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.