

By the time I realized this, it was too late. We had spent $40 million, had 200 employees, and had written six million lines of code. We were committed to a specific direction. We had lost the ability to make course corrections. That was my fault and the biggest mistake I made. I committed the company to a direction at the cost of agility. That was ultimately the demise of that company.

And he continues:

I view Second Life in the same category as There.com, and I don’t think their successes are all that different. While it is true that Second Life is in business, that does not mean it is profitable. The fundamental problems of the category apply equally to Second Life.

There.com was slightly different than SL in the sense that user-generated content was harder to create (it required special approval by the company), but I think that Will Harvey hits the nail on that interview. The point here is that There.com managed to get around 160,000 self-entertainers, but not more — by the time they reached that number, Second Life had already cornered the market, and it would be insanely expensive to turn There.com into a SL clone to try to pul people back.

What Will Harvey expected was to reach the 160 million MMORPG players. But those are part of a segment of market where people are not really self-entertainers. They’re part of the group that requires massive amounts of entertainment not to get bored.

Now I know that most people — including a lot of academic researchers — view games as a form of self-entertainment, one that is interactive and collaborative, unlike, say, TV. I don’t fully agree. It’s an intermediate step — it’s not as passive as TV, of course, but it doesn’t allow you to create your own rules. You can just follow the rules that other people set up for you. This is better than watching TV, but it still has a degree of built-in passivity: without rules and someone telling them what to do in an environment, a gamer feels hopelessly lost.

Sure, games share a lot of characteristics of virtual worlds — starting with the immersive 3D environment. MMORPGs allow community building and a virtual economy, like Castronova so well researched. They require interaction with an environment, solving puzzles, learning techniques, acquiring skills (both virtual and real) and so forth. They require talent and creativity to some degree, and the most complex MMORPGs allow some degree of user-generated content. But ultimately the point is that someone needs to tell them what to do. The company’s game designers set the rules, the goals, the purpose, the objective. Within that framework, a gamer might have almost unlimited choices, and several degrees of freedom, but they can’t “think out of the box”, because that simply isn’t part of the game.

Nevertheless, it’s a huge, huge market.

There.com — and to a point, Second Life — were created with a belief that those 160 million MMORPG players would be the prime candidates to move over to social virtual worlds, where you can create pretty much what you like (even your own MMORPG!). This, as Will Harvey pointed out, is a fallacy. MMORPG hard-core gamers want MMORPGs to be created by professional designers and programmers who set clearly defined goals and can compete and collaborate with other players to reach those goals. That is the 160-million-user market. The market for self-entertainers hardly comes from them: Second Life has little to offer since it has no goals, no rules, and all content has to be created from scratch by the users themselves. For a hard-core gamer, SL has little appeal — it would be “boring” to create all that just to play a few games with your friends. It’s so much more easy and convenient to join World of Warcraft instead.

(Of course, if you’re reading this, and have WoW open on the other window, but regularly log in to SL as well, it just means you’re an exception. Self-entertainers also enjoy games, of course, or even TV. They just have the extra ability to go beyond a set of rules imposed by others, and define their own. That doesn’t mean that, for a change, they don’t enjoy a game or two. Of course they do!)

So in my mind there is little point to place the focus on newbies. Newbies — specially undifferentiated newbies — will, at best, come from the MMORPG audience. Probably they’ll be Facebookers. At worst, they’ll be TV potato couches. None of them will remain in SL more than a few minutes, or, with luck, a few hours. And nothing that will improve the first-hour experience will change that!

The only valid argument for focusing on newbies is believing that the number of self-entertainers in the whole world are not just a million people. And perhaps they’re not. For instance, lowering the hardware and bandwidth requirements might open up SL to a number of new users who simply couldn’t log in to SL with the current viewers, and now are suddenly able to do so. Internationalisation efforts might bring some users who don’t speak English and never thought of joining SL. Marketing and promotion, on specialised media that caters to self-entertainers, might put the SL logo in front of someone who managed to be asleep the past decade and never heard of SL before. Improving all the infrastructure not only makes current residents happy, but it will also make new users more eager to join a “fast, easy, fun” self-entertainment platform. So, yes, I think that all those improvements will make the retaining rate a bit higher.

But I personally have no illusion that this will not mean another exponential growth curve. I can imagine that Philip might be able to persuade far more people to register to Second Life, but not to remain in it — or, well, put into other words, Second Life might grow linearly at a slightly increased pace, if more self-entertainers are made aware of SL (and actually find out that their computer can run the viewer), but that’s all.

On the other hand, all the nifty ideas that Philip has been telling us, related to the “Fast, Easy, Fun” motto, are actually good at keeping existing residents. For instance, Philip told us that LL would be thinking about a way to make shopping more fun: instead of getting a box with content which you’ll need to open, it would be delivered in a way that you could test it out first and then buy — and it would be immediately placed on your Inventory, possibly in a more organised way. Now, a self-entertainer would not have that as a requirement to stay in SL. They will figure out things, no matter how clunky or difficult they are. Understanding how things work is part of the fun. No, this measure — which will be quite welcome when implemented! — will mostly work to keep self-entertainers happy. Comparisons are unavoidable, and if a long-term resident continues to be frustrated at the way shopping works in SL, they might leave, never to return, and join another social virtual world instead. This kind of measure will prevent that from happening.

The same applies to reducing lag, improving and fixing SL Viewer 2, making the whole SL experience better. Existing active residents will be happier and continue to remain in SL instead of leaving. Even if their business fails — or their partner leaves (or cheats on them!) — they might stay around just because SL is so fun, so engaging; every pretext towards contributing for existing residents to be more happy to be around will make them think twice before leaving.

This, in turn, will mean that overall growth of active residents will increase slightly, as the number of active residents leaving SL forever will diminish over time. Put into other words: reaching out (via PR and marketing) to self-entertainers who aren’t aware of SL yet will make the number of active residents rise slightly; lowering the standards for viewing SL content will make more self-entertainers able to actually run it and join SL for the first time; improving the stability and performance of SL will make less active residents leave. The net sum is a slight increase in active residents — say, instead of growing 1% per month, they will grow 2 or 3% per month.

It will have absolutely no effect on the 300,000 monthly new user registrations, since only the very few self-entertainers among them will bother to remain in SL, no matter how graphically appealing it looks, or how well it performs. They will all leave without ever understanding the whole point of SL, just like they do today, every day.

So at this point it’s important to take a look of the real impact of Philip’s measures, and understand the fundamentals of the market that SL is targeting (i.e. residential consumers). The vast majority of the residential market is passive entertainment, and it’s hard to shake people off TV, although YouTube (and, to a degree, the adult/dating sites scattered all around the Web — yes, including Facebook!) are trying hard. A large market, but very small compared to passive consumers, are gamers and socialites, who might be competitive enough and have far larger attention spans than passive consumers, but who won’t ever see a point in SL. Among all these, a very tiny, tiny slice are indeed self-entertainers, and the number of those that are not yet in SL is very, very small, although the measures to be introduced by Philip will very likely capture them all in, say, a year after LL delivers those measures. Then SL’s growth basically stops.

Now imagine that LL is able to attract, say, 3-5 million active users (I’m being generous). This would mean that the in-world economy would probably be worth some 1-3 US$ billion annually. That’s not bad, not bad at all. A company who has created out of nothing a 1-3 US$ billion market is a huge success, even though they get little of that market (To keep things in perspective, Activision-Blizzard has a revenue of almost US$ 1 billion, 22.6% of which is pure profit). But for LL’s investors it means accepting that this is the limit of what they can expect. It won’t grow more. LL might do some tweaks here and there to make the economy grow slightly more, but we’re talking about small percentile changes, never an exponential growth.

If they’re happy with that, that’s fine, as said, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of companies today operate in stagnated markets, which won’t grow — but won’t disappear, either, and while those companies exist, they can always get plenty of profits from that market. It’s not a bad market to be. It’s just not a market which will grow into “billions of users” and a virtual world economy of “trillions of dollars”, no matter how long LL waits, and how much they invest in making the platform faster, easier, and more fun.

Well, the overall population in the planet also grows, so, in theory, the number of self-entertainers could grow too, but, as explained, I don’t think so — rather the contrary. So long as all our society is poised to encourage passive entertainment (and this is at least the second generation being exposed to TV as the ultimate form of passive entertainment), the number of self-entertainers will diminish more and more. It’s rather unlikely that this will change — I know a lot of people that have completely forfeited TV for a long time, which would be unthinkable in the 1990s. A common trend is that all of them are in SL 🙂 Outside SL, a few might “limit” the use of TV — but turn to YouTube or Facebook instead, which is just a slightly less passive form of entertainment. This trend will not change, just the media will — we will get more and more avenues of passive entertainment to replace TV, because dealing with masses that demand passive entertainment and have short attention spans are socially much more convenient than encouraging all these people to learn to entertain themselves and apply their creativity and imagination to their leisure time.

That won’t change 🙂

Even though the good thing about Linden Lab’s mission is the very humane goal of “improving the human condition”. I find it very encouraging to see that one of the goals of LL is to continue to provide an environment where self-entertainers can thrive and act as a counter-culture to the passive consumers.

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