Yes, I’m going to subject you once again to that well-known by now SL10B infographic. This is because much of the discussion on user retention is based on a problematic premise. Once again, please look at the infographic itself.
It says, and I quote:
“36 million accounts created” – That’s the number of accounts that had been created from the beginning until June 2013.
“More than 1 million users visit from around the world monthly” – This is the figure that is typically identified as the number of active users.
“An average of about 400,000 new registrations are created monthly” – I think this is pretty much self-explanatory.
The figures provided in the infographic don’t help any meaningful discussion of the thorny issue of user retention, and this is because:
- In Second Life, it is possible for any RL person to have many accounts;
- The infographic itself implies an interchangeability of the terms “user” and “account”, which is something that does not apply in Second Life, as one user can have a veritable army of accounts.
It’s precisely this interchangeability of the terms “user” and “account” that creates the problematic premise on which most discussions of user retention are based. Sadly, this confusion was something demonstrated even by Linden Lab’s former CEO, Mr. Rod Humble. In his discussion with Draxtor Despres for the 7th episode of The Drax Files, he exclaimed (comparing SL’s new registrations to the performance of other MMO platforms out there):
I think it’s an amazing thing that after 10 years we have a million people active every month, we have 400,000-odd people sign up every month.
And he went on to compare this figure rather favourably to what he was used to in previous companies he worked for (such as Electronic Arts). He also said in his interview with Inara Pey (which you can read as an ebook at Calaméo, or read the summary on her blog), that, of these new accounts, only 20% stick around. When I sat down to dissect Mr. Humble’s talk with Draxtor Despres back then, I pointed out that I didn’t find his claim to be very credible. I simply found it hard to believe that each month 400,000 unique persons sign up to Second Life for the first time, out of the blue.
In my scrutiny of Mr. Humble’s talk with Draxtor, I raised a lengthy, but – at least to me – important question, and I think that, we need to answer exactly this question before we proceed to quantify the issue of Second Life’s user retention. While discussing my previous article on the topic of user retention with Trinity Yazimoto, I pointed out that, if any discussion that seeks to quantify the issue of SL’s user retention is to make any sense, we need answers to no less than 13 questions (which stem from my original question). I refine and expand these questions from that post’s comments section here, adding two more:
- How many unique user sign-ups has SL had since it opened its doors?
- How many accounts have been created in total since SL opened its doors?
- How many sign-ups (account registrations) does SL have per year?
- How many of these annual sign-ups correspond to unique RL individuals?
- How many scripted agents (bots) have been created/registered since SL opened its doors?
- How many scripted agents (bots) are created/registered per year?
- How many of the accounts created since SL opened its doors are alts?
- How many of the accounts created annually are alts?
- How many accounts have been cancelled by their owners since SL opened its doors?
- How many accounts are cancelled by their owners per year?
- How many accounts have been terminated by the Lab due to violations of the Community Standards and the ToS since SL opened its doors?
- How many accounts are terminated by the Lab due to violations of the Community Standards and the ToS per year?
- Concurrency-related: Average number of unique users online and how has this figure evolved throughout the years?
- Concurrency-related: Average number of scripted agents (bots) online and how has this figure evolved throughout the years?
- Concurrency-related: Average number of alts online and how has this figure evolved throughout the years?
Then, we will need to know how other similar services fare. Well, OK – it’s hard to find equivalents for virtual worlds similar to Second Life, Active Worlds, OpenSim and the like, although there are web services out there that:
- have a strong social element like Second Life;
- allow the creation of alts.
From the late 1990s and the early 2000s, examples like AOL, ICQ, MSN/Hotmail and Yahoo! spring to mind. They had communities, chatrooms, and you could easily create numerous accounts. Of course, they didn’t have the other creative and expressive elements of shared creative spaces like our beloved virtual world(s), but we’re talking about the distinction between user and account here. I must say I don’t believe MMO games like Gameforge‘s Ikariam or InnoGames‘ Grepolis are suitable for any comparison, simply because alts there are a violation of the ToS that brings about a permanent ban.
As a matter of fact, I know that Gameforge’s rules are just as strict when it comes to use over Wi-Fi and mobile (you need to tell them which particular device and/or network you’re using with your account), and they don’t even wait for anyone to report you; they proactively monitor things and, on the first sign of any sockpuppetry, the banhammer falls.
Frankly, I’m still rather surprised to see that even Mr. Humble, who was in charge of LL’s fates for three years, had not made the distinction between user (an individual person in RL) and account, thus proliferating a discussion on user retention that is based on confused notions and, because of this confusion, exaggerated figures and expectations. What I mean is that we take a very large number (the number of accounts), which may very well correspond to a much smaller number of RL persons (since anyone in SL can have tens, or even hundreds, of alts), and then try to compare it to the number of RL persons that use SL. We’re comparing apples to oranges.
I understand that this misconception has been quite long-lived among SL bloggers and forum commenters, but I’ll say it again: It’s comparing apples to oranges and leads to dead-end discussions with a fair bit of “the sky is falling!” commentary. Now, while the adoption of such a blatant misconception might be (barely) forgivable to bloggers and forum commenters, I’m appalled that this misconception was adopted by people who really should know better: tech journalists and LL’s management.
- Infographic: 10 Years of Second Life
- The Drax Files: World Makers [Episode 7: Rod Humble] on YouTube
- Prim Perfect, Issue 49, Sept. 2013 on Calaméo, Rod Humble interview with Inara Pey (pp. 102-107)
- Be he ever so humble: my interview with LL’s CEO – by Inara Pey
- A scrutiny of Rod Humble’s talk with Draxtor Despres – Part 1 (this blog)
- Speaking of user retention: Part 1 – the User Interface (this blog)
- Articles on user retention in this blog