Social Community, Human Beings and the Internet
In case you’ve been living in a technological cave over the past decade (and if so, why are you reading this?) the most profitable ventures on the Internet these days are those that incorporate a level of “Community” among their user base. Corporate Giants such as Facebook have grown to be the size they are because they found a way to increase the sense of Community among their customers. In fact, Facebook itself is all about Community, sometimes using gimmicks and games to try and increase the connections between people.
The Linden Lab Approach to Community
About two years ago, give or take, the then current leader of Linden Lab (Mark Kingdon AKA M Linden) undertook changes in Second Life that were intended to more tightly integrate the platform with Social Interaction sites such as Facebook. He reasoned that since those enterprises were making so much money, if he could somehow siphon off some of their users then he might increase the number of new users … and the amount of new money flowing into Second Life. Unfortunately he didn’t understand the platform that existed before he joined, and he sure didn’t understand or expect the response he got. Before long he was out the door. (Along with 1/3rd of the employees. *sigh*)
After his departure the originator of the Second Life concept and business, Philip Rosedale AKA Philip Linden, returned to the post of Leader. He made some wonderful speeches about improving the core platform, making it “Fast, Easy and Fun” … and then bolted for the door. Needless to say his promises and grand visions were left floating in the wind.
With Philip’s departure the BoD hired a new type of personality to sit in the Bossman’s chair. They hired Rod Humble, a man with history at a rather large game maker and a healthy understanding of what it takes to pull off the technological feats to make something as large as Second Life work. Unfortunately Mr. Humble does not have the understanding of Social Community to add it back to the platform, instead preferring to add new shinies and techno-tools in hopes that it reinvigorates the user base. Sad to say, another shot that missed the true target.
What IS “Community”?
This really is the core question that needs to be asked … and answered correctly if Second Life is to survive. I know that many predict the imminent demise of SL, and I want it clear that I am not doing that here. I am merely stating what I consider to be the obvious … the ongoing and continual stagnation of Second Life. Once a web property hits maximal stagnation, its demise is assured. If nothing new happens, before long all the old dies off and the shrinkage results in a slow decline into oblivion. I believe this is what is happening to Second Life now. And I also believe it’s because Linden Lab fails to identify what makes a Community and how to make it happen in Second Life.
If we believe Wikipedia, their page on Community states the following:
”The term community has two distinct meanings: 1) A group of interacting people, living in some proximity (i.e., in space, time, or relationship). [...] and, 2) in biology, a community is a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment.”
I like both definitions and believe both apply equally to the SL Platform. So let’s examine them in a bit more depth.
The first definition is strongly slanted toward people .. human beings .. and as such strives to define the term Community in that light. Because people tend to accumulate into groups of some sort, this definition expresses that habit … putting forth the general characteristics of such groups. Second Life does have a basic mechanism that is supposed to support such ad-hoc conglomerations, however over time the usefulness of that feature has slowly declined into virtual uselessness. To their credit, the developers at Linden Lab have made some progress in improving the Groups feature … increasing the maximum number of Groups that can be joined and trying to improve the Group Chat feature. But overall they’ve missed the true value of Groups, instead looking at them as a feature of the basic viewer and platform and not even considering how vital they can be to help bind people into useful and living groups.
The second definition also strongly applies to the Second Life platform IMHO, especially the terms “living organisms” and “populated environment”. Despite our strong insistence that we be recognized and treated as our Avatars, we are all still living organisms and as such behave in all the weird and random ways typically associated with such entities. Second Life, stripped of its population of user-generated content, is nothing but a flat plain devoid of any interest or value. Thus it quite properly qualifies as a populated environment. At the bottom line, it is both the Human/Avatar population and the content created by those inhabitants that makes Second Life into a viable platform. When it was first launched and was basically an empty concept, it was the early contributions and devotion of the pioneers that made it click and made it into something that could attract and hold new inhabitants.
Making Community Function in Second Life
This is where Linden Lab has really suffered the most. They don’t seem to understand how to support any sense of Community. What’s even sadder is that they keep investing all their effort and resources into creating things for the platform that almost seem intended to split up the extant community and not bind it more tightly together.
For example, the boondoggle that got me thinking about this problem is the conversion of new user signups into single-name only members. There is a very active and plaintive JIRA Issue that clearly demonstrates the Community opinion about single name accounts. The passion expressed in the posts is obvious. One only has to read a few to get the sense of demand. And yet Linden Lab insists on issuing only tangential comments about this issue. Mr. Humble has seen fit to mention it only once in any depth, and his statement was ultimately to say that “we can’t go back, but we might offer a chance to change your name .. maybe .. possibly .. but most likely not.” (Not a direct quote, just my interpretation of what he said.)
This is a perfect example of why I believe Linden Lab is inexorably pushing Second Life into a state of stagnation, and why they seem completely clueless on how to make the platform work .. and turn a growing profit. At the core of this JIRA Issue is the feeling among the user base that the move to single names destroyed the ability to rapidly form into groups. In fact, it ostracizes new members by hanging an unwieldy and unwelcome name around their neck .. forever. And it does so without the slightest bit of warning at sign-up that they are going to be stuck forever known as “oOostupidnamewithnumbers34567″. Oh .. wait .. I mean “oOostupidnamewithnumbers34567 Resident“.
The one factor about the platform that LL totally failed to think about beforehand is the absolute and inflexible infrastructure of dual-name users. I suspect rather late in the design of single-name accounts they stumbled on the fact that virtually every script and device in Second Life is written to expect and depend on two names. It suddenly dawned on them that forcing everything to a single-name format would break so much content that they had to invent a way to “unbreak” it. Thus they added the ridiculous “Resident” surname. But overall this incident underscores again how little Linden Lab truly understands about the need to promote a sense of community. Against all indications to the contrary, they pushed the single-name mechanism through … and even to this day insist it is unchangeable and must remain … no matter how badly it divides and destroys the community in the process.
Promoting Community – What Can Be Done?
There are several simple things that Linden Lab can do to promote Community within Second Life. For example undoing the single-name fiasco would be a major start. They would also have to grant the option to change their account name ONCE to all those forlorn “Resident” accounts. That’s a pretty massive undertaking to be sure, but with some careful thinking and proper coding, it could be reduced to a single page form. Simplified, automated .. needing only a single email to every account with the single-name stigma .. and the largest issue on the JIRA would be resolved. The benefits would be immediate and very obvious.
There are a number of events that occur within the Second Life platform every day. Live music events, art shows, amazing builds tours, role-playing events … just as a quick thinking list. These events are created, run and funded solely by the users (meaning paying customers) of Second Life. Yet Linden Lab seems almost to resent such activities. Recently they’ve even withdrawn support from some of the larger and more well-known of them. The amount of money and resources required by these events is spit in a bucket compared with the dollars and man-hours invested in some of the new tools they’ve been creating. I don’t know how much time and money has been invested in Pathfinding for example, but I’d bet that one month’s worth of paychecks would fund nearly a year’s worth of User Sponsored Events in Second Life.
It would also be very beneficial if their Community Guide was created by coming into Second Life, tapping into the various communities that exist, and publishing/promoting their goings on. Instead the Community Guide seems to be a random pick of … stuff. In fact they recently promoted a business that was deeply embroiled in an Intellectual Property dispute. The response from the REAL Community was too loud to ignore. To me it was just another example of how Linden Lab is completely oblivious to the real sense of community that exists today. So if they would actually ENGAGE the population, promote what is really going on and what is of interest, they’d be a lot further along in creating a platform that feels and functions like a Community.
The New User Problem
No diatribe on Community could go without mentioning perhaps the stickiest problem facing the promotion of Community .. the plight of New Users. When a new account is created, the hapless user is dumped into an environment that is cold, unfamiliar and in many ways very foreign. Their initial moments of Second Life are spent trying to understand what they’re looking at and how to move around. With great effort and confusion some eventually learn how to interact with the world and may even stick around long enough to meet someone. But the person they meet is a stranger, someone new they’ve never met before, and thus they are forced to climb yet another hill by learning this new person and trying somehow to establish a relationship with them.
So where in that experience is the sense of Community? Anywhere? Nowhere? I’d hazard to guess that a fair number of new users are not here out of a single-minded interest in the platform. It seems to me that most new users come here by invitation or at least suggestion of someone else already in-world. But once they land, how do they find their friends? What methods are offered to them to find and hook up with those they already know? Or find the groups and activities that might interest them?
More thought and focus needs to be put into promoting and easing the ability to find and connect with an existing community for the new user. They need a way to easily connect with those they already know. They need a means to find those groups, events and activities that will help them feel at home and make them feel like a part of a vital user-based family. Yeah, they need help navigating, learning the UI and understanding how to interact with the world around them. But before they can even get the slightest bit interested in doing stuff, they need to find friends and groups that give them reasons to try.
Linden Lab has to date been focusing on a technological solution, preferring to throw money and resources at inventing “New Stuff”. But every penny they devote to creating more stuff is a penny taken away from the one effort that would galvanize their success .. the promotion of User Communities within Second Life. I hope that someday they do realize the folly of their technical adventures and start investing in creating the tools and features that make people feel “at home” here. And if they don’t? Well I guess we just get to watch our precious world slowly stagnate into oblivion.