The Two Year Effect: Confirmed?

Monday, December 28, 2009 Monday, December 28, 2009

A few weeks ago I described a theory I had regarding SL population that I called “The Two Year Effect.” The theory went something like this:

Without a defined requirement to stay, people tend to maintain interest in volunteer or hobby activities for a length of time between 18 to 30 months. About two years. If that’s so, then one reason for the apparent declining SL population is that the large bulk of folks who showed up in 2007 during the SL media hysteria are now expiring.

It was merely a theory, and I had no data to back it up.

Until now.

It turns out that reader Louis Platini took an interest in the theory and actually happened to have suitable data available for analysis. If you don’t know Louis, he’s the owner of Metaverse Business, makers of a wide variety of statistical counter devices for use by in-world businesses. His products range from free traffic counters to highly sophisticated systems capable of handling multiple regions and delivering far more than simple user counts. Do check them out!

The data collected by all these machines is safely stored by Metaverse Business so that their clients can make enquiries of their own statistics.

But Louis can also analyze this stored data, and he decided to do so after reading my article on the Two Year Effect. His results are very interesting, and you can read them in detail right here. The data should provide reasonably accurate results, as Metaverse Business has data on over 1.2M unique avatars. Louis employed data collected over all of 2008 and most of 2009 for the analysis.

The analysis attempted to determine the “lifetime” of avatars. In other words, the number of days between their first and last appearance. Some avatars “lived” only briefly, less than 100 days, whereas others have existed for many years. Louis then graphed the result, shown here:

The data shows an extremely steep departure rate right from the start. It appears that many people try SL for a few months and then depart (Give up? When is that easy-to-use viewer version 2.0 coming out anyway?)

Louis shows that the departures seem to follow an exponential rate for the first 400 days or so, then slow a relatively linear rate for the next 1000 days. After that departures slow right down to a trickle. Be sure to read his analysis where this is demonstrated with several explanatory graphics.

So where does this leave my Two Year Effect theory? It seems to be both wrong and right. Consider the exaggerated theoretical Two Year Effect on the chart above superimposed onto Louis’ actual data.

It’s wrong because it turns out that people are constantly leaving, not just after two years. The younger they are, the faster they tend to leave.

It’s right because almost everyone is gone after two years, and the large mass of 2007 signups must indeed be leaving (or already gone).

The fact that avatar lifetime is effectively only 2-3 years must be of grave concern to Linden Lab. A business that has temporary customers must have a strategy to get new ones to replace those departing, and that must be why Linden Lab is so focused on the experience of new residents.

Cory Doctorow and the Robot

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Today I had the great pleasure of attending the live recording session of the Copper Robot Podcast, hosted by Mitch Wagner. The guest was the one and only Cory Doctorow, voice of freedom, innovation and sensibility in the 21st century.

If you don't know who Cory is, you should. He's an award-winning Science Fiction author and also the editor of Boing Boing, one of the biggest websites on the web today. My man-crush derives neither from Boing Boing nor Cory's excellent Science Fiction adventures, but instead from his tireless efforts to save humanity from digital rights enslavement. Every day Cory explains to all who will listen the paradoxes and trap-doors we seem to be falling into as we gradually tie up all intellectual property with overzealous control regimes.

In spite of the event taking place at a very odd hour for SL events (causing Mitch to rise from slumber far earlier than he biologically should) the attendance was massive. Many SL notables were present, including Simone Stern, Stroker Serpentine, Pete Linden, Pavig Lok, CallieDel Boa, Ordinal Malaprop, Hiro Pendragon, Joshua Fouts, Eureka Dejavu, Mo Hax, Opensource Obscure, Pardox Olbers, Fleep Tuque, Lotte Linden and countless others.

Cory spoke for just over an hour before real life re-absorbed his virtual presence. But we did get a chance to ask a few questions, and he promised to return next year to do a questions-only show. Above Haley and I speak with Cory and the Copper Robot. (The Robot is on the Left.)

Cory described how he came to be editor of Boing Boing (as a temporary fill-in while the original editor took off on vacation, and ended up being a full time gig). He lives mostly in Europe these days, causing various timezone shenanigans with his normal Boing Boing editing cycle. The significant result of EuroCory is that Boing Boing posts are more analytical/follow-up instead of breaking news.

Cory described issues that arise when you're running a truly big-ass website like Boing Boing. As you might expect, he receives numerous comments regarding content, often including requests not to write about totally innocuous topics. He's mystified why people don't simply read another website - it's not like there's a shortage of things to browse. Some people just like to complain, I suppose.

Cory spoke about different methods of kick-starting the economy by leveraging radical business approaches. For example, he proposes to liquidate non-functional industrial-age operations to free up capital, then redistribute the capital to entrepreneurs who can, for example, take over empty malls and invent new businesses. However, radical also means politically challenging. Who knows if Cory's fascinating ideas will become reality? I deeply appreciate his explorations into new business models because we desperately need some in this new century.

Cory believes the software sector has been vastly expanded through the use of free (open source) software. He described a free software "substrate" that permits many more people to participate in the construction of software that would not otherwise have been able to do so. Many SL programmers would no doubt agree with this, having used open source software for most of their careers.

One of the discussion topics was the notion of change. Today's education has the unfortunate assumption that things stay the same. In other words, the things you're taught when you're 14 are simply not going to be there when you graduate. And that's just the start of it - things keep changing. Cory himself claimed to have had multiple careers during his lifetime. You must change, and to change you must take risks and be able to learn as you travel through life. There is no job for life, other than constant learning.

Cory spoke of the Hacker Ethic, which is an unconscious urge within all of us to rework the world to better meet our needs. The software substrate, accompanied with the speed of the Internet has permitted this urge to be fulfilled for almost anyone who desires. Cory calls it, "The Golden Age of Hacking". It's what causes creators to create, and is the ultimate engine that drove the creation of the world known as Second Life.

A Real Breath In A Surreal World

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Following up on my last post on Winter products, I took a look at the rest of my Winter items. One of the more popular products lately is winter oriented. It’s a teeny wearable particle effect simply called “Breath”. You wear it on your chin and you “breathe” out steamy winter breath every seven seconds. Just like being outside on a truly frigid day.

Some may say the cloud is bigger than it should be, but I disagree. I designed the effect to match my real life experience. And that experience is based on severe Canadian winters, where the air temperature can fall to as low as -40 degrees. (Celsius or Fahrenheit? It actually doesn’t matter at that temperature; it’s damned cold!)

In that weather you really do get a massive cloud of vapor surrounding your head, and that’s the reality I modeled this product against.

This is one of those items where matching reality actually works in Second Life, as opposed to the surreal giant snowflakes I described earlier. But that poses a problem with design approach that’s been bothering me - should one match reality? Or should a maker produce unreal items? Which is the correct approach?

My conclusion is that neither is the correct yardstick. Instead the measure of success should be the feeling generated by the product. The problem is that “feeling” is a very difficult thing to measure. Maybe this is where those with an artistic eye come to the fore, because they are more able to intuitively recognize the feeling produced. In the end what matters is how well the product alters the feelings of its user, and that could be achieved either by reality or through surrealism.

Can You Feel a Snowflake?

Saturday, December 5, 2009 Saturday, December 05, 2009

Normally, snowflakes melt when you touch them. But that doesn’t happen in Second Life; they merely float away. But you can still feel them.

I make snowflakes - particle ones, of course - and have several versions for sale at Electric Pixels. I’ve had various types of snowmaking attachments and gadgets on store shelves for over two years, but this year I wanted to try something a little different.

I made Giant Snowflakes.

Crazy, you think? Perhaps, but here’s the theory: virtual reality is all about immersing people into an environment. Immersion is a combination of visual, auditory and situational factors that when combined, make the resident feel like they are somewhere other than sitting in front of their computer. We’ve all experienced and appreciate  carefully engineered immersions.

To achieve the desired immersion feelings, I try to engineer my particle effects to be realistic (well, or seemingly realistic for those items that aren’t really possible in real life). For example, my older snowstorm drops thick clods of snow that kinda looks like real snowfall, or my RainMaker attempts to look like real rain.

However, I tried something different. Instead of making realistic snowflakes, which would be so small you can’t really see them on the screen, I made giant snowflakes, a meter across. Totally unrealistic, yet it seems to work. When you see the flakes, you feel kinda snowy.

Why does this work? I believe it’s because the crisp images of snowflakes immediately register in your brain when they’re seen. The snowflake symbols evoke feelings of snow. The unreal becomes real!

I’ve used these giant snowflakes in some new particle effects, now on sale at Electric Pixels. SnowFlurry (image at the top) creates a tiny snowstorm around you, while SnowWeddingRing (image) produces an amazing animated ring of snow around you and your partner. There’s also a SnowRing for singles. And for those who want even more, I have one more giant snowflake item hidden in a hunt item (for the Snowflake Grid Wide Hunt, no less). I hope you enjoy them!

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