So there is a restructuring announcement from Avatar Reality, the company behind Blue Mars. For my younger readers the title of this post is a reference to a phrase from an election campaign almost 20 years ago - it identified the key issue and kept the team focused on what was important. I use it here because in addition to all the technical issues (Tateru Nino does a great job explaining them) facing Blue Mars I truly believe it was/is the missing component and one required for success.
When I first posted a rambling report on my early visits to Blue Mars I concluded by pointing out I had realized it wasn't a destination - it was a platform acting as a host for those willing to invest in the creation of virtual worlds. What this means to me at least is that their business model doesn't facilitate the most important feature of a virtual world for me - the possibility and probability of a sense of ownership. It is this sense that "it is mine" that makes it possible for a feeling of community to develop. Without "ownership" or "community" there is no draw and no compulsion to overlook technical glitches, politics or errors and continue one's participation.
Analyzing my experiences in Second Life I think this sense of ownership is built in a series of steps and that they have never been a priority for Avatar Reality. This might change but I suspect, when coupled with the technical issues, that it will be too late. To me ownership requires:
- A sense of me as an individual. From day 1 in Blue Mars the frustration regarding the lack of ability to personalize your avatar in a meaningful way was overwhelming. It's been more than a year and I don't care what clothes are now available, or even what skins, those avatars still look like clones. It's as if one small family was marooned on a desert island and centuries of inbreeding have increased the population but done nothing to introduce new genes.
If you have to look at the name over your head to find yourself then you don't feel like the avatar is really "you". I don't think this would make sense to anybody unfamiliar with virtual worlds and I may not be expressing this clearly - but the first thing you must own is yourself - that avatar is not just a vehicle for chat, it is "me".
- A sense that I can participate. Having inworld tools for creation available to all residents means that we can all build something for the world - even if it's just a poster on the wall of our rented house. There are many residents in Second Life who don't build anything, ever. But there are thousands and thousands who do and that means that there are thousands and thousands who have a sense of ownership of the world around them because they helped create it. Those thousands of creators provide enough choice for the non builders to feel a sense of "ownership" just by making their own decisions about what to use and how.
Severely limiting the ability to create means you've immediately minimized the number of people who will feel a sense of pride in what happens in your world. They will have no personal link to the growth and development of even their personal space never mind the grid as a whole.
- A sense that I belong. I mean this in various ways. The first is that "community" you feel you have with like minded residents even if it's just your friends list. You might also feel a sense of belonging to your neighbourhood. But in addition there is always a larger community you recognize even if you aren't actively involved - it might be that your avatar is a "tiny" and though you don't reside in a sim devoted to "tinies" you'll still feel part of that group. Or you're a live music devotee or vampire or artist or designer. You feel a sense of kinship with others who share the same interests.
All of the individual communities in Second Life are positioned on the same grid. We have our smaller communities and yet we know we are all part of the same world. A "tiny" on one sim will encounter "tinies" from other areas either purposely or accidentally because there are no giant walls separating them. I might encounter individuals from multiple communities just by wandering around - I can explore and learn and, apart from ban lines, my exposure to and knowledge of the grid is limited only by my sense of adventure. Where ever I do go, however, I know I share one thing in common with all residents - I belong to the same world they do. I can learn from the work and presence of all residents not just those in my immediate area of the grid.
Blue Mars is designed in a way to put barriers between the individual "cities" just because you have to decide in advance where you plan to go - it does require a separate download for each "location". That type of architecture inspires laziness in the traveler. So I might decide I belong to one or two cities but you won't get me to all of them. There is no feeling of "one world" or my place in it.
- A sense of control. This means everything from being able to decide what I look at (camera controls) to where I go and what I do when I get there. It includes what my screen looks like ( do I really want all those names floating around in the air), who I listen to (muting somebody or watching group chat) and how I move. The more tools available for the residents of the world the more control they have over their interactions and the more personal that interaction becomes.
End user tools have never seemed to be a priority for Blue Mars to their detriment.
- A feeling of safety. This is the hardest one for me to articulate - so I'll probably do it very badly. I can travel anywhere on the grid and if I feel uncomfortable I can go "home" immediately. My home is in the same world as wherever it is I've roamed.
However, more importantly there is a huge amount of "safe" in the knowledge that if I have issues I can get support and assistance from complete strangers across the grid. There are groups and individuals I can approach and if they can't assist they'll help find somebody who can. I can provide advice and support to strangers in the same way.
The size and number of resources available to residents through other residents provides a safety net that is invaluable. We become tied to each other through informal networks as well as our defined social or business circles.
The Blue Mars architecture again puts walls between residents.
I'm sure psychologists and anthropologists will be able to correct my list and add many important things I've omitted. But these are the attributes of Second Life that make it work for me and the needs that Blue Mars just doesn't meet. Without a sense of "ownership" there is no sense of community. Without community you haven't created something which inspires loyalty or expansion or your existence as a viable concern.
All the whining and complaining about Second Life that we see on the blogosphere on twitter or plurk demonstrates how much people actually care. If you don't care you don't get mad or frustrated. After the Blue Mars announcement I went to their forum to see what kind of reaction was generated in the community. I mean we know that every time Linden Lab does something it inspires very emotional responses. Perhaps there is a site I'm missing, but I see no reaction from the Blue Mars "community". I have to conclude that this is because there is no "community".
I feel very badly for the people who have invested a lot of time, creativity and money in the development of their cities on the Blue Mars platform but I think they were fighting a losing battle. I hope their future endeavours are much more successful.