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  Linden Lab to Reform ‘Second Life’ Population Stats  
Posted 2006-08-13 by Tony Walsh
After one learns of a virtual world called Second Life, one might wonder about the world's population. The maker and owner of that world, Linden Lab didn't make Second Life's population stats readily available until nearly 2 years after the world was officially launched, but even then the definition of "population" was never clearly described. Historically, the definition of Second Life's population seemed to flit between the total number of people to ever sign up for access, the total number of people to pay fees to Linden Lab for access or virtual land, and the total number of people who actually access the world from time to time. Linden Lab (and the SL community) often refers to "residents" of Second Life, but the definition of resident seems to follow the same wobbly definition of population. Let's take a look back at previous data before we look at the current situation...

November, 2004: 17,000
The virtual world's user base, cited at 17,000 subscribers (at the time, there was no such thing as a free account). I don't happen to have a transcript of the meeting today, so I wonder if "subscriber" was the word used, and if so, what it meant to Linden Lab--people who had paid a one-time fee, or people who paid monthly fees?

April/May, 2005: 28,000
CNET reported that SL "has 28,000 people online today..." but didn't indicate whether those people were regular or one-time users--probably because Linden Lab didn't define SL's population in detail. Avatar Gwyneth Llewelyn wrote that SL welcomes 4,000 new users monthly. Linden Lab staffer Robin Linden revealed that Linden Lab's digital world population doubles in size every four to six months. Linden Lab revamped the SL web site in the middle of May to show "live" population data (I regret not citing the population-count at the time). "Population" still remained undefined.

July, 2005: 35,000
Linden Lab revealed that SL's population exceeded 35,000 residents. Transactions per hour were said to have tripled since 2004, and sales of objects had jumped 500%

November, 2005: 80,000
I mentioned SL's resident population as breaking the 80,000 mark. The likely source for the number was the SL home page. Depending on definitions, this number is over quadruple 2004's population.

December, 2005 / January 2006: 100,000
The introduction of free Basic accounts was a major contributor in inflating SL's population, which reached 100k by the end of 2005. More detailed stats were revealed in January, 2006.

March, 2006: 160,000

April, 2006: 200,000
Population number was described as active number of accounts" by Linden Lab.

May, 2006: 113,000 "active" residents
Data pulled from SL home page (cited here). "Active" refers to the total number of avatars logged in over a 60-day period. Concurrency at roughly 6,500.

June, 2006: 250,000 registrants
Data pulled from SL home page. Over 250k accounts created.

August, 2006: 401,841 residents
Data pulled from SL home page at the time of this writing. Finally, Linden Lab addresses the question "What is that number, anyway?", revealing what it has meant by the word "resident," as displayed on its home page. According to the company's official blog, "The number [of residents] that is currently on our home page is a time-weighted average between 'total number of signups ever' and 'total number of logged in users over the last 60 days'. As of right now, those numbers are 493,563 and 225,028."

To its credit, the company will be publishing the two numbers separately in the future, but I feel like those watching Second Life over the years have been bamboozled. When Second Life broke the 100k and quarter-million resident mark, it turns out we weren't being given the straight goods. The most obvious reason for the shady data calculation is that it makes for more impressive numbers. Factoring in the total number of accounts ever created dramatically inflates the amount of "residents." Second Life has received a tremendous amount of attention this year, partially due to it's perceived population growth. Suddenly, that growth seems a lot less impressive. On one hand, I feel like a bit of a stooge for reporting on previous stats, but on the other hand, I'm glad to have been generally skeptical of SL's real population over the years. Despite Linden Lab's promise to publish more granular data in the future, it's worth mentioning that the company still isn't giving us a very realistic picture of SL's population. How many users have logged in over the last 30 days? How many users have logged in over the last week? How many accounts have been abandoned or cancelled?
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Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
August 13, 2006 @ 4:37 pm
I'm so glad you took on this reporting job over the years, Tony, excellent work. I've never understood the fascination with the numbers of subscribers so much, since that seems to me to belong to MMORPG culture, a culture which is tied very much to how many subscriptions they can sign up, with people who have to buy $50 games on a CD. There's a widely-held belief that the venture capitalists backing SL have this drive to make LL produce more registrations, so they've moved to first a free account, then an account that requires no verification whatsoever, although identifying info like IP addresses and hash marks of computer equipment are taken in order to identify griefers.

Why they would feel there is any valuation in the difference between 50,000 real, signed-on users or 100,000 real, logged-on users, is beyond me, if this doesn't translate to the real valuation of SL: how many islands are being bought, how many sims on the mainland are being auctioned, how many people are buying how much at what level.

In other words, the GNP of a country is how you look at that country's economic health and judge its progress -- merely adding another 1,000 or 10,000 people, if they do not translate into increased productivity or increased expenditure, doesn't make sense.

The industry analyzes game populations this way because the only thing that matters is that game company's bottom line, they either have 1 million people buying the $50 CD or they have 6 million people buying the $50 CD.

Because LL has spawed a world/country/walled garden/unholy mess, whatever you want to call it, it should be judged by the health of that economy.

I'm all for transparency on these statistics so that LL can take their place among their fellow gaming companies, where they still vaguely belong as a genre, and be able to talk turkey as to how many people really log on and stay.

However, the real analysis of the success of the world has to get more sophisticated, and here, LL isn't any more transparent so you still have a reporting job to do.

The number of islands purchased each month is now a public statistic; the only thing is that it has no memory, so you have to be religious about pasting it in a file each month and comparing the rates. There are now 4,000 servers. There were 2,000 servers last year. There are a LOT of islands being sold when you have that much server-doubling.

Last June, when I finally got this information out of them, the Lindens said: "6,000 premium accounts buy first land or more out of a total 9,000 premium accounts" -- and that was when they were claiming their population figure on the home page as 40,000.

Today, it's more, but how much more? Eyeballing the expanding map, the auctions, the percentage of my own tenants I see who go and buy their own rent or buy a deed to an island rental, which is perhaps 25 percent, and the number of people who stop playing and log off and then disappear from the list, perhaps 10 or more (I mean of my own list of customers), then I have to think that yes, this figure of premium accounts could be 25,000 today -- but in fact it didn't grow at a booming rate because people only bought them to get the free stipends, and now that the prices of Lindens are lower, they don't need to waste $9.95 on that, they can just spend $6.00 on the LindEx for the same 2000 L$.

In a company that has a land-based model, i.e. rented server space, as its engine for growth, there's only one way to judge its economic health: how many servers are they selling. Answer: more than double what they were last year.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
August 13, 2006 @ 4:43 pm
The other piece of analyzing the economy is tracking content purchases at different levels. And you can see that information on the statistics page too, now under the transactions. So again, if you could plot a graph showing that there were lots more content purchases at higher levels, whether or not by many more people, or just by the same few who still decide to stay more and buy more, you'd be getting a good economic indicator as to the health of the world -- and frankly, if there's no health of the world, there can't be health for Linden Lab, either (and I wish they'd get that connection burned more deeply into their collective hive mind).

They rely on income from tier, and income from people changing money on the LindEx to buy content, and then cash out income from their businesses. It's the model of a country. At the federal level, the country's only industry is land maintenance fees and taxation of currency exchanges. At the state level (sim level) the industries become more diverse, but still depend on the ability to pay tier or exchange fees.

Outside that snow globe of the world, there's Linden Lab as a company able to get revenue from other things -- but unless they sell a lot of game swag or t-shirts I don't know about, there's only venture capital and related income from interest.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
August 15, 2006 @ 9:19 am
Prok, thanks for the extensive discussion of these issues, I think we're on the same page for the most part. This sums it up the best for me:
"However, the real analysis of the success of the world has to get more sophisticated, and here, LL isn't any more transparent so you still have a reporting job to do."

I hope that we get a wider range of critical eyes in terms of gauging SL's success and overall health. I can only really report from my specific point of view, but voices such as yours, Wallace's, and Au's help to round out that viewpoint. On the other hand, there's still this tremendous amount of fluff and hype billowing out from the blogosphere about SL, and I could use a lot less of that. Ultimately the hype will hurt SL, as it won't live up to expectations.
Comment posted by Tom
August 15, 2006 @ 2:21 pm
There is some information that can be gleaned from the available information. You just have to know how to dig and make some inferences. :)

For example, by looking at the time series of the peak concurrency, "total users" (now known to be fudged), and the "users logged-in over the past 60 days" (all available semi-publicly), one finds that the quantities are all joined in a mutual power law relationship between their logarithms.

Using those results, we can see peak concurrency (i.e. eyeballs, for business partners and advertisers) growing much more slowly than the population number. In fact, the peak usage only grows as roughly the 1/4th power of the total population, so that even if the naive prediction of population growth were correct (3.5M registered accounts by July 2007), the peak concurrency would still only grow by roughly 40% to 12,000 or so.

Next problem to tackle is that of counting what constitutes an honest-to-Crom user. Unfortunately, I don't think that can be done without LL providing finer-resolution login statistics. And that, my friends, I don't think they'll be terribly quick to do.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
August 15, 2006 @ 2:46 pm

If the whole point of this exercise is to estimate the number of people who actually joined and use SL, for the sake of finding the "eyeball number," then it's pointless.

There are no eyeballs in Second Life.

That is, there is no one space, or mass media, or means to reach, the 350,000 members, even if they are all simultaneously logged on at once, which they aren't.

There are hundreds of thousands of parcels of land where people are living. There's not even a networked billboard system anymore across sims, for various reasons (Metadverse, which used to perform this function, was forced to shut down -- not sure why, but it may have to do with measures taken to block griefing by self replicating objects that made such networked systems very laggy. I have a small one myself, a news service called "InfoNut" across 50 sims or so, and it lags a bit, but it is only delivering a single notecard).

Where are the eyeballs? They are only, at best, asynchronous eyeballs, if you put out something like, say, the American Apparel store and hope to get visibility. Only 40 avatars can fit on a sim at once. At the four-corner sims, that's 160, tops, and an unpleasant, laggy experience. A club might show as much as 30,000 "traffic" in a day, a figure which isn't a one-to-one avatar counter but a formula LL devised to judge "popularity" -- based on number of people who stayed more than 5 minutes on a lot.

There's no mass media in SL, as I keep explaining (
There *were* the forums, accessed by a small percentage, but they are being closed down. There are the game-god drop-down blue emergency screens.

There's Linden radio -- but avatars have to be willing to paste its URL to listen to it into their parcels, and they don't, they want their own choices. There's the events calendar itself, which is a kind of very noisy bulletin board -- but my bet is they'll be removing or modifying that, too, soon, since it is criticized by their most influential and established content-creators as tacky precisely because it's a wild and wooly way for many new people to enter the economy and gain entry-level jobs like club bouncers and escorts.

Where will these eyeballs rest upon? It's not like old-fashioned old-media media buying. You can't say "Oh, I'll buy a $100 US classifieds at the top of the classifieds list and reach 350,000" (though that might be your best bet) because many people never look at them -- again, all of these things require people to decide what they want to enter their field of vision.

So people in business in SL scramble around all sorts of ways to get eyeballs through groups, stores, freebies, etc. And of course, ultimately, the game is to get the RL old media to cover it since the world's own internal capabilities for old-style media are so limited.
Comment posted by Tom
August 15, 2006 @ 3:40 pm
Prokofy said:"If the whole point of this exercise is to estimate the number of people who actually joined and use SL, for the sake of finding the 'eyeball number,' then it's pointless."

I was just using the notion of 'eyeballs' as some measure of people that could potentially be reached by a presence in SL as a means of underscoring the degree to which the quoted growth rates of "100,000 per month" or "1000% per year" do not tell nearly the whole story. Of course the notion of getting some sort of mass communication to 10,000 concurrent users by owning a few plots of land is nonsensical.

What I would truly like to calculate is the actual number of users. This is simply the first step in that process. Given the dearth of reliable data that is available, I took a shot at calculating something that could be gleaned from what is out there. Of course, without more detailed login data it will be extremely difficult to calculate the true number of users, although we can already see that over half the people who have ever registered a SL account haven't used it for over two months.....
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
August 15, 2006 @ 3:44 pm
Yes, I see your point.

>Of course the notion of getting some sort of mass communication to 10,000 concurrent users by owning a few plots of land is nonsensical.

Well, depends on the property and events. You'd be surprised at the number of people who have visited Prok's Seafood in Baileay. Or Flamingo Court/Motel of Last Resort in Jaunita.

Also the "didn't log on for 60 days" stuff doesn't mean much to me either. Because people log on *and pay*. It's not uncommon for people to log on, spend a weekend buying a huge house and skins and stuff, and pay up their rent for a month because they want it to "just be there for them". It's the whole "Bobos in Paradise" thing of buying the cross-country skis and keeping them in the garage just to look at and imagine that you might ski some day. Also, some people just don't get their game working and start and stop in fits until they get a better connection or graphics card. If they come on and spend hundreds of dollars, that's how I'd judge the success. It might be like Cape Cod, empty in the winter months and doing all its busines in a few summer months.
Comment posted by shaun osborne
August 16, 2006 @ 5:34 pm
Thanks Tony, a useful historical look at some available numbers for those of us new to looking at SL. It is very apparent after some serious looking around the public webspace that in-world and out-of-world 'real' SL numbers are hard to come by.

Given LL is a private venture funded company them keeping their cards close to their chest is no particular surprise either I guess..

Comment posted by Brace
August 24, 2006 @ 9:16 pm

Are we STILL tryin to find how many real live individuals actually play second life?

We will never know, and I'll make a safe bet that LL doesn't actually know either - since they apparently seem to decline to get into the business of credit card tracking and IP tracking and all that.

Unless of course you screw up and use your brother's credit card - who was banned over TWO years ago - then OMG they'll have yer number in a heartbeat!

and *smooches* for T-Dawg - I miss ya in my own wierd way - havn't been keepin up readin ya stuff lately :) Keep on Keepin on :D (I'll always come back to feast my eyes)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
August 25, 2006 @ 11:36 am
Back atchya, brace -- I subscribe to your blog, but I can't seem to comment without setting up a LJ account. But I'm loving your stories from A Tale in the Desert!
Comment posted by Brace
August 25, 2006 @ 2:22 pm
"but I can't seem to comment without setting up a LJ account."

Awww well dang. I thot I had my commentary set on "free for all - post how ya like"

I'll double check - I'm pretty much clueless on the detaily inner workings of LJ, but I'll get some help :)

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