Well that's rather spooky. I posted at SL Universe about the changes to the Community Gateway program which have just been announced on the SL blog, and decided that actually I had a lot more to say on the subject. Logged into my blogger acount and came here to write the post and blogger suggested I might like to entitle my piece Hubs and gateways. I'm trying to work out how it knew and why it came up with that title which is absolutely appropriate to this post.
When I first joined SL six and a half years ago, there was a short orientation on an island to show one how to move, chat, fly, and then the hapless new resident was dumped in Ahern Sim to fend for themselves. In those days normal people hung out by the hubs that brought new people in, and offered them help and friendship. Of course, the world was smaller, and there were only about 100 sims to explore. Even so, I found it disorientating to know where to go... and it took me some time to get the courage to move away from the hub and explore. I worried I would never find my way back again.
As time went by, Ahern and the other hubs became much less friendly environments for people. They found it difficult to work out what was going on when they were griefed by people the moment the joined the grid. A new island, Help island, was joined to the orientation experience, to enable people to learn skills before they were dumped into the free for all on the main grid.
This was only partially successful, because people would arrive on help island and have absolutely no clue where they were or what they should be doing there. Men particularly found the lack of guidance very trying. There is definitely a gender bias when it comes to aimlessly exploring... in general, women like it and men do not. Men prefer to know where they are going and what the purpose it - and if you don't tell them, they don't like it.
Some time ago, LL chose people to run what they called community gateways. This meant that new people could choose to go to particular places, where there were new orientation experiences, tutorials and guidance for new residents. Some were good, some were very good and some were a bit dire... and none of them really satisfied the desire to be directed quickly to the things which had attracted people inside SL.
In my experience of four years of mentoring newly arrived people, they were generally quite clear about what had brought them into SL, and I always thought that sorting people according to their interests - and offering them the skills they needed to get into that - would be by far the easiest way to immerse them in the grid. I thought a series of gateways - like a castle or fortified town, would be the best option, with them choosing their gateway according to what they were interested in, with the option of returning to start over if what they had chosen didn't work out, or they wanted to choose again.
There are so many sims across the grid that are owned by Linden Lab and which are currently empty of real content, I thought it would be easy to have a place to learn how to explore, or with good landmarks for interesting places. People want and are crying out for guidance, and it isn't that difficult to give it to them.
Now Linden Lab had announced that the Community hubs are going, and that people are to be offered places to go to which interest them... but I fear that sending them straight into the grid is going to send them back into the confusion that I felt when I joined. Maybe not: there are a lot of websites and books now about using Second Life that weren't around when I joined.
I'm still convinced that proper guidance in the first few days of entry into virtual worlds can be the difference between someone understanding the nature of the virtual world and how to explore it, and overwhelming them. As it is, many of those offering the community hubs and gateways are going to continue to offer the services that they have built up over the last couple of years - the meetings and events which introduce people to the virtual world, the support for new people, mentors and guides.
There is still one big problem for creators and explorers alike: finding good content and events, knowing how to distinguish the great from the truly awful... I think the virtual world will be a lot more usable once we have an equivalent to google available in world that uses something other than how much one paid for an advert to judge where on the search list to place them.
In the meantime, my advice to a newb is to find someone to act as a virtual tourguide and mentor, to use Google rather than the internal search to find things in world, and not to expect modern gaming graphics in SL.