Speaking of user retention: Part 2 – separate “user” and “account” please

Linden Lab's infographic on Second Life's 10th anniversary.

Linden Lab’s infographic on Second Life’s 10th anniversary. Click on the image for a larger version.

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.

Rod Humble has resigned from his position as Linden Lab's CEO. Image courtesy of Inara Pey.

Rod Humble, Linden Lab’s previous CEO. Image courtesy of Inara Pey.

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:

  1. How many unique user sign-ups has SL had since it opened its doors?
  2. How many accounts have been created in total since SL opened its doors?
  3. How many sign-ups (account registrations) does SL have per year?
  4. How many of these annual sign-ups correspond to unique RL individuals?
  5. How many scripted agents (bots) have been created/registered since SL opened its doors?
  6. How many scripted agents (bots) are created/registered per year?
  7. How many of the accounts created since SL opened its doors are alts?
  8. How many of the accounts created annually are alts?
  9. How many accounts have been cancelled by their owners since SL opened its doors?
  10. How many accounts are cancelled by their owners per year?
  11. How many accounts have been terminated by the Lab due to violations of the Community Standards and the ToS since SL opened its doors?
  12. How many accounts are terminated by the Lab due to violations of the Community Standards and the ToS per year?
  13. Concurrency-related: Average number of unique users online and how has this figure evolved throughout the years?
  14. Concurrency-related: Average number of scripted agents (bots) online and how has this figure evolved throughout the years?
  15. 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.

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See also:

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7 thoughts on “Speaking of user retention: Part 2 – separate “user” and “account” please

  1. I’ve always differentiated between users and accounts, precisely because places like Active Worlds would often tout their users as accounts signed up when in reality most of those accounts are either duplicates or abandoned but on the database as user IDs. For instance in my case, my user ID in AW is 289995 and it is one of the oldest (not the oldest) numbers in the system now over 15 years old. I rarely use AW anymore but the company will still count my account (now free) as a user.

    In the same notion, it is disingenuous to count accounts as users for Second Life or any service because one must be able to account for multiplicity of persona (which none do). The easiest way to *really* peg this down and get some hard numbers would be to attach a user to a real-world identity (such as facebook, google+, twitter) whereby one of those “master identities” can spawn multiple accounts under it as personas and whereby the “real world” identity is only visible to the company and not public if the user wishes to remain pseudonymous/anonymous in public. The other manner is to simply allow multiple accounts under a single Premium Account holder as the “master account” which would account for a single user despite having multiple accounts under it.

    In this manner we can better get metrics more accurately for actual users and not just accounts.

    However, this is unlikely to happen because the high numbers they are touting would immediately fall through when faced with reality and that would look very bad on the company and projections. And so they actually prefer the inflated numbers in a manner of playing corporate politics.

  2. Interesting read again Mona. I like your way of “questionning the question” (as we say here in France). number of accounts and number of users are indeed not counting up the same datas. And i would say that one can wonder about the purpose of a CEO when he use a term for another. If it’s on purpose, its dishonest. If its by mistake or ignorance, its pathetic.
    And like Will, i think this just serve for inflating the statistics.

  3. I am pretty confident LL has a very good idea how many unique users there are. When they want to they have little trouble associating alts with a single user. That is not, however, the statistic they choose to publicize for obvious PR reasons.
    Basically, while it IS important for LL to know that internally, WE do not really “need” to know it. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have better statistics out of the Lab but that might look different from within the Business that is Linden Lab.

  4. I agree with Shug. The obfuscation is there, but LL doubtless have a much clearer idea.

    As to the idea of master accounts Will mentioned, that’s a subject many have tried to nudge LL towards it. There are some pretty significant advantages to it outside of of head counts. See: Master Accounts from 2011, which also references Ciaran Laval on the matter, both of us having been springboarded into blogging as a result of community discussions.

    LL’s position was summed-up by (the now sadly departed) Yoz Linden

    1. The idea for master accounts is very attractive indeed, and I’ve also gone on record for being one of its proponents. Yoz’s response in the JIRA gave people reasons to have some expectations, but it’s now almost 5 years since his comment, and I’m not sure whether there’s been any progress.

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