Rubber Soul

I was thinking the other day about this article, published on Salon around a year ago. It concerned the waning fortunes of the company behind Crocs, the aesthetically-challenged footwear brand. At the time the piece was written the firm looked in serious danger of going under, and its stock price had plummeted from a high of $70 to around $3. Worse was to come; at one point the shares traded for 79c, though today they are back up to $13.50, and it it looks like the hopes of discerning fashion-lovers everywhere that Crocs might disappear altogether are likely to remain unfulfilled.

What went wrong? Crocs were wildly popular in the middle of the last decade, and the company expanded massively to meet demand that they expected to keep on growing. In fact though, by 2009 everyone in the world who wanted a pair of Crocs had one already, and, since their indestructibility means that no one ever needs a second pair, sales dropped precipitously.

Crocs have managed to come back from the dead by refocussing on their core niche market – people who stand around all day at work – and forgetting about chasing mass appeal. Their advertising now emphasises comfort over fashionableness, which seems pretty obvious in retrospect.

How does this relate to virtual worlds? Well, I think the main lesson is that it’s important not to mistake enthusiastic take up of a product by a particular subsection of the market for a sign that said product will be equally attractive to other sections of that market. With enough media buzz it may be possible to whip up a short-term fad, but long term survival depends on looking after the core demographic, those who find enough genuine value in the product to keep them coming back for more once the initial novelty has faded.

Are there signs that Linden Lab is heeding this message? Yes and no, judging by what Philip Rosedale has had to say recently. He does seem to be alert to the fact that long-term residents need to be taken care of, but he still comes out with hyperbolic comments like “It is all going to happen, and we are going to get everyone in here eventually“, and “The fundamental belief that I have is that Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way“. It may be that Philip doesn’t really believe this, and is just talking up the platform’s potential appeal to draw in new investors, but I fear that it’s more likely that he has so much invested in the idea of Second Life as a truly world-changing technology that he can’t bear to let it go.

Philip should relax, and embrace SL‘s cult status – even niche products can have a lasting cultural impact.

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