Editorial: Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent

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If I could sum up in three words how I am feeling this weekend, they would be: disenchanted, disillusioned, and depressed.

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

It’s not my own circumstances that leave me feeling this way. In my personal life, things are going well, both at work and in my life outside work. Between my truly wonderful Patreon patrons (thank you!) and my Google AdSense and WordPress WordAds blog advertising, I am covering the hosting costs of this blog, for which I am grateful.

I have a growing reputation as an commentator and expert on social VR. I was recently a guest on Draxtor Despres’ podcast. Kent Bye wants to interview me for his Voices of VR podcast about social VR (that is, if we can ever arrange to be in the same physical location on the planet at the same time!). Hell, I am even accepting my first-ever award for my services to virtual world journalism on December 1st! So, things seem to be going well for me.

But what is bothering me (and especially weighing on me this weekend) is the current state of social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, and the many travails, upheavals, and setbacks it seems to be going through. I spent my lunch hour sitting in my local McDonalds, having a text chat with someone who had invested in MATERIA.ONE (formerly Staramba Spaces), who saw my mention of a possible lawsuit being launched against the company in a previous blogpost, and wanted to know more information. I feel for him; like so many of us, he saw the promise and potential of a particular metaverse platform, and wanted to get in on the ground floor, only to get burned. It can happen to any of us.

After seeing what happened this year to both High Fidelity and to Linden Lab’s Sansar, and how so many other projects are struggling to become profitable, I am feeling disenchanted about the future of social VR. I don’t know if this feeling is a temporary grey cloud in my sky, or an indication of something more pronounced and permanent: an omen of more bad news on the horizon, more bad tidings to come.

Having covered the metaverse so assiduously over the past three years, I used to feel that I had developed a sort of sixth sense for determining which platforms will succeed, and which will fail. That sixth sense has completely abandoned me (or, more likely, I never had it in the first place).

I am humbled that I did not forsee High Fidelity’s abrupt pivot earlier this year; nor did I predict Linden Lab’s wrenching staff changes to the team building Sansar. I believed that those companies would continue to build their platforms in anticipation of future crowds; those crowds never came, and it depresses me to admit that they might never come. Whatever HiFi, Sansar, and other social VR companies are offering, few people seem to want it, at least at the moment.

Someone on Twitter alerted me to a brand-new, 15-minute Sansar promotional video posted by Disrupt, featuring CEO Ebbe Altberg and Sansar’s new General Manager Sheri Bryant, along with other Linden Lab staff such as the hard-working Sansar Community Manager Galileo Linden (a.k.a Ryan Crowe):

It’s a well-produced video, and an excellent, upbeat introduction to Sansar to someone who is new to the platform. Ebbe and Sheri and company cheerfully and valiantly hit all the major selling points of Sansar: an opportunity to make a profit selling user-generated content, etc.

But I watched this video, as good as it is, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I used to believe that Sansar was a sure thing, a can’t-miss bet. Now, I am just feeling disenchanted, disillusioned, and depressed. I’ve got a bad case of the social VR blues.

We’ve seen attempt after attempt after attempt to sell social VR to the masses, with very limited success so far. As Shakespeare once said, now is the winter of our discontent. The question is: when will we get our glorious summer?


Editorial: When Holding Back Seems Like the Best Option

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

My original plan was so simple: retire early from my librarian job at the university, devote my resulting free time to learning how to use the Marvelous Designer software proficiently, and embark on a fabulous second career as an avatar fashion designer in Sansar, emulating so many successful brands that I had seen in my time in Second Life.

But, as often happens in life, things have not gone according to plan. My financial advisor at the bank strongly advised me not to retire at age 55, and I have listened to that advice, after seeing how much better my pension would be if I were to stay at my job until I turn 60, for instance (which is the new plan). I will continue to take things year by year, and see how I feel about it all. And 60 is only four years away now.

And watching what has been happening in Sansar this past year, as an increasingly concerned observer, I am not feeling quite as bullish about hitching my wagon to this particular star (particularly after the recent layoffs of approximately half the Linden Lab staff working on Sansar). Simply put, my initial enthusiastic infatuation with Sansar, which has buoyed me over the past three years, is showing signs of fading. And therefore, my original dream of becoming an avatar fashion designer there is looking a little less likely than it did a year ago.

Frankly, I’m in a very good position to take able to take a look at all the social VR platforms out there so far, and I’m just not feeling a tug towards creating content such as avatar clothing (or, for that matter, anything) for any of them. I think I am going to bide my time, continue to watch from the sidelines, and see how things shake out over the next year or two.

I may decide, instead, to pour my off-work hours and energy into learning how to edit digital video well. My producer of the Metaverse Newscast, Andrew William, is still tied up with real-life work projects, which means that future episodes of the show are currently on hold. This might be my opportunity to pick up some new technical skills! (I do have some limited video editing skills that I picked up as part of my paying job, using TechSmith’s Camtasia software to create student tutorials, so I already have a foundation I can build upon.)

The lesson I am learning here is twofold:

  • Don’t be too tied to any one platform; and
  • Don’t be too tied to any one plan.

Be willing to go with the flow and adjust to changing conditions and circumstances. I’m sure that many content creators (and potential content creators) are biding their time as I am, watching and waiting to see what platforms will be worth the investment of their time and money. Nobody wants to have sunk resources into a losing platform.

The vendors might not like it, but waiting to see how things shape up in social VR may be a smart strategy, especially in a time of high uncertainty such as this. Invest in your content design skills using Marvelous Designer, Blender, Avastar, or other programs, test out a few creations on various virtual world marketplaces to see where and if they are popular, and just be patient. Eventually, one or more social VR platforms will have their breakthrough moment, and then you can make your move!

So, what do you think? Am I right or wrong in holding back? Feel free to leave a comment below, or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling discussions and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum! We’d love to see you there.

Editorial: Why It’s Time to Change How I Cover Social VR and Virtual Worlds On This Blog

My blogposts about Second Life are far more popular than those about Sansar

I am only a couple of blogposts away from my next milestone on this blog: 1,500 blogposts. And it’s probably as good a time as any to calculate some quick statistics on what topics have proven to be the most popular in the two and a half years I have been blogging about (as I state in my blog’s tagline) “news and views on social VR, virtual worlds and the metaverse”.

My coverage of the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds has been quite uneven, with most of my blogging focused on three metaverse platforms to date:

  • Sansar (the reason I started this blog in the first place)
  • High Fidelity
  • Second Life (with a focus on freebies)

Of my Top 100 most viewed blogposts since I started this blog on July 31, 2017, you might be interested to learn:

  • 36 were about Second Life
  • 10 were about virtual reality in general
  • 9 were about Sansar
  • 7 were about VRChat
  • 5 were about High Fidelity
  • 4 were about Decentraland

What I find interesting is that there is absolutely no correlation between how often I cover a social VR/virtual world on my blog, and how popular those blogposts are. For example, I write about VRChat much less often than I do about Sansar, yet the VRChat posts are more popular overall. I have written less frequently about Decentraland than High Fidelity over the years, yet more people tend to visit my blogposts about Decentraland.

All this has led me to do some thinking about making changes to what I write about on this blog. In particular, I want to put more effort into covering those platforms which:

  • show consistently higher levels of usage according to publicly published statistics such as Steam, or
  • show higher levels of reader interest based on my own WordPress statistics, or
  • show reader interest based on how often they are discussed on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server.

What this means is, going forward, I will be starting to pull back on my formerly heavy coverage of both High Fidelity and Sansar. Both the concurrent usage statistics from places like Steam, and my WordPress stats, tell me that people don’t seem to be as interested in those platforms, so why am I continually writing about them? I do not kid myself that I am going to be able to convince people into visiting platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity via my blog, and frankly, it’s not my job to do their promotion for them. I should be writing more about the state of the metaverse as it currently exists, and spend less time trying to encourage people onto less popular platforms. Therefore, I think it’s time to reign in my coverage of Sansar and High Fidelity.

(As a side note, one of the first changes I see in Sansar, since last week’s announcement of a new focus on live events, is that the number of Product Meetups has been cut in half, to biweekly from weekly. Of course, if you don’t expect to have as many new features coming out in future client updates, it makes perfect sense to have fewer Product Meetups, where those features tend to be discussed. Daily Community Meetups have also been cut to Mondays and Wednesdays.)

Also, I will start paying more attention to those platforms which meet at least one of the three criteria I have mentioned earlier:

  • Second Life (which is clearly still the most popular part of my blog)
  • VRChat
  • Rec Room
  • AltspaceVR
  • Decentraland

My coverage of Second Life will now expand a little bit from the initial focus on Second Life Steals, Deals, and Freebies, in that I will be commenting more on a variety of topics relating to SL, particularly more announcements of changes to the platform by Linden Lab, and more editorials.

I will also start to write more often about other platforms which I have visited too infrequently, in an effort to even out my coverage of social VR/virtual worlds and provide a better overall picture of the evolving metaverse to my readers:

  • Sinespace
  • Somnium Space
  • Cryptovoxels
  • NeosVR
  • Mozilla Hubs

And, whether or not I am invited to participate in the closed beta early next year, I will of course be writing extensively about Facebook Horizon!

I realize that this decision might be a disappointment to both Linden Lab and High Fidelity (or, perhaps, a relief, given how I have criticized both Sansar and HiFi in the past). But I think it’s time to adjust my blog to the current market realities, much the same as the companies themselves have seen fit to make significant changes this year.

Editorial: Sansar, Sovietology, and Reading the Tea Leaves

In the days of the old Cold War, American spies, historians, and Sovietologists would spend hours poring over published pictures of Communist party gatherings (such as the annual May Day parade rostrums) with magnifying glasses, trying to figure out who was in and out of favour among the ruling class: who was a new and rising star, and who had fallen from power, perhaps even banished to the Gulag.

And, given how Linden Lab has refused to comment publicly on their most recent round of layoffs, bloggers like Inara Pey and I rely on not dissimilar techniques to read the tea leaves, and figure out who’s in and out at LL. (For example, Inara has pointed out that Landon McDowell, Linden Lab’s Chief Product Officer, seems to have survived the layoffs, as she could still find his Second Life account. Yes, such are the straws we are currently clutching at. Of course, until such time as Landon actually pops up to say something, we’re just guessing.)

A tried-and-true tactic (used to parse previous Linden Lab layoffs in the past) has been to check the ratings and stories of recently-laid-off employees posted to the Glassdoor website. One such review, posted Oct. 31st, 2019, states:

I worked at Linden Lab full-time for more than 5 years

Pros: Some hard working people who were trying to do the right thing and ship a compelling project.

Cons: Exec leadership is inept beyond belief. No clue about the product they’re in charge of or the industry they’re a part of. Sansar had a chance to shine, but leaders who were too scared to make important decisions, constant pivots, and wasting too much time building unnecessary tech spelled it’s doom. CEO was an old friend of the chairman of the board who got the job due to nepotism. CPO was useless.

Advice to Management: Fire yourselves.

Yee-ouch! Well, if I were suddenly and unexpectedly laid off, I would be probably be that bitter too. But the overarching complaint here is one that is often lobbed at Linden Lab: that the company has had great difficulty explaining exactly what purpose Sansar was intended to fill.

(Also a note: of course the board of directors is going to rely on their existing social network to find and hire a CEO! That is hardly a crime. And overall, Ebbe Altberg seems to have done a much better job as CEO of Linden Lab than many of his predecessors, as far as I can tell.)

So, all the hue and cry is pretty much over now, and the people who have been let go have packed their boxes and left the premises. Now what?

Well, now that the marketing people (as opposed to the engineers) are firmly in control of the Good Ship Sansar, I think that we can expect what we were clearly told at the Friday Product Meetup: the new focus will be on live events, with a secondary focus on socialization and communication tools, and providing a better on-boarding experience to new users. Anything that does not support those primary and secondary foci, such as further avatar customization and gamification/questing options, will likely be pushed back, or taken off the software development roadmap completely.

Frankly, a new focus on live events is a pretty canny move for Linden Lab. It also helps define more clearly the purpose of the platform (which, as I have said above, is a core problem Sansar has had from the very beginning).

And Linden Lab wouldn’t have to look very far afield to find talent; it is right under their noses in Second Life! SL has been a fantastic incubator for countless musical performers, some of whom have gone on to achieve real-life success, stepping out from behind their avatar.

If I were Sheri Bryant, I would set up a formal program to try and encourage many of the talented live performers who entertain audiences in various venues in Second Life, to consider using Sansar as a new platform to attract a whole new audience. We have already seen this happen to a limited degree with events that Alfy and others have organized in Sansar; why not pull out all the stops and take it a step further?

Of course, I expect there will also be a big push to bring in small, medium, and big-name artists from the real world. Sansar was already off to a good start in that department; I’m quite sure they already have plans in the works for many future concerts and events.

And, as I have said before, I expect that Linden Lab will continue to cultivate selected social media influencers in an effort to get the word out. It’s the best bang for their advertising dollar in this digital age, in my opinion. Like it or hate it, social media is here to stay, and influencers have power.

So, what do you think will happen next? What do you see in the tea leaves for Sansar? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost. Also, there’s the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! I’d like to extend an invitation to have you join us and participate in the many discussions and debates that take place there.