Second Schizophrenia

March 20, 2011 by
Filed under: Linden Lab and Second Life 

Now that we’ve dispatched with the hullabaloo around RedZone, and we’ve all sufficiently pounded on Unkle Hammy for trashing the Residents (meaning paying customers) of Second Life … it’s time to start looking ahead again. Today’s post deals with some thoughts looking forward into Second Life’s future and how it might impact their customer base.

(Be advised, this is conjecture, theory, hypothesis and plain ole blue-skying. While some facts have been used as springboards into the topic, nothing written here is backed up by inside knowledge.)

Foundations and Landscapes

Several months ago, Linden Lab introduced a new “accessory” accompanying paid Premium account … Linden Homes. For a tiny extra pittance each month, you received a pre-built and rather stock home located on a Region specifically set aside for other such tract homes. The hew and cry from builders and pre-fab makers was expected, the response from Residents was mid-level slightly leaning toward enthusiastic … and overall it seems to have been a rather painless expansion of Second Life’s “features”.

Linden Labs has also been gradually pushing Second Life closer and closer toward becoming an adjunct to the current “Darling Stars” of the Internet, namely the Social Media (SocMed) giants like Facebook, Twitter and similar. I’ve blogged on and around this trend as well as having commented on various other blogs and forums. ┬áDespite the rallying battle cries of the existing customer base, the trend seems all but assured as LL has not wavered in the least.

A few of the (all too rare) statements of direction from the shakers and movers at Linden Lab pointed out their current anti-success at attracting new customers. According to those statements, they’ve determined the problem to be the result of difficulty learning the Viewer UI and navigating within Second Life. To this end they created Viewer 2 and, just recently, introduced a new “Basic Viewer” with extremely limited features and a very basic look and feel. The goal seems to be to make it much easier to “live” in Second Life, doing such things as walking around, flying, and participating in social activities. However they’ve also removed or severely hobbled such things as building, creating and scripting. (They’ve also left out the Inventory and the ability to purchase things In-World in this first release, but I’m willing to bet those will be next to come along.)

When they first arrived, Sculpties put pressure on “Pure Prim” builds. The next evolution … Mesh … is slated to debut “Real Soon Now”. It’s not really clear exactly when that is, but Mesh has the nod from the new CEO, Rodvik Linden, so it’s pretty much assured to arrive before they play the final note in their symphony. The buzz around Mesh primarily focuses on the skill level required to create worthwhile and/or semi-decent Mesh objects. There’s also a big flap that wanes and waxes around the whole piracy and content theft problem, especially since Mesh creations exist outside SL in large quantity and they tend to be expensive (time- and resource-wise) to create. The fears that Mesh creations will be massively pirated seems to have had little lip-service from Linden Lab, however that might be more due to their overall silence on the details of Mesh, not a blindness to content theft in general.

Last year, in a surprise move that upset the SL Merchant community, Linden Lab debuted the SL Marketplace. It arrived on the scene with a boatload of bugs, missing features out the wazoo, and an overall “Feel” that left most everyone asking “and … ??” It seemed to be stopped in mid-stride and despite lots of calls from the resident community, LL has demoted the priority of enhancements and completion of existing features to “when we get around to it.” However, a whisper has been heard from the Marketplace developers and management that revolves around its improved accessibility to global search engines such as Google. While everyone (including me) has complained that it seems like they chose the Spree base package because of its built-in shopping cart, it now appears they might have chosen it because of its “Google Optimized URLs” that include the product name.

The most recent update to the Second Life external face is the new “Community Platform” from Lithium. The platform includes Blogs, Forums, Knowledge Base and several other community-related capabilities. One of the first things of note (other than the flashy looking Badges and layout) was the heavy-handed moderation put in place. Common gripes that still echo include the rather hard-nosed word filter (that automatically replaces such words as “Dick” with **bleep**) and a system of rewards (called Kudos) that allow participants to gain in rank based on their level of participation. Old-timers tend to despise such status rating gimmicks, but a quick look around the Internet at other such community tools that are associated with e-Commerce sites proves that these things are more the rule than the exception.

Whew! Okay, got all those little tidbits securely anchored in your mind? Get ready, we’re heading into Conjecture Land now.

The New Personality

Now that we’ve stepped way back and taken a look at all the little clues, lets start trying to assemble them into a cohesive strategy. Several common attributes seem to pop out, so we’ll start there.

New users are the way Linden Lab hopes to save Second Life from slow attrition and eventual death. These new customers will come with skillsets gained from their participation in sites and activities that exist “out there”. They may be somewhat accustomed to virtual world type environments (such as WoW, etc.) but their primary experience will be in 2D games, social interaction via wire and e-Commerce for cutesy things that salve their desire to acquire but are not crucial to their survival. They are primarily going to be housewives, teenaged consumers with daddy’s credit card (or their own!) and other similar stay-at-home types with lots of disposable time and money … and a healthy need to find “something new” to feed their appetite for input.

A recent comment from a fellow merchant and friend pointed out that by using an “outside” search engine (such as Google), it was quite possible to pull up items for sale on the SL Marketplace. While this is all well and good for the types of products that might also be found in the Real World (clothing items, makeup, shoes, jewelry, etc.), it’s pretty difficult to believe that folks are going to be searching Google for Teleporters and Sex Beds. (Okay, maybe Sex Beds … but I bet that a Virtual Sex Bed or similar accessory is not their primary target.)

Once a new user arrives, they’ll want to get up and running pretty fast. The more advanced features of Second Life (primarily things like building, scripting, etc.) will be of little use to them. In fact, they’ll be better off not knowing such things exist … especially when you consider that the new customer’s primary purpose is to serve as money sources. Allowing them to build and create new virtual goods often turns them into zero-sum sources or, even worse, money outflows. Keep in mind that their imagination and creativity is not their benefit to Second Life … their money is.

Now lets draw a nice tight circle around these new customers. They will be well monied and willing to spend said money if the stuff they find looks cute and is reasonably priced. They will be primarily interested in social interaction and “dressing up”, but will have very little interest in creating new stuff or creating new forms of artistic expression. They may have specific desires for some minor RPG-like pursuits, but those will pale in comparison to their desires to acquire and tend things like breedable animals. Their median age will be much lower than the current age of Second Life customers, thus they will be less willing to tolerate crude language, sex-based displays and sex-centered activities. Overall they will demand high quality goods, will mostly accept medium quality goods, but will not tolerate thin or sparse selections. New Stuff will be their primary mantra.

Now lets start plugging the changes in Second Life into the new Customer Demographic.

Assembling The Puzzle

New users will learn about Second Life by following leads and links from their existing haunts. Such things as “Likes” on Facebook and Google search results will lead them to easy portals into Second Life. They will be able to sign up for a membership with the same (or less) effort as it took to register on Facebook, and they will have very little resistance to entering their own real-world information since they’ve just come from a place where that was the norm anyway. (If Second Life can “scrape” their existing info from Facebook, all the better.)

They will want to get moving around and buying new stuff almost immediately. The new Basic Viewer gives them ready access to Second Life, the ability to navigate quickly and interact (chatting, voice chatting, seeing other Avatars) and dress up or customize their own Avatar. They won’t need to go to any In-World stores because those are not readily visible from “outside”, but they will be able to purchase from the SL Marketplace and get their purchases instantly delivered.

One of the forms of social interaction that isn’t directly done inside Second Life will be the Community Platform. They will want topics and sections devoted to their interests, and those interests will be primarily focused on acquisition of new stuff. They will also want places to visit where they can interact with other Avatars, so popular sections of the Community Platform will be such things as the Destination Guide and other similar announcement of events and gatherings. However they will not want to run into flame wars or crude language, so if they do encounter those, their tendency will be to vacate and not return.

As part of their “Welcome Wagon” new user package, they will want a ready-made place to inhabit, a decent selection of basic clothing and appearance choices, and guides to help them find Neat New Stuff. They will also want their money to turn into something that feels BIG in their pockets. The exchange rate from dollars to L$ will help that feeling, but the current difficulties making that exchange need to be ironed out some before it becomes truly painless. They will also want to stay away from overt expressions of “naughty stuff” (sex related clubs for example) but they might be willing to explore there AFTER they become a bit more accustomed to just living in SL.

The New Stuff

One piece of the puzzle though is still left sitting on the table, not plugged in anywhere. That piece is the “New Stuff” they will want to acquire. There are two basic types of stuff in Second Life, things to wear or attach and things to sit on, live in or use. Of those two types, the things to wear type is by far and away the winner for widest ranging variety. People are generally satisfied with a relatively small selection of houses, furniture and home decoration items. However when it comes to their own appearance, they demand tons and tons of choices. It’s quite easy to believe that these new users will be completely content with picking their house from a selection of 100 options, their furniture from one of 20 basic decor themes, and their landscape from two to ten environments.

This means that the need to create lots and lots of homes, furnishings and outdoor accessories will decline greatly. However the demand for clothing and apparel accessories will stay at its current high level. Sexually oriented gadgets, gizmos and activities will decline precipitously (if not completely disappear) while community and “friendly competition” pursuits such as raising animals will increase.

Mesh … where does that leave Mesh? With the decline in a need for variety in houses and furnishings, it will take very little for a small handful of creators to fully satisfy those demands. It’s quite easily conceivable that less than ten such companies can completely dominate and fulfill every need. Since Mesh itself requires a high level of skill to create, the “Natural Selection” process will rapidly eliminate anyone not possessing those skills. The small handful left however will not only survive but will inherit the world … so to speak.

On The Other Face …

So now we come to the Schizophrenic aspect of these changes. Second Life is currently populated with thousands of skilled creators, builders and scripters. Some of them will survive of course, but overall they will not figure highly into the future as their wares are more flood than food. However they will not simply vanish either. Instead they will be slowly whittled down, cherry-picked as it were, by Linden Lab to supply the New Stuff for the New Customers. This process will be painful, excruciatingly loud … and totally unwelcomed by the New Customers. The screams of agony will be “moderated” into a dull rumble where possible. No offense though, it’s just that we won’t be part of the “Future”.

This Second Personality, what is now the Current Personality of Second Life, will gradually be suppressed, overrun and diluted until it becomes nothing more than a chapter in Second Life’s history. But even so, during the transition, the two faces will be in conflict and Linden Lab will be clamping down hard to make the switchover as silent as possible. They will engage in a period of Psycho-Therapy (that primarily depends on Shock Treatments) to either purge or merge this old Personality.

Conclusion

As I stated up front, this is all conjecture on my part. I may very well be flat freaking wrong. However from where I stand now and what I see happening all around us every day, this theoretical personality change is not only logical but already in progress. As one of those folks that loves Second Life as it is now (or perhaps as it was a couple years ago), I strongly suspect I won’t survive the change either. Oh well, that’s the way of life, eh?


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