So what were these community gateways? An answer for Rodvik Linden

In the questioning that followed his specch to the Second Life Community Convention yesterday, Rodvik Linden (the CEO) was asked if Community Gateways would ever return.  He admitted his ignorance of the programme and when helpful convention-goers filled him in, he said, in effect, that it was a pretty cool idea. He even sounded a little baffled about why it had been abandoned.  And, you know? I’m still baffled too.

Community Gateway: Caledon Oxbridge
Community Gateway: Caledon Oxbridge

Later, in his presentation, Viale Linden spoke about how there was no need for Community Gateways when there were so many quasi-community gateways out there, with people willing to help residents.  But this is missing the point. The Community Gateways were an organised programme.  The region owners, or the people backing the communities, took responsibility for ensuring that there were people around to help newbies through that initial stage when they were just learning about Second Life for the first time.  They varied, of course, in scope and content – and success.  But there were guidelines and standards that were enforced (until, I suspect, the mass lay-offs meant that no-one at the Lab had the time or energy to hold the different gateways to these standards any more).

Community Gateway: Virtual Ability
Community Gateway: Virtual Ability

The point about the gateways was that there was a trade-off.  Landowners were prepared to put a great deal of tiime and engery into their creation, and into ensuring that the information was up-to-date and the places staffed or arranged so that newbies could receive answers to their questions.  Some fantastic learning material was designed at this point (and some of it still is ongong and updated, such at Virtual Ability, or Caledon Oxbridge).  In return, the payoff was that these Gateways got a bite of the action – a good proportion of the newcomers who came through those Gateways would choose to remain in that community – or at least return to it as a familiar thing where they could meet friends, do their shopping … etc etc. Retention was to be the key that would be the winner for both the Gateways and for Linden Lab.

However, there were a lot of things that were wrong with the intial sign-up, things that have been addressed – and continue to be addressed.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons that Linden Lab abolished the Gateways – they failed to prove to be the magic bullet that was required by the Lab that would solve the retention problem.  But I don’t think that was the fault of the Gateways … and what replaced them was an awful lot worse.  Sure, newbies could log on to the destination of their choice … and, as Botgirl Questi memorably demonstrated, land in a dark and deserted Vampire area with no idea whatsoever how to walk, talk or avoid vampire attacks, should they be fortunate (?) enough to encounter one.

Community Gateway: Dublin in 2010
Community Gateway: Dublin in 2010

Qwis Greenwood wrote an article on Community Gateways for Prim Perfect No.24 March 2010 (see Page 116) – and it’s worth looking again at (an edited version of) what she said there (and I should point out that she only visited a fraction of the Gateways out there – there were ones aimed at Korea, Japan, The Czech Repulic … and many more themed ones):

For avatars who enter the world with no funds and no idea what to do, an  programme called Community Gateways exists to help them. Starting around February 2009, established communities from around the grid could apply to host orientation areas, instructing and helping new avatars become comfortable in their new world. Gateways are currently available in over a dozen languages with each community bringing its own style to the orientation process. Among just the English speaking Community Gateways (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Community_Gateway#EnglishEd. note: nb this is now retained as a historical version – it shows what was once in operation), there are many resources available to both brand new avatars as well as older ones looking to review some skills.

Several communities chose to protect their orientation areas, allowing only avatars less than 30 days old to use their tutorials. Avatar Island  is one of these areas. Glass-framed pods containing the tutorials float offshore. When new residents complete the tutorial, there are a few shops for clothing, skin, and hair as well as some lively conversation on the main island. Avatar Island is home is home to AvMaker which creates a custom avatar based on a passport-style photograph of the person behind the keyboard. (Ed. note: This has now gone, it appears, as has the one linked to the SS Galaxy)

Community Gateway: Avatar Island (now gone)
Community Gateway: Avatar Island (now gone)

The Faery Crossing [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Aetheria/151/28/307] instructs people in the ways of the fae as well as how to navigate the grid. Walking though grassy meadows and forests, the tutorial path ends near a mushroom circle where many friendly spirits gather and welcome you to join their dance. (Ed. note: Not sure about the friendly souls still being gathered, but there is a wealth of fae-related material and helpful tutorials)

Some Community Gateways have a professional purpose for their orientation tutorials. Beta Business Park (B2P) designed their gateway area with the feel of an outdoor modern office park. The tutorials are grouped into regions — Entertainment, Business, Style, Exploring — allowing the new avatars to choose according to their interests. The community hosts an SL101 class as well as business forums, mixers and networking. (Ed. note: This has now gone, it appears, as has that belonging to the Fashion Research Institute )

There are educational Community Gateways as well.  Rockcliffe University Consortium (http://www.urockcliffe.com) is an educational institution with a campus only in Second Life. Its gateway [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Rockcliffe%20I/15/175/23] displays the tutorial on signs reminiscent of science fair posters. Another area looks like a student activity fair, suggesting groups to join and places to visit. Atop the gateway was a reassuring sign reading “DON’T PANIC”.  (Ed. note: Although this is still here, it seems to have been cut back quite a bit, and the Don’t Panic sign is gone. Telling, I thought)

Community Gateway: Saint Leo University
phCommunity Gateway: Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University (http://www.saintleo.com/) has a campus in West Central Florida, but also offers online and virtual classes. Their tutorial [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Saint%20Leo%20University/20/217/24] is a combination of instructions written on chalkboards and presented on video screens. The instructions end at a public sandbox. They offer basic building classes, and a sign board displays pictures and names of staff online and available to help. Language Lab’s Gateway guides new residents through the basics inside a modern wood, glass, and steel office building. The company (http://www.languagelab.com/en/) operates 20 regions within their estate to provide practical classes in speaking English while immersed within common environments such as an airplane, a restaurant or a medical centre.  (Ed. note: St Leo is still going strong with an excellent orientation – I can’t tell about Language Lab as it is now a wholly sealed environment for their commercial clients. And good luck to them!)

A couple of Community Gateways serve some very unique groups of avatars. The Nonprofit Commons (http://www.nonprofitcommons.org/), managed by TechSoup Global, is a virtual community for nonprofit organizations. Their gateway is a formally landscaped area with instructional signs set into gray stone monuments. Golden arrows guide avatars through the tutorial which include areas for practicing the skills. Beyond that are the virtual offices of many nonprofit organizations. Virtual Ability (http://virtualability.org/default.aspx) is a community providing support for people with disabilities or chronic conditions as well as their families and loved ones. Their tutorial leads avatars along a boardwalk on a tropical island. The tutorial [http://slurl.com/secondlife/virtual%20ability/168/98/22] has a special emphasis on assistive technologies, directing people to a website that addresses obstacles some people have in participating in Second Life. Follow the tutorial to its conclusion and around Mentor Park to an advanced tutorial area which fills in some of the questions left after the basic tutorials. (Ed. note: Virtual Ability’s orientation is still going strong and is a wonderful thing, but Nonprofit Comons seems to have vanished)

Community Gateway: London - a lively turn out at 7am SLT this Sunday morning
Community Gateway: London - a lively turn out at 7am SLT this Sunday morning

Tour famous cities without leaving home at one of three Community Gateways.

Organizations from London, Dublin, and Berlin have created online versions of their cities with orientation areas for new avatars. A true to scale representation of Berlin can be found in the community of newBerlin (http://www.berlinin3d.com/). Their Community Gateway [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Berlin%20newBERLIN%203/174/108/32] provides a tutorial in both German and English, and info stations in each area dispense notecards for later reference. They also have a school and sandbox for building and scripting classes and practice.  (Ed. note: This is still going strong, is clearly kept up to date, and has a buzz of residents around)

Irish hospitality is in abundance at Dublin Virtually Live! (http://dublinvl.com/) Historic Trinity College [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Dublin/234/146/25] is the home of their Community Gateway. The tutorial is placed around the college grounds, and orientation classes are held a few times a week, as posted in the gathering area. After orientation, consider following the dots on the mini-map to the Blarney Stone pub for some entertainment and a pint. (Ed. note: This is also going strong)

Hyde Park [http://slurl.com/secondlife/London%20England%20UK/139/137/22] is the Community Gateway for the London (http://www.virtually-linked.com/) region. It is a casual stroll through the park to work through the signboard tutorials. The park is a busy place with friendly greeters and lively conversation. (Ed. note: Amd it’s still busy and friendly – you’ll even find a Tardis there!)

Community Gateway: London
Community Gateway: London

The final group of Community Gateways come from well-established communities, rich in their respective themes.
DC District Community is a stylish, contemporary community. A green park is where their Community Gateway is located. Beyond the park is a mall with many fashionable shops ranging from formal to retro to naughty. A jazz club, Club Incognito, is also located in the same region.  (Ed. note: This has now gone, it appears)

Over at Solace Beach (http://www.solacebeach.com/), pirate and tiki themes decorate their tropical islands. Weathered wooden boardwalks guide new avatars through their Community Gateway. The practice exercises are practical and fun including flying across a broken walkway and climbing the riggings. At the end of the tutorial, there is a job posting board and information about very low cost housing for those younger than 60 days old.  (Ed. note: Solace Beach is still going strong, but the Coimmunity Gateway has now gone, it appears)

The University of Caledon at Oxbridge [http://slurl.com/secondlife/Caledon Oxbridge/92/198/28] divides its tutorial into traditional English “colleges”. For those who successfully complete the tutorial, graduation gowns are offered. The university offers free dormitories for avatars less than 30 days old and a few steps from the dormitories is a gathering place where deans, professors, and other students socialize. In the same area, there is a classroom with a wide range of classes from basic clothing and appearance to avatar safety to scripting.  (Ed. note: This is still going strong, and is very popular)

Community Gateway: Caledon Oxbridge
Community Gateway: Caledon Oxbridge

There is a lot for a new avatar to absorb when landing on the grid for the first time. Starting within an established, interesting, and vibrant community eases the transition and gives each person a place to feel at home. Having a place in a community increases the chances that a new avatar will stay and participate. If you don’t have a place like that for yourself or wish to brush up on some of your skills, try visiting any of these places that catch your interest. Many of them were very friendly and welcoming when I visited. I have often heard long-time residents speak fondly of the first place on the grid that they called ‘home’. Between the Community Gateways and Linden Homes, hopefully more first-time visitors to this virtual world will have the same experience and stay a bit longer.

Well, I still think that one can’t fault Qwis’s conclusions.  The Gateways offered a great opportunity for new avatars and – perhaps more importantly – for the Lab and communities to work together.  I’m not surprised at the number that have subsequently vanished since the programme was cancelled.  I’m rather more surprised that so many have actually survived – that residents and communities have kept the faith, after they were abruptly abandoned by the Lab.  And it was abrupt (I seem to recall about eighteen hours notice was given) – especially after community owners had painstakingly created (and paid for) dedicated sims to meet Linden Lab’s specifications.

It’s worth noting that the ones that have survived and seem to be thriving are ones with strong and distinct inworld communities behind them. The business-orientated ones have disappeared, or withdrawn behind locked doors.  I’m not sure whether that says more aout the changing nature of Second Life, or about the pragmatism of business in moving on – or even about the declining in the real life economy.

It’s sad that Rodvik hadn’t heard about the programme, but perhaps not so very surprising.  It was one more example where resients felt that the Lab had persuaded them to lay out time, money and a lot of effort, and had then pulled the rug out from under their feet and told them that we should all be more like Facebook, or whatever was the latest flavour of the month.

So when Lindens talk about the wonderful efforts the community make and how they are out there helping newbies, it is worth bearing in mind the history of eroded trust that is still there.

Could the Gateways be revived? I think so – although if I were a community leader about to invest thousands of dollars a second time (or even a first time with hindsight), I would be looking for pretty stringent service level agreements from the Lab – like a three month cancellation notice for starters.

Rodvik Linden still seems to ‘get’ Second Life in away that others have completly missed. His take on group chat was brilliant.  He didn’t dismiss residents’ complaints as failures of their machines. He made an alt, went in, joined a big group, and tested it. Yep, the residents were right. It sucked. So he put people onto it – and group chat is much better.  Simples, as the meerkats say.

Let’s hope that he can similarly see the virtues of working in full and creative partnership with the communities.

Thanks to Toady Nakamura of the awesome Grendel’s who alerted me to this!

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14 comments

  1. One of the reasons the Community Gateways failed was Viewer 2’s poor planning, poor execution, poor coding, poor outsourcing and poor management of information provided to the Lab over two years of receiving very thoughtful input by residents that really understood how people use Second Life. That information can be found in Benjamin Linden’s Office Hours transcripts on the SL Wiki if it has not been removed yet to cover up the fact that it was ignored. It is really quite fascinating to read as you soon realize that all of the changes made to Viewer 2 after LL finally gave in and admitted it stunk to high heaven are outlined in those Office Hour conversations. I think the part that kills me most in reading through those transcripts is that many of the great suggestions made at those meetings are by residents who later became Lindens. I was personally very happy and proud that they had become Lindens, loving the Lab and Second Life as I do but I was at the same time quite heartbroken that they were letting us all down. But I suppose you have to do what the boss tells you to do even if the boss has no idea what people do within the platform.

    Community Gateways were never consulted or informed so they might alter their tutorials when Linden Lab launched Viewer 2. In fact, they never gave it any consideration whatsoever. (I know. I asked and was met with bewilderment). The Lab just raced right ahead behind a massive PR campaign that brought new residents into SL with no real help to greet them but the same pitiful Help Island containing the same rudimentary lessons that were on the old Help Island albeit with a new paint job.

    Of course, none of that did any good because those new residents either left because Viewer 2 was so bad or they happened to meet a seasoned resident that informed them of alternate viewers that actually worked.

    So, problems arose. Linden Lab wasn’t going to embrace Community Gateways that ran tutorials for a client that they were no longer developing and Community Gateways were spinning their wheels making Viewer 2 tutorials that they had to change every week because LL couldn’t decide where the hell anything was going to reside within the UI after two years of working on it. (They are still changing it, in case you haven’t noticed). This is especially frustrating to Community Gateway owners as Viewer 2 (now Viewer 3) isn’t the viewer that most residents are using.

    Over nearly five years, Linden Lab could never come up with a script that ran worth a damn for their RegAPI. They never offered any sort of island discount for the donation of time and resources that helped the community to grow and flourish. Preferring instead that quotas be met, that useless forms be submitted with declarations and evidence that persons were on staff that spoke over 10 languages natively and other trivialities.

    This follows the fact that they had made a statement and needed to follow up on it. At the Lab that means picking one poor soul to deal with it even though they haven’t the first clue where to start. In order for that poor soul to keep their job, what gets churned out is a document that protects the Lab from any liabilities but does absolutely nothing towards plotting a solution.

    Sadly, this is how the vast majority of projects go with the Lab. A huge announcement is made that raises everyones hopes and the community begins to plan for it. Mailing lists are created, a go-to person is assigned, the forums light up, residents start talking and there is hope for community once more.

    Two weeks later, the go-to person has got up and gone. The mailing lists start to slow and die off. Plans get trampled. Time spent creating objects, planning events and brainstorming business ideas turn into time that you can never get back and questions that go forever unanswered.

    Remember The Art Prize?

    Remember The Speech Gestures contest?

    Remember the announcement that SL would be working with and promoting musicians heavily?

    Remember the year that SL was to go full steam ahead with Education?

    Community Gateways failed because Linden Lab never follows through.

  2. Excellent article.

    When I first logged into SL in mid-2008, I took the Orientation Course, but what really locked me in were the friendly residents that took time to show me how to do fun stuff. One guy even sent me 300Ls (which I thought was a fortune, teehee) to buy some decent low-cost clothing.

    With my slightly-bitter experience coming back from the Old Net into the New Net, this heartened me greatly; the community feeling and spirit those early people showed me was what decided me to stick around after a 10-year absence from the social nets.

    I’ve been here 3 years now. The initial folks I met at this type of gateway are why I stayed. That is retention.

    Another point: I have tried to get people to cut Rod some slack. Every action he has taken to date indicates he gets it and understands that SL is not a commodity without having a community. But he is The New Boy and doesn’t really know the long history of what was and what has been in SL. We have to educate him nicely; he is on our side, I think. He needs the history we all carry; the ideas that we’ve seen that work positively for the community and the world and LL also.

  3. Memories 🙂
    I was fortunate in both being a part of Caledon Oxbridge Community Gateway, and in having to be at work during the scheduled meetings with the Lindens!
    LL’s management of their Community Gateway program was pretty typical of most of their projects. Extremely poor communication between the Lab and the sim owners/managers, extremely poor communication within the Lab regarding the program, switching out the team that had been working on the Gateways and dropping in Lindens with no idea what was going on. Then they foisted the not-even-ready-for-beta-much-less-prime-time viewer upon us.
    In addition to the previously mentioned lack of notice (which meant Carl Metropolitan had to redo nearly all our tutorials emergently), it also affected our classes and our volunteers. Overnight we were faced with having to tell people that they would have to learn v2 well enough to not just walk and talk – but teach. They would have to be able to answer all those “How do I…” questions. We lost a lot of volunteers who did not want to deal with it. Now, more people are familiar with the viewer and it has been improved, I’m told.
    The dorms did have to be removed when the sim was changed from a full sim to a homestead, and the sandbox was moved to the full sim next door. But folks are still there doing the good work! And now there is a store where one can support their Alma Mater, and a fun new Caledon Quest game to play.

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