Second Life and Emotional Closeness

[This article originally appeared on my blog in June 2010. -Ed.]

So the recent tumult at Linden Lab got me thinking about the lab, Second Lifeā„¢, virtual worlds in general, people's brains and business. And Apple; i live in the bay area, so when the subject turns to "turn around stories" we start talking about Apple.

Yes, you know.. Apple. The people who make the iPad, iPod, iPhone, iTouch and iEverythingElse. It's hard to believe, but there was a time when apple products were the domain of artists, students and assorted nut-cases like me who just wanted to be annoyingly different. Before the iPod, apple's profits came from selling half-rate knock-offs of the Xerox Alto system software wrapped around well designed, but marginally manufactured hardware (until they started selling half-rate knock-offs of the Xerox Alto system software wrapped around Avi Tevanian's master's thesis micro-kernel wrapped around well designed, but not completely marginally manufactured hardware.)

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a wintel bigot; nor am i an apple hater. I'm just telling it a little bit like it is to make a point. In the 1990's and early 2000's, you were a fool to waste time with Macintosh products. They were temperamental, expensive closed boxes and using them set you off from the wider community of PC users and the bazillion programs you could run under Microsoft Windows.

As much as Guy Kawasaki likes talking about how the early mac team was trying to build something "Insanely Great," the Mac operating system rested too much on it's laurels. Throughout the late 1980's and 1990's, Apple's Steve-Jobs-less leadership frittered away it's leadership position shuffling business units, preparing them to be the "next new thing." While the public was introduced to a stream of "interesting" products like the Newton, PowerCD, QuickTake, CyberDog, OpenDoc, Pippin and MacintoshTV.

By the mid-90's, Apple's arch-nemesis to the north was nipping on their heels with Windows-95 and MS Office. The good news for apple was the decision to build user centered software with GUIs instead of crufty command sequences was vindicated. The bad news was that the courts allowed Microsoft to rip off apple's look and feel (which was really largely Xerox's look and feel, but let's not go down that rabbit-hole.)

And then Steve Jobs returned from the corporate hinterland, slashing projects, killing divisions and laying off staff. At the time, apple employees had a term for it, it was called "steve-ing." as in... "Wow. They laid off the kitchen staff for Mariani 1, i think Imaging Products Division is going to get steved."

So Jobs came back, turned apple around and today iPads are flying off the shelf and jobs hob-nobs with guys who can launch nuclear missiles at the Google campus.

But what changed? Why are apple products now cool? (Yes, this is where we start talking about Second Life)

Apple products are cool because Apple products appeal to both a user's need for functionality AND the user's emotional closeness to the experience of using those products. Apple products are cool. They delight. When you use them, they treat you like a movie star. They make you the center of their little device universe. They are cool and that coolness rubs off on you. So no matter how much of a dork you are, if you're using an iPhone, you feel like one of the cool kids. [At least this is how Apple products were perceived in the late 2000's. -Ed.]

Can we say that about linden lab products now?

Okay. Loaded question. Let me ask it another way. How does second life have to change to bring back that sense of emotional closeness?

Back in 2005 and 2006, the hype cycle was in full swing. Everyone was convinced that this was the wave of the future and we would soon all be virtually working in our virtual offices. So you couldn't teleport or you crashed every 15 minutes or the whole grid had to reboot every Thursday? It wasn't a problem because you were experiencing "the future." And when you participated in the future, it made you cool.

But the future was a reasonably crappy place to work. Prototyping real products in Second Life was annoying at best, and often impossible. You could have a virtual PC on top of your virtual desk in your virtual office, but it was just a prop. You couldn't use it to collaboratively edit documents with people in your virtual crib until very, very recently.

Second Life was a taste of the future; distance would soon be a thing of the past. We would have meaningful human interaction virtually.

But the promise of Second Life wasn't enough to keep the broader community of technology innovators "emotionally engaged." That a core group of enthusiasts drove the content creation economy with such primitive tools is testament to the creativity and ability of Second Life's residents.

For the broader community of content designers who wanted to use Second Life to build things that would interact with the outside world, or even live mostly in the reified world, the time to frustration was often much shorter than the time to delight. And when you have a tool that frustrates you more than it delights, it's hard to have emotional engagement.

And that's where we're at now... Second Life is a pretty cool niche with a comparatively small community of people using it to build engaging experiences. For the last several years the business guys at linden have been trying to figure out how to break out of that niche.

Philip Rosedale's return to the helm of linden has invigorated the community, and everyone seems to have a different opinion of how the world went wrong and a different narrative for restoring it to its former glory.

Some view Second Life as a "platform." That is, linden's value lies in it software. Either as a service (as it is now) or as a product (like SL/Enterprise), they say that untold riches await the lab if they could just figure out how to market it properly. To grow adoption, you simply reduce costs, develop new markets and watch the cash roll in.

Others view Second Life as a "community." That is, it's value lies in it's community, waiting to be monetized with search and ad sales. Make it easier for facebook and twitter users to convert into Second Life users and watch the cash roll in.

And some people point to Steve Jobs' success in converting apple from a maker of second-rate computers into a consumer electronics powerhouse and say the lab should adopt an "experience" strategy: engage customers and give them an experience that is emotionally meaningful for them. Perhaps that means enhancing the graphics capability or enhancing in-world music events.

But the truth is, none of these approaches will work by itself. Linden and Second Life are at an inflection point, much like apple was in 1996 before Steve Jobs returned to re-orient the company. Apple had it's strategic re-organization that involved layoffs and management changes.

But one thing to consider is it took Steve Jobs about five years from the time he returned to the time the iPod was released. So even if linden is pointing in the right direction, it could be years before we see the next big thing out of the lab.