Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tonight, On A Very Special Episode of Dot Lane, Girl Reporter.....

Dot Lane, Ready For Slings And Arrows

On Plurk, Sachi Vixen recently asked "if people think that the freebie/hunt culture in SL is damaging to the economy and to designers. What do you think the future holds?" Since Sachi and I have talked about this issue in world, and God knows I'm not shy about offering an opinion, I thought I would take a crack at an answer, free of the 140 character limit Plurk imposes.

Shopping and Self

Is shopping in Second Life® (SL) a transmutation of the real life (rl) desire to acquire? I'm sure it is, in combination with a transmutation of real life desires for attention and praise and beauty. I mean, really, why do you think I write my blog? I'm alternately embarrassed and secretly pleased by the praise I get. But this can be a difficult trap: one has to keep finding new ways of being fresh, different, not like everyone else. We regularly seek to reinvent ourselves and this means buying new clothes, becoming a space demon or a giant jello mold, or having sex with unicorns, among the myriad choices which are available to us. But after a certain point, we find, just as in real life, that our desires are limited by our ability to pay for them, except for unicorn sex, which is apparently always free.

As I noted in a post a few days ago, it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed in SL these days. While hardware and information distribution systems may be scalable, our attention span is not. Fashion Consolidated notices, generated through the group created by an SL business promoting new fashion releases, come out at an astounding rate when I'm in world, and I can only imagine how many I miss when offline. The number of blogs about SL appear to grow exponentially and most seem to be about fashion, but I have to confess I read very few of them, and, judging from my blog's traffic, I assume the converse is true. Then again, I've always considered myself to be the licorice of bloggers and something of an acquired taste, so I'm not surprised at my traffic, but the ever increasing demands on people's time makes it hard to build a readership no matter how well done or widely appealing one's blog is. What's that? Right. An astute reader just noted that, Sachi asked about the state of the SL economy, not my own personal issues, which are legion. I do think my experience points to a larger problem however, one that has a real world analog, and that is the idea that the increasing overload of information and shopping opportunities slows the SL economy by creating paralysis of choice.

(/me waits for you to read the New York Times article)

(no, really, you need to read it /me taps her foot and points to the link above)

(I know you know how to read, since there aren't any pictures in this post. Oh, you're done? Good. Carry on.)

How does paralysis of choice manifest itself in world? Think about what happens when someone asks you for fashion advice. How many times have you heard someone ask for the "best" of something? You can generally answer that question, perhaps with a few caveats, but at least you know what is best for you. Now think about the responses that same question gets when asked of the Fashion Emergency group. You may as well count the grains of sand on a beach.

What is going on? First, in SL, it is hard to know the universe of choices. Asking someone what "is the best [insert product type here]" , is a way of doing research, of making sure if one is going to spend money that ten minutes later he or she will not come across a better, more appealing choice. Second, asking for advice can also be a way of confirming preconceptions about a brand. “Oh, you recommend skin x? I've always liked their work too.” Third, and perhaps most of all, people, especially when new, are limited by their account balances and are afraid to spend precious lindens on clothes they won't wear or hair they end up hating or on something which other people think is uncool. Choices in world are virtually unlimited, and for things we don't normally buy in RL: skin, hair, talking private parts. If there were only three hairstyles in world, it would be easy to make a choice, when there are thousands, well, good luck. Have you shopped for black knee high boots? A little black dress? It's much easier not to buy and wait for the new new thing to come out and then not buy that either.

So Dot, What's Your Story And Do You Need A Ladder To Get On That High Horse?

When I was new in SL, I did the usual tour of freebie spots, finding odds and ends that seemed to suit my style at the various freebie stores, ragpicking through folders of full perm clothing people dropped on me, taking advantage of free skin and hair offers from places like Sin Skins and Gurl 6. I was essentially clueless: I hadn't even thought to look for blogs about style, and most people I met weren't particularly well dressed. There were exceptions however, and I was lucky that early on someone took mercy on me and gave me 5000L as a gift. With advice from a few people, like the girl at Popscene who told me about CKS Designs, and some investigation on my own, I started to build a wardrobe. Those early purchases are easy to remember--the “Tweed Mod” outfit from Tres Blah, the “bem querer” dress from Bossa Nova (now comme il faut), "Earthy" from CKS Designs--because each was made after careful consideration. I had to watch my pennies. It wasn't until I received a group gift from Tete a Pied (now Fleur) that fashion really clicked for me. Yes, a freebie changed my life.

But when thinking back about my early shopping, I don't recall many freebies in stores themselves. Rather, I think freebies were found at the freebie megastore type places or came via group gifts. In a way this makes sense, because stores presumably wanted to reach new players where they congregated, and a store owner couldn't assume the new player would ever find the main store on their own (has everyone forgotten exactly how bad search was in 2007?). It seemed to me at the time that a designer would make something simple like a t-shirt, a skirt, sandals, or a basic dress, and set it out in a box at The Free Dove or wherever and hope for the best. What changed?

The Rise of Freebie Culture

I suppose there have been freebie blogs since the start of SL, but in October of 2007 Creamy Cooljoke's Free*Style came onto the scene. I met Creamy in late September 2007, picking up a “Free Burma” t-shirt Iris Seale had made for Punch Drunk, and we hit it off and have remained friends since. Why do I mention this? Because, to my mind at least, Free*Style has become the dominant force in shaping freebie culture. I'm not writing this to be critical of Creamy, but rather to explain a phenomenon. I don't think Creamy had any idea what Free*Style would morph into: a taste maker for people of limited means, a freebie store, a group with almost 5,000 members, and a blog with some of the most stylish contributors in SL. Why the rapid growth of the Free*Style brand, which is coming up on a million page views at the blog? I think choice paralysis stimulates the desire for freebies. After all, it's hard to make a bad buying decision and suffer from buyer's remorse if something is free, and free means you can conserve your lindens. So freebies become a little hit of guilt free pleasure. Buy it, try it, trash it if you don't like it. Easy right? It is for the shopper, but what about the other side of the equation?

If you're a designer, Free*Style is hard to ignore. Given the size of the Free*Style group, the traffic to the blog, and the blog's syndication into the major fashion feeds, a mention in Free*Style has to be seen as major p.r. coup—I know when I'm mentioned in Free*Style, I see a significant traffic spike to my blog, and I don't even make clothes. Then think about the secondary and tertiary blogs, and then work your way down to Dot Lane, Girl Reporter. Most blogs which write about fashion cover freebies in one way or another and if you're a designer competing for the consumer's limited attention span, a freebie (or a review item, which I also have strong opinions about, but won't get into here) is a good way to do that but it had better be of high quality to get noticed. While there are some bloggers who will “poop rainbows” over just about anything, most are increasingly discerning about what they choose to feature. Do you see the spiral here? More designers making more top quality free items means it is less important for a consumer to become one who uses real money for purchases. In short, it is entirely possible to have an economy where more is consumed, but the total size of the economy stagnates.

But what else can a store owner do but get into the freebie game? Designers want people wearing their clothes, talking about them, and recommending them to their friends. Freebie promotion isn't the sole province of freebie blogs either. How many Fashion Consolidated notices come telling of new releases and an in-store freebie? There seems to be an expectation of free stuff these days, and anecdotal reports of people complaining about demos being priced at a dollar or wanting to know where a free gift is when a store has a new release only serves to reinforce the idea that something is rotten. A secondary problem is the 25 group limit. Freebies used to come more frequently via group gift but a the group limit again means stores are competing for increasingly scarce resources: one's group slots. It seems to be it would be much easier to just put a free gift out in one's store, and the let the fashion press do your promotion for you.

Adam n Eve is trying something different, a customer loyalty card in which one receives points for each purchase redeemable for merchandise. This seems to be a happy compromise. After all, many marketing experts will tell you that creating brand loyalty and word of mouth from satisfied customers are the keys to success. This program is in its infancy however, and there is no guarantee it will be successful and meet its goals. But at least something different is being tried. What other ways can content creators develop to attract and retain customers?

I consider freebies to be an amuse bouche, a treat given with the expectation that I will be buying a full meal at some point. One can't live on the free popcorn given out at your local bar. Eventually you're going to need to step up and buy a drink or maybe a meal too, otherwise we'll all starve to death at the banquet. Now I hear the complaints. They go something like this: “Oh, Dot Lane is encouraging mindless consumerism and SL should really be a libertarian paradise where people make what they need and don't worry about capitalistic concerns." Perhaps SL should be like that. But maintaining stores and sims and uploading textures and creating takes time and real money and that means at some point, consumers have to buy.

The Thrill of the Hunt.

When I first started SL hunts were rare and smaller in scale and usually confined to a single store or sim. I always enjoyed doing them, because they became a social event. You'd go with a friend and poke around a store searching and chatting while you did so. I particularly remember doing the Mischief “Panty Raid” with Kit Maitland, and it was a pleasant way to kill an evening, with the panties (most of which are lovely) being of secondary importance to the camaraderie. I don't remember when hunts became quite so epic, culminating in the ongoing Peace on Earth hunt, which has over 300 prizes. I do know that hung has been the source of ongoing chatter in several groups I belong too (I can't find globe 79...any help?)

Of course, there are cheat sheets which pop up almost immediately after a hunt begins, like new movie releases showing up on New York City street corners as DVDs the day after the movie hits the theater. I'm of two minds regarding them. First, if there is a hunt with over a hundred locations, chances are I'm not going to want 85% of what I find. A cheat sheet is a handy way to know which stores are participating and which I might be interested in. But cheat sheets also encourage a completist mentality, where one needs to have everything in order to have finished the hunt. As human beings we like order and completeness and a sense of accomplishment. But do we honestly need all of what we hunt for? I know I'm guilty of having things in my inventory from hunts six months ago that I have never opened—certainly this isn't the type of marketing boost stores participating in hunts are hoping for.

Can hunts be improved? Perhaps not, but there are other models for distributing gifts and getting traffic. The Creators Stamp Rally (CSR) is a good model, I think, of a way to distribute gifts. You buy a marked item at a participating store and then take the special card enclosed with the item to other stores to get your card "stamped". Once you've visited all the store, you can redeem your stamped card for a prize. The beauty of this is you can get as many cards as you want, but you have to buy an item to get them. You can also simultaneously wear all of the cards you acquire so you only have to make one circuit of participating stores. {Edit}: after more thought, there is another facet of CSR I like. Even though you may buy one item in one store to get a card to redeem, you can redeem it for a prize from a completely different store. It is this type of recognition of mutual dependency that seems to be missing from many of the hunts, an acknowledgement that the SL economy doesn't have to be a zero sum game.

Other hunts have more convoluted set ups, requiring some effort to complete the hunt. The Albero mall has had two hunts in which I've participated. You find numbered boxes at the mall, each of which has a word attached to it. You then go to the main stores of the shops at the mall, where you will find more numbered boxes. You say the word associated with the proper box number, and receive your gift. While time consuming (the last Albero hunt took several hours, and I had a little help) it slows the pace of frenetic acquisition.

Other hunts have successfully introduced an element of humor, like the D-Hunt at Blockheadsville which recently took place in a sim built especially for the hunt. In short, hunts should be fun and sociable, not a recreation of the running of the brides at Filene's Basement.

Bonus film clip of the running of the brides:

The Future.

Does SL end up resembling third world countries with an established oligarchy and a mass of poor residents?

Much of the problem in the SL economy lies on the demand side. People have wants, but they don't have the means. SL, for all of its ability to unleash the creative side of people to create what they envision, has very limited employment opportunities for those of us who don't create. Camping for 1L every ten minutes doesn't work, prostitution is legal but apparently high effort/low reward as the search for paying clients becomes more difficult. I'm not even sure how much models make. The lack of adequate employment needs to be addressed. But how? I don't really know. If waged employment isn't the answer, there needs to be an expectation that if someone stays in world for a substantial length of time, that they will eventually invest some of their own money in world and yes, that means the creation of a true consumer culture in which one uses money. Freebie culture militates against this by adequately satisfying many wants.

What would I do if I had a store? I'd set a few items for 10L or 20L and opt out of the in-store freebie altogether. I'd have a robust group gift program or rewards point system in which customers who bought something in the past month received items in group exclusive colors or designs, while group members who didn't buy something in the past month would be entered into a drawing with other non-buyers for the month to win the same outfit. After all, I want loyal customers, not people who simply join a group to grab the freebie (as an aside, why can't we have more groups? I'm guilty of group jumping from time-to-time but, before I leave the group, I try to buy something from the store as a mea culpa).

But really, what's a reasonable amount of real money for someone to put into SL? What is SL worth to you? $10 a month, which is the current cost of a movie in most of the United States? My own budget allows me to put $200 a year into the SL economy and I could go higher except that I've found that $200 satisfies my wants and even allows me to write blog posts bitching about how much choice I have. We're fortunate that Linden Labs® doesn't require a monthly fee for entry into the world. But think about that. Other online forms of recreation often require a fee to participate. SL offers so much and asks so little of us in exchange. In return, I would argue, we all bear some of the burden for supporting those who create what we value most.

And that is how I would answer Sachi's question, although I have much more to say on the issue and hope to get to it in future blog posts, so long as someone doesn't try to kill me for this one.


In the way of disclosure, I suppose it is worth reading this post of mine from several months ago. The only significant change is that I am now also a Fleur Insider. Needless to say, my opinions are my own and not those of any other person or store with which I may be associated.



sachi Vixen said...

Fabulous Post Dot! I linked you back tot he post on my blog which has recevied some interesting comments.

Phaylen said...

Great Post, Dot! I'll be fortunate if I can form a coherent thought this early in the morning, but you're observations were right on. In my own opinion, I think that it all boils down to the grand mechanism that is Second Life. For people joining today, it is considerably more challenging to obtain Lindens in-world than it was only a couple years ago. Most camping places are gone because traffic statistics really doesn't benefit businesses anymore. As our world has grown, ever expanding like the universe, residents are finding the concept of obtaining Lindens less and less easy to achieve. ultimately that means that we live in a world over saturated with commerce, with the volume of people with pretend money at an all time low. I think thats why the sheer value of clothes had dropped significantly over the years: Where once i had to pay 300 for a blouse and upwards of 1k for a dress without blinking, I can get the same now from very talented creators for 5o Lindens for that killer top, 250 for a nice dress. An effect of shoppers clinging to their Lindens and become very frugal clientele. I am still surprised when I see how many people are literally dependent on freebies, how many people join Fashcon around holidays to procure the gifts from Vendors, and I suppose your noting the influx of freebie bloggers supports that theory.
The vendor response to this, at least from my perspective, has been to give less away free but entice shoppers with sales, benefits and promotions - Lucky Chair anyone?
I think it's the evolution of SL. So many supremely talented content designers have marked down their goods to mere RL pennies to focus to quantity sales. Shoppers tend to be more impulsive and less on the fence when something makes a minor impact to the wallet. Some designers are hanging onto an old concept of high priced items. Perhaps my favorite Designer still has prices at upwards of 800 Lindens for an outfit, and despite my drooling over her work, I can no longer justify the expense when I can get a comparable for less than half in our marketplace. It's sad in a way because so much work goes into content creating, so much time, but shoppers rarely consider this. The bottom line is final cost. The mentality today is quality cheap clothes = fab: freebies = unsurpassed opportunity to have something for nothing. Expensive clothing, regardless of quality...? well, I think despite our discriminating tastes, the ability and mindset to mark up fashions really only hurts the consumer, the shopper just moves on to find something equivalent for less money.

Persia Christensen said...

Dot, I think you (and sashi) are both expressing what so many others in SL have been thinking for quite some time now but afraid to say out loud. I totally agree with you. I wrote this "Unpopular Opinion of the Day" on my own Body Doubles blog last week. It's pretty long, but I just think its time to start earning a fair price for our endeavors now and find an alternative to the freebies and hunts:

Enough with the Hunts, the Freebies, the Dollarbies, the Cheapies, the Group Gifts, the Group Bribes, the Lowbies and the Near-Freebies. In an already ailing economy, we are simply making matters worse. Now, I’m just as altruistic as the next person and I’m all for helping out newbies or the occasional freebie (especially for loyal customers), but at some point don’t we, as content creators depending on SL for income, need to stop and ask ourselves if perhaps our mother’s weren’t right when they told us that no one would buy the cow when the milk was free.. or was it that no one would buy the milk when the cow was free? Hmmm.. now I’m sure I gave away a LOT of milk back in the day, but I think now I am beginning to see her point. There comes a time when we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot with all this free stuff. In an economic slump, in fact, giving away items simply devalues our hard-earned linden that much more. Giving away things may give us a temporary traffic boost but it’s like a bad crack habit.. once the freebie is out the door and we’ve earned nothing for our hard work, we frantically began making something else to bring in more people who will spend a maximum of one minute in our shops and neither buy anything nor stay long enough to actually contribute to our traffic count before jaunting off to the next stop on the freebie-train.

Point in fact.. so I’m out shopping and there’s this really cute dress that is 200L… its well made, beautifully textured, and reasonably priced, but do I buy it? Duhhh.. No, of course not. Why should I? I still have well made, beautifully-textured stuff I’ve yet to get around to even opening from the Halloween ghost hunt. Pay for something.. huhhhh.. unheard of!! The “hunts” now don’t really even require much hunting. Now I confess, I am a participant in the massive grid-wide Peace on Earth hunt taking place this month (far be it from me to be a roadblock on the road to world peace), and we were asked NOT to hide our items.. in fact to put them out in full view. If that’s not enough, there are websites that will post every single coordinate to every single freebie for you. What next….. soon it will be asking too much to even show up to pick up our free gifts and we will stomp our well-heeled (with free shoes from Maitreya) feet and demand that designers deliver their wares to us personally!

Back when I joined SL in 2005, you were lucky to have 1 skin that you’d sat on a camping chair for 4 weeks to be able to afford and freebie clothing looked like something a one-armed blind man in a sweatshop made.. and we were damn lucky and happy to get those!! (we also walked 8 miles to school uphill in the snow, but I digress). Now, each and every Hunt or Group Freebie finds my inventory bulging with yet another gorgeous skin from top-notch designers, an imaculately-tailored outfit and enough shoes, hair, and bling to fill Dolly Parton’s wardrobe. (not that I have a clue how big her wardrobe is, but I’m pretty sure the ceilings must be pretty high to accomodate the wigs alone).

Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2009. Let’s start getting paid a little for our hard work. Let’s make owning a beautiful skin or outfit mean something again.. something we can take pride in and not simply let pile up in an already over-flowing inventory. Let us not fill our recycle bins with items that should be treasured nor cause even more lag on the grid with our 150K-item inventories. Let’s not give away the cow anymore.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dot,

Very thought provoking post thank you! I have followed the recent opinions about freebie culture with some interest, because (as you know), first I was an avid freebie pursuer for a long time, and second, I have been making content for some time and have recently dipped my foot into the SL consumer economy as a store owner. I want to bring up a few additional points. First, you talk about how freebies are clothes on cash-strapped AVs backs,which is true, but pursuing freebies is also *fun* for a lot of people. For a lot of newbies who don't want to have sex with unicorns right away, freebie shopping is a fun, goal-oriented exercise in SL that nets you free clothes and might make you some friends. It is an SL activity unto itself. Second, it is a way to see large parts of SL you might not see otherwise, and to get exposed to a lot of stores without finding out about them in fashion blogs first. Third, I think a percentage of freebie shoppers will stay in SL with their free clothes on their backs long enough to evolve into people who will actually pay for quality content, and these are the people who keep the economy going. Fourth, I personally have never held off from buying something nice from a store because i thought I could get the same thing much cheaper or free elsewhere. In my experience, except for a few generous stores, most free items do not compare in quality to the regular-priced items. Fourth, as a new store owner (as opposed to many long time content creators) I just see this as the price of business in SL these days. You give away free content as the price of getting feet in your store. It is what it is, I don't think Pandora can close the box once it has been opened. Fifth, one aspect of SL that is rarely mentioned is that nothing ages or breaks. Further, your competitor may have stopped logging in six months ago but they are still selling items in their store or on XStreet. There are 643,000 items for sale on XStreetSL right now, and I have read something like 2 billion items for sale in world (I can't attribute that sorry). That is some horrendous competition. Finally, sad but true, escorting is actually a *low* effort/high reward line of work compared to content creation (for most designers) and is still the easiest way to make a buck in SL, from what I hear. And escorts are seldom stupid enough to give away product for free, like us content creators!

Anonymous said...

Spoilt for choice?

i for one have trouble.

Every dress i buy, not only do i need to buy new hair for, new shoes for, new accessories for but there's also the options of new skins, tattoos heck even particles.

So i spend spend spend and for this reason, I absolutely adore the freebie groups too making my life that bit easier.

I don't play enough to warrant a regular job in the SL world and I do not create. It means money is difficult for me without putting it in-world myself.

And well if you've ever tried the lindex you know that's a mission for the average joe too...

As for the freebies though many are great and I do value what's given to me and put on offer, there's very limited use for purple hair, lime green stockings, a polka dot headband. Most store owners use freebies as promotion, to get you in the store so you buy.

I see no issue with them whatsoever!

Those who are complaining about the economy and how freebies are damaging their stores profits, probably aren't the ones who should be in business anyway...

We don't have the TV and mag networks real life does, the majority of us walk past inworld advertising without so much as a click. The way to reach people in Secondlife is via interactivity and so offers, freebies, games and hunts do just that.

Suztv said...

I think that as SL begins to gain popularity and as population begins to rise we are going to have what I would call a "Fashion Show Down" - in that you have to consider it is getting harder and harder to get people to go to your store. The top paid classified is over $1200 USD! Eventually the little fish and medium fish will all but go away - so as a marketing ploy a lot of people are offering freebies - the problem with that is that certain stores remain high on the curious ranking (whether their quality is there or not) while others seem to fall by the wayside. The freebies although they entice buyers - dilute the brand. I offer freebies, everyone does in some manner so there is no way around it. But I have to question whether we are all just harming the fashion industry on the whole in SL by doing so.

Siggy said...

Although the currency may be different in Second Life, I don't think buyer behavior is significantly different from real life. And just as in real life, folks in SL can create "stuff" that they can either give away or sell.

Selling "stuff" is a process making the right "stuff" for the right folks at the right time and for the right price. Of course, free is a very attractive price to many but free plus quality can be tricky. And people ultimately much prefer to sell things than give them away. Greed, for want of a better word, is good.

There is an argument to be made - and I'm making it here - that freebies stimulate demand for paid items. After a few months of wearing uninspiring free T-shirts, free jeans, and free footwear, it's easy to see that a fair number of folks you interact with look... well.. nattier. Prim collars, more varied colors, clean seams, and so on. If you're going to stick around in Second Life for a while, the urge to improve yourself kicks in.

The problem of "paralysis of choice" can be narrowed by simple economics - "What can I afford?" How you get your money is irrelevant to a creator; how you spend it is what matters. As a shopper, you can cut out choice by ignoring freebies, ignoring places that are too expensive for yah, and ignoring styles and designers that you don't like.

For designers, pricing is an exercise in balancing the time it takes you to make things against what you want in return. Just like real life. The one difference between SL and RL economics I'm willing to concede is that many SL creators don't "need" the income from SL and so price low. That, of course, makes it hard for those who want SL to be their primary source of income, but then that's life; Second or otherwise. You need to view SL as a "foreign economy" that has low wages costs, low raw material costs, and a small population.

So if you want to sell high quality goods for high prices, you need to create precisely that - high quality goods. Then you have to make people understand that it IS high quality. Some folks really can't tell shit from shinola and persuading them that your stuff is the shit is called marketing - yet another expense. Sigh!

I have ignored the 100-pound gorilla in the room, which is IP theft. Far more dangerous to an economy than freebies is the copying and reselling of items. My favorite Redgrave sweater cost me L$450 and only comes in pink; I found a copy in yellow for only L$150. The guy selling it claimed he had no idea it was a copy - he bought it from someone who sold him a "reseller" package. I tracked the "creator" of the sweater for days but never found him/her. All I could do was file an abuse report and let Emilia Redgrave know. Sad.

I think Phaylen sums up accurately how buyer behavior works; "Perhaps my favorite Designer still has prices at upwards of 800 Lindens for an outfit, and despite my drooling over her work, I can no longer justify the expense when I can get a comparable for less than half in our marketplace."

Unless there's a reason to believe L$800 is a fair price, the dress stays on the virtual shelf.