Worthy of Debate

Amid the increasing chatter as to whether Second Life is hype or substance, the centrally satisfying aspect (at least to me) is that it’s worthy of debate by smart folks. As the service signs up resident #2,000,000 (w/ likely 500,000 of those active users), here are a few thoughts on the press, SL’s growth and its future.

1) Hype can either be the result of willful misleading disinformation or expectation outstripping current reality. If anything, Second Life is a case of the latter. A reporter listens to Philip’s vision, sees examples of some really amazing stuff in world and gets excited about the possibility. People are hopeful, they love the idea of a user-created world filled with meaning. They imagine what they would do in such a space. They write a glowing article. But what they describe isn’t always what SL is today, it’s what they imagine it could be. No different from its residents, whom i’d suggest are 20% there for what SL is today, 80% for what it could become.

2) The press cycle is being driven by folks outside of SL. Bloggers, companies, media are the ones driving this story, not Second Life. Well, with the exception that Philip seems to really like speaking at conferences. That being said, I think SL hasn’t managed their messaging optimally and have been too willing to sell into the froth. Philip needs to add this statement to every interview and speech he does:

“The growth is really exciting but Second Life is a hundred year project to build a virtual world.”

This perspective and sense of timeline would give a needed credibility boost to the nature of this project. And it’s not inconsistent with how other CEOs handle similar situations. Eric Schmidt at Google has said it will take 300 years for Google to accomplish its mission. It sounds noble and cognizant of the challenges which remain. A humble stroke that Linden’s press sometimes leaves out. And one which is true to their mission.

Oh yeah, and stop the “walk your avatar to the virtual Amazon store” idea. It reminds me of the folks who suggest the avatar should walk to the mailbox to pick up email.

3) Fix the search and UI. Two of the most important aspects of the user experience – the UI and search – are just begging for revamping. You could probably double retention rates if these were improved. The UI was originally designed by James Cook, one of the smartest folks I know, but it’s crying out for a wholesale rethink.

4) N+1. I used to tell Philip we needed to design for the N+1 user — what could we do to the product which would continue expanding the reach. While the world has certainly grown, at times it would appear that the team is still developing for the same user type, believing more and more average consumers will evolve to demonstrate those characteristics.

Raph Koster had an interesting post on the SL cultural gap which reflects how SL doesn’t listen so much to ideas from outside of its world. In some ways this is what has allowed SL to be successful – if Philip, Cory and others had listened to all the skeptics in 2000-2004 SL would have evolved into something like 3d parlor games accompanied by avatar chat. Instead they’ve done some great work to maintain the dream of a scalable open-ended world.

As a strong-willed founder who believes in his vision, Philip is going to follow the path he believes in right. And the degree to which it is correct will always be the greatest determining factor in SL’s success.

One thought on “Worthy of Debate

  1. I’m a big supporter of this cyberworld stuff – I love reading Neuromancer and the like. Right now, I think SL is in its formative stages in GUI and experience; it needs to have an analog rooted in today’s real world so that people can have a base to spring from. I am excited by the prospect that someday people will create their own universes which may have different physical laws and objects. But I think it will be too much for people if the capability is there now for their creation. I think users will freak out and run away from it if they can’t get a handle on how to move around in a new world, if they can’t orient in a virtual world that is similar to their own.

    I agree with the messaging. It’s gonna take a long time to get there; on the other hand, we may get surprised by users’ speed of adoption. The virtual world is enticing; in a real world where your life is decidedly unsatisfying, where you are somehow not connecting with this world’s denezins, then why not seek another world in which to live? In many ways, our own society shuns those who don’t fit in. It’s possible that now that another world IS available, that we’ll end up driving people to it.

    By the way, walking your avatar to a virtual Amazon is kind of dumb, I agree – the Web page experience is more optimized than a “walk in the store” experience. The only way I would say this would be desirable is if the experience in the virtual Amazon store were orchestrated to be creative and unique. Sort of like an experiential marketing project. Maybe then I would go check it out…

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