Robin Harper, BA, English and MBA, Marketing, is an entrepreneurial marketer, best known for establishing SimCity™ and Second Life® as the most widely recognized brands in their categories. She was VP Marketing at Maxis, VP Marketing and Community Development at Linden Lab, and actively continues her practice as a community communications consultant. Robin addressed the subject of Online Enabled Community.
Transcript: My name is Robin Harper – in Second Life I’m known as Taliesin Protagonist. Some of you may also know me as Robin Linden. I spent 7 years at Linden Lab and came to know some of you very well.
This conference is geared toward exploring Myths, particularly those about virtual worlds. And since I was originally meant to kick off the discussion, I’ve started with the big question: are virtual worlds dying (again)? Or are at least limited in growth potential as a business and consumer experience? I’m not ready to say if this is a myth, but certainly there seems to be a big shift underway.
Tateru Nino, Massively correspondent, and creator of the blog Dwell On It tracks Second Life stats. After huge growth in 2006 following a change to the registration process, Second Life has stabilized around 1 million past-60-day unique users. Contrast this with Facebook, which has grown in a few short years to over 400million users, with a share of visits each week equal to Google and where over 50% of users log-in each day.
So I’d like to explore today, and during these two days’ conversation, whether virtual worlds can ultimately become a destination or if they were just a pleasant roadstop on the way to something else? Some questions to think about: What will impact the choices that people make? If SL is the leader among virtual worlds, and growth is so elusive, will virtual worlds be able to get beyond relatively stagnant population into the mainstream? Would everyone flock to SL if only it was easier to get in? to use?
What does mainstream really mean? Ordinary people. Lots of them.
A brief digression. Many of you may be familiar with The Chasm Model – Geoffrey Moore – that draws from the difference between early adopter and mainstream user psychology. Where one is intrigued by new technologies the other is interested in technology because it solves a problem. They are referred to as pragmatics for this reason.
So the first consideration, if in fact mainstream adoption is the goal, is how to grow beyond the early adopter market. If problem solving is the goal, what problem is being solved by virtual environments?
Let’s start with the role technology is playing in affecting mainstream use. In other words, the first question to ask about mainstream reluctance is whether it is an accessibility problem?
At the beginning, way back in 2002, hardware requirements were a big challenge. For the most part it was only artists, gamers and technologists who had the computing power to run Second Life. Today despite improvements in graphics processing and nearly universal broadband penetration, accessibility remains an enormous challenge, and is getting more difficult with the increased use of laptops and notebooks, and now the iPad.
The Lab is addressing the accessibility challenge, launching a new viewer, integrating the web into the new user experience, focusing on improving the initial orientation, and improving search functionality.
These are all good things, but in my view, not sufficient for mainstream acceptance. Technology can help, but it’s not enough.
Along these lines Daniel Terdiman asked recently – where is the innovation? He was looking for a technical answer, I think. Something that would cause more people to engage in virtual worlds in numbers like they’ve engaged in social games. But is it really about technical innovation?
Raph Koster said in his response to Daniel that, "The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary people." And Raph speaks from experience. Metaplace the virtual world had roughly 19,000 active users when it closed early in 2010. Metaplace then introduced "Island Life" on the Facebook platform, and eclipsed that number in the first week. " Island Life" now boasts over seven hundred thousand users. Same art, similar perspective, tried and true game format.
So I think the next question we need to ask is what can we learn from Facebook?
First, real life connections matter, and are the starting point for the growth of community. And it’s not just about reconnecting with old friends or remote relatives. Facebook, along with other social networks, has changed "the evolution of first impressions". It’s possible now to ease into a new relationship – to find common ground and manage the pace of the experience. In fact, to begin to develop a relationship online, before taking it offline.
In a virtual world, on the other hand, the cover is deeper, the immersion sometimes frightens, fantasy often obscures the reality, and it takes a long time to build enough trust for virtual relationships to spill over into real life.
Second, Facebook does a good job of discoverability, and being able to find people and come together around common interests is a primary driver of engagement in the social network.
We all know it can be a challenge to find people of like mind, or places of interest, in a virtual space. It takes perseverance and a willingness to explore in an unfamiliar environment. Early adopters by nature are far more willing to do this type of exploring than the pragmatic mainstream user.
Third, Facebook requires a minimal time commitment. Even if you log in daily, 10 minutes lets you catch up with friends and family, comment or just indicate some shared understanding with “Like”. The fact that the connection is asynchronous doesn’t matter. Asynchronicity facilitates the connection — a meaningful way to stay in touch or reconnect.
Virtual worlds are compelling, fully realized environmental experiences. It’s pretty hard to have any sort of meaningful experience in 10 minutes.
Finally, Facebook is about sharing, especially images, music, events, and games. Everything in Facebook is designed with sharing in mind.
HBS recently ran an article about how people are using Facebook, and, "The biggest discovery: pictures. ‘People just love to look at pictures,’ says [Mikolaj] Piskorski. ‘That’s the killer app of all online social networks. Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles.’"
It should be no surprise then, that among the first things to be built in Second Life were galleries, where people posted their pictures and artwork, and that musical gatherings continue to be one of the most popular activities. Sharing is the killer app.
So based on this quick assessment, my hypothesis is that the next level of social engagement and community are most likely to spur the growth of virtual environments within the pragmatic mainstream, because unlike Facebook a virtual space can open new opportunities for human interaction. This is because unlike Facebook virtual environments provide persistence, presence and place.
Virtual environments can
- redefine the Great Good Place – the special gathering place outside of work and home where people can come to relax and share
- expand boundaries, allowing for experiences generally unavailable within the real world
- enable cultural sharing
- create new ways to think about oneself in the context of ‘community’
For this to happen, however, here’s a starter list of considerations that I think are critical, and which are being contemplated to some degree already. In combination with accessibility and ease of use, these conditions move us much closer to sufficiency.
1. Acknowledge the importance of real names and make them easy to use and search
2. Set expectations among new users for understanding immersion. It’s kind of like a space lock – slow adaptation to a new environment.
3. Use education, art and work as drivers. Although there are extraordinary educational projects in place, beautiful artworks and some corporate use, supporting the expansion of these use cases to legitimatize virtual worlds should be a high priority.
4. And finally, help people find purpose – through communities of interest, connections to real world friends and families, and the ability to share lives.
What is it that Second Life can take from the relative success that Metaplace has had in moving from the “virtual world” space to the “Facebook” space?
First, that access to a target audience predisposed to computer communities is a huge help in finding potential users with a higher propensity for trial and adoption.
Second, is the lower technical hurdle to adoption. Second Life has not evolved into a less onerous technical spec as the most popular hardware platforms have moved toward more portable, lower high-end graphics requirements. Second Life still cannot even run reliably on MacBook’s, let alone Apple’s popular handheld units.
And finally, is motivation of the user, the purpose. Changing from a virtual world, generally open-ended usage model to one that was game-driven provided a handle for entry to Metaplace’s "Island Life". The enormous success that Facebook games have enjoyed is evidence that game-play is still a critical component of adoption of computer-based social spaces.
For Second Life to become resurgent and again become a destination, it is going to have to get to the people most willing to give it a try — go to where the people are by tapping into Facebook; it is going to need to substantially lower the technical barrier to entry — go to where the hardware is; and it is going to have to find a way to bring purpose to users beyond the educational, art and corporate spheres where it has clear application — go to where users’ existing social networks are and make the community real.
Will virtual worlds ever become mainstream? Can they survive if they don’t? Will education, art and work lead the way? I don’t know the answers, but I’d love to hear what you all think.