Elrik Merlin considers how to maintain the many communities that have developed over the years in Second Life – if Second Life became inhospitable or ceased to exist.
I’ve been a Second Life Resident since early 2007, and I suppose during quite a lot of that time there have been negative rumours (usually groundless or exaggerated, it must be said) about the health of SL and its parent company Linden Lab. The Lindens, it seems, are always just a step away from shooting themselves in one or both feet, with decisions that seem completely out of touch with what existing customers actually want and which generally tend to destroy confidence. There was the debacle over open regions, for example, that caused enormous disruption to many societies within Second Life. There was the focus on business users at the apparent expense of existing Residents – many of whom are personal representatives of just the kind of businesses that the Lab wanted to attract. There was – and is – the apparent preference for adding new features rather than making sure that the existing ones work properly. And so on.
More recently, the pace of seemingly ill-conceived decisions has increased dramatically: folding the Teen Grid into the main grid; the changes to educational and non-profit organisations which seem intentionally designed to drive them off the SL Grid, perhaps in preparation for a sale; a seeming lack of movement on intellectual property protection; and so on. Increasingly, residents and creators alike have come to feel that, unlike in the case of most successful businesses where the customer is always right, in the case of SL, it seems that Linden Lab is under the impression that imaginary future customers are more important than real existing ones. At the same time, there have been increasing rumours about whether the Lab, or Second Life, was to be sold, folded, or otherwise permanently destabilised, and that this was perhaps the reason for these apparently nonsensical decisions. Or maybe it’s something else.
It’s difficult to know how real any of these rumours are, of course – and I have no inside information whatsoever. But at the same time as resident confidence in Linden Lab’s ability to address their needs in both the short and long terms appears to have dropped, there has been an rise in increasingly-viable alternative virtual environments which are proving ever more inviting to disgruntled Second Life residents. As a result, creators and ordinary residents are leaving individually or in groups, or at the least setting up presences in other worlds.
These environments have occasionally taken the form of a totally different platform, as in the case of Blue Mars; but more usually they have been based on OpenSim, the open-source version of the software behind Second Life. Some, like ReactionGrid, have focused on educational/non-profit and corporate users. Some OpenSim environments have allowed themselves to be linked by HyperGrid technology that permits an avatar to move between virtual environments while retaining the same identity and inventory. Others, like InWorldz, have (as in the case of Second Life) deliberately not implemented that technology, because that would require creators to be prepared to permit their creations to be rezzed in multiple worlds – and currently they are not (updated 07 Nov 2010 19:20GMT).
It is hard to say at present whether Second Life will simply continue or even grow as before, with new Residents arriving to replace those who drift away, or whether it will suffer a slow decline – or even a precipitous one in the form of closure. Whatever the future holds, I would suggest that it is time for Second Life Residents, individually and particularly in the context of whole communities, to consider a “Plan B” – what to do if Second Life isn’t there tomorrow, or becomes too inhospitable to stay.
If we’ve been in-world for any length of time, we have no doubt amassed large inventories, and spent enormous amounts of time on our houses, estates, or whatever it is that we have put our effort into. No doubt creators have the raw materials for many of their items outside the virtual world itself and can therefore re-establish their product lines in another world – painful no doubt, but possible, and not from scratch. Ordinary residents will be less lucky as we have no legitimate way – or right – to export the material we “own” in-world to other environments unless we created it. And most of us didn’t.
That in itself is a major hurdle and will quite possibly encourage a lot of people to stay in Second Life until the last possible moment. But the loss of time, effort and industry pales into insignificance with the biggest loss of all: the loss of community – the greatest asset Linden Lab doesn’t realise it has. As it stands at present, people are drifting off at an apparently increasing rate to a significant number of alternative environments. Visit most of them and you’ll be hard-pushed to find many people except at landing areas. Quite a few of their clients are coming from SL, and those leaving SL are going to a number of different places. Thus population density drops, and the thing that is lost is the community that we are used to living with in Second Life: not simply the friends we’ve made but the entire social organisations we have led most of our Second Lives within. As a resident of Caledon, I am particularly conscious of the community feeling that binds Caledonians together: the same is true of the Steamlands as a whole, and no doubt many other areas.
The big problem is not people leaving: it’s that they are all leaving for different places – a diaspora. It’s a bit like the Industrial Revolution in reverse, with people leaving the bustling cities for quiet country villages housing few people and having little contact with the rest of the world. And suddenly you can’t get the refrigerator fixed.
I would suggest instead that people who are a part of vibrant in-world communities make plans in advance to relocate their entire communities to the same alternative world in the event that life in SL becomes untenable. That’s what I call “Plan B”. In fact I would argue that the more people who decide to go to the same place, the more community is maintained.
There are risks with this strategy – you are putting all your eggs into the basket of another single company that might not even be as long-lived as Linden Lab (although arguably this is true wherever you go) – though being OpenSim-based they are almost certainly going to be cheaper to invest in at the infrastructure level. There is also the sad fact that technologically, OpenSim is currently several years behind Second Life. Now no doubt that will change on its own, and if SL was to fold it would change rather rapidly if developers were suddenly interested in pushing it forward – but right now OpenSim is still a bit clunky. That’s not to belittle the efforts going on there in the slightest, incidentally, but it does mean that you will be stepping back in time a bit, and you may rather quickly conclude that the hiccups you’re used to in SL every Sunday or whenever are pretty trivial really.
However, if you share my feeling that community is Second Life’s most valuable asset (whether you consider that to be a community of buyers and sellers, a community of intelligent, creative peers who prefer to create their own entertainment rather than simply watch someone else’s, or just where you and your friends met, meet and hang out of an evening), you may feel that this – likely temporary – step into the past will be worth it in the longer term.
It’s anyone’s guess where “everyone” might like to decide to go, but I can make a few minor observations on where might not be such a good idea.
First, most people exiting SL (and not simply giving up) may well be looking for a “home away from home”, ie the same familiar basic technology, the same basic ability to create, build and manipulate things, and, where applicable, the ability to reconstruct things they made and/or sold in SL. That immediately rules out Blue Mars (pace, Mesh experts), which is a completely different platform, and, let’s face it, is designed for a rather different purpose. Blue Mars has more in common with World of Warcraft in that it’s really a gaming environment rather than a social or co-creation one. And like WoW, most of the data is stored locally on your hard drive. Cloud Rendering could change this – and incidentally, it could equally easily change the game for any virtual environment – but for now it at least, it means that you can’t just build things: you’ll need some kind of update for anyone to see them. In addition, Blue Mars is a Windows-only environment. Yes of course you can run Windows on a Macintosh, but is that really what most creators and other potential customers bought it for?
Second, the ordinary resident or commercial creator probably will not want to go to a world which is primarily targeted at the educational community. Commercial creators may well be wary of the different, more open attitude to intellectual property prevalent in the educational sector, and ordinary residents will want to go where they can buy cool things, ie a commercial market for creations like there is in SL, which means an environment that is friendly to commercial creators. So you will want to go to a world which has a good approach to commercial IP – but it also needs to be one in which commercial creators (and consumers, co-creators and other customers) are actually valued by the operators of the environment.
In my own opinion at this point, and I admit I have not researched everywhere as fully as I would like, is that the best contender to meet these criteria at present is InWorldz – and looking at the rapidly increasing number of SL creators who are setting up shop there, it seems that quite a few people agree with me. And the place is actually busy.
However, we really do not know how viable any of these environments are in the longer term. That is why I am proposing a Plan B, and not a Plan A – though I do think that there is no harm in signing up to the alternative virtual world(s) of your choice, especially if you are a commercial creator whose name is your brand; and you may well want to consider having a presence in InWorldz if you are a commercial creator.
Very likely, some existing communities in SL would be largely self-sufficient and capable of moving to a Plan B world wholesale, whether or not anyone else did: I’ve mentioned Caledon, and the Steamlands as a whole, as examples here. I would therefore suggest that the holders of the land occupied by those communities might like to consider drawing up a community Plan B and talk to other community holders to see if they can agree a common destination, and discuss it with their residents.
The fundamental principle here is this: Community is destroyed by individuals going off in different directions. It is maintained if communities, and groups of communities (the more the better) agree to go to the same destination. All I am asking is that we might want to consider what that destination should be and how to get as many people as possible to go there if the need arises. If you can’t do that, at least consider now what you would do if SL ceased to be hospitable. You might not want to be in the position of having to do so in a hurry.
As I noted earlier, my main concern here is to consider how the community – or perhaps more realistically the communities – of Second Life might survive if SL became inhospitable or non-existent. I have considered very little else in this article, so there are quite possibly major practical or philosophical holes in the suggestions made here. If you spot any, write a comment here or put a better suggestion in your own blog and link here. In addition, please note once again that I have no inside or unpublished knowledge of any plans or rumours of what Linden Lab is up to.