Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Revelatory Speech Presenting Linden Lab's 2008 Vision for Second Life: Pioneers and Homesteaders

@botgirlq It's all about the "Pioneers vs. Settlers" speech. One of the key moments in Second Life history. The end of the "golden age."— Gwendolyn Ann Smith (@gwenners) March 10, 2014   
@botgirlq IMO, you can point to the exact moment things shifted. Mitch Kapor's "pioneers v. settlers" speech at SL5B.— Marianne McCann (@marimccann) March 18, 2014
My last post outlined a series of Linden Lab business decisions between 2008 and 2010 that attempted to transition Second Life from a virtual anarchy to a corporate state. Gwendolyn and Marianne both noted a revelatory speech I failed to reference, presented by Linden Lab board member Mitch Kapor in 2008 at SLB5. I think the speech confirms the underlying Linden Lab strategy I inferred from the events referenced in the prior post. The speech transcript is well worth a full read. Here are a couple excerpts:
The pioneer era in Second Life is beginning to draw to a close. It has been five years and we are at the beginning of a transition and I think it is an irrevocable transition. And I am hoping what you see now is a slide of a technology adoption curve, a classic bell curve that shows early adopters on the left and then a set of pragmatists as we move from left to right and so on all the way over to the right edge of the curve, we show the laggards...  
...I think the pragmatic adoption is going to be fueled not just by business, but in all sorts of other sectors because we can see the value proposition -- forgive my business buzzword -- being established whether it is in architecture or in education or for nonprofits, it is simply valuable for people to be able to use a virtual world. And that is going to make things challenging for people who feel that as the frontier is being settled and there is less novelty and in some senses less freedom, it is always an uneasy transition for the pioneers. And I believe we are going to go through that again.

I can't fault his optimism. At the time, I also believed virtual worlds were going to break into wide public use within a few years. I attended a few industry events that year, featuring current and future virtual worlds such as  Mycosm, Twinity, VastPark, Active Worlds, Blue Mars and There. I listened to dozens of speakers and and conversed in break-out sessions with attendees from companies like IBM, Cisco, MTV, Mattel and universities from around the world. Given the media buzz, the interest of global companies and a growing number of competitors, it was hard not to get caught up in what we now know was premature optimism about the virtual world medium's adoption beyond the enthusiast user base.

Although Second Life didn't meet expectations, neither did other virtual worlds. Six years later, many of them or are dead or dying and there is almost no traction for virtual worlds in the mainstream consumer or Enterprise markets. Second Life actually fared better than most other grown-up focused virtual worlds, because their existing business was so profitable that they were able to weather the storm.

Another factor a few people mentioned in social network comments was that the economic situation between 2008 and 2010 stifled the growth of virtual worlds. Investment opportunities dried up. Enterprises scaled back their IT investments. And many consumers had less disposable income. That's hard to argue with. But Linden Lab either underestimated the impact of the economic situation or were so sold on the future of the new medium that they believed they could overcome the constraints.

Of course, it's easy to judge such decisions in hindsight. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that the decisions they made actually increased the negative impact of the economy on Linden Lab and Second Life. They spent millions of dollars chasing a market that still isn't ready for virtual worlds, while neglecting the people who were doing genuinely compelling work on their platform.

I'm still working on a post looking towards the future and hope to publish by the end of the week.


Cecil Hirvi said...

Their downfall was applying real world historical models to the virtual world.

They built a world, saw the "pioneers" (as they call it) start the growth and they naturally assumed it would evolve like any new undiscovered country.

What the LL Board and this Mitch dude fail to realize is that the virtual world (or pretty much any MMORPG)has a finite audience made up of those who choose to immerse themselves and those casual/innovator types who like to experiment and create.

LL's faulty thinking about how online experiences work is due more to their being no precedence to follow and therefore they can only fallback on what they've learned from history books.

I would wager that the board is altogether unimaginative and THAT is what destroys the experience.

And this Altberg or Eggberg CEO is just a continuation of their faulty thinking.

Botgirl Questi said...

Cecil: I agree. New mediums are always first perceived in the context of the ones that came before them. That was a central part of my presentation at the 2011 VWBPE and something I still write about a lot. What I believe we can learn from the past is the process through which new mediums evolve, which is through a long string of evolutionary, iterative cycles:

1. A new medium/technology is created.
2. People use it and discover things the inventors didn't imagine.
3. Return to #1

In communication mediums and platforms like Second Life, it's actually:

platform creator<--->content creators<---->consumers

To me, the best path forward would involve Linden Lab watching closely for emergent innovation fro people using their platform and then supporting them through collaborative improvement of the platform.