Monday, March 19, 2007

Second Life: Where your patrons are–or are they?

Putting on my asbestos gloves, I write a mildly cautionary post.

If you love Second Life, more power to you. I tried it–had to, for a contest, at some length–and didn’t care for it. I’m one of perhaps four million ghost avatars, always to be counted by Linden but never to return (I have no idea what my password is, for that matter.)

That’s me. I probably wouldn’t care for most virtual worlds (except those in fiction). That’s me.

If you want to spend your spare time building library facilities in Second Life, that may be a great thing. I can see possible good learning outcomes. You may get to chat with lots of other SLibrarians and maybe even some who aren’t.

Just don’t tell me that libraries need to be involved in Second Life, in 2007, because it’s “where our users are.” That’s simply not true, at least not for most real-world communities.

How many people actually use Second Life? It’s definitely not the 4.47 million “Residents” number you’ll see from Linden–that’s everybody who’s ever gotten far enough into the signup to register an avatar, even if they’ve never come back.

Even some pro-Second Life enthusiasts who’ve studied the numbers seem to agree that no more than 10% to 15% of these people stick around–one highly pro-SL source uses “10% at 90 days” as an estimate. That would yield no more than about 440K ongoing users.

You can’t use any of SL’s “visited within X days” as particularly meaningful, because “visited” includes all of those who sign up (or start signing up) and never return–and if you look at the growth rate of total Residents, you see that most of those “visits” are actually initial signups.

Clay Shirky (at Many2Many) and Nick Carr (at Rough Type) have been blogging about this, as have quite a few others.

I’ve seen estimates of as low as tens of thousands of ongoing users (probably far too low, depending on how you define “ongoing”). A 15% retention rate yields about 670,000 avatars, which probably represent considerably fewer people–and that may be too high. If you think about how long SL aficionados tend to spend in SL, and the average concurrent users, somewhere in the low six figures seems most likely. (There are something like 50,000 paid accounts, which may be a baseline. If you assume ten “real users” for every premium account, that’s half a million overall.).

But heck, let’s say 670,000–or, being very optimistic, let’s say a million active users, where I define “active” as “spends some time in SL at least once a month, and has returned at least a month after first signing up.” (If you use “at least once a week”–which seems reasonable for anybody who really cares about SL–then Linden’s own figures give you less than 500,000, and that includes a week’s worth of churn, new signups who will never return.)

Best estimates are that slightly less than half of SL avatars are from within the U.S. So that’s half a million, using the most optimistic numbers, or more likely around 250,000.
Out of a population of over 300 million.

In other words, one-sixth of one percent of your users, using optimistic numbers.

By any reasonable standard, your users are not in Second Life. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be. Just means that “that’s where our patrons are” is a poor excuse to prioritize SL activity over much of anything else. “That’s where our patrons might be eventually, and we’d like to understand it”–that’s a decent reason if you have spare time and no competing priorities.

Postscript: Is it fair to assume that SL will grow to be a true mass phenomenon, where as many as five or ten percent of your patrons might show up there once a month or more? I have no idea. Clay Shirky doesn’t think so; he thinks it will always be a niche. I think he’s wrong on a lot of other things, so I’m not suddenly going to hold him up as The Expert here.

Personally, I doubt it, but that doubt is not based on solid knowledge.

No comments: