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The Virtual Whirl: A crisis of confidence

Tateru Nino

Most things in the world operate on faith. Governments, currencies, intellectual property, human rights and brands all require certain minimum levels of belief and confidence in order to function.

When it comes to virtual environments, as I've maintained in the past, faith is critical.

Over the last 30 years, I've migrated from one virtual environment to another. You've probably never even heard of most of them, and you may not really have been aware of any prior to the advent of the 21st century.

Some were games, and some weren't. Most had user-generated content, but some didn't. Few had graphics. Some were commercially operated, and others were hobbyist efforts. Some had hundreds of staff, and some had just one.

Leaving aside the current generation for a moment, they all had one thing in common. They all died.

They all died because of a lack of faith among the users. In the face of a lack of faith in the operator of the environment, nothing could hold the users together. Not money, not property, not social connections, not time and energy invested. Either the environment died by degrees or it suddenly reached a tipping point where users stopped logging in en masse.

Why should virtual environments require more faith than brands, or governments or economics or copyrights though? Oftentimes considerable doubts exist about each of these, and in vast numbers of people. Why should a dollar, for example, require less confidence to function than a virtual environment?

Because: All of these other things, ubiquitous as they may be, only touch us as users intermittently or indirectly (or both). Each individual thing touches us sporadically. Even if you have no faith in your government, you might still have plenty in currency, or Apple Computer, or patents. You don't have to have faith in everything. Just in enough things.

Most virtual environments, however, are monolithic.

There's a single developer/operator who sets policy, enforces rules, sets strategic goals, provides support, handles bugs, and all of that.

The operator's actions and choices affect you for practically every second that you're logged in. The operator's choices constrain your own, and the operator decides what the virtual environment will be when you log into it tomorrow; whether the operator lets you know about it or not.

I've got to have faith!Because the operator has unilateral control over every aspect of the platform, it doesn't matter whether you have faith in the currency, the technology, practical governance or anything else. It is faith in the operator that is crucial.

If you don't have that faith, you'll leave sooner or later. It is inevitable.

Managing customer confidence in the operator, therefore, is absolutely vital to any operator's long-term strategy. It is the one indispensible aspect of the business.

Linden Lab had a round of extraordinary layoffs back in 2003, and Second Life itself would have ceased to exist, if it were not for the faith and confidence of the users. That faith held the business together until it could find its feet.

There is a lesson here for any virtual environment operator. The only thing you cannot afford to do without is the faith and confidence of your users. Not in your platform, or technology, or currency or economy; but in you. As it erodes, it becomes increasingly difficult to reclaim.

Squander it at your peril.