Category Archives: Opinion

Of storms in teacups and dear diary articles

For what was a fairly minor piece on Second Life, Karyne Levy’s August 1st piece for Business Insider, Second Life Has Devolved Into A Post-Apocalyptic Virtual World, And The Weirdest Thing Is How Many People Still Use It, created quite a storm in a teacup, ripples from which continue to spread with accusations it is “negative” and “poorly researched”.

Yes, it is a tad lightweight, has a ridiculous title which has no bearing on the content, and gives every indication of being written in a hurry. It also gets a couple of things wrong: sex has always been a part of SL, rather than something that filled the void left by big business; and it isn’t actually as easy to see adult themed items in search as is suggested (not without setting the right Maturity ratings first).

But “negative”? Not really. Sure, it quotes William Reed Seal-Foss saying that SL stagnated (a view actually shared by many in SL); however Ms Levy counters this herself, pointing out the platform is pretty much still as popular among its users as it ever was. She also references the fact that it is embracing new technology like the Oculus Rift and she references Chris Stokel-Walker’s excellent 2013 article on SL for The Verge (which I reviewed when it first appeared).

Nor is any failure to mention the likes of the LEA or live performances or any of the hundreds of photogenic regions in SL evidence of a lack of research on Ms. Levy’s part. The reason such places aren’t mentioned is simple: they’re not the focus of the article.

Karyne Levy: "Dear diary" article (image via Business Insider)

Karyne Levy: “Dear diary” article (image via Business Insider)

The bottom line is that the article isn’t supposed to be any kind of analysis or examination of Second Life; nor is it an exploration of the creative opportunities within the platform. It is simply this: a “dear diary” account of one person’s venture back into Second Life and her experiences in doing so, and to judge it as anything else is to entirely miss the point.

As it is, and given the way the piece demonstrates just how shoddy the new user experience is, with its sink-or-swim approach to new users, I’d suggest Ms. Levy is to be commended for not sitting down and dashing-off an article along the lines of “after ignoring it for X years, I tried SL again. It still sucks”.

Let’s face it, she comes in-world, apparently negotiates the Learning and Social Islands (both of which are anything but), and gets herself to a role-play region only to find herself summarily ignored. As experiences go, it’s hardly great, and I suspect there are more than a few who can attest to having a similar experience when coming into SL for the first time.

Fortunately, rather than running off never to be seen again, Ms. Levy uses the assistance of an acquaintance – Judy – to help her on her way. How and where Ms. Levy may have contacted Judy isn’t that important given the nature of the piece; the fact that she at least had someone willing to help her is.

Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x

Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x

Nor does it particularly matter whether or not Judy took Ms. Levy to the “right” places in SL or that her personal view of SL seems oddly slanted. What matters is that she was able to provide help, and enabled her to have a little fun whilst in-world.

That last part is actually quite important, hence the emphasis. Having fun is what is likely to bring newcomers back to Second Life. Probably more so than bashing them for writing something which fails to measure up to some preconception of what their article “should” be about.

At the end of the day, there is nothing intrinsically negative about the Business Insider. It doesn’t malign the platform, or cast judgement on the initial experience the writer had when in-world. It doesn’t poke an accusatory finger at anyone or mock Judy’s SL / RL relationship. The most that can really be said about it is that it overplays the adult / sex element; but that’s not bad research, that’s unfortunate titillation.

Would I have preferred something with more meat on it? Yes; I’m not about to deny that. But by the same standard, I’m also not about to start clubbing Ms. Levy about the head with a rolled-up version of her article because it doesn’t meet my expectations. As strategies go, that’s probably going to be a lot less successful in getting her to write something more considered in the future  than, say, inviting her back in-world and showing her the things she might enjoy writing about.

TOSing the (word) salad (or why I think the latest Terms of Service update misses the mark)

On Wednesday July 16th the Lab issued an update to Section 2.3 of their Terms of Service. I’ve already provided some feedback on the update and how, thanks to the use of parentheses, it appears to be limited to only addressing the issue of the Lab attempting to sell user-generated content for their own profit; something which is also indicated by the official blog post on the matter being focused solely on that issue as well.

However, there was more I wanted to say on the matter, but which, as an expression of personal opinion, I didn’t want to include in what was essentially a “news” article. So please excuse me if I now take the opportunity of doing so.

I’m actually not at all surprised that the Lab has looked no further than addressing the issue of their selling, reselling or sub-licensing user content. Prior to the update being published, I spent a fair amount of time reading Ebbe Altberg’s forum comments in relation to the Terms of Service and transcribing his statements on the matter at various meetings. One thing that struck me in doing so, was that throughout all of them, he only ever referred to revised the ToS in terms of addressing this singular issue.

Unfortunately, even in dealing with this one issue, the Lab appears to have again managed to introduce ambiguity into matters. In their blog post, they state that the updated Terms now require some nebulous form of “affirmative action” on the part of users in order for the Lab to sell, resell or sublicense their content. But what form is this “affirmative action” supposed to take?

It’s fair to say that the revised Section 2.3 of the ToS doesn’t give any indication, other than perhaps via the very generic statement of, “as permitted by you through your interactions with the Service”, which could mean almost anything.  Even a check on Section 2.4 of the ToS – which the blog post points to as being the basis for the additional language in Section 2.3 – offers little enlightenment. It merely states that “interaction with the service” might be as simple as using the permissions system with any content you place on any Second Life region accessible to any other user. As such, people could be forgiven for taking the blog statement about “affirmative action” as little more than cold comfort.

... Except the ToS doesn't really indicate what such "affirmative action" might be, other than in the most generic of ways

… Except the ToS doesn’t indicate what such “affirmative action” might be, other than in the most generic of ways

Beyond this, why the Lab have persisted in ignoring concerns over the removal of all reasonable limitations on the granting of shared rights to them, remains a mystery. It’s not as if they weren’t aware of any issues on this matter, because at the end of 2013 and early 2014 efforts were being made to put such concerns directly and clearly to them. I know this to be a fact, because I was an active participant in one such group engaged in those efforts.

And if you’re not convinced that the July 2014 update leaves the matter of granting unqualified rights unchanged, then as I pointed out in my original article, you need only look as far as the statement following text which has been added to Section 2.3. It is completely unchanged from the August 2013 version of the ToS, still stating that the Lab might “otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content (and derivative works thereof), for any purpose whatsoever…

Again, no-one is denying that the Lab requires the non-exclusive granting of certain rights in respect of users’ content. That is to be expected and should be understood. Without such rights, Second Life ceases to work. It is simply the extent to which the Lab require the granting of such rights since August 2013.

An unaddressed concen with the August 2013 Terms of Service was the removal of all limitations around the granting of rights to the Lab in respect of user-generated content. extent to which the Lab require users to grant them shared rights to their content. In October 2013, Agenda Faromet suggested how the August 2013 ToS update could be improved - through the re-establishing reasonable limits on the non-exclusive rights granted to the Lab in respect of content - just as had been the case up prior to the August 2013 update.

Agenda Faromet, speaking at the October 2013 in-world meeting about the August 2013 Terms of Service changes, was perhaps the first to clearly bullet-point why a reinstatement of reasonable limits on the granting of shared rights to the Lab in respect of users’ content might benefit the Terms of Service.

Up until the August 2013 update, the ToS had required rights to user-generated content “solely for the purposes of providing and promoting the Service” (see Section 7.2  of the May 2013 Terms of Service). Even allowing for the fact that since August 2013 the Terms of Service have been applicable to all of the Lab’s products and not just Second Life, it is hard for the untutored eye to understand why this language couldn’t have been carried forward in respect to rights granted to the Lab. After all, “the Service” could apply to Patterns, Desura and any other platform the Lab produces, just as much as it applied to Second Life.

And therein lies part of the problem; because the removal of all limitations on rights granted to the Lab appears to be entirely arbitrary, it gives rise to suspicions and mistrust over the company’s motivations. As such, it is a shame the Lab has never really made any effort to clearly express why they believe such a sweeping change assists them in their role as a service provider when compared to the previous, more qualified granting of rights. While it would still be a very poor second to actually working with concerned users to try to amend Section 2.3 to the benefit of all, providing such feedback might at least help in allaying the aforementioned suspicions and mistrust.

Unfortunately, I tend to feel that we’re unlikely to see any further movement on this matter; the Lab have revised what they felt needed to be revised, and it’s not as if they were unaware of other concerns related to recent ToS revisions. As such, and like it or not, we still have a Terms of Service which still has every appearance of being creator / collaboration unfriendly.

And in that respect, when considering the July 16th update, I’m left with a quote from William James rattling around my head:

A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all.

Related Links

The further return of the Premium Membership offer and gift

On Friday July 18th, the Lab launched the latest off of its Premium Membership discount offers, together with a new Premium Membership gift.

These seem to be run around July / August each year, and also in November. As usual, the offer is 50% off of membership for those upgrading, but only if they opt for the Quarterly billing plan, and the discount is applied only to the first quarter billing period. The offer runs from 08:00 SLT / PDT on Friday July 18th 2014 through until 08:00 SLT / PDT on Monday August 4th, 2014. The usual Premium Benefits are part-and-parcel of the offer.

The Premium Membership offer banner

The Premium Membership offer banner

I’m a Premium Member; I re-upped several years ago after having been basic, and I find it moderately useful – for I time I lived exclusively in my Linden Home and didn’t find it that bad; admittedly, I managed to land on my feet with the one I had, but I did spend a fair amount of time mulling things over and settled on the exact style I wanted ahead of time and then dallied until it came around on the booking page (not all variants of the various styles are available all of the time). I was then very lucky that the first one I saw was in a location I liked – however, moving between Linden Homes is relatively simple, providing you follow some simple rules. So if the first one you are assigned doesn’t fit the bill, location-wise, it’s easy to hop around.

Even so, I’m still (as always) irked by some of the stated benefits that come with Premium, and wish the Lab would clean-up some of the wording – “More Land and Privacy?”  – how, exactly? Basic members get to enjoy both of these as well; not as cheaply, perhaps, but they can have them. I’d also like to see more thought given to the benefits in general. some of the gifts are fun … but none of them are that inspirational.

The Premium Gift pirate airship includes a premium prim count / land impact

The Premium Gift pirate airship includes a premium prim count / land impact

Which brings me to the latest Premium gift itself. The gift on offer this time is a “new interactive pirate airship, the Linden Marauder.”

Pirate, eh? All I can say is avast … land impact goes into this vessel; 502 in fact (although the physics weight is admittedly only 18-ish), so it’s not something you’ve going to want to keep rezzed out somewhere. It’ll sit a number of people – Captain (owner) at the helm, who must board first, then the “First Mate” and then passengers (or “scurvy crew”, if you prefer and keeping to the piratical theme. Flight controls are the usual : PAGE UP and PAGE DOWN to ascend / descend, LEFT ARROW and RIGHT ARROW to turn. UP ARROW and DOWN ARROW to accelerate / slow down. A nice touch is SHIFT LEFT ARROW or SHIFT RIGHT ARROW to run-out the port or starboard cannon on the gun decks and fire a broadside.

Quite a few were trying the latest Premium Gift out for size, if only briefly

Quite a few were trying the latest Premium Gift out for size, if only briefly

Handling-wise the airship is OK, firing the guns at another passing airship can be a bit of a giggle – the first time. Other than that, I don’t have anything to say on it, other than when it comes to the idea of Premium gifts and offering something of value and which is likely to be of real benefit, this kind of offering leaves two words floating inside my head: “missed” and “opportunity”

Ebbe Altberg on user retention now and in the future

A part of one of the new user experience social islands

A part of one of the new user experience social islands

While at the TPV meeting on June 20th, 2014, Ebbe Altberg didn’t only address questions on the new virtual world platform the Lab is developing. The session actually kicked-off with a discussion of user retention in Second Life and the new user experience.

Some eight minutes were devoted to the discussion, of which around five and a half were taken-up by Ebbe talking through ideas, and the remaining time either with questions or with reminiscences about mentors and the old mentor programme. The audio presented here represents all of Ebbe’s comments on the subject, together with a transcription for those who prefer to read his comments.


The first question was whether the Lab had any further ideas for trying to improve user retention.

Well, there are lots of different types of users, and I think we can make it easier for some users without losing the power for other users. But yeah, that is a tremendous challenge, allowing for this incredible flexibility, openness, freedom, and at the same time make it simple.

I am convinced there’s a lot of things we can do, not necessarily in the short-term, but in the medium-to-long term that going to make things a lot easier.

Ebbe Linden (LL CEO Ebbe Altberg) Talked about user retention at the June 20th TPV Developer meeting (image: Strawberry Singh from the VWBPE conference, April 2014)

Ebbe Linden (LL CEO Ebbe Altberg) Talked about user retention at the June 20th TPV Developer meeting (image: Strawberry Singh from the VWBPE conference, April 2014)

I mean, just coming in and getting dressed is a major undertaking, and it shouldn’t have to be. There’s a lot of stuff that is geekier than it need to be; what the hell does it mean to “detach” something from your avatar and stuff like that?

So I think the user interface can improve a lot. and obviously, a lot of the work that you guys have just discussed here [Experience Tools, etc] will make retention improve. When the quality improves, performance improves, that will do a lot as well. It’ll just take users a while to notice and appreciate, and therefore get sticker. It seems to me, the metric seems to indicate, you know, some potential extra stickiness is going on. We’ll have to see; we’ll have to wait a little longer to be sure about that.

But when I talk about making in “simpler”, I’m not suggesting I’m trying to make it dumber or less powerful. So it’s going to take some smart people quite some time to solve for, but we have to try really hard to continuously make it easier.

Hopefully we can have something with the power of Second Life, but appealing to hundreds of millions, and not just a million; we have to figure out how to get there.

The next question was whether Ebbe was aware of the official mentor programme, and whether he would consider bringing that back.

[1:57] I was actually in-world yesterday [Thursday June 19th, 2014] with a group of people, many of whom have been part of that, and so we started conversations. There’s a lot of sub-groups participating in that conversation, of helpers.

I think the difficulty is, for our perspective, or why it might have been discontinued, is how do you manage it at scale? Who do you trust? Who’s behaving? Who’s not behaving? I think that might have been a part of it.

But I think that also a lot of those efforts were unfortunately discontinued as a part of the big layoff back in the day, when a lot of things were thrown out of the window whether it made completely sense to stop those types of things or not.

[2:43] Personally, I’m in big favour of a – what was at the beginning, what was it called? Community Portal? … Community Gateway programme – to enable creators to attract their own audience into their experiences. I think ultimately, if we’re going to scale way beyond a million users but tens of millions or hundreds of millions, we have to allow creators to be able to attract an audience from the outside world directly into their experiences.

There we have to think about what does that mean? Does it become some kind of co-shared, co-branded on-boarding experience for people? Because there are too many unique communities and verticals and experiences, that we can’t correctly advertise and drive traffic to those experiences, and it would be much more powerful if the creators could sort-of attract their own audience, and that’s much more scalable. That’s the way I think about it, but how long it will take to get there, I’m not sure.

[3:43] So we’re actually experimenting right now, where we’re doing A/B tests with a welcome island as we know it, and a second welcome island with a live helper so we can A/B test the conversion rates and the stickiness of the product. Obviously, one person is not going to do it, but we’re starting with one person as a very consistent way of treating people coming in. and then we can see what the actual performance differences [are] between those two experiences. We’ve also tried with audio on and audio off.

So we’re doing these little A/B tests to see what works, and if we find that having a live greeter there has a meaningful conversion rate improvement , then we just have to figure out how we can scale that, so we can have people able to meet everybody.

I haven’t seen statistics come out of that yet. I saw some stats of audio versus no audio, and it was like a tiny, tiny, plus for no audio, so we’re now trying with no audio, or no speech, so that … but other things we can do is maybe only certain people can get to the welcome island … and [not] having cuckoo folk show up there … Having a way to … we can technically potentially solve it so that we don’t have to have people kicking people out, but you could be sort of, only new users or … and if you’re a brand-new user, it’s a little harder to grief than if you’re and existing user.

Anyway, it’s stuff we’re actively playing with. I’ll try to figure out when we’ll have statistically relevant numbers from the tests we’re doing, and then we’ll go from there.

[At this point the discussion moves to PR as a means of reaching out to new users, and then moves into the discussion of the Lab's next generation platform.]

The Snow Lion, Oceanside dAlliez; Inara Pey, May 2014, on FlickrCommunity Gateways offer perhaps the most flexible means to meet the needs of incoming users (image: The Snow Lion, Oceanside dAlliez (Flickr))


The first interesting point of note here – and with the benefit of hindsight – is the first clue is given that the Lab is looking towards another platform for mass adoption:

“Hopefully we can have something with the power of Second Life, but appealing to hundreds of millions…” [my emphasis]

The idea of enabling established users to be able to build tailored on-boarding experiences which not only get newcomers involved in their activities, but also provide them with sufficient guidance to be able enjoy the rest of what a platform has to offer, could be a powerful move in the right direction. Not only does it resolve issues of scalability, it is also something that delivers the on-boarding process more squarely to users within a platform, something many in SL want to see.

It will be interesting to see if the Lab actively pursue such an approach with SL, or whether it is something they’ll look more towards implementing in-depth on the new platform. Perhaps we’ll see a little bit of both; the Lab initially “trialing” such an approach on SL, prior to enhancing  / expanding it with their new platform.

The further A/B testing with the current on-boarding process is interesting. Even if one discounts 90% of the current 350,000 (ish) monthly sign-ups as alt creation or spambots*, that’s still potentially 35,000 new users month who are coming into SL, of whom around 80% have apparently evaporated within a month. So any attempts to increase on this are to be welcomed.

That said, whether user retention can be signficantly increased by tweaking at the edges of the current on-boarding process is debatable. I tend to still be of a mind that without finding the means to connect incoming new users on a more “social” level with others within SL, attempts at increasing user retention will be limited in success.  Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the current A/B testing – and in seeing just where else the Lab is willing to invest time and effort in order to try to increase SL’s retention levels.

*Footnote: some claim that 99% of this number is the result of spambots which never actually go on to download the viewer, much less log-in. While I agree that the potential number of sign-up hits by bots is likely to be high, placing it that high is perhaps a stretch, and points toward’s Marcello Truzzi’s statement that such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.