slum magazine

“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval

[SL10B] Second Life turns 10: what it did wrong, and why it may have its own second life, by Wagner James Au

Editor: Many of the thousands of core users of Second Life are currently taking time from busy SL activities to reminisce about the old days, examine how Second Life has evolved, and ponder its future. Many are visiting and exploring the “Looking Forward, Looking Back” theme at the official Second Life community 10th Birthday celebration (SL10B). In general there seems to be a sense of optimism about the future of SL, despite the mis-steps (and fiascos) of the past and the difficulty in attracting a substantial new following. In an article for GigaOM, NWN blogger and long-time SL resident Wagner James Au reflects on the path Second Life has taken over the decade since its inception: What happened to the promise of Second Life and where did Linden Lab go wrong? And what might give Second Life a –well– second life?

The Far Away, an installment by AM Radio, no longer in Second Life.

The Far Away, an installment by AM Radio, who is no longer in Second Life. Photo by Cat Boccaccio.

This week the once-trendy virtual world Second Life officially turns 10 years old. It’s been years since its initial hype wave – when many technorati thought it would be as important to the internet as Facebook itself (yes, many really did) – and many may even be surprised that SL still exists. In fact, the pioneering VR world is both profitable and maintains a relatively large userbase for a 3D online world.

Users largely frequent SL to chat with others but also occasionally to play games, attend events, and visit fantasy/adventure regions. This hasn’t changed much since SL came out of beta, though in the first five years there was also a strong element of community dedicated to building, improving, and exploring a new virtual world; most of that zeal has since gone away. (Indeed, lately 70 percent of regular users don’t explore the world at all when they log in.)

I’ve been writing about Second Life since 2003, first as Linden Lab’s “embedded journalist,” then as a GigaOM editor and for a book, and still continue covering it on my own blog. Still, I recognize that it’s very much a niche product that today isn’t adding users. So unless you’re among them, you’re probably wondering why its 10th anniversary is worth thinking about at all.

The short answer: Because it remains a valuable case study of an ambitious and influential (albeit flawed) innovation. And also, because there’s a good chance Second Life will finally have, well, a second life. As real-world social networks like Facebook reach a usage plateau and new tools like Google Glass and the Oculus Rift emerge, it’s easy to foresee a fairly broad desire for platforms that enable immersive, imaginative, real time interaction within a large community.

I’ll explain that point further, but first some key takeaways from Second Life’s first 10 years:

Your product is whatever consumers say it is

Early in its development, company executives committed to a vision of SL that seemed sensible and exciting at the time: Its potential was to become the 3D web (a la the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“). I believe that was ultimately key to SL’s failure to go mass market because it ignored what the overwhelming majority of the users were actually doing in SL. While Linden Lab decided SL wasn’t a game, its users were primarily using it for social game activity like roleplaying, virtual fashion, collaborative sandbox building, and yes, virtual sex.

Many subsequent moves proceeded from that flawed assumption – such as a disastrous attempt to create an enterprise version – leading to few new users, but lots of layoffs. Linden Lab learned too late that companies need to evolve their product based on what it’s actually used for – not what they want it to be.

Innovation must account for usability

Years before social media became integral to the internet, Linden Lab envisioned an entire ecosystem of user-generated content. Yet many VCs refused to fund it because, as founding executive Hunter Walk once told me, back then they all considered creativity a “dark art” best left to professionals. SL was among the first platforms to prove this assumption wrong. (Unsurprisingly, Walk went on to become an exec at YouTube – perhaps the premier source of user-generated content anywhere – which launched a few years after SL.)

SL’s goal to be a platform for 3D-based user-generated content fell short because of an overly complex interface and pervasive usability problems that still hamper it today. Consequently, it’s been eclipsed by simpler, easier-to-use alternatives – chief among them the blockbuster game Minecraft, from a game developer with no Metaverse-making pretensions. There’s little point in creating an innovative product if its innovations are too frustrating and confusing to use.

Continue reading this article at GigaOM.

Wagner James Au currently lives in China and is working on his next book.

Screenshot by “Janine “Iris Ophelia” Hawkins.

Screenshot of the author by “Janine “Iris Ophelia” Hawkins.

Visit AM Radio’s The Far Away in Second Life.


About slummagazine

slum magazine is about all things Second Life: art, music, news, reviews, shopping, love and life.

4 comments on “[SL10B] Second Life turns 10: what it did wrong, and why it may have its own second life, by Wagner James Au

  1. Harper Beresford
    June 24, 2013

    The problem with the representation of the opening editorial paragraph is that it was “the official” celebration you link to. That was not the “official” celebration. The theme was determined by resident organizers, not the company Linden Lab. The logistics were taken care of by residents, not Linden Lab. The website was made by residents, not Linden Lab. It’s a very important distinction. Linden Lab, while celebrating the 10th birthday of Second Life with their own promotions, did not label that celebration the “official” celebration.


    • slummagazine
      June 24, 2013

      Hi Harper,
      Yes, I realize that Linden Lab all but abandoned the SL birthday celebrations after SL8B, and residents took over, organizing and staging SL9B on their own. I am linking to the event as organized by the “official” SL10B community committee, since LL is no longer involved in the “official” SLB celebrations (aside from setting up their corn field prison and giving away birthday bears on the resident-managed SL10B site). I should have made that clearer; thanks for pointing it out. And I’ll add the word “community” to clarify.


  2. Io Bechir
    June 28, 2013

    The Far Away still exists in Second Life. I think you were trying to say that AM Radio no longer builds in SL, but the sentence is confusing.


    • slummagazine
      June 29, 2013

      Io, I changed the wording and added a link to The Far Away. Thanks very much!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 24, 2013 by in New World Notes, Reviews & Opinion and tagged , , , .


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 237 other followers

%d bloggers like this: