“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
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?
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:
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.
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.
Wagner James Au currently lives in China and is working on his next book.