Thursday, October 19, 2006

the turning point

The days of "lets return Second Life back to the giddy, hey-day of..." are fanciful longings now that we are past the 1,000,000 resident sign-ups mark. We are now in the midst of the scaling-up period that Phillip and others have talked about. Linden Lab has always taken the confident stance that they can indeed handle such a thing, but the grid seams are showing some wear from the bulging of all the recent new residents. Almost 50,000 in a 24-hour period of time. This mostly due to Reuters official announcement of it's virtual news bureau presence within SL and this news systematically hitting international news outlets and being featured on Yahoo. Could anyone of us imagined that quick of a jump in numbers? I know I couldn't. There wasn't even that many total in game when I signed up.

I will resist the lamenting, "good ol' days" comments. These aren't necessarily worse days, they are just going to be entirely different ones.

The early, fairly artisan, population lived in wonder of all the things we could create or amazing places we could go and all the personal connections we made along the way. Those experiences all still exist; they are now just tempered with the increased volume of people. It is sort of like adding more background noise that then makes you need to hone better senses in order to sort through things as effectively as you once did.

This is made evident in the current experiences of a newbie.

Last night the grid was awash with them and most of the ones I encountered were very lost and confused. I always try to lend a hand to a new SL resident. The learning curve is steep and often they need some nudging or tools to help them along in their new virtual life. Usually I get the questions of how can they earn money or how to build things or buy land. Often they are just wandering off on their first adventure out of the 'welcome area' nest and want to stop to say hello. I own most of my land in the Darkwood sim, (one sim away from the main welcome area) and Mahulu (one sim away from the New Citizen's center) so I get a fair amount of this type of newbie traffic.

Yesterday was different though, or maybe it made visible the tougher kinds of newbie problems. People who just either had completely skipped any of the orientation stuff (which I know happens a lot) or user's who just didn't get SL much at all, were hopelessly wandering looking for any help or glimpse of understanding. Part of this is due to the overflow of the Orientation and Help islands because of the increase in login numbers to a support system that had to try to quickly respond to it. I know a friend in 'Live Help' was swamped almost to the point of frustration last night. I met a new resident from Turkey who wasn't even able to figure out how to chat aloud, even after a friend, and I tried to explain to him how. Luckily he sorted out how to talk in IM's so he was not totally isolated. Imagine walking around a foreign country and you can not even talk to anyone you encounter.

Some of the responsibility for this lies with Linden Lab needing to rise to the scaling challenges as of late by:
  • Increasing the rank of their Mentor & Live Help support ranks.

  • Creating community liaison positions in even more foreign countries and customer support that is friendly to these other time zones.

  • Creating a survival manual to refer to when in need of essential skills for moving, talking, and user interface navigation that is easy and concise enough for even a non-native English speaker to grasp.

But also some of this responsibility lies within us as citizens of this ever-evolving space. Anyone who brings in a large-scale project that intends to draw substantial numbers of users needs to also offer support materials & staff. Upon visiting Reuter's sim last night, aside from encountering the lag and extremely slow rez period of the build, there were probably 20 - 30 avatars at any given point wandering around. A high percentage of these visitors were newly signed up, since that is how they heard of SL in the first place. Some were hanging out in the main lobby just conversing and wondering what there was to do. Others like myself, were looking around trying to find the new Reuter's HUD. During my time there I spoke to a few new residents, including a business student from Palestine who had heard of Second Life from the Arabic site AITNEWS and from Reuters. But, in all this, no one associated with the Reuter's sim was there. Even if there can't always be an actual person behind an avatar helping to direct people some sort of resources should be made available.

I have often seen the same need at virtual conferences and publicized events that happen within SL that draw crowds of new users. Having a concierge-like helper present staffing the event could relieve this. The most popular SL nightclubs and Slingo game hosts have learned this…now SL developers and companies coming in world need to see the reason behind the concept of ‘event hosts’. They are really support staff. Ask anyone working at the Edge, I bet they get it.

Don't get me wrong; this is not a commentary against Linden Lab, Reuters or even a xenophobic rant about outside parties becoming interested in SL. In fact it is a cautionary tale for all of us. As this space evolves more into the platform LL sees it as and is steering it to be, thought and care need to be put into these concerns. In the end, any build within SL and Second Life itself has to function by the same principals of good user interface design. There needs to be a way to help navigate and support the user/visitor, not only to keep them from being frustrated and leaving, but also help them learn foundation skills, understand the existing community and want to invest themselves within this space.

It's the same overall stuff/principals most of us realized as we came into SL, there was just was a little less noise then and things were easier to understand.

1 comment:

  1. I don't view the rest of us outside the magic circle of early adapters and content-creators as "background noise" requiring that sensitive artistic types need to refine and close their even already-sequestered networks. It's actually a good thing that a lot of people are coming into the world, including many very talented and skilled people, and they can help break up these earlier cliques or at least make them and their perceptions (like this SLOG) cease to rule our world and be merely one take on the situation.

    The idea that the Lindens or the oldbies need to "do something" about the influx of newcomers that will help them *control* them is one of the reasons the situation is out of control. Once they can concede that they cannot and should not be controlling and shaping newbie experience and steering people either to content creation or purchase of their own creations, we'll be making some progress in really grappling with this issue.

    We don't need to upgrade the rank of the mentors -- we need to dismantle this ineffective, privileged, and even corrupt system. Taking care of newbies is a job that needs to be broken up into coherent pieces and outsourced to both commercial and non-profit operations who are motivated to undertake heavy customer service work -- but realize that no service can be all things to all people and this rapid of growth is not going to meet everyone's needs. I do a lot of this work in my rentals business and helping out at Ross and Hyles telehubs, and I have to say that there will always be a clueless core of people who refuse to forcus on orientation materials pushed at them; who refuse even to listen to an answer let alone scroll back to read what you just wrote several times in a row and who will suck hours of your day down if you let them. They want constant interaction and hand-holding and at a certain point you have to ask: do I want to skew the whole system to be resource-intensive to serve the needs of this small percentage of say, nearly illiterate 15-year-old girls from middle America who happened to log on to SL between trips to the mall, for example, or will I be willing to try to make as easy and coherent a system accessible as possible and let peer networks finish up the job of orientation.

    Most people learn their SL not from holding pens like welcome areas or refugee camps like big newbie reception operations but from home-stays -- getting into a club, a relationship, a group, an activity that makes them motivated to learn at least the skills they need to do a chosen activity, i.e. dancing or buying a dress.

    That means you need both professionalized operations that do the basics but also empowerment of lots of smaller operations, from networks of friends to small businesses, that help the absorption.

    Newbies for the most part aren't children, however, and shouldn't be infantalized. They have the same access to a DSL line, high-end graphics card, and disposable time that you do -- so quite a few of them need essentially a paid 24/7 help desk supplied professionally by Lindens, or smart and brisk and non-clueless paid help (unlike the unevenness of volunteer Live Help) that the Lindens or major corporations pay for -- it's really the only way to make this rational and effective. Volunteers will still be needed. The existing volunteer system is broken and not working; the existing orientation doesn't work, either, and admitting that is the first step to coping. See my blog for more commentary.