Editorial: The Measures of Metaverse Success—And the Value of Community

I struggle with serious insomnia, which seems to be getting worse the longer the pandemic drags on (and no, the pandemic is NOT over). After another sleepless night, I gave up this morning, called in sick, and I am now sitting in from of The Beast, doing what I often do when I am chasing the Sandman in vain: hanging out in Second Life. (Hey, some people play solitaire. Others read or crochet. You do you, boo, and I’ll do me.)

I often like to visit popular clubs to listen to the music stream (sometimes I just park my avatar, turn up the sound, and use it as a radio while I work on something else). I often use a handy free HUD called What Is She Wearing? to inspect what an impeccably-dressed nearby avatar is wearing; in fact, many of my impulse purchases for both my male and female avatars were often something which I first spotted on somebody else on the other side of the virtual room!

Club 511, a very popular adult jazz club in Second Life

Some people are chatting (either in local chat or privately among themselves), others are dancing, still others are just doing a stand-and-model, showing off their avatar style. (Club 511 has a strict no-non-human avatars rule, so no furries, sadly! The Second Life furry community tends to hang out in their own clubs and bars.)

Which brings me in an meandering, roundabout way to the topic of this editorial: community. Clubs in Second Life come and go, and popular hotspots like Club 511 rise and fall in popularity with alarming regularity, but the thing that they all have in common is community. None of these places work without the avatars!

Metaverse platforms bring together people who meet, share common interests (such as jazz), chat, and form friendships, even romantic relationships. Countless couples in real life first met in a virtual world like Second Life (check out Draxtor Despres’ video series Love Made in Second Life if you want a few examples; also please watch Joe Hunting’s excellent feature-length VRChat documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, currently streaming on HBO Max, or on Crave TV here in Canada).

One of the reasons for VRChat’s success to date is that you can pretty much guarantee that, when you log in, you will find places where you can meet and talk with other avatars. Over time and through word of mouth, you hear about virtual clubs and regularly-scheduled events, you start to schedule them into your calendar, et voilà—you’ve become part of a community, and made new friends or acquaintances. (I vividly remember how much fun the Endgame talk shows were, while they lasted! Again, such popular events tend to come and go over time.)

Yesterday evening, I finally downloaded and set up the Sansar client software on my new personal computer*, and signed in, wearing my Valve Index VR headset. My default landing point was, as it happens, the science-fiction-themed Social Hub, newly reset-up that very evening by stalwart community member (now Sansar employee) Medhue.

The Sansar Social Hub is back!

I stood in the slanted rays of virtual sunlight leaving long shadows on the red floor of the central plaza, among the park benches, and chatted with friends I had made several years before, and even met a few new people. It was as if I never left! I have been admittedly rather absent from Sansar these past couple of years, as the platform changed corporate hands and struggled at times, but it is showing renewed life under the leadership of its new CEO, Chance Richie.

The point that I am trying to make is this: even in a social VR platform that might only still have a low number of concurrent users, like Sansar, there remains a hard-core, committed user base who have established friendships and working relationships. They might not be strong in numbers, but they are strong in a sense of community, and community is the reason that people keep coming back. I have seen this happen time and time again, in any variety of flatscreen virtual worlds and social VR platforms over the years. As long as the metaverse platform hangs around long enough (and Sansar just celebrated the 5th anniversary of its open public beta), a community will form—and if they’re lucky, in popular worlds like Second Life and VRChat, many varied and vibrant subcommunities, too!

And I have noticed that the relationships we make in virtual worlds and social virtual reality tend to carry over, not only in real life, but onto other metaverse platforms, too. For example, I have made a point of buying avatar fashion or virtual home and garden decor in Second Life from content creators whom I first got to know personally during the Sansar alpha test period. And many of the people who decided to leave less-successful or failed worlds have also tended to bring their friends and business partners to build and enrich many other metaverse platforms over the years! The seeds first planted in Active Worlds (now 27 years old!) and Second Life (which just turned 19) have borne fruit in many newer metaverse platforms!

So how about, instead of using the standard corporate yardstick of success, and focusing on the purely mercantile aspects of the metaverse, we talk about the communities that they foster, and the valuable relationships that we make because of these worlds?

Let me give you a recent example. The tech industry newsletter called The Information recently published an article titled The Metaverse Real Estate Boom Turns into a Bust. Now, you and I cannot read the full text of that article unless you shell out US$399 a year to subscribe to The Information†, but what they did freely share with us poors the first few sentences of their report, plus a couple of rather interesting graphs:

The metaverse is in the midst of a real estate meltdown. Sales volumes and average prices for virtual land have plunged this year, part of a broader slide in crypto and non-fungible token prices.

Soaring interest in virtual property spawned an industry that mirrors traditional commercial real estate—buyers develop land by adding virtual storefronts, and then sell or rent it to companies looking to set up shop as a marketing strategy or to sell things like clothing for online avatars. Investors who bought at the peak are now sitting on land that has tumbled in value. Meanwhile the real-world economic downturn could weigh on brands’ appetite for spending on building out their metaverse presence.

I notice that, in a note underneath the charts, it says, in fine print: “Includes data from The Sandbox, Decentraland, Voxels (formerly known as Cryptovoxels), NFT Worlds, Somnium Space, and Superworld“. I was actually quite bemused at the inclusion of Superworld, as it is among those buy-a-virtual-piece-of-Earth NFT schemes which provoked a rather cranky editorial from this metaverse blogger! (At least Decentraland, Voxels, and Somnium Space have already launched an actual product, while The Sandbox, the scene of some frantic bidding for NFT-based real estate during the bull market, has the bad timing to be stuck in alpha testing during this ongoing crypto winter. And NFT Worlds just had the rug pulled out from under them by Microsoft and Minecraft.)

I have already written yet another of my infamously cranky editorial blogposts about how myopic it is to only look at the 27-year history of the metaverse from a purely blockchain perspective, but I have another pet peeve: the assumption that the success of a metaverse platform can only be measured by metrics like commodity prices and trading volume, and by how much they attract “brands”. It makes me want to tear my hair out!

Yes, obviously, these platforms need to have some level of economic success in order to stick around and for community to have a chance to take hold; that’s a given. But to ignore and/or mock a platform like Second Life or VRChat for not attracting or keeping big-name corporations or “brands” is missing the point. Metaverse success can also be measured by the strength and endurance of the communities and relationships they foster, things which you cannot assign a dollar value to.

So get out there, explore the various metaverse platforms out there, and see what appeals to you. Don’t let the current gloom and doom surrounding the blockchain-based metaverse platforms put you off the entire metaverse marketplace; there’s a lot more out there than the recent crop of NFT-based platforms. There’s so much going on out there!

So go and find your bliss, and find your community. You might just surprise yourself, and make a few friends along the way. Or just hear some good jazz 😉

OK, now that I have vented, this blogger is going to try and get some much-needed sleep…


*If you have an 11th or 12th generation Intel CPU on your computer, as I now do, you will encounter a bug which prevents the Sansar client from loading. The Sansar team is aware of this bug and is working to fix it, but in the interim, here’s a workaround:

  1. Open “File Explorer” (Win+E), right-click on “This PC”, and select “Properties”
  2. Select “Advanced System Settings”
  3. Select “Environment Variables” in the “Advanced” tab
  4. Select “New…” under “System variables”
  5. Input the text below and select “OK”
    Variable name: OPENSSL_ia32cap
    Variable value: ~0x200000200000000
  6. Confirm that the variable has been added successfully, then select “OK”

Do this, and you’ll have no problems loading Sansar, either in flatscreen desktop mode or in virtual reality!

†By the way, if you do happen to have a subscription to The Information, I’d dearly love to read that article! 😉