by: Gary Hayes
The Sydney Morning Herald, and a few blogs who should know better, continue the tiresome trend of metaverse and specifically Second Life bashing. Asher Moses decided to run a recent item based loosely on a few lines of an old bit of research from a PhD student looking at the potential of Virtual Reality (an old academic term for what we now call Virtual Worlds).
The research actually focused on iterative development of the commercial side of virtual worlds and had naturally concluded that the first entrants into Second Life were still learning how to engage with the inworld inhabitants. Well nothing new there, many commentators had already come to that conclusion back in 2006 and in some cases a decade and more ago. But this article was particularly poor due to many factual inaccuracies and a more pronounced negative bias than usual.
I have come to expect a certain negative sensationalism from traditional media and SMH particularly have written at least four items of fiction per year for the past two years about the demise of virtual worlds, lead by Second Life. So I thought I would analyse this particular article “Few Lives Left for Second Life” in some more detail, and I have reprinted it in full below with embedded comments. Without over analysing it I can only think the real reason traditional media feel it necessary to ‘attack’ online game platforms is purely a result of survival as their readership plummets while online games see rapid growth. Who knows, perhaps Asher Moses had a bad ‘trip’ in his one day in world in 2006, who knows. Anyhow lets see how this article stands up to scrutiny…
Few lives left for Second Life
Interesting title. Does the journalist want us to believe that Second Life is finished? Does this journalist want to bring about it’s demise? As always poor journalism always begins with sensationalist, opinionated conclusion suggesting from the outset a real lack of understanding. So to the standard ‘text book’ summary of the intention of the article.
The companies that rushed to set up bases within the cult virtual world of Second Life appear to have wasted their time as many have shut down and others are “ghost towns”, an Australian researcher has found.
SECOND LIFE IS OUR BEST R&D PLATFORM
Firstly there wasn’t a rush and some companies spent a year researching and are still researching before fully setting up in a virtual world. Also it is not a cult with over 12 million who have tried it and around 1.2 million who regularly visit it, the average age is over 34 and predominately female. It is mainstream media who haven’t a clue about the significance of social worlds who turn it into a cult with articles that focus on the whacky and negative. Finally the ‘ghost town’ was taken completely out of context as the main thrust of the PhD students article was about something completely different. Kim MacKenzie. the originator of the research, response to this kind of journalism.
“What is it with the Australian media? Why are they focused on slandering Second Life as a failure? I have recently discussed my research findings of commercial activity within Second Life with several journalists, where only minimal quotes have been used out of their original context; in order it seems, to support an obvious negative bias.” Kim MacKenzie, PhD student, QUT whose research was used by SMH
A DIP IN AUSTRALIAN USER BASE IS NOT THE DEATH OF SECOND LIFE
Before we go back to the article lets think a little about ‘ghost towns’. Later on in the article it suggest 12 people at a time on ABC Island is somehow a failure? On the Pond a slow churn of around 50-100 avatars at any time really starts to add up. Those who do not understand game or social worlds, like Asher Moses and other blogs mentioned below, think success is based on ‘number of hits’ when in fact it is about engagement, user hours and much more. Traditional journalist and those who run copy-cat blogs have their heads still stuck in the web of the late 90s. I often present about the difference between simple page hits and user hours as being a key differentiator in the engagement argument. Immersive online experiences need new metrics and marketeers and academics are realising that social worlds do provide the potential for very high dwell figures…slide 17 of a recent presentation I gave on marketing in virtual worlds quotes the following:
- Facebooks 65 millions users on for just 4 hours per month - Marketing charts suggest it is anything from 30 minutes to 4 hours per month across 2D social networks
- 132 million americans watching YouTube but they watch only about 5 minutes per day or 2.5 hours per month
- Second Life (and other social virtual worlds) has the highest rates of loyalty and stickiness of any social network generation more than 50 hours per month per user
Also consider a reasonably popular corporate blog or site, that has perhaps around 200 per day uniques. How many visitors would be there at any one time, the calculation suggests 1 visitor every 7 minutes. Would we say they are a big failure too? - the big difference is the visitor will likely stay 2 minutes on a site compared with a ‘branded (academic or corporate)’ immersive or game space where the visit will be there from anything between 1-6 hours per day…Also Australia is not the only game in town as brands are global and looking at time spent inworld from reputable sources suggest the opposite of what Asher Moses and metaverse journal are purpoting here with Second Life being 3rd only to Facebook and YouTube.
Back to the story…
Separately, figures released by the virtual world’s creator Linden Lab in April show there are only 12,245 active Australian Second Life users, down from highs of 16,000 towards the end of last year. During a period of immense hype over the past few years, Second Life - which allows people to interact through virtual “avatars” and build and trade in-world items - was billed as a way for companies to form deeper online connections with customers by connecting with them in a 3D virtual setting. But Australians appear to have lost interest in Second Life and the users still there appear to be shying away from the big corporate brands.
Firstly Second Life is not the only virtual world. As readers of this blog know there are at least 50 other mainstream entities (see my video here) and the total audience according to a trusted site on this topic KZero is well over 300 million and in the 2nd Quarter of 2008, $161 million was invested in 14 virtual-worlds, the 1st Quarter $184 million put into 23 virtual worlds so the total this year alone to $345 million across 37 new worlds. Australia is a tiny market compared with Europe, Asia, South America and USA so fluctuations are highly likely. The fact that the user base of one virtual world fell by 23% in a year is common with any service coming out of a hype phase into a stable mature phase. I wonder if SMH ever do reports of their own newspapers readership dropping by 60-70% and many old-school papers closing down completely around the world. I suspect not. Trad press are keen to point out the demise of online networks, well they would, they are becoming their main competitors for eyeballs.
Marketing pilgrim had a similar issue with the so-called end of Facebook hype from a few weeks ago ‘Facebook Falling Off” and pointed out the hysteria generated by a few dips in this diagram - as Jordon MoCollom said “Guys, this stuff happens. Economies just can’t grow all the time. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s probably not the end of Facebook, either.”
YES, SOME BRANDS (AND JOURNALISTS) JUST DON’T GET IT
Kim MacKenzie, a PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology, centred her honours year thesis around the business applications of Second Life. She studied the Second Life bases of 20 international brands over three months last year, including Dell, Toyota, Coca-Cola, BMW, AOL and Vodafone. “They were like ghost towns,” said MacKenzie, adding that many of the users she saw on the company islands appeared to be staff members. “In terms of customers and perhaps your everyday people, there was no evidence of anybody in there. I was often the only one wandering around these very impressive sites on my own.” MacKenzie said she went back to many of the 20 brand sites this year and half of them had shut down.
Now this did not surprise me because of two key reasons. 1) Many brands and the ’sub standard’ developers that promised real engagement brought them into world for the wrong reasons. As I have said regularly for the past two years, you cannot build into a social network and not be social. Also see my post on design for much more detail. 2) We are seeing the natural exodus of the ’showroom, build-it-big-and-boring’ brands and the settling of second generation ’social’ and ‘purposeful’ brands. So The Pond, Accenture, Playboy, L Word and about five other key brands are really getting to grips with setting up a virtual base in a social worlds. Ms MacKenzie’s research is nothing new, many folk had been writing about the rarely visited ‘over branded’, nothing-to-do sims for the past two years. My surprise is why now? The Project Factory statistics have shown a clear two way split between brands that get it and those that don’t for a similar timescale too.
UNBIASED STATISTICS FROM LINDEN LABS
In Australia, the ABC, Telstra BigPond and realestate.com.au all have Second Life bases. The Project Factory, which helps firms develop a Second Life presence, said BigPond was by far the most popular brand in Second Life in terms of the amount of time spent there by users. However, the reliability of those figures is questionable because The Project Factory was contracted by Telstra to help build its island.
I take offence this slur on my integrity. The unreliability of these figures clearly come from the Metaverse Journal who in the past have said as much several times and who themselves don’t understand how transparent measurement (meaning everyone can check them!) is the key factor. The point that stands out here is that a company who uses open inworld dwell traffic figures cannot be trusted if they themselves develop for one of the brands. Absolute nonsense and this extrapolation by Asher Moses is typical of the level of inaccuracy in this and many of his articles. For those who never get inworld here are the open ‘dwell’ figures based on subsections of branded spaces, an image from over a year ago.
The Project Factory have been publishing these figures for nearly 18 months. Many brands have come and gone in the meantime, but the best independent measurement (albeit behind closed doors) by Tateru Nino actually matched The Project Factory figures after a few weeks over a year ago. Here is one of her NWN posts that shows The Pond way ahead of other brands. and a match in the order of branded spaces. As for the way the Project Factory figures are measured this has been quoted on their website for the past 18 months also - repeated again here for those who may have be ‘indoctrinated’ to assume these were ‘fixed’. The only thing fixed is Asher’s disdain of Telstra and Second Life.
These statistics are compiled and published every Monday using the Linden Labs search functionality. The actual vertical figures are based on the the open inworld Linden Lab traffic algorithm. Every avatar gets a certain number of traffic ‘points’ per 24 hour day which are distributed across the areas they visit - sims and/or parcels (subsections of sims). If they spend 100% of their time for that day on a parcel, then that parcel will get 100% of their points. If they spend 50% of their time there, the space would be allocated 50% of their points and so on. In addition, a visit to a parcel is only triggered by being there for more than five continuous minutes.
and the point is anyone can go in world on Monday morning, type in the brand names, look for the parcels/sims that belong to the brand and see the figures aligned. Anything else has to be taken on trust.
SUPERFICIAL KNOWLEDGE INPUT = INACCURATE OUTPUT
Back to the story from SMH.
David Holloway, who runs the webzine The Metaverse Journal, which examines virtual worlds from an Australian perspective, said Second Life’s popularity had “dropped off big time from a year ago”. He said that was largely due to less media attention and the fact that Australians were fed up with significant lag, which arises because the Second Life servers are located in San Francisco. Stability issues are also a significant setback. Linden Lab’s own data shows “one in four times you use Second Life the whole application will crash”, Holloway said.
The metaverse journal was notable for jumping on bandwagon of Second Life and has since been building traffic (probably measured in hits) to sell advertising, sponsorship and other ‘traditional’ commerce around the hype. They/he are part of the hype cycle and often use negativity to garner traffic too. Like many temporary commentators they blow with the wind, without any real passion for this area and constantly refer to ‘old problems’ with the service. Asher Moses using the Metaverse Journal as a source of information for this and other articles, is like asking a tourist for the nearest bank or traffic directions. I know Mr Holloway is rarely inworld, he created an office ages ago, visits events for minutes (takes a snap and leaves) and lives vicariously through other ‘characters’ from whom he gets tidbits of news, many second hand. I have seen this behaviour personally for two years from many ‘reporters’ of the metaverse and like any news source, many of their stories are pretty negative, cut and paste single lines from other sites all with the sole intention of getting eyeballs onto their site.
Holloway said the BigPond island attracted a maximum of only 100 people on a busy day, while ABC’s Second Life site had 12 people or less visiting at any given time. “If you’re looking at real numbers of people in terms of brand engagement, Second Life is really not the place to be,” he said.
A perfect example of his ignorance of the real figures. Even citing figures from August last year where independently Tateru Nino worked out by actually ‘counting’ visitors had over 9000 per week visit the Pond islands (that was when the Linden dwell rating was at 37743). Exactly a year later it was at 47226 - suggesting it is more likely around 11 000 per week or 1570 per day. Even if there are less they must be staying a ‘lot’ longer and I therefore think Mr Holloway’s figure of 100 must have been plucked out of virtual air.
ADDITION: Two days after this post to further emphasise the farcical nature of this article and Metaverse Journal’s statements we find that Second Life has hit the highest number of concurrent users 67 335 since it came out of alpha back in 2003. Obviously that is a single moment in time so over a day the inworld visitors will be much higher.
BRANDS THAT GET IT
Abigail Thomas, head of strategy development at ABC Innovation, admitted the numbers were “still quite small” and the Australian population of Second Life “hasn’t been growing as fast as it was a year ago”. “It was always an experimental project to test these new platforms and understand how we could use them to connect with audiences,” she said. Nonetheless, Thomas said the ABC had built up a small but loyal following of users who were keen to hold events on the island, such as a regular music quiz. Some had offered to rebuild and renovate the ABC’s island. “We’ve allocated an ABC person to go in in the evenings and weekends to talk to the ABC island community and do some moderation and help the community co-ordinate events,” Thomas said.
Of course working closely with ABC and Telstra I know much of the thinking and plans behind their R&D in Second Life. Without disclosing too much I must point out that BigPond has to it’s credit adopted much earlier than all the others, a structured community management system that involved a loyal Australian participant base. ABC had a loyal but often devisive/dysfunctional group but we are just starting to turn that around and may be as successful if they can sort out group management, personality and media issues.
AUSTRALIA IS LEADING THE WORLD IN COMMERCIAL METAVERSE ACTIVITY
Telstra BigPond has 16 islands in Second Life, five of which are “residential” islands inhabited by Australian avatars. Telstra spokesman Peter Habib maintained that the BigPond island was the most popular Second Life real-world brand presence. He said the residential islands had almost 100 per cent occupancy. “Some of our most popular destinations include Pondi Beach, the Billabong Bar (where many users frequently gather to talk and dance), and also the popular Australian icons including the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House,” he said. “We also have a building Sandbox where visitors can hone their virtual creative skills in a safe environment.”
Yes the community hang around and want to ‘virtually live’ close to areas they enjoy visiting. This is about social networking manifest in 3D space and brands who encourage and join in the conversation with those who visit it will survice and prosper. Those who insist on broadcast interactivity (a term I use to describe, build toys to play with and hide) are like traditional media without a right to reply, doomed to shouting from the mountain tops - without realising less and less people are listening, because they are having their own discourse in the foothills. Regarding the Pond I still have a view that the true mark of success of a brand in a social virtual world should be about many other things than renting property though. Something that Linden Lab, the owners of the platform, do as part of the core service. BigPond in this case is just reselling virtual property and as such to me the real success of The Pond is more about the regular events, the creativity of the builders who often come from the community, elements of nationalism and many of the organic spaces that promote stickiness by their ‘ambience’ rather than superficial interactivity. This has been a real differentiator.
MacKenzie said virtual worlds such as Second Life - which launched in June 2003 - were still a few years ahead of the curve and companies hadn’t done enough to advertise their presence there. However, she expected Second Life - or the next big virtual world - to take off within a few years as the bugs are ironed out and more advanced communications features such as voice chat are added.
Interesting how out of date this item is too, and the research? Voice has been in Second Life for nearly a year and now we already have lip synch as well as much better graphics in windlight, upgraded physics and much more. This again goes to show how out of date journalists and some researchers are. So to conclude the real thrust of the Theories that MacKenzie has included in the PhD is about iteration, that Second Life or successors will indeed be with us for a long long time. Brands who entered and enter these spaces early will need to have purpose - beyond hype and associated PR - which as we all know comes back and bites them, in the shape of SMH. More importantly they will learn as they are doing in other 2D social networks like Facebook, how to properly engage, be human and not like traditional media, broadcast fiction that doesn’t allow discussion or more importantly reflect the truth. The real problem is for me the ripple effect of bad journalism with ridiculous titles that have no grounding in reality being regurgitated by others - such as “So, like, whatever. Second Life is collapsing. Big deal” from Boxxet, and others. Finally.
“I think Second Life has been a fantastic first setting for all sorts of organisations to learn those fundamental virtual world tools and building skills,” said MacKenzie.
Ah something to agree on. Yes it is early days and researchers and journalists who report on these baby steps would do well to think of how idiotic those commentators looked who talked about the unlikely success of TV in radio days or more recently in the late 90s how the internet is a fad and has no relevance to business - the only thing that has no relevance is poorly researched journalism, because today with ‘persistent content’ there is no where to hide.
On a postive note: Second Life is a lot more than sex and commerce - here is a little taste of some of the sublime side, a video and image I creaeted from a fabulous sim Templum ex Obscurum.