New World Numbers: The Trouble with Two Million
While the world keeps roiling in the wake of the CopyBot controversy, the world keeps growing at astounding rates. In the last installment of her New World Numbers series-- posted less than a month ago!-- demographitrix Tateru Nino contemplated the meaning of a million. In this month's column, she offers a vertigo-inducing projection of when Second Life will eclipse two million created accounts-- and the heartbreak, annoyance, and attrition it's costing to reach those numbers. Be sure to note the point where she quotes new user retention rates from Linden Lab CEO Philip Linden-- and consider what that percentage means, to the world's long term growth.
Tateru Nino's November installment of New World Numbers, after the break.
Two Million Steps Forward...
Second Life is growing really, really fast. Too fast to steer. Maybe too fast to ride without breaking your neck. Volunteer morale is shaky at best, and estimates on retention rates range from poor to piss-poor.
If you asked me, on the first of January, if I thought we'd get a million signups this year, I'd have said no. Hell, if you'd asked me that on the first of September, I'd have said “I don't think so.”
Then, I started doing the arithmetic.
So, how about two million signups, this year?
Well, yes. In 45 days at the time I write this on the 14th, we'll reach 2 million accounts close to New Year's Eve, GMT. The numbers are self-evident-– assuming they remain steady-– and the arithmetic was what they taught me when I was eight. A subtraction, an average, and a division. 45 days.
We crossed the million line about 28 days or so ago. That means a million in 73 days. I can't even have a baby in 73 days. As always, assuming the figures remain steady. Last time they didn't. The signup rate increased, bringing our millionth signup in at least a month ahead of the initially predicted date.
That's about 13,700 signups per day, in case you're wondering. Right at this tick of the clock, we're averaging a paltry 13,464 signups per day.
And the volunteers are pooped. Very few of them are active. The small numbers of Mentors and live-helpers are burned out. Help Islands don't get a lot of love from the Mentors right now. There aren't enough active Mentors to cover them anyway. And there are other reasons:
“Because the people that see it in the media automatically think you're standing there for sex," said one female mentor. Another spoke of how difficult it was to get away if you were the sole mentor arriving on a Help Island packed with new Residents. One mentor broke away from what she was doing and responded to a call for a French-speaking volunteer.
“I ended up mobbed by them, the guy I'd gone to help had to log after 30 minutes or so....it was closer to 4 hours later I escaped.”
Likewise, Liaisons are increasingly the sole operators answering the phone on Live Help, with gaps in volunteer coverage more and more often. It's not a matter of having enough Helpers to keep up with the calls, though that is a part of it, it's that there's not anyone doing it an increasingly large amount of the time.
I spoke to a few live Helpers. One said, “I was the only volunteer for hours.” We talked for a while about that.
“Is it normal these days for you to be the only Live Helper taking calls, when you're on duty?” I asked.
“These days,” the Helper replied, “it seems so, yes. More than before.”
“Care to speculate why?”
“It seems a couple of volunteers are not active or less active and to be frank, this morning I nearly blew a gasket because one volunteer kept giving wrong answers, then closing the call. If the Helpers who do get pulled in are of the quality I've seen recently, it will degrade very quickly.”
Another said, “I think one problem is, a lot of people are not following through with the Live Help commitments. People lose interest, and the negativity some people have towards Linden Lab that they take out on Live Helpers.”
The aggregate scorecard for Live Help, by the Live Helpers I spoke to, is about 5.5 out of 10, and while most worry it's falling off, not all of them are. They are all confident however, that Live Help is helping a lot of Second Life residents with their problems.
Pathfinder Linden said at a recent volunteer meeting that Linden Lab is working on aggressive measures to improve and support the volunteer programs, indicating that more Linden staff were to be funnelled into the volunteer system.
I asked some volunteers what they thought were the most common reasons for someone not staying in Second Life. Boredom and confusion were the most commonly cited causes.
“They're bored,” said one, “Expecting more of a 'game', don't understand the 'purpose', and find the interface too hard. Some are offended by the sex.”
Another suggested: “Confusing orientation. People are expecting to be led from step to step, even if they don't choose to follow those steps. Orientation feels too long to many, until they hit the mainland with little or no understanding, then they find themselves with no knowledge of the world they're standing in, wondering where orientation continues. And it doesn't.”
Of course, Second Life just isn't to everyone's taste. Not right now, anyway. “Some probably leave due to a lack of help, but many just don't like it,” one Mentor told me, “People are familiar with normal role-playing games and multi-player games. It can be a shock to have no instant cash and trying to work out your own activities.”
It's unknown how many new residents we're retaining. A range of guesses from volunteers average a little under 1 in 50. As you may expect this is a highly subjective number, as every resident has a very partial and personal view of the world of Second Life.
Philip Rosedale, when presented with this consensus, gave something a little firmer to work with.
“Actually, it is much higher than that,” he said. “Although Second Life is still challenging to get used to, about 10% of newly created residents are still logging into Second Life weekly, 3 months later. 10% is pretty good given the computer requirements and steep learning curve”
Surprisingly, he added, “That percentage hasn't changed much with the much higher rate of new users."
Philip, of course, has the advantage on these numbers to those of us in the field. Linden Lab routinely taps activity metrics for new accounts, testing for retention, and measuring the success of various strategies for handling new Residents. Volunteers, on the virtual ground, are primarily dealing with people who are having difficulties-– the residents they most often spend time with are having difficulties or are frustrated, and almost never at their best. This can lead to a prejudiced impression of retention statistics.
As more and more people sign into Second Life, the volunteer programs seem to be suffering from a cascade failure of activity and morale. It's by no means a catastrophic one, mind you. The active volunteers are really trying, and Linden Lab seems to be committed to supporting them.
Ten percent retained, however, still means 90% lost. For every person who looks around and goes, “I get it. Wow!”, we've got nine people who walk away and say, “Blow this for a game of soldiers.”
If you want to look at that at year's end, then in 45 more days, nine hundred thousand people will have silently logged out of Second Life, with a WTF expression, never to return. They tasted the fruit and found it bitter indeed.
We can only hope that Linden Lab's planned measures are effective enough and soon enough. Or a million gained may be close to a million lost.