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What’s Wrong with Second Life

February 19, 2009

I have three Second Life accounts.  I don’t really need three Second Life accounts.  I’m not even sure that I need one Second Life account.  So why do I have them?  It’s simple really:  I wanted to understand the environment and more importantly, I wanted to better understand the possible impacts on learning and community.  So I created an account.  I used it a couple of times, mostly just goofing around.  And then I promptly got slammed in my RL (real world) life, on both a personal and professional level, and I didn’t go back to my account for some time.  How long?  Too long – I lost my account information and couldn’t log back in.  So I made a new account.  And then the same thing happened.  So now I have three accounts, two of which should really just be purged and one of which is there, but basically inactive.
So why should you care about my experience?  Well, for starters, my experience is not unique.  Let’s leave aside for a moment whether Second Life will ultimately be successful as a learning and community environment, whether it will be a ubiquitous platform, or whether it will become the core underpinning of a truly new way of interacting on the web.  Instead, let’s focus on “stickiness.”  Clearly, I didn’t find the environment to be particularly “sticky” – I went, played out around a little, couldn’t really find anything meaningful to do, and then I bailed as soon as the RL intruded.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything meaningful to do in Second Life.  What I am saying is that I didn’t find anything *personally* meaningful to do.
Today, in its current state, Second Life requires a heavy investment of time and energy from users (both new and old) to *construct* an experience.  Second Life is a platform, an environment, an infrastructure.  It is not a story, a game, or a course.  There is no plot to follow, there are no pre-defined roles to assume, there are no learning objectives to achieve.  As it exists today, Second Life is an emergent narrative, not a defined narrative; a game engine, not a game; a learning environment, not a course or a curriculum.
Unfortunately, in the absence of some unifying motivation or objectives, very few casual or exploratory “residents” actually stay and use the world.  How few?  Well, let’s check the numbers.  According to Linden’s own data, the average number of hours spent per user per month peaked in November of 2003 at 49.  By January of 2007, it was down to 5.  In that peak November timeframe, roughly 1400 unique residents collectively spent nearly 69,000 hours in Second Life.  In January of 2007, roughly 2 million unique residents spent approximately 11 million hours on-line.  While 11 million is certainly a big number, it’s nowhere near big enough if we were to assume growing or even static usage rates.  If averaged participation was closer to the November numbers, then 2 million unique residents should have spent a combined *98 million hours* in Second Life, not 11 million.  That’s a pretty huge difference. And the only explanation is a massive retention problem.
In the last few years, the number of Unique Residents per Month and the Number of Hours spent in Second Life per Month have both grown exponentially, but at nowhere near the same rates.  The result is a trend line that shows a massive decline in the average amount of time spent in Second Life (per month) over the last few years. (See the graph below).

Second Life Usage Graph

While much of this can be explained by people just “testing the waters” amid all the hype, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of these users don’t see enough value to stay and use the platform.  They come in, they poke around, they say “not for me,” and then it’s game over, literally and figuratively. There is, of course, a core community that continues to grow and do some pretty innovative stuff, but it’s equally clear that for the majority of new users, there is no “there” there.  (Here is a link to the main page summarizing the data: http://blog.Second Life.com/2006/12/12/growth-of-second-life-community-and-economy/ and here is a link to the raw data in multiple formats in case you want to crunch your own numbers: http://Second Life.com/whatis/economy-graphs.php)
Ok, so what does all of this mean to Social Networking and in particular to Corporate Communities?  In a nutshell, it means that we must not focus our energy exclusively on designing platforms, infrastructure, and technology.  For the average Joe or Sally, technology is a just a means to an end.  Social Networks and Communities need to be focused and purposeful.  There must be clear reasons to be there and clear reasons to come back.  And above all, we need to address WIIFM – what’s in it for me?  We need to answer the question:  “By participating in this corporate social network, what will *I* gain personally from this experience?” or stated more simply: “How will I personally derive value?”
Unlike other corporate initiatives that can be mandated and forced on the user population via top-down directives, community is bottoms-up and organic.  You can’t force people to contribute intellectual capital, creativity, and innovation.  These are things that must be willingly shared.  Unlike other enterprise initiatives where enthusiasm and attitude are secondary to compliance and observed behavior changes, with community, compliance and behavior changes can’t and won’t happen in the absence of enthusiasm and employee “buy in”.  In other words, we need to live and breathe change management, training, support, and user-focus, and at a level that far exceeds the efforts we made during any previous wave of enterprise technology change.
Given the above, let’s run through some key design considerations for a successful community.  These are in no particular order because each is a critical component in the success of community or social network initiatives:
  • *Develop a purposeful community* that is designed to address the specific needs of the members.  Create solid personas and scenarios that will reflect the daily needs and drivers of the typical members of the community, from the High Self-Efficacy type who will participate heavily to the n00b (newbie) who has never done anything like this before.  For me personally, the absence of any overarching purpose or guiding objectives was the major cause of my abandonment.  We can’t repeat this mistake with our corporate communities.
  • *Start from something rather than nothing*.  In Second Life, you need to find your own way in the world, both literally and figuratively.  If you are lucky and find someone willing to act as your own personal Second Life Sherpa, you are in business.  If you don’t, you spend a lot of time figuring things out on your own.  Too much time.  Communities must be different.  The moment the site goes live, there should be relevant and interesting stuff to do:  participate in a survey; respond to some pre-populated and interesting forums; check out some existing and relevant files: review other profiles or, through simple Wizards, update your own; take a quick tutorial on how to use the system to maximum advantage.
  • *Don’t make assumptions* about the new literacy and interpersonal skills that social networking requires.  Sure, writing a blog or a forum response is just another form of business writing, but how do I handle negative comments in either?  When is a negative comment constructive and when is toxic?  At what point does a certain forum response warrant a new forum topic of its own?  At what point should it become a blog entry?  When do you “friend”, why do you “friend”, and how do you “friend” somebody?  This a whole new world for nearly all of our users and, just as in Second Life, most users would benefit greatly from a Guided Tour, some Best Practices information, and a Miss Manner’s Guide to Etiquette for online communities.  Once established, these should become living standards, extended and managed by each community as the members begin to assert their own cultural identity.
  • *Win the battles; win the war*.  Second Life is huge, immense – overwhelmingly so.  For experienced users, this is part of the appeal.  For newbies, it can intimidating, particularly when coupled with the lack of overall purpose and direction.  Corporate communities need to start smaller by focusing on tactical, easily measured, and quantifiable issues.  The problems themselves don’t need to be small – in HR, a community might be focused on solving recruiting challenges.  In Marketing, it might be focused on Innovation.  In either case, the community’s purpose is crystal clear.This clarity of purpose provides focus, which means that the solution only needs to be “big enough” to solve very specific challenges.  So instead of building a community that features every possible Web 2.0 technology under the sun, the solution should only include those features that help solve the specific challenges around which the community was created.  A tactical and targeted focus not only simplifies and shortens the initial rollout, it also reduces the learning and change management issues for new users, enabling community members to master the necessary community elements more rapidly.

  • *If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it*.  In terms of long-term success, there is as at least as much to learn from the people who leave or refuse to join your community as there is from the people who do.  Understanding and measuring the factors that lead to abandonment is the first step to fixing it.  Similarly, understanding the motivating factors and usage patterns for high performers is the first step in replicating and extending these positive behaviors.One of the challenges with Second Life today is that they don’t know enough about why people fail to participate.  Remember those three accounts I mentioned at the beginning of this post?  Linden Labs has never once asked me why I don’t use them, or what they could have done to keep me.  I suppose at some level it might be irrelevant; now that they have reached a state of exponential growth in their user population, fixing the problem of abandonment may not be high on their radar.  For corporate communities however, with real business challenges and ROI expectations, a user participation rate of just 5 hours per month would be unacceptable in almost any context.  Measurement and deep analytics of both active and inactive members is a critical tool is shaping the site to meet the needs and expectations of all community members.

So what did I miss?  Where am I off-base?  What other lessons to be learned from Second Life?  I’ve mostly focused on what’s wrong in Second Life; what about what’s right?  What positive lessons can we draw from the Second Life experience to use as guideposts as we embark our corporate social networking initiatives? One the big positives that I see is that despite high levels of abandonment, there is another 10% of the user population that is committed and active in the site. (See here for more.) What could Linden to do to drive these numbers up? And how might that translate to the world of corporate communities. Share your thoughts in the Comments section.
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