New World Editorial: What Went Wrong With Linden Lab? The Dwight Schrute Echo Chamber
I've argued that five main factors led to Linden Lab laying off 30% of its staff last month (and presumably, the subsequent exit of CEO Mark Kingdon.) But as I said then, they're all symptoms of a much deeper problem. I call that the Dwight Schrute Echo Chamber.
You remember Dwight Schrute, the comically intense geek in the US version of The Office. In a now-famous scene, his Dunder Mifflin antagonist Jim sees Dwight playing Second Life, and asks him what "game" it is. And Dwight replies, huffily:
Second Life is not a game. It's a multi-user virtual environment, it doesn't have points or scores, it doesn't have winners or losers.
Jim's classic reply: "Oh, it has losers." Some assume Jim means Second Lifers in general are losers, but I think he really means Dwight's a loser for refusing to acknowledge the fun, game-like aspects of Second Life. After all, at the end of that episode, we find out Jim himself plays Second Life, and even shows off his rockstar avatar to Pam, his girlfriend. Jim understands Second Life is at its best when it's fun. And in point of fact, he's basically right: The vast majority of Second Life Residents use SL as a kind of game, be it for Barbie doll fashion dress-up of their avatars, or for thematic social roleplaying, or as a Lego-like construction space, or otherwise.
More Schrute from the show's next cutaway:
I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then, my life was so great I literally wanted a second one. In my Second Life, I was also a paper salesman and I was also named Dwight. Absolutely everything was the same, except I could fly.
In other words, Dwight is using Second Life to recreate a real world work environment, a remarkably wacky goal. But then again, how different is that from all the companies which recreate their corporate campuses in Second Life, or educators their university campuses, but can't quite explain who this benefits, beyond the relatively small number of people who are already Second Life enthusiasts? IBM, it's been said, has 10,000 employees who regularly meet in Second Life. Which seems impressive, until you realize that IBM has almost 400,000 employees, 390,000 of whom don't.
So Dwight Schrute's attitude to Second Life is this: Adamant denial (despite all evidence to the contary) that SL is a primarily a game and entertainment platform, and a reflexive insistence (despite little evidence to the affirmative) that Second Life is best used for real world work. The Dwight Schrute Echo Chamber are all the people in Linden Lab and in the company's orbit who've repeated Dwight's mantra in various forms, until it seemed obviously true, and that a sizable market for real world applications of SL already existed. (As opposed to what it more likely is: a very interesting but numerically small niche.) This flawed assumption is probably why Linden Lab has devoted so much money, labor, and time attempting to turn SL into a platform for real world businesses and organizations.
Who are the key figures in the Dwight Schrute echo chamber?
As I see it, these four drove the Dwight Schrute Echo Chamber:
- Linden Lab: Back in 2005, when I was still with Linden, the head of marketing at the time sent out a company-wide decree that Second Life would no longer be described as a game, but a "platform". Up until that point, there was some ambiguity around how SL should be described, but I can definitely say The Sims Online was once considered a direct competitor. Looking back at the website of 2004, for example, you read a description that mainly emphasizes SL as an entertainment/play space.
- For-Profit Metaverse Developers and Evangelists: Both by Second Life advocates in large corporations, like IBM, and in small start-up studios launched after the BusinessWeek cover story of 2006, to serve real world clients. By definition, all of them were invested in the idea that Second Life was a real world business platform, so heedlessly repeated the Dwight Schrute mantra.
- Education and Non-Profit Advocates in SL: Second Life is not very popular with kids in the teen-college age demographic, who overwhelmingly prefer social games, web-based virtual worlds, or console/smartphone games. Despite this, hundreds of universities and non-profit organizations have devoted substantial resources on SL, often arguing that they're doing so to reach the younger, Internet-driven generation. And while there are a number of genuinely great non-profit applications of SL (like this one), the fact remains that it's generally speaking not the ideal means to reach a wide online audience who would benefit from the services offered.
- Media Advocates of Second Life: Including, I should say, me. Back in 2006-08, I wrote a lot about how Second Life was probably the next generation of the Internet (indeed, the cover of my book asserts that very thing), a place where we'd broadly conduct all kinds of real world work. Please keep this in mind, because if what I write here is taken as a criticism, it's also directed at much of what I've wrote in the last few years.
Taken together, these figures generated a feedback loop which inadvertently created the mistaken impression that a large market for real world applications based in Second Life existed, years before it was even a mass market phenomenon (which it still isn't.) This is probably why Linden has spent so much developing an enterprise solution (which hasn't sold very well), adding VOIP (which is still only used by half the user base, and mostly for entertainment, not real world meetings), pursuing education clients (who have bought a lot of land, but whose students haven't meaningfully contributed to the user base.) And so on.
How many people regularly use Second Life primarily for real world work? As an educated guess, I'd generously suggest less than 50,000, and despite incessant media coverage, that number has not substantially grown in recent years. Whatever the number, it's a fraction of the total user base, and you can't grow a company by servicing their demands. (Besides, how many people who regularly use Second Life primarily for real world work are also fans and enthusiasts of SL as a game/entertainment platform? I'd estimate roughly all of them.)
All this is probably why Second Life founder Philip Rosedale recently described education and enterprise as "peripheral" applications of the world he created. And this is probably why he's right that the best thing Linden Lab can do right now is concentrate on the core experience of SL.
That's a good start. But in the next couple years, what really matters is making Second Life fun, developing it to serve the extremely large market of consumers who already use virtual worlds for play and games, not real world work. Only then will Second Life gain a mass market, and only then may it be feasible to turn SL into a full-fledged platform for real world work that people who are not already well-versed in SL can use.
Until then, the Dwight Schrute mantra is just what Jim suggested it is: a losing proposition.