Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Will Microsoft or any other buyer want to buy an empty Second Life shell?

Linden Lab recently served notice that they were going to double the tier fees for non-profits and educational sims, sending universities, non-profits and graduate students with limited budgets into a flurry of thoughts about how to cut 50% of their costs. Some are talking about reducing sims, some are talking about sharing sims, and others are talking about leaving SL entirely. Very few have the ability to simply double what they pay to Linden Lab. Average residents reel as awareness grows that the heart will be carved out of the SL community with the loss of so many of the educational and non-profit organizations and individuals who have contributed so much.

Speculation on listservs and blogs includes the thought that LL hopes to make their bottomline more attractive by inflating their Accounts Receivable, but are these rents that they will really be able to collect?

In an economic climate where most are cutting their budgets (from all sectors)it is guaranteed that, instead, those organizations who elect to stay in Second Life will make do with half of the space. Even in good times, a increase in project budget of this size would take time for an educational institution or research project within the organization to respond to: allocation requests would have to be submitted and approved, grants would have to be applied for, decisions would have to be made. Had there been any warning of this fee increase, or had it been phased in gradually, some institutions might have been able to adjust. However a sudden increase like this in another lightening fast reversal of previous Linden policy not only makes educators feel unwanted, it adds to the long list of sudden reversals, changes, flip-flops, contradictory policies that have shaken the confidence of residents at every level of participation in the virtual world. But the bad news won't stop there!

I fear that some decision-makers at Linden Lab may think "So what, let them go, we don't make most of our money on educational sims and non-profits! Let's free up resources to be used at full market value."

The trouble with that view is a blindness that has plagued LL since the beginning. Despite the occasional platitude, all their actions seem to betray a firm mindset that Second Life's attraction and retention rate is solely or primarily the result of what Linden Lab has developed, Linden marketing and orientation of new avatars. What would Second Life be like without the user-created content? Vast lands of the same few trees, land textures , or and let's not forget those Linden Homes! Is this a place anyone would find interesting? How many of the more interesting builds in SL have been created by non-profits, universities, students and non-profit volunteers within Second Life? I don't have any research but anecdotally most of the interesting builds I am aware of from the Sistine Chapel to the Center for Water Studies to the SL Quaker Meeting House are all educational or non-profit sims. How many interesting builds are created by business? Will an SL of endless shopping malls and big box stores attract more or less citizens?

But avatars' engagement with SL and retention of interest in the virtual world does not stop with exploring builds, in fact in my observation, that's a minority interest. I meet a lot of new residents at Music Island. People come into Second Life wanting to socially interact with others and to do things that interest them. If you look at the listings in the Second Life search engine for things to do, how many of those opportunities are provided by business? How many are provided by individuals? How many are offered by non-profits? How many are hosted by educators?

Once you get past the sales and gimmicks to increase sim traffic stats for businesses, you find many events, exhibits, conferences and discussion groups are created by educators and non-profits. With Linden Lab's doubling of fees, will these events decrease by a corresponding 50% or will there be more of a snowball effect that will more drastically reduce interesting educational, artistic, and informational content within Second Life?

A fair number of other events you see on the SL listings are created by well-meaning individual residents as volunteers. Music Island concerts falls into this group. Many of these individuals, whom I know as colleagues, are willing to give back to the Second Life community because of the quality of the community--a community that includes educational institutions and non-profits that they are a part of or support. In turn, they enjoy being in Second Life themselves because of the enriching atmosphere of learning, discussion, discovery and fun. Other individuals are running pilot projects that they had hoped to run in association with an educational or non-profit organization in the future, or incorporate as a non-profit themselves.

New residents' principle source of help in Second Life is from educational organizations and non-profits who provide free or PWYC (pay what you can) resources including freebie walls, orientation packages and courses in building, making clothing, how to roleplay, and discussion groups on SL relationships/identity issues. I think it is highly likely that I would not have been in SL for the past 5 years had it not been for groups like NCI that taught me to build and pointed me to things of interest. Over those years I have contributed thousands of dollars to the SL economy directly, and contributed much more indirectly through my unpaid labour in coordinating concerts for the benefit of SL musicians and audience members. Every potential resident like me who fails to be engaged in SL because there are fewer non-profit courses, events and support location is a huge loss in revenue stream down the line for Second Life.

Last week, at Music Island I hosted a concert by an SL musician who is a great favorite among our audience, Young Zeid. The sim was full and I was gratified to see among the audience some avatars who had not been online for awhile. I spoke to some in IM. From them I heard similar stories. "SL has not been the same lately with the lay-offs, the damned new viewer, a lot of sims closing, my friends leaving, my project cancelled. . . BUT... I saw your listing for a concert by Young in my email and it seemed like a good time to come back online and visit here and see what's going on. Concert is great and it is good to be here". This was a demonstration of something that should be obvious to Linden Lab, people are retained in Second Life when they have a community and as Richard Florida has pointed out, the creative class of educational and creative workers contribute their weight in gold to the economic health of communities.

If educators and non-profits leave Second Life, it will be less painful for them than it will be for Linden Lab and for individual Second Life residents. Educators and non-profits can migrate their projects to OpenSim or other virtual worlds, for many it will have little impact on their ablity to deliver their courses and projects. However individual SL residents will miss out on the participation and content contributions of educators and students in the community.

My dedication to Second Life was based on the idea that it was a platform that could make a difference in global understanding, the environment, democratic participation, arts practice... a score of different things that were the result of non-profits and volunteers choosing to work within this virtual world.

My Second Life includes non-profit workers, volunteers and educators.

On the demonstrated principle that Linden Lab only cares about money in these days, I would suggest that as a community we take the following actions:

1. Twitter/blog/post everywhere that there will be a vast reduction in interesting content on SL if non-profits and educational institutions leave SL.

2. Boycott Marketplace in protest but support your SL businesses inworld.

3. Ask people to pledge a discontinuance of Premium Accounts by Dec 31, 2010 if LL does not continue discounts for Education and Non-profits.

4. Start Facebook/Linked-In groups to publicize actions.

5. Spend spare minutes in SL at welcome centres handing out notecards to newbies telling them how their SL experience will be adversely affected by the reduction in non-profit and educational presence in SL

6. On a protest day (TBD) cancel all eductional, non-profit, and affiliated events. Publicize the results in attendance.

If you do any of the above, please post in comments here so we can all support each other's effort to build a protest to this disasterous course of action.