Let's start with several uncontroversial facts:
- With some 750K monthly active users, Second Life is by far the most popular 3D virtual world regularly used for non-game applications.
- However, Second Life is still a very small part of the total virtual world market, which is somewhere in the vicinity of 130-150 million users worldwide. (See chart below, based on data I gathered for my GigaOM Pro paper on the MMO industry, which only counts worlds with over 500K monthly active users.)
- The virtual world market, taken as a whole, is dominated by titles very much unlike Second Life: 2.5D, Web-based, and primarily aimed at kids/teens.
- There is no evidence that this audience is moving to Second Life or any other 3D immersive world in large numbers. Teenagers, for example, are not for the most part moving from open-ended MMOs like Habbo and Gaia Online (both with memberships in the millions) to join SL. The largest virtual world for adults is not Second Life, but YoVille, which was launched in May 2008, and already boasts 20 million monthly active users on Facebook alone. (Yes, far larger than Warcraft.)
In recent months, Linden Lab has emphasized the need for Second Life to gain mass-market adoption. At the last SLCC, that was a central theme for both T and Philip Linden. To be sure, user growth will be good for their bottom line, too. But speaking for myself, as someone who continues to think Second Life has the potential to change the world, the reason for this focus on user growth is just as important. Here's why:
Only mass adoption of Second Life will best address all SL's major challenges.
By "mass", I mean millions of regular users, not hundreds of thousands as there are today. And this statement applies, in my opinion, to all the major user groups in Second Life and their chief concerns about SL as a world and a platform. For instance, it includes enterprise developers and educators, who want to see SL become a platform for real world business applications. And the internal content creation community, who want greater enforcement against in-world content theft. And SL's established Resident community, who want new features like better group support. And SL artists and musicians, who want SL to become a viable new creative medium. And anyone associated with Second Life, who wearies of hearing uninformed comments that SL is just a haven for sex maniacs or people without a first life.
Ultimately, only mass adoption is the best solution in every case. Why do I say this? Let's look at each sector one by one:
Without significant growth of the user base, enterprise advocates are asking their clients and bosses to invest time and money on a medium with a high learning curve that few have prior experience with, which for all they know, is destined to become a moribund application. Skype, by contrast, was initially launched as a consumer product, but is now a standard business tool. Why? Mass adoption by the tens of millions, which made major companies and other organizations willing to embrace it.
NEW RESIDENT FEATURES
Without significant growth of the user base, the Lindens have little incentive to invest resources on features that only serve a small percentage of their users. (Recall that just 133K Residents account for 90% of all user activity.) Residents clamor, for example, to have more than 25 groups in their account. But why should the Lindens work on upgrading their database technology to make that possible, when tens of thousands of people try Second Life every week, and rarely linger long enough to join even one group?
Without significant growth of the user base, the Lindens have no pressing incentive to devote additional resources to policing content theft. (Especially when in-world economic growth, if not total user numbers, continues climbing strongly upward.) However, a Second Life with millions of users would mean tens of thousands of content creators who make an extremely good living from their in-world work, not the few hundred who do so today. With that kind of money, whole law firms and trade organizations entirely devoted to protecting virtual content would join the economy.
Without significant growth of the user base, one of the Internet's most innovative and diverse creative communities will remain a secret to the rest of the world. Immersive art as created by talents like AM Radio and Bryn Oh deserve to influence all the contemporary art world. But because Second Life has such a relatively small user base, their patronage, which should be in the millions, is in the thousands at best. Second Life has some of the best machinima makers among all platforms, but it's extremely rare that even the best SL machinima will attract more than a hundred thousand views. (The silliest World of Warcraft machinima, by contrast, often attract millions of views.) The live music community is vibrant and diverse, but without millions of potential listeners, most performers will never build up a fanbase large enough to turn their passion into a full-fledged profession.
Without significant growth of the user base, mainstream perception of Second Life will always skew skeptical or even negative, if only because most of the mainstream will have no first-hand experience with it. When the Internet first began evolving into a commercial service, in the early 90s, the mainstream also dismissed it as a medium for sex perverts without a life. However, the total number of Internet users kept growing by the tens then hundreds of millions, until all the people who'd rather dismiss it felt forced to join it themselves. If Second Life were to grow even a fraction as large, a similar shift in perception would obtain.
The good news is that mass growth of Second Life is still quite possible. As I said above, the total number of existing virtual world users is probably about 150 million already -- that's nearly 1 in 10 of all Internet users who grasp the concept of a virtual world, and are already in the market to enjoy one. Over the next few months, the Lindens promise to announce features that will expand this mass market appeal, including a greatly retooled user interface.
This should help, considerably. But I think a few other features and fixtures would also accelerate that growth. Over the next few weeks (hopefully), I'll be discussing those too.