Globalising the mainstream

Are (social) virtual worlds ready for the mainstream?

Now we come to Second Life, virtual worlds, and Linden Lab’s stance. Here we started to see the push more towards an open “Metaverse Protocol”, exactly because right now every virtual world is a walled garden. If you join SL, you’re stuck with it; even if SL became much more mainstream (which it won’t), it would mean that you’d have to forfeit all your content and profile and ‘friends’ on all other virtual worlds if you just wished to connect to something “officially” done in SL. OpenSimulator, while being technically “compatible” (in the sense that the same protocol is used for communicating between the SL client and an OpenSim server), doesn’t mean “content-interchangeable”; or at least, not yet. In late 2008, we were all expecting that at some point Linden Lab would make a serious effort to interconnect their own grid(s) and allow third-party grids a safe way to access (even if only partially) the content available on the Second Life Grid; not only 3D objects and scripts and textures, but also identity and profile information associated with an avatar, as well as their inventories. The old Open Grid Protocol (superseded by the IETF’s standard VWRAP) was expected to be adopted by mid-2010, and LL showed off an early implementation which did indeed interconnect with an OpenSim-based grid run by IBM. While a first draft of the protocol was presented in July 2010, the VWRAP group will only finish its work on a complete set of protocols by February 2012. With Linden Lab’s lack of enthusiasm after the break-up with IBM (?) in May or June 2010, one can only wonder if LL will continue its efforts at standardisation.

In the mean time, OpenSim developers have released an alternative, “quick-and-dirty” interconnection protocol called HyperGrid (about which I have written extensively 🙂 ). This allows OpenSim grids to fully interconnect in the sense of allowing avatars with their profiles and inventory to jump across grids, buy/create content outside their “home grid” (assuming the permissions allow it) and hyper-teleport elsewhere to use that content. It works. But it’s highly unlikely that Linden Lab will ever remotely consider using HyperGrid as an alternative interconnection protocol.

And they might have good reasons for that. At some stage, Linden Lab was seen as the “Evil Corp” which wanted to insist on a walled garden with little entry points; there are very few APIs that allow communication with Linden Lab’s servers. On the OpenSim side, we started to see more and more tiny grid operators popping up and happily interconnecting each other — until they grew and became conscious that they were, indeed, attracting enough customers to sustain their operation, mostly because they were giving them good service. At that point they dropped the ability to teleport in from other grids (their competitors). So the irony in this case is that the small grid operators create their own walled gardens… when they would benefit much more from interconnection!

But such is the strange consequence of this niche market. Instead of focusing on expanding the number of people that can be interconnected, they apparently prefer isolation, thinking somehow that it’s a “better” way of attracting customers. I’m sure that the reasoning behind it is that they work from a (misguided) belief that over time enough competition will force a handful of “winning” grids to emerge, and that all residents will just connect to those, forfeiting the rest — and each wants to be one of the “winning” grids, of course. However, the fallacy here is that the number of grids can grow much faster than their ability to attract customers. This is the problem in niche markets: since the number of users is very small, if there is an excess of offers, all will suffer from excessive market fragmentation.

By contrast, the market for social websites is insanely huge. It’s relatively easy to launch a new site and get a few million users — and that’s why there are millions of social websites, most of which might never hit the media even with millions of faithful users. That’s just because the market for social websites has, well, 2 billion potential users. 3D virtual worlds have perhaps just a tenth of that; and Second Life, with over 20 million registrations, is one of the largest social virtual worlds still around (Habbo Hotel very likely still is the largest one). OpenSim-based grids don’t even come close to that — not yet, and if they persist in their “isolation” policy (which is very likely), they will very unlikely grow much. The irony is that it’s conceivable that at some time most people might be connected to an OpenSim-based grid at some point — that is, adding up all OpenSim-based grids might one day have far more than the 20 million registered users of Second Life — but none will dominate. For that to happen, a well-known brand would have to give it a hush push: just imagine if IBM/Intel announced the launch of a massive infrastructure to support a global OpenSim-based grid. That would certain catch people’s attention! However, it’s unlikely that this will happen soon; they prefer to sponsor grids like ReactionGrid and slowly catch all Linden Lab-rejected universities and educators, one by one, on that grid. It’s also conceivable that at some point large-scale OpenSim-grids are funded by governments. Imagine a NSF-funded academic OpenSim grid, for example. A few attempts have been made in Europe to get funds for a Trans-European Academic Grid, but, so far, and to the best of my knowledge, none have managed to raise enough funds. But the trend might continue, and when that happens, it’s very likely that all research and academic work will be done on one of those grids.

So, ultimately, this is the challenge for Linden Lab’s new CEO, Rod Humble: define the strategy for Second Life. It’s ironic that Second Life started as a very specialised niche market application — a development platform for 3D modellers (and programmers) to develop their own 3D games. From that it morphed into a 3D social virtual world where users happened to be able to create and share (and later sell) their own content. It’s peak of media popularity seemed to be at the time that Second Life struggled to leave its niche market status and become mainstream; it failed to achieve mainstream status because, well, it is not a mainstream product that appeals to everybody, but just to a very special kind of people — I’m still waiting for some anthropologists and sociologists to develop a “Second Life resident profile” and publish a major paper about what makes people not only log in to SL, but remain there as residents for many years.

Attempts to push SL into the mainstream have failed so far, after two years of looking at several options: more academics? More business? More integration with social tools? None of these seemed to have worked, until Philip came back from the void and just told everybody to focus on making the good bits of SL better (meaning: more stable). SL is nowadays more stable and faster than ever before, but it remains a slowly growing niche market, which the mainstream doesn’t “get”. Journalists are still baffled by it: while every journalist “gets” Facebook and can easily come up with a dozen stories of what Facebook is good for, few can say the same about Second Life. The best they can do is to provide examples of successful uses of SL, but they’re so different and mostly unrelated to what (most) people are interested in, that it’s very hard to grasp the concept of “social virtual worlds as a mainstream product”. Even as a dating/cybersex platform it seems to lack some appeal — SL’s stance towards privacy is the total opposite of what Facebook (and others) are doing. SL is about absolute anonymity, where you have to work hard to tell others who you are. Facebook & friends are all about revealing too much of yourself without worrying about how secure is your data. The endless list of reasons why Second Life is so different from a “mainstream” product seems to grow, as social networking sites copy each other and become more and more similar. One huge, major difference is that SL is mostly about real-time (synchronous) communication, while almost all social networking sites are asynchronous. This doesn’t mean that mainstream products cannot be real-life — just take Skype or MSN Messenger as typical examples (as well as all the webcam group chat sites) on how real-time communication is important for so many people. However, Robin Harper argues:

The fact that the connection is asynchronous doesn’t matter. Asynchronicity facilitates the connection — a meaningful way to stay in touch or reconnect.

Well, perhaps. Nevertheless, Skype has quite more users than Facebook, a fact that gets little mention in the news; and, of course, there are 3 billion mobile phone users world-wide.

So, it I were Rod, I’d start listing what major features Second Life has and contrast it to other products, mainstream or not; based on that, he might get a good idea on how to develop a strategy that makes sense. It might mean that SL will just remain a niche market, but one where all LL’s efforts are focused on making SL the best product ever in its niche market — and make sure LL’s profitable that way.

Just to give a clue on what kind of features I have in mind, here are a few examples:

Facebook

  • Runs on the Web and doesn’t need installing anything; goes through firewalls
  • Runs on low-powered computers (or mobile devices) and doesn’t need any specialised hardware
  • Very easy to use, even for an untalented person
  • Incredibly easy to search for friends, people, events, etc. even if you don’t have their exact names/addresses
  • Very easy to upload images
  • Fun & entertaining games are easy to install (self-entertainment)
  • Inflexible layout (no personalisation)
  • Presence is limited (you usually don’t know what others are doing, which pages are more seen, etc.)
  • Asynchronous communication, which however reaches out very quickly to many users
  • Little privacy concerns
  • Constant stream of communication can be overwhelming, but can be ignored (most often it is)
  • Very easy to share content, even content outside Facebook
  • Moderately good API to interface with other platforms; good developer support
  • Free, ad-sponsored (as well as sponsored by selling profiling data)

Most social networking sites would share almost all features above, although content sharing is usually harder, and searching might be way harder than on Facebook (mostly due to privacy concerns); not all have the extensive APIs that Facebook has for integration with other sites.

Skype

  • Requires installing an application (and setting up a firewall)
  • Requires specialised hardware (camera, microphone); however, this hardware is available on most devices; not available on most mobile devices
  • Simple to use
  • Moderately hard to find friends (unless you have their exact data, nicknames, etc.)
  • Very limited profile, no user-generated content (but it also means higher privacy)
  • Synchronous communication, mostly one-on-one
  • Sharing requires text chat, no special tools available
  • No plugins, etc. (I don’t know how their APIs work)
  • Fun & entertainment provided by communicating with others (no self-entertainment possible)
  • The 600 or so million users can communicate with 3 billion users on mobile phones for a fee (fees from paying users pay for the service)

Second Life

  • Requires installing an application (and setting up a firewall); however, things like the Canvas viewer might change that
  • Requires highly specialised hardware (high-end graphics card) for good results; low-end hardware might give such unconvincing results that new users will be disappointed
  • Very hard to use (compared to Facebook or Skype!)
  • Limited profile due to security/privacy concerns (anonymity is the default setting)
  • Everything is user-generated; no templates, no rules; freedom of choice on how you and your environment looks
  • Space is visually shared: you know where people are and can see what they’re doing, all the time; on the other hand, you need first to travel to where people are! (which might be difficult to find)
  • Building tools inside the viewer (well, most; this might change once mesh becomes popular)
  • Synchronous communication, mostly on small groups. One-on-one is definitely possible. Audiences of more than 40-100 avatars (to be realistic) are only possible through group text chat
  • Rich immersive multimedia experience
  • Way too many ways of entertainment (in the sense that there are more ways to get entertainment, either alone or with others, than classifications on the types of possible entertainment…), but it’s hard to find it, or to understand how it works, or who else is providing entertainment or getting entertained
  • Few APIs to interface with the external world, but inside the virtual world, everything can be programmed by the users
  • Service is free except for storing persistent content (land tier fees)
  • Content in Second Life is (mostly) not free, but it has created a huge economy worth over 600 million US$ per year

I think this is a good start 🙂 It already shows a trend: niche markets are concerned about user-generated content, giving users a vast array of options, and allowing users (all users, not just a few selected ones) to make money by providing services. To allow for that to happen, the interface needs to be complex, and the hardware requirements are way high. Mainstream products limit choices and keep requirements low; Facebook trades this off by allowing people to do a lot of things at the same time and making application integration inside Facebook so easy that millions of developers are constantly spewing out new applications.

A “mainstream” 3D social virtual world might require very simple graphics, an easy-to-use interface, a good way to search for friends, lots of entertainment opportunities, and more facilities for developers to create content. Can Second Life become that kind of platform? Well, I guess that Habbo Hotel already has taken over that market (188 million registered users, of which 15 million are active each month, although they don’t use Habbo Hotel that much — about 45 million hours/month compared to SL’s 35).

It shall be interesting to see what approach Rod Humble will take.

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