Any PM who has worked with customers extensively learns how to deal with the hard cases. There are different species of difficult customers, such those who exaggerate every problem to the level of a showstopper, or the ones who think there's only answer to every implementation question.

Product teams often worry that social media will just open the door to a larger, louder group of problem customers. That's not the typical result, for a variety of reasons (healthy communities police their own members, teams sometimes exaggerate how unreasonable customers are, etc.).

What product teams should worry about is the potentially insidious influence of the customers who love them. That phenomenon may be part of the explanation why Second Life, once touted as the vanguard of virtual world technology, seems to be getting a lot less attention than it used to. (Certainly, the public attention to Second Life pales in comparison to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Second Life: The new "vast wasteland"?
Although I never felt a strong compulsion to use Second Life, I try to keep an open mind. Maybe there's more valuable activity happening in Linden Lab's virtual world than I've experienced, or read about, or heard from organizations who have experimented with establishing a presence in Second Life.

That's why I read "What Ever Happened To Second Life?" at PC Pro, editor Barry Collins' experiment in jumping back into Second Life. The executive summary: hard to find anyone at all, except in the carefully-delineated porn enclaves.

That conclusion inspired many outraged Second Life afficionados to give Collins a piece of their minds. If only Collins had dug deeper into Second Life, they argued, he would have found a thriving community busy doing useful things, such as teaching. And, obviously, Second Life has considerable potential as a creative outlet, particularly for people who want to create 3D, moving representations of things normally depicted in 2D, static terms.

Collins' critics may be right. Beyond the small slice of Second Life that's immediately visible, there are interesting things happening in Second Life. Some of the people who responded to Collins cited live concerts, college courses, NASA's 3D museum of the space program, and the "steampunk" community of New Babbage. Depending on your tastes, at least one of those Second Life offerings should sound interesting. (Truth in advertising: I haven't checked them out personally, so I can't tell you how good the experiences really are.)

The user experience of yesterday, now for today and tomorrow!
Unfortunately, Collins is also right. The initial experience of Second Life is at various times bewildering, frustrating, and disappointing. When I tried out the client application about a year ago, it was still how I remembered it, slow and buggy. Where MMORPG companies like Blizzard and Paragon have honed their UIs to the point of maximum usability, accommodating both first-time and veteran users, Second Life's UI is a pain to figure out and use.

Even after you've soldiered past these problems, Second Life gives you very few clues about what kinds of content might be out there, somewhere in the Lindenverse. Therefore, the claim that one of Collins' critics made, "You get out…What you put in," overlooks the fundamental flaw of  Second Life: new users have no idea what they could get out. Or even what's already there.

There's no question that Second Life has a lot of very happy users. The aficionados are right: if you put sufficient effort into Internet searches about Second Life content, or search within Second Life long enough, you'll probably find something interesting. Unfortunately, the investment in time is probably more than most people are willing to invest (if they even considered Googling for content about Second Life outside of Second Life). Second Life may work for the people who responded to Collins, but that doesn't make Second Life poised for growth.

Customers who love you to death
Gaetano Mosca noted the tendency of an elite group to form in any organization–what he called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The elite wields some combination of power and influence, more or less of each depending on the setting. In the US Senate, senior senators have power over things like committee appointments. The parents who really call the shots at PTA meetings may not sit on the PTA board at all, but have considerable influence over the faculty, staff, and other parents. (And then there's this comic but terrifying story of a bare-knuckles political battle among department store Santas…)

The same Iron Law holds true of user communities. Over time, a subset of customers emerge who participate regularly in user group meetings, discussion forums, the comments sections of blogs, groups in social media channels, and other channels of face-to-face and electronic communication. Because vendors are interested  in feedback, this group of notables get increasing attention from product managers, product marketers, and the like. Unless the company takes deliberate steps to mitigate the Iron Law of Oligarchy, a small and often unrepresentative sample of users will wield disproportionate influence over the vendor's thinking about products and services. 

Second Life is an extreme case of how you can develop a very happy group of customers, and still fail miserably at reaching a wider audience. Some businesses are comfortable with that outcome, as long as the customer base stays loyal, and the business stays profitable. Most would be terrified to discover that their best customers are, in subtle ways, holding them back. I can't say for sure that the Second Life notables are the reason why the UI is still klunky, and the useful content is hard to find, but I definitely have my suspicions.

It's odd, in an age of social media that pull in millions of new users every month, to see one of the original members of the social media glitterati fade into the background. Stripped of the most dorky or pornographic elements of Second Life, there's definite potential there to attract an audience of people who may occasionally want to tour the ruins of Rome, or talk with band members after a concert. While the Second Life diehards might know if these were more than just possibilities, the larger world of people who might be Second Life customers do not. And Collins isn't the only person to have had trouble finding signs of life in Second Life.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]