Recently I mentioned talking with newly appointed Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble about “the recalcitrance of Second Life's existing userbase to change.” To be clear, I do not know if Mr. Humble shares my belief that Second Life’s community resists and fears changing Second Life, even to save it from its current trajectory, which inevitably ends in oblivion.
However, I can say for certain that many Lindens past and present share my opinion about Resident resistance to change. I even suspect this is what Second Life's very founder, Philip Rosedale, believes. After all, he once warned SL's most dedicated users, “Try not to cling too tightly to what we have now... [coming] changes are sometimes going to be disruptive and painful.” One only expects pain, when one expects resistance.
Then again, Philip has all but left Linden Lab, as have nearly all the founding Lindens, even though they once spoke and advocated for Second Life so passionately. Second Life co-founder Cory Ondrejka now works at Facebook. Second Life community management founder Robin Harper now works at a company that makes Facebook games. Most other Lindens have followed them out the door, and many Lindens have since spoken to me about their frustration (almost aways tinged with affection) with Second Life's userbase, and its resistance to change. I believe that resistance is among the many reasons for their collective departure -- a sense that the community they have worked so hard to foster and support resents or dismisses their efforts. Outside analysts have made a similar observation: Forester Research's Tom Grant, for example, suggested Linden Lab suffers from an Iron Law of Oligarchy of "their best customers [who] are, in subtle ways, holding them back."
But more changes are coming, and so will more resistance. Take just a couple examples from recent weeks:
- When I reported that Linden Lab describes Facebook as the best option to share Second Life content -- an option, mind you -- well, you can read the overwhelming reader rage that provoked. This despite the fact that Facebook now accounts for more than 25% of all web pageviews, which means Linden Lab not having a Facebook promotion strategy for Second Life would be tantamount to ignoring Google.
- When I suggested that Second Life should have a point-and-click avatar movement option -- again, an option -- and Rod Humble agreed with me on that point... well, again, read the reactive rancor here. This despite the fact that the largest, mass market 3D games also have a point-and-click avatar movement option.
And so on, and on -- many more examples of this dynamic abound. Based on Mr. Humble’s experience with The Sims franchise, at Electronic Arts, we are likely to see Second Life become more gamelike, become more appealing to “the riffraff”, as one community member once referred to the mainstream. Some changes will likely meet even more resistance by Residents (certainly the most vocal ones.) The resistance may be so great, the Lindens may back away from the changes they had planned at the last minute, even if it means losing another opportunity to grow the user base, and thereby save Second Life.
But not all change is bad, especially if it's needed to insure the community can go on. Because, once again, here is the harsh reality:
Virtual worlds the size and scope of Second Life need millions in annual revenue to survive, but Second Life's existing revenue model, while currently successful, is not sustainable into the medium or long term. There are simply not enough people in the real world willing to pay hundreds of dollars a month for virtual land, and those who do now will slowly but inevitably leave for many and various reasons, making Second Life a candidate for lingering death from a thousand cuts. The imminent death of Numbukalla, once a treasured SL sim, is just one of many such blows; in the next 2-3 years, barring a dramatic strategy shift, expect many more to come, until the utter direness of Second Life's situation will be undeniable to all. Though by that time, it'll likely be too late.
So this will become a recurring theme of New World Notes for the next few months (or indeed, until Second Life shows signs of growth.) I’ll be writing not so much about how Second Life might survive, but how many Residents who love it so much are inadvertently threatening its survival by near-strangling it with their passion. I’ll be writing these posts not just to the community, but to the Lindens themselves, in a bid to convince them that they should not fear pushing forward on the changes that are needed.
Because in the end, it's not the Second Life Residents' hate and fear of change that threatens Second Life -- it's a fear of that reaction. That's what needs to be overcome. By the Lindens, by the Residents, and all of us who love Second Life.
UPDATE, 3/25:This series continued in this post, click to read. Among the points I expand on from the above essay are:
- Only Resistance to Massive User Growth is a Threat to Second Life's Survival
- Only a Vocal Minority are (Actively) Resistant to the Changes Needed to Save Second Life
- Resistance to Change is Not Bad or Unreasonable in Itself
- Linden Lab is Largely Responsible for Their Users' Own Resistance to Change
- Linden Lab is Mostly Responsible for Second Life's Now-Precarious State