Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Breaking Eggs

I apologize for the long delay between posts here. I’ll speak on some of the reasons in a moment, but meanwhile let me just quote Neil Stephenson (“Snow Crash”) who said something to the effect of, “When the world sucks ass, there’s always the Metaverse.” That’s not his exacting wording, but you get the point.

I’ve been heavily involved in two issues online lately, in two different virtual worlds. One, of course, is Second Life. The other I will make vague references to but, because of the emotions and relationships involved I’m not ready to really let go with both brain barrels here lest I break something that can’t be unbroken.

The issue is leadership. The issue is also the break between democracy and efficient progress. It’s my opinion that democracy has unbounded value and possibilities. It truly is the best form of government in any situation, even though it has its flaws. Those flaws include an inherent inefficiency stemming from group rule.

Totalitarianism has more obvious strengths, and may appear to be a better choice for any goal-driven enterprise but it suffers from one overriding flaw that always ends up being its fatal weakness: that is, that citizens in that social construct are not empowered and are not invested in the success of that construct as much as they are with a democracy. Democracy’s over-arching power comes directly from the investment of its citizens.

The very best system would include aspects of both.  However, that is at the same time the most difficult of feats.  Picture a high-wire balancing act.  Now picture doing it while wearing a  blindfold.

I’ve long argued that groups in Second Life which are too democratic do not function well. Someone must make the decisions. Someone must sieze the initiative and do what is best for the group. As long as the leaders’ wisdom is solid and their judgment rational, totalitarian groups have advantages in SL. Why? Because the Metaverse is a fast-moving thing — lightning fast. Debate and procrastination will find you behind the curve. You end up being imitators rather than innovators. You end up losing your members and your critical mass. Your group ends up in the dustbin of failed SL clubs and organizations. But too much totalitarianism is also destructive. The best organizations are those which proceed with a balance of strong leadership capable of taking the initiative and enthusiastic, invested membership which supports the changes.

In previous blogs, I have talked at length about the changes which the Archan Community have undergone over the last year. We went from a tightly knit, friendly little community to newbie hell after the Lindens opened up free accounts. We implemented a members-only policy last fall, and while we were initially inundated with applicants, traffic has fallen dramatically. It’s a fact in SL that the most popular places are those which offer free, no-strings sexual encounters (or stores which sell sex products) that new residents can find on the Search function. Archan made the decision to move away from being a truly “free” sex community to being a limited, gated type of community.

There was then a change of ownership and a redesign of the club land in an effort to maintain some traffic. The efforts of those who built the park, a disco and a small club on the land were in good faith and done with good intentions. But the facts were these:

(1) The layout of the new clubs were too scattered and, frankly, not especially attractive. Most of the new citizens traffic which trickled in went straight for the few sex poses that remained in the open area. With a few notable exceptions, nobody was coming to the club with the purpose of joining a community and making connections. The park ended up being arbitrarily deleted by the person who built it, and the disco was only used a couple of times.

(2) The value of membership was undermined. Archan has 1,000 members on its rolls. Very few of those enrolled members ever came by. There was a core of less than a dozen regulars, including managers, who hung out. But the members’ house was abandoned. The place too often resembled a ghost town. We offered little or nothing for members that they couldn’t also get just casually dropping by.

I watched all this happen with a heavy heart, as I had been a staunch supporter of the place since it was founded well over a year ago and had been named Head Manager not long after that founding. I decided to give this approach time because I liked seeing other people so invested in Archan’s prospects. I hoped that it would work.

But it did not. The way the place had been redesigned did not guide traffic with any organized flow. The esthetics of the place were, frankly, mediocre to poor. And the one club building that had the most traffic was so small we could barely fit ten people inside much less maneuver cameras easily.

I saw something that I loved slowly dying. I could not sit idly by any longer – I talked to some of the other managers. A couple didn’t see any problem at all, and liked how things were. But by far the majority of those I talked to were dissatisfied. Most of the managers wanted me to act and to take the initiative in my capacity as Head Manager.

If you know me, you also know that I don’t have a problem with taking the initiative. My real-life career involves this very thing. My company has spent good money training me to be a manager and a leader, and I knew one thing that would inevitably happen: There would be resistance. No matter how much I tried to include people and get their input, there was no way I could please everyone. When you make changes, people get upset. That’s human nature. And when those changes involve changing a course they’ve already begun, the reactions can be even stronger.

I knew that I could not unilaterally do things. I sought and received the consent of the Archan owner and have tried to work closely with him on every step of this plan. I sought and received the cooperation of the most active managers. Those who resisted were still given the opportunity to participate and provide input, but they have chosen not to. I could not wait for their consent. The continued viability of Archan was at stake.

And so, I launched a program to redesign and re-brand the community. We have just completed construction of our new clubhouse, which is now open to the general SL public. It is a massive structure with etched glass windows, skylights, angled rooflines and a large fireplace. To build it, we had to take down some other buildings to make room and free up prims – a step that also met with resistance, but which was necessary. I am happy to report that the core of our staff has been excited about the new building and have taken their own initiative in helping the builder. (The poor guy had to listen to four women choosing textures, can you imagine?)

With that done, I was able to get rid of the old club and expand our vendor area. It is now time for us to develop a more specific business model and to rebrand our community.

Writing a business model isn’t as hard as it sounds. In our case, the ideas flowed from my fingers because I was familiar with the community and our situation.

I began with an evaluation of our infrastructure. This includes what corporate-speak calls “core competencies”, or what we do the best. That one’s easy. Our central drive at Archan is member satisfaction and loyalty. We are, essentially, in the market of attracting and retaining members.

The second part of our model is what I call the “value proposition”. In order to gain the loyalty I’ve mentioned, what can we offer that members want? Is that a sense of community, new friendships, or is it random sexual encounters? Since you can get random sexual encounters in any of a dozen places in SL, what can we do to strengthen the sense of community?

Third: Who are our target customers? This is a more vague one — I would say it is anyone who is interested in a deeper, more cohesive network of members. It’s those who want the feeling of a home at Archan rather than just a place to bump pixels with naked avatars.

Fourth: Revenue streams. This one is a little more difficult since, to date, we’ve run off of the largesse of the owner and any donations he receives from members. He pays for the land tier and the event prize funds. Some of the furniture and animations are donated by managers, but the buildings are purchased by the owner. I’ve suggested that we could redesign the mall area as a rental operation to provide funds, but that is still under consideration.

As for re-branding, we’re working on ideas right now. Our goal is to emphasize “community” and a sense of home among like-minded people while de-emphasizing the “Free Sex” part of our club description. The latter can sometimes attract the right people but not always. We want something that is unique (because Archan is unique) and that sets us apart from the common, run-of-the-mill sex clubs in SL. We aren’t even really a sex club any more, and even if that means our traffic barely tops 10,000 I think the quality of our group will benefit. And we still have places to bump those pixels if that’s what you really want to do.

This whole process has been a breaking of eggs so that we could make an omelet. Feelings have been hurt. People have left or been dismissed. We’ve had disagreements, but in the final analysis those of us who are devoted to making Archan into the sort of unique, long-lasting community we want have not allowed differences to stand in our way. I’ve had to step on a few toes, and that’s regrettable. But I also would never have been able to pull off this transformation without the support of Lec, Kendall, Cherry, Vera, Kelli and Alex among others. They have been my support system and my right hands through the whole thing – to the point that the only credit I can really take is for suggesting that this needs to be done. They’ve taken it from there.

As I look back, I’m amazed at how it all happened. I set out to make changes, and somewhere along the line the ideas grew wings and took off. I think that’s the sign of more than just good leadership. Leadership is only the ability to recognize the need for change — the rest is up to the people who have invested themselves in your community. If you have those people – those “emotional investors”, your job as a leader becomes much easier and more rewarding.



April 4, 2007 - Posted by | Second Life

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