Community After Second Life: The Case for Plan B

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.

A view of Caledon Rothesay, in Second Life. If SL ceased to be, where would the Caledon community go?

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).

The city of Caledonia on Blue Mars. A possible alternative world?

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.

InWorldz is proving to be popular with SL builders and designers. Is it the best alternative to date?

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.

22 comments

  1. Interesting comment which sadly all communities within Second Life should consider just in case.

    But what I would warn against as recently the rumour mills of Second Life have been at work big time which have always painted a darker picture of what is actually going on at Linden Labs. Then their dark hopes to be dashed as they have been proved wrong.

    In addition what I find totally amazing is how some people have very rose tinted specs when it comes to Second Life and forget that Linden Labs is a commercial venture which has to make a profit to survive and as such tends to be more profit than ideals orientated. Plus like the large majority American Companies now they tend not to listen to their customers.

  2. I quite agree with you, Luther, and thanks for the comment.

    I tend to consider the demise of SL a bit like the old perception of the imminence of the “crisis of capitalism” – ie it’s a lot more resilient than it appears. But by the same token, we could argue that the crisis of capitalism did actually arrive in the end.

    What is happening currently however is some kind of exodus from SL by some of the most talented creators – primarily to InWorldz. Now several may be maintaining presences in SL, but even here the InWorldz presence is often larger than that remaining in SL (hardly surprising: it’s so much cheaper).

    My fundamental thesis is that if we decide to move, we should all try and move to the same place. Any sizeable incoming community bloc would have a lot of clout in an OpenSim environment and would thus be likely to be able to specify requirements for them to move.

  3. It is to late for SL – Mesh is already at Inworldz and on my Sim – Angels Loft – beautiful Mesh Sculptures designed by
    Artistide Despres – a shame – that SL – as dragged their feet – placed road bloacks and – made so many restrictions – if everyone could see the beauty of mesh art – the “OH WOW” and the “AWE” factor – is shocking- I am proud to have Artistide as a resident artist on my sims – and all of us at Alexanderia Kingdom as proud to be the first to has Mesh Art in the virtual word.

    Thank you Artistide!!! and please if you are in Inworldz stop by Angels Loft and come see the Mesh Sculptures!!!!!

  4. Well done, Elric – thoughtful and comprehensive. As one of those who has never really had a “community” in SL — a circle of friends and acquaintances in constant flux is another matter entirely — I found my move to InWorldz not merely painless but invigorating. Most noticeable: the pre-fab buildings that my partner and I create would have been lost in SL’s glutted market (to say nothing about the mess that is Marketplace!), but the much smaller market of InWorldz has not merely allowed our builds to be noticed, but we’re selling them.

    I do, however, tend to forget that there are large, tightly-knit communities in SL (Caledon, Winterfell, Steelhead, Blake Sea, et. alii), for whom an unorganized diaspora might be… is fatal too strong a word?

    Your advice of a Plan B for them would be well-taken, if they take it together.

  5. Very good and pertinent article, Elric.

    In the early years of the web (and before), we used third-party apps like ICQ or AIM to keep in touch with people in different “worlds” (chat programs, dungeons, web sites, etc) in order to maintain our community. By using outside apps, you could be notified of gatherings at one or more of these various worlds or pop into them to talk to people for awhile, thus maintaining the kind of neighborhood contact that is so essential for a community.

    After watching much of the nascent VRML and virtual worlds community crumble in 1999-2000, I highly recommend not only a Plan B but putting in effort and time to the proposal/proposition/reality/concept of the hypergrid – many worlds connected and connecting – in order to show the Powers That Be that this developmental technology is, in fact, the wave of the future, just as a little seach engine like Yahoo or Google was in 1998…

    The most important thing to remember is that the network is people – not a platform, not a technology. The tech is the pipes, the wires, the servers, the code; but a network with no data passing through it is only dead machinery. People should make an effort to strengthen and deploy the network – their people, their communities, their hopes and dreams.

  6. I don’t know where you get the idea that there’s a “different, more open attitude to intellectual property prevalent in the educational sector.”

    A teacher, professor, school, or university isn’t going to risk a copyright infringement lawsuit. They’re going to make sure they have the right licenses in all the IP they use. You don’t find pirated copies of Windows or Office running on university computers. Students will buy textbooks and software, why not content in virtual worlds? Educators will often work together sharing what they’ve made themselves, but they’ll also pay for stuff by others.

    Moreover it’s not like all non-Inworldz grids based on OpenSim are focused on educators. Some are focused on Germans, or adult activity, or an RPG, or beach houses and palm trees.

    Inworldz is build on an old version of OpenSim, yet they disown it. They even tell Maria Korolov not to include them in her list of OpenSim grids! OpenSim has advanced a lot since Inworldz forked — there’s something like nine active developers working on OpenSim code. Inworldz has what, two developers? How can they possibly keep up with OpenSim?

    Inworldz may never connect to the Hypergrid, but that won’t prevent all means of copyright infringement. When I login to Inworldz and look at a tree, my computer has to download the 3D model and textures associated with that tree: I have a copy of that tree. That’s how SL and Inworldz work.

    As far as preserving community is concerned, there are plenty of ways to keep a community strong and communicating across multiple worlds: mailing lists, forums, Google groups, Groupsite, Ning, Facebook, Google Docs, and oodles of other tools exist to help communities keep in touch.

    – Troy

    1. @Troy… Thanks for the comments. When I say that educationalists have a “more open attitude” to IP, I don’t mean that they like to rip things off! You’ll probably have seen from my writing and the coverage Designing Worlds gives to educational projects in virtual worlds that we are big supporters of the educational community. But I do think there is a preference for open-source and co-creation (you noted the latter yourself) which is not the same as a conventional vendor-customer relationship although commercial designers or scripters may be involved as consultants.

      My view of InWorldz is based on what I’ve seen and creators I’ve talked to, many of whom have moved or added a presence from SL. I am not making any absolute statements here, only personal perceptions: if you have a better recommendation with the same level of creator involvement, please let us all know! I don’t know the subtleties of InWorldz’s OpenSim implementation, though that is an interesting point to bring up in tomorrow’s Designing Worlds show.

      If you do adopt a Plan B, I would keep the choice of destination under review and discussion: don’t base “world-shattering” decisions on my limited snapshot.

      On the point raised elsewhere, that many virtual worlds have passed away and their communities have been lost, and that’s just virtual life, I’d say that SL is different because so many people are involved and it’s been there quite a long time so deep communities have been built that may be a little less transient than in some former worlds now lost.

    2. Troy,

      This is the second time you’ve posted the “inworldz has what, two developers?” comment almost verbatim from HG business

      http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2010/09/theres-something-about-inworldz/#comment-5097

      Just wondering what we did that aggravated you so much?

      We develop our grid based on our customer’s demands. and our “old” version of opensim has been heavily modified with code infused to provide a more stable environment for our customer’s use cases.

      I’m sorry if independent development bothers you, but a business has to be in control of their product as much as possible and know what consequences will arise from code changes. When we started it was very difficult to include new code without incurring significant breakages, so we branched off.

      Our issue with HG has nothing to do with thinking not including it will stop copying. It has to do with intent of license. In order to include HG support we’d need to make sure all our content creators are ok with their stuff being rezzed out anywhere. Currently they are NOT. Ignoring content creators would be silly. They are the foundation of a virtual world.

    3. Troy, you seem to have your facts a tad muddled. We have never disowned OpenSim. In fact, we make it very very clear we are old OpenSim based. We asked for removal from the HyperGrid list, as we are NOT HG enabled. It was misleading for users to think they could connect in on HyperGrid, when we had disabled the ability completely in the code. Not because we disowned OpenSim.

      In point of fact, it is OpenSim who encourages disowning InWorldz and it’s code base. You can do some googling where it has been made very clear by the OS dev’s that InWorldz should not be considered OpenSim, in fact, on HyperGridBusiness. If you really need links, I’ll be very happy to provide them for you.

      I’m sorry we’ve done something that seems to have left a bad taste in your mouth over our development, but I think Tranq has covered that very nicely.

  7. large communities may have a better chance of moving than small ones or individuals. it’s nice to have others to work with in taxing situations

    for large groups, like you mention, it may be time to start tinkering with OpenSim. after a year, i now finally am understand that i can do more than i could inSL. not just more prims or more scripting options, but more in terms of creativity, server-side integration and so on

    for a large group, i don’t see how the simple economics of it don’t override even the silly decisions LL is making

    for close to half of one sim, i have 16 sims. in reality, they could be developed into 4 heavy sims (comparable to SL sims) and treat the others as openspace sims

    the math seems to be enticing to me

    well, as someone that felt they could no longer stay in SL and who left a 19 sim estate, i can say that i have no regrets and am enjoying rebuilding plus building more than i ever would have been able to do inSL

    good luck!

  8. It’s the intent of the core OpenSim developers to make software that is like “the Apache of Virtual Worlds.”

    For those who don’t know Apache, it’s open source software (licensed under an Apache license) that forms the foundation for most web servers (HTTP servers) out there on the web today. There are other options (e.g. Microsoft IIS), but Apache has been the workhorse of the web for over a decade.

    Apache HTTP Server would not have gotten where it is today by being a closed project worked on by a couple of private developers. It’s been under continuous development by dozens of developers since it got started. Today it’s one of hundreds of software projects under the purview of the Apache Foundation (a nonprofit).

    Inworldz may think they are oh-so-clever to fork OpenSim and then attract a few SL developers to their grid, but let’s take a step back and see what they’re REALLY doing. They’re trying to make software like Microsoft IIS or Linden Lab’s SL server code: closed-source software that their company controls.

    The whole point of OpenSim is that no one company owns it, no one company can shut it down, anyone can install it on their own server, and you can move from hosting provider to hosting provider freely — just like with Apache HTTP Sever on the web.

    OpenSim and the Hypergrid are the best candidate out there for a web-like system of virtual worlds. Inworldz is a corporate island.

    1. The software underlying the architecture might be best served by Open Source – but is that going to attract content creators, the majority of whom are looking for protection of their intellectual property rights?

      I would suggest that it is the presence of well-known and trusted content creators that is one of the main things attracting communities to Inworldz.

      Because the average resident doesn’t stop to ask, “Is this Apache or Microsoft?” They are more interested if they can get decent hair and a good skin – preferably with the assurance that it hasn’t been ripped off from a content creator – and a really cool place to hang out with friends.

      1. I don’t have a horse in this race, and I certainly am not impressed by Troy’s tone, but I think you missed the point of the comment. Vast portions of the Web (i.e., “well-known and trusted content creators”) use open-source software.

        My major reservation about InWorldz is that they are replicating one of Second Life’s weaknesses by creating a walled garden. I feel that Linden Lab’s decision to abandon work on inter-grid connectivity was a repudiation of their earlier vision of being a 3D future for the Web. Instead of building on the model of the Web, they are building on the model of AOL. And we all know how well that turned out for AOL in the end.

  9. Troy,

    You sound very bothered by the fact that InWorldz forked off and became proprietary and I have to ask why you feel that way.

    Are you *ahem*jealous*ahem* of their success and the fact that they aren’t sharing code that it cost them money to develop?

    Just what IS your malfunction when it comes to InWorldz that compels you to follow the topic from blog to blog and say things that are often without basis?

    It’s not up to you what InWorldz does. Maybe that’s what bothers you, that you weren’t “invited” to be a part of it, or something on that order. I don’t know; all I know is you have definitely earned your role as a troll.

    Please don’t bother coming over. Please DO start your own grid and do it your own way.

    Marie

  10. Inworldz has 1/1000 the number of users that Second Life has and I’m often told that Second Life isn’t a success. You may gloat over Inworldz when it tops 20 million registrations or 50,000 concurrent users. I’ll even let you count the bots.

    Until then, Inworldz is nothing but a herd of sheep, clustering together around the Inworldz arrival area, pouncing on any new arrival to indoctrinate them with the beliefs of their new world, a world where content creators are supposedly given all kinds of magical new protections, but where a careful look at those claims reveals that they’re nothing innovative at all (compared to Second Life).

    Yes, I’ve been to Inworldz, and I might even go back, but beware! I’m not as easy to convince as most people. I might just report on how things really are.

    1. We are hardly a “herd of sheep” and I highly resent the jab.

      You have yet to answer me as to your agenda with all these disparaging comments about InWorldz. Did Ele piss in your wheaties? At this point I sure hope she did, because you’re nothing but a troll.

    2. @Troy, I don’t think anyone could claim that Second Life hasn’t been a success, while InWorldz in certainly newer and thus has fewer residents. I certainly don’t think that InWorldz needs to have a level of concurrency only reached by SL relatively recently to be considered a success.

      In addition, I can certainly tell you that nobody has tried to “indoctrinate” *me* on arrival in InWorldz.

      Time will tell how well InWorldz delivers on its promise, but in the meantime they seem to be creating a lot of interest and receiving a good bit of praise. I tend to think that the main downside SL residents would find in InWorldz is that it is technologically a little backward, but from what we heard on the show, that is also being addressed. Again, time will tell.

      At some point, especially with something like technological parity, the issue will become much more simple: which world offers the best support for its residents and creators?

      In the meantime, could you share your agenda with us?

  11. I have to ask a newb-question that the article seems to take for granted.
    I have been in SL since 2006. And it bugs me that it currently feels as if I’ll be soon one of the last to turn out the light.
    But: The people I keep in contact with are not leaving to other SL-like platforms, they are leaving to play D&D online or WoW or similar.
    So what are the “other worlds”, besides InWorldz, that you refer to several times in your article?
    Just for an idea on where to start.

    1. The article is really addressed at people who want an “insurance policy” which involves remaining in a virtual world community. I was not, therefore, interested in discussing people leaving the concept of co-created virtual worlds and going instead into gaming environments, which I regard as being fundamentally different, even though there are of course some significant technology overlaps.

      I should also note, as I have noted before, that the article is a response to a level of uncertainty about the future of Linden Lab and thus Second Life, but that I have no knowledge of anything nasty being about to happen. As far as I am concerned, Second Life is still the most highly-populated, and technologically advanced, virtual environment of this type out there, and in my view, it remains viable – I just wish that LL wouldn’t shoot themselves in both feet so much. I am advising merely that potential sustainable communities have an insurance policy – a “Plan B”.

      As far as “SL-like” virtual worlds are concerned, it’s probably a matter of what you are in a virtual world for. It seems to me that the ReactionGrid guys are doing a grand job for the educational community where groups cannot or prefer not to host their own OpenSim environment. They’re at http://www.reactiongrid.com.

      There is a detailed list of OpenSim-based virtual environments at http://opensimulator.org/wiki/Grid_List. I can’t really comment on which of these might be best for you to look at. In most cases creating a login is free; if you’re interested in community, then you want to look for grids with larger numbers, and probably also for familiar creators offering virtual goods, generally under their SL names – which is why InWorldz is particularly interesting to me.

      I hope this helps.

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