The latest official economic stats for Second Life are now available, and they tell a mixed picture: while user-to-user transactions continue to grow, the absolute number of unique users does not. After a steady growth period at the start of the year, monthly unique repeat SL users have plateaued to around 750K. In his report, Linden Chief Product Officer T. Linden suggests this flat growth is the result of the new policy (imposed last May) banning Traffic-gaming bots.
That may well be the case, but what's undeniable is that Secnd Life is still struggling to become a virtual world with mass market status. By way of comparison, consider today's largest virtual world: YoVille, from Zynga, a web-based MMO played in Facebook and MySpace. Only launched in May 2008, it now counts nearly 20 Million unique monthly active users on Facebook alone. (Making it much larger than not just World of Warcraft, but web-based MMOs like Habbo.)
There are a number of reasons for YoVille's rapid and sustained growth, but one in particular stands out: Deep integration with leading social networks, especially Facebook with its 300 million active users. This explains how YoVille managed to grow so speedily, for its appeal is not just the virtual world itself (cartoonish and simple as it is), but the desire to play it with Facebook friends. "At their most fundamental level," Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, recently told me, social network-based games like YoVille "are games that you can play with real people with real identities."
I recently wrote about how mass adoption is so crucial to Second Life, and at the time, I promised to offer suggestions for making that possible. Taking YoVille's success as a reference point, my first recommendation is this: Second Life needs deep integration with Facebook.
I don't mean a mere SL-related Facebook Application (those exist already), but integration across all channels, starting with the very first SL signup page, which should accept Facebook account credentials.
Doing this would associate new Residents with their Facebook page, which generally contain many of their real life details. In that way, the subsequent SL avatar would have a subordinate status, after the owners' real name and autobiographical details. (As with my YoVille avatar friends, at left, who are automatically linked to their Facebook profiles.)
Philip Linden often says that someday, Internet users will feel obligated to use an online avatar that's somehow distinct from the actual owner. However, with the largest virtual world (and other leading social games) the exact opposite is the case: the most popular avatar types are explicit extensions of an already existing real world identity.
Or to put it another way: to gain mass growth, Second Life may have to abandon the expectation that new users adopt a whole separate personality. As YoVille and other top social games (which now count 100 million+ users) suggest, most people prefer avatars that are firmly linked to their first lives.