Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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Half a Million Member Metaverse: Second Life Plateaus at 538K Active Users

Torley_windlight_pic

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.

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Haney Armstrong

thanks James - I'm still a believer that SL will continue to grow. Disclosure, yada yada.

But that figure for Afghanistan brings back memories of a meeting where someone pointed out that Afghanistan is the first, top choice of a pull down menu and might not really be true indication of where it's at.

ArminasX Saiman

I am fascinated by the concept of a conceptual barrier. I believe this may actually be the case, since in RL I often try to explain SL to folks, but many simply cannot comprehend what I am talking about. Even when they see it they still don't get it. I've often felt these types were somehow physically/mentally incapable of envisioning themselves within a virtual environment. Clearly we (civilization and technology) are starting to push the envelope of human conceptual capability.

Lauren Weyland

very interesting. I thought we had plateaued and couldn't understand why. My general thought was that SL needs a little note before signing on explaining that it will take a bit of time to get up and running but after that there are many who will help you in-world. Recently I started a new account to see how things worked lately. In some ways it's more frustrating then ever.

HatHead Rickenbacker

When I visited the CSI build, many of the new people I talked to thought that CSI was all there was to Second Life. I wouldn't hang around much if I thought that's all there was to SL.

Garrett Larkham

As much as my wife and I love SL, we still won't tell family and friends about it (her kids know). I guess it's because of preconceived notions of "Virtual This and That" which hold us back from trying to recruit. I'm just waiting for someone close to me to rezz on their own and tell me how excited they are. Then we'll be on common ground.

Olando7 Decosta

The conceptual barrier argument seems to be very true. At least, it corresponds with the difficulties we (residents that is) have explaining and convincing other people that Second Life and virtual worlds in general are fascinating. People, including some really creative guys, often just don't get it as if they were hard-wired to reject the notion of living a virtual life.
But indeed, even if that would be the case, it remains worthwhile, virtual worlds and especially Second Life are great cosmopolitan communities were I meet very interesting and nice people, where I feel in touch with avantgarde thinkers and where I learn a lot about media and society.

Roisin Hotaling

As a RL resident of Portland, Oregon, I'd say there's not a thing wrong with SL plateauing at a similarly sized user base. And like Garrett, I'd rather not recruit RL friends and family--much of the point of being in SL, for me, is to be different from who I am in RL. Ultimately, those who "get it" will stay and will continue to bring their creativity into SL. That's just fine with me.

francesco d'orazio

I totally agree with your analysis, and the access barrier that applies every time we deal with a user-generated content based media surely applies to second life.
But, I think that after the hype, this situation is absolutely physiologic.

While I think there's something definitely wrong with being Portland (no offense to Portland ;-)! Isn't a bit too risky to start thinking about SL in terms of Portland? I mean, usually in online and offline communities, when this kind of 'let's keep it small' thinking emerges, decline soon follows...
I think that any community must keep growing to survive. When a community stops growing, sooner or later, it dies or just survives, but it's not really alive, meaning that it's not renovating its body constantly.
To stay 'alive' and keep growing maybe Second Life needs to start offering also the option of a more structured user participation and to stop relying mostly on user-generated content. It was working brilliantly with early adopters, but probably it's not working at all with a broader audience.
But I'm wondering: are we sure that Second Life reached the whole 10% who's capable of embracing it without imposed guidelines and goals? if yes, is this it? only 538.000 users? If not, why not?

Christian Scholz

We had some good discussion over my post "Is Second Life polarizing?" which is sort of about the same topic: Why do not more people get Second Life and why are they sometimes even hateful about it without really knowing it.
There might be a mix off different reasons for that and one of them might be a conceptual barrier or that it's simply too new.

I wonder though what this means to other virtual worlds coming up these days. Of course not all of those worlds will survive but how many users can they actually attract? And from this areas? Exitings SL users, completely new ones? Having an answer to this question might also shed some light if it's a conceptual barrier with virtual worlds or maybe just a problem with Second Life.

If it's a general problem then the next question would be if this is going to change in the future.

Of course nothing is wrong with being Portland, Oregon but if you want to be the internet of tomorrow it maybe is not enough. And this of course is what Linden Lab is dreaming about with their Open Source and Open Grid projects.

(besides as a company like that of course you generally want to grow).

Mario Parisé

I'd like to first say, great article. I can't disagree with most of it.

Except for the main point, which to me is an issue with interpretation.

I don't think SL is on a plateau, or at least not a permanent one. There are 2 things I see wrong with this interpretation:

(1) The popular media hyped SL to a gigantic degree, then vilified and ridiculed it. It's still getting bad press. The fact that usage rates have not gone down during this period is, to me, a sign of SLs resilience.

(2) Shows like CSI and The Office (I wish I had seen the latter) will not bring in new active users. They never will. I compare them to sites like Digg. They can bring in huge amounts of traffic, everything spikes overnight, and then the dust settles and you realize you haven't gained anything. Growth is a word of mouth endeavor, not the result of an advertising campaign.

Sered Woollahra

Maybe I'm a bit late to this game, but I have been thinking about this 538K active users number.

That's 538K people spending on average, 45 hours or more in SL per month.

I do not have 45 hours each month to spend in SL. There's just too much other stuff going on: day job, wife and kids, volunteer work in our local community, RL friends, family, etcetera.

So, I think there's a sizeable group of people who are spending time and money in SL, who are considering themselves 'active sl users', but who are not counted among the 538K because they don't get to 45 hours a month. And many of the more recent, post hype signups, might be of this kind: casual, moderate users, maybe spending a couple of hours and some lindens each week in SL, just like they spend a few hours on a website or at a sports club.

It would be interesting to have the number of active users if 'active' is defined as 10, 20 or 30 hours per month online.

Paul

Can you explain where you've derived the 500k 'active users' from? I've been studying Meta Linden's stats for quite a while and can never find user stats beyond registrations. Little help here?

thx

Hamlet Au

Paul, in the Excel file, click a tab like "Countries by Hours" and "Countries by Active" and scroll down to the bottom.

Kath Kanto

Great article. It seems to me that "a user-created 3D world without imposed guidelines and goals" is the key phrase here. Although it may be what keeps some from coming into or remaining in SL, for me it was the entire reason for being. I had to approach everything slowly (I was several weeks on Help Island) as I was so unsure of myself. But I instinctively knew the rewards would be high. So I do not think it is "such a bad thing." Quite the contrary. Most of those who stay embrace, love, and enhance SL. And that's what it's all about.

Kath Kanto

Great article. It seems to me that "a user-created 3D world without imposed guidelines and goals" is the key phrase here. Although it may be what keeps some from coming into or remaining in SL, for me it was the entire reason for being. I had to approach everything slowly (I was several weeks on Help Island) as I was so unsure of myself. But I instinctively knew the rewards would be high. So I do not think it is "such a bad thing." Quite the contrary. Most of those who stay embrace, love, and enhance SL. And that's what it's all about.

Kath Kanto

Great article. It seems to me that "a user-created 3D world without imposed guidelines and goals" is the key phrase here. Although it may be what keeps some from coming into or remaining in SL, for me it was the entire reason for being. I had to approach everything slowly (I was several weeks on Help Island) as I was so unsure of myself. But I instinctively knew the rewards would be high. So I do not think it is "such a bad thing." Quite the contrary. Most of those who stay embrace, love, and enhance SL. And that's what it's all about.

Paul

Hamlet Au, thanks!

Paul

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