In order to reach a valid conclusion about the success of a virtual space, we need to understand the reason that space was created. If someone knew nothing about baseball and visited the large barren, snow-covered baseball complex near me that no one has entered for the last 7 months because it has barricades across the drive, they would say what a waste of space. Why would anyone spend millions of dollars to create that? But isn’t this the same conclusion people are making when they decide sites in Second Life and other virtual worlds have failed because they don’t see people there 24/7?
Instead of analyzing success based on the site’s ability to perform its function, they are basing success on the same method used to analyze Web site performance – by site visits and page views. But this is not the correct method by which to measure success of a virtual world.
It is important to understand that virtual spaces are not just static Web pages; instead, just like the baseball park, they are spaces built to perform some function. We have a local government group, MuniGov, that meets on a regular basis in the virtual world of Second Life. If you visited our site, there would most likely be a group of people there only during our meeting times. The site also serves as an area of exploration in the use of this technology. Has the site been successful? A quick random visit will not give you this information. Instead you would have to attend a meeting and talk to members. By doing so you would find that our site has allowed many people to learn and better understand this technology. It has also allowed us to share ideas and practices for improving our job performance. And several of our members have been awarded grants to pursue research and learning of government-related issues using this technology. These efforts enhance and improve delivery of real government services. Could this be considered a successful use of the space? Yes, and this is only one example from our group’s use of virtual worlds.
The other challenge in establishing a true measurement of success in virtual worlds is developing a good general view of 3D communities. And to achieve this understanding, people must adjust their perception of spaces. This is not easy because it takes more than one visit into a virtual world to allow this to happen. I was reminded of this recently when I talked to someone who had only visited Second Life for a few hours. This beginning experience is not intuitive or comfortable. It’s easy for people to decide they don’t like this feeling and then never return. But most worthwhile, life-changing efforts begin the same way. And we only reap the benefits if we have motivation to push past the discomfort. In the end, only people who have made the transition and become familiar with these spaces can really understand what is happening there.
The bottom line is being able to analyze the success of a virtual space is more complex than showing up, seeing no one around, and deciding the site is a failure. The longer I spend time in virtual spaces, the more analogies I see to our offline world. Which makes sense; both are built and used by the same people. But because of this, we need to quit relying on articles and blog posts to analyze our 3D worlds. Instead, we should follow our offline examples and develop comprehensive virtual plans and studies modeled after the same process of analysis we have for community plans. It’s how we’ve been measuring for years the importance and vibrancy of places where we live and hang out so why aren’t we using this approach for 3D places?