Portland, Oregon is a lovely, livable, mid-sized city with an excellent public transportation system and high property values; surrounded by picturesque mountains, forests, and the nearby ocean, it has thriving immigrant and creative communities, and consequently, is a relatively important center for high-tech business start-ups. Culturally, it shares a lot in common with Second Life, and with a population of 537,000, their community sizes just about match, too: official demographer Meta Linden just released SL's latest user metrics, and not counting users in the cordoned teen grid, Second Life now has an active user base of 538,400, in-world an average time of 45 hours a month. Impressive usage rates, especially as compared to a popular social network like Facebook, where monthly total usage times average out at just 10 hours.
Less impressive, however, when you consider that SL's active users were just under that 538K number in August, but slightly over that, in July. This after years of uninterrupted growth; given the numbers of the last several months, the new trendline is indisputable: as a meaningful community, Second Life is now in a plateau phase, flickering month to month at around 550,000. This despite explosive media attention in October, when the world was featured in two top rated television shows, The Office and CSI: New York. But despite estimates that these tie-ins lead to 100,000 or more additional sign-ups, most of whom were using a significantly improved version of the software, nearly all of those who came, left.
The main reasons for this stagnation, of course, are obvious: constant system failures, a confusing user interface, and disorienting first-time visitor experience. Improvements to the first hurdle will surely grow the populace, though I'm beginning to wonder how much the latter two can really be addressed: OnRez, despite its many strengths, coupled to a highly polished introductory experience, did little to improve overall retention rates. It may be that the conceptual barrier will always remain constant at 10%, and the remaining 9 and 10 who try a user-created 3D world without imposed guidelines and goals are fundamentally, intransigently incapable of embracing it. That may be.
Then again, were that even the case, would that be that such a bad thing? The world remains rich in user-created content, grows increasingly picturesque, continues to prove itself as a prototyping platform for real world applications, and as such, will continue being a thought leader and influencer of the Net's next generation as a 3D, avatar-driven medium. Meanwhile, it continues attracting users from across the world, as far as Cuba (78, in November), Afghanistan (730), even Babylon itself (at least 1)-- a diverse global community that's in itself an inherent good.
Or to put it another way: is there anything wrong with just being Portland, Oregon?
Image credit: Torley Linden's Windlight collection.