Whatever happened to Second Life?

30th Sep 2011 | 09:16

Whatever happened to Second Life?

Why the hype didn't help - and where SL's headed now

Whatever happened to Second Life?

In the mid-2000s, Second Life was one of the most talked-about things in tech.

Singer/songwriter Regina Spektor used the virtual world to conduct listening parties, while rapper Chamillionaire conducted virtual meet and greets. MTV sponsored in-world fashion shows, tech firms set up training centres and hip brands rushed to set up virtual storefronts; in the real world, Second Life was a business magazine cover star and the subject of breathless dozen-page spreads in tech titles.

Things have changed. SL hasn't been a cover star for a while, and reports tend to concentrate not on exciting new possibilities but on real-world concerns, such as SL creator Linden Lab laying off 30% of its workforce in 2010.

Many brands' stores have been deserted for years, and concurrency - that is, the number of people using the service at the same time - has been slipping. So what went wrong?

Don't believe the hype

Part of the problem is that the gentlemen and women of the press got a bit excited. Tateru Nino, one of the world's leading authorities on Second Life, puts it bluntly: "The media - both tech-press and newspapers/television - worked hard to build up Second Life as something that it wasn't and something that it was never intended to be," she told TechRadar.

"Whether that was out of some low-grade malice or simply because of a complete lack of understanding is an open question. Then they turned around and worked hard at savaging it for not being or becoming those things." Nino can provide plentyofexamples.

With hindsight, much of the coverage was ridiculous: a fairly clunky-looking virtual world where people could hang around, interact and create and/or sell virtual goods, we were told, was "the future of the internet" (CNN), "the future of the operating system" (InfoWorld) and possibly "the future of the academic conference" (The Guardian).

So far, at least, it hasn't proven to be the future of any of those things, and while it remains the biggest virtual world - with user numbers continuing to grow since the hype bubble burst - its user base is dwarfed by real-world social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Where Second Life currently has around 1 million active users, Farmville claims 35.7 million.

Learning curve

One reason for the Second Life's relative lack of success is its famously steep learning curve. People understand Facebook immediately, but using Second Life for the first time is a bit like being dropped in the middle of a strange city where you don't speak the language and you don't have a guidebook.

As if a steep learning curve wasn't intimidating enough, the endless possibilities and the lack of hand-holding made the whole experience rather off-putting for new users. Despite Linden Lab's best efforts to improve this, the service still struggles to convert new sign-ups into long-term users.

"That's certainly going to continue to be a problem," Nino says. "Second Life is like the web, in that it's a platform in which content can be made, published and interacted with... that translates to a lot of complexity. Imagine you had one software program to browse the web, publish your blog posts, spell-check, IM your friends and co-workers, create and upload art, chat on IRC and all the other things you do in the web-based side of things. How complicated would the user interface for that program be?"

The difficulty for Linden Lab is that the SL viewer, the software you use to navigate the service, needs to balance user-friendliness with power. "That leaves us with a crowded UI full of options I don't need this minute, but I might need a minute later," Nino says.

"Worse, since most new users' only knowledge of Second Life comes from the media, they have no idea what Second Life is when they arrive - or more commonly, they have some completely wrong idea, like thinking it's a game or somesuch."

SecondLife

LOSING INTEREST: IBM was an early adopter and enthusiastic supporter of Second Life, although these days its presence is much smaller than it used to be

Nino reckons SL is more like a public park than a videogame. "It's not going to take you by the hand, lead you somewhere and show you a good time. You're in the park. It's up to you to have a good time, and not ruin things for other park users."

It's been suggested that Second Life should become more like a videogame: the dreaded term "gamification" has been bandied about, with some suggesting that in-world rewards could help smooth new users' path through the park.

"It has worked, to some degree, in the past," Nino says, noting that the newly-launched Second Life social network helps too by making it easier for users to connect and stay in touch with each other. Ultimately, though, "it's the in-world experience that keeps people coming back... or keeps them from coming back."

The future of Second Life

As early as 2007, some of Second Life's most enthusiastic brands were beginning to lose interest: virtual stores sat empty, and marketers began to pull out. As the LA Times reported, "the schedule of events on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s site was blank, and the green landscape of Dell Island was deserted. Signs posted on the window of the empty American Apparel store said it had closed up shop."

According to the LA Times, some marketers felt misled. "On its website, Second Life says the number of total residents is more than 8 million. But that counts people who signed in once and never returned, as well as multiple avatars for individual residents. Even at peak times, only about 30,000 to 40,000 users are logged on."

Second Life wasn't the only firm to do that - all social networks do it to some degree - but you can see why marketers might have been disappointed.

Then again, taking a Field of Dreams "build it and they will come" approach wasn't particularly smart, either.

"Imagine you whacked a shop in the High Street and filled it with brochures, but never had any staff there," Nino says. "What you can't do without is people. All the most successful venues (that aren't actually stores) in Second Life are staffed, and usually 24/7. That - and not being too dreadfully crap - and having enough patience are the secrets to a successful Second Life presence. Not the only ones, of course, but they're the ones you can't do without."

Make it better

Rod Humble is CEO of Linden Lab. "This year, we've been focused on improving Second Life's usability, performance and customer support - all things that will help turn more newcomers into active users, while also improving core service for our long-term customers," he told us.

Even simple steps such as streamlining the signup process have helped, resulting in "a very large uptick in daily completed registrations. We now see about 16,000 new signups per day."

Making Second Life more welcoming is a key concern. "Second life is huge - roughly 2050 square kilometres - and it's full of things that users have created," he says. "At any given time there are live music performances, immersive role-playing games, unique works of art and 3D environments to explore... in the past, though, it wasn't easy to know what was happening, especially for new users."

Linden Lab has added dynamic content such as details of upcoming events, suggested places to visit and details of hotspots where other users are gathering.

Second life

INCREASING APPEAL:Linden Lab wants to make Second Life more welcoming, and its destination guide showcases interesting content such as live music and even fashion shows

Second Life is also developing links with other social networks. We've already mentioned its own social networking features, which enable you to contact others when you're not actually logged onto Second Life, but Linden Lab is also forging links with external social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, as Humble describes it Second Life is almost an antidote to the social networking giants. "Second Life is different from most social experiences," he says. "Many customers do want to meet people and connect, but for many the ability to keep that identity separate from perhaps their other online identities is key. Many people use Second Life for a fun escape, or as a place to be expressive that is at odds with the stated desire of Facebook and Google to link you to a real name identity."

Humble continues: "This has allowed the forming of many specific groups where you can enjoy a hobby without concern that it would link back to your real life identity. For example, I am a rather rabid English soccer fan. In Second Life I can have a separate identity where I can rant away about the sport without concern that this will in any way be associated with my role as CEO of Linden Lab... we regard it as a high priority to offer that safe environment where people can create and delete identities at will."

Second lives

"Second Life is growing at an increasing rate, which is amazing for an eight-year-old place on the internet," Humble says. For Linden Lab, the future of Second Life is based on a better user experience across a wider range of devices. "It is now much more user-friendly than it was in the past, and in addition to continuing to improve usability, performance and support, we're adding new features that will make Second Life more interesting while helping it to grow," Humble says, noting that future plans could include apps for tablets and other mobile devices.

"If you haven't checked out Second Life recently, It's a much better experience than you might remember. It's easier to use, it's easier to connect with the people and content that fits your interests, and you can expect better performance and customer support as well."

Is that enough to make Second Life mainstream? "Mainstream doesn't mean 'most people use it'," Nino says. "It means 'most people don't think it's weird'. Barbie is pretty much girls in a narrow age band. But we don't think it's weird. iTunes? We thought that was weird. Now we don't. We stopped thinking digital music was weird, and that made it mainstream. They're virtual goods, no different from a house or a dress in Second Life, fundamentally. A bunch of ephemeral ones and zeros that we can make use of in limited ways through supported software and devices."

There's no doubt that iTunes is mainstream, and that Second Life currently isn't. "The difference is that - as a society - we approve of one and disapprove of the other," Nino says. "A few years ago society shunned both. We shunned the web, the internet, the telephone in their times. What are we going to think is normal next?"

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Liked this? Then check out The evolution of virtual worlds

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