It’s Not Nearly As Bad As They Say

Friday, December 19, 2008 Friday, December 19, 2008

There’s been extra helpings of doom spooned out at the dinner table of late. Blog posts complaining of this problem or that issue. Residents leaving. Bad press. More bad press. Linden staff leaving under suspicious circumstances.

We’re doomed! Give Up Now! Run away!

I disagree. Strongly.

As far as I can tell, the universe is unfolding as it should, and I have evidence suggesting that things are indeed going to be much better in the near future. Second Life is a grand experiment, a new technology unleashed upon the world, and as such it must pass through several distinct phases. My RL friend Jackie Fenn, VP of Emerging Trends at Gartner, described these phases in a precise manner. It’s called “The Hype Cycle”. (Note: I just discovered Jackie has written a great article on precisely the same topic as this blog post yesterday, even though I had already written but not yet posted this article, sigh.) This is the Hype Cycle:

The phases are as follows:

  • Technology Trigger: The initial period after a technology is invented, where typically very few people know about it.
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations: After a technology is introduced, many people soon realize its POTENTIAL and assume the technology is sufficiently mature to hit that potential immediately. During this phase you typically see many mass media articles touting the amazing things that COULD be done. After reading these articles, some individuals and companies actually attempt to do them, too. Many of them fail.
  • Trough of Disillusionment: Of course, the technology is still new, not only in terms of its raw capability, but also of its users ability to know how and what to do with it. Typically the majority of keen users, initially attracted by the positive media blitz during the previous phase crash out as their projects and activities do not meet their overinflated expectations. Word of these failures is passed around and a general malaise over the technology occurs. You start seeing a negative media blitz. It’s just bad stuff; run away quickly! You’d have to be crazy to do that! There’s something better over there!
  • Slope of Enlightenment: While the majority of users fled, some stay. Their perseverance yields discoveries that show how to really use the technology properly.
  • Plateau of Productivity: Over a long period of time, their successful new enlightened approaches find their way back to the majority of users and increasing numbers of people find great use of the technology. Potential IS finally achieved.

Does this really happen? Yes, absolutely it does. Virtually every technology follows this sequence of events. “It’s a great idea; It doesn’t work; Oh, maybe it does!” It’s a learning scenario for the public at large. I’ve personally observed this effect happen to many different technologies over the years. It’s definitely real, and Gartner actually tracks the exact phase of dozens of technologies along this very curve.

The question is, where is Second Life on this curve? I pondered different techniques for measuring this, but eventually realized it’s pretty easy: Google Trends provides the answer. (Aside: it's the same technique Jackie used in her article.) Google Trends shows a graph of the proportion of searches for a term over time. If we check the search trend for “Second Life”, we get this:

And amazingly, we see a massive peak in early 2007, just at the moment when many people and companies arrived. You may recall seeing dozens of positive media stories about SL during that period. We then see a huge drop-off in searches for "Second Life", suggesting that more people became disillusioned with the technology. You may also notice the numerous negative articles more recently. This is as classic a case of Hype Cycle as could exist. Also, the graph probably matches your feelings toward Second Life over the same time period; it does for me.

Notice on the right hand side of the graph we see the beginnings of an upturn, precisely as the Hype Cycle predicts. Could this be due to the recent actions of M Linden? The gradually-more-stable software? The amazing resident builds? The rise of educational use of Second Life? I can’t say, but whatever it is, there’s a plateau starting to grow.

You may ask about OpenSim and say that many are fleeing to it, leaving Second Life forever. I don’t doubt that some have indeed left, never to return. But let’s find the search trend on “Second Life” vs. “OpenSim”:

As you can see, OpenSim Doesn’t Even Register! Yes, people are leaving, but clearly they are a tiny proportion. The general public has simply no idea what OpenSim is at this point, and those using OpenSim might be called pioneers. If you were to rank OpenSim, it’s probably earlier in the Hype Cycle, starting to head up the Peak of Inflated Expectations. The implication is that at some point people will get disillusioned with it, too.

For fun I also checked the trend of “Virtual Worlds”, and found that it does register, but only just.

The plateau I speak of may not actually be Second Life itself; it could very well be OpenSim as users are introduced to the concept of virtual worlds via Second Life, but then realize there are other options. Today the general public tends to use the words “Second Life” instead of the more generic “Virtual Worlds”. We’ll have to watch these trends carefully over the next year or two.

There’s another interesting aspect of the Second Life trend graph. It more or less seems to match my in-world store’s revenue stream. There were a lot of sales until late 2007, and then things mysteriously dropped off. Only now are they beginning to recover for me – just as the plateau is emerging.

So stop frowning and try to smile; things are definitely not as bad as they say.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. To be honest, I'm more than tired of lots of folks (some of whom I very much admire) who constantly bash on Second Life & it's problems. I've seen enough history in the tech field that I am careful to keep expectation in check while still letting my mind wander and get excited about future potential.

I don't expect perfection. I expect improvement. I've been in Second Life for over 2 years now, and I have seen definite improvements in my time here. I've heard some people lately say the opposite, that nothing has improved, it's as slow and bad and pitiful as it always has been, or that it's in fact gotten worse. Clearly they are speaking from their own emotions rather than fact. Or perhaps they are trying to use SL on an ancient relic of a computer and wonder why it's doesn't run perfect.

For years I've been running the type of software that is more likely to freeze up your computer than to not (after effects, video editing, 3D progs, huge photoshop or illustrator docs), and I don't cry and scream every time that happens. I learned to save a lot, reboot often, and look forward to a more stable future.

Harper Beresford said...

It can't be easy being a Linden. I say this because so few consumer products have their users so intimately connected to and able to complain, piss, moan, and make stuff up on the company's web pages and media. The very intimate relationship that Linden Labs has established with their customers (and hello? that's what we are!) is unique. It also leaves the door open for Linden Labs to be mostly unjustifiably attacked.

I am seeing: much less downtime, much fewer crashes, much higher concurrencies, much more interesting content, and much more versatility with Second Life than I did when I started. Heck, I am seeing more of it in the past three months!

I agree with "queenkelle" and Arminasx. I am tired of the naysayers and the know-it-alls.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thoughtful analysis.

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