Why I don’t think that Second Life has staying power

On a discussion board recently, someone asked me what I thought about Second LIfe and was a bit surprised when I responded that I thought it was interesting, but that it didn’t really have staying power because of some fundamental architectural flaws in its design. Based on his response, I thought it would be interesting for me to post my message here too and solicit input from the general blogosphere on SL, virtual worlds and the challenges and opportunities of massively multiplayer online communities.
My initial comment in the discussion was thus:
“My take: Second Life is an evolutionary step, but unto itself is definitely overhyped. We will get interesting virtual worlds in the next few years that will offer opportunities for businesses, but SL is faddish and already seems to have “come and gone” with the popular press, bloggers, etc. The problem is that the network and computer software can’t keep up with the demands of a true 3D environment where everything has to be downloaded on demand. Compare it to something like World of Warcraft, another huge 3d virtual world, but one where the avatars are custom and the landscape is created using a very small number of shapes and textures, and you’ll see that SL is far inferior as a user experience.”
I then expanded on my thoughts quite a bit…

Truth be told, I think one of things we’re seeing with the rise of Second Life is that no-one’s really sure how realistic a virtual world should be. I know that when I first connected to Second Life I was surprised that the first order of business was figuring out how to earn money, where to live, and what to buy to furnish your space. Even the kid-oriented Club Penguin has the same sort of realism (though since you’re putting toys in an igloo it’s not quite the same!). But do people want to go through the same hassles in a virtual world that we do in the real world?
(By “people” I should clarify that I don’t mean the few thousand geeks who are obsessed with SL, but the average Joe and Jane. It’s mass adoption that makes something interesting to sales and marketing: the Internet wasn’t an interesting place to do business until it hit critical mass, for example)
Of course, if your target market is those geeks, if you have a product on “building a great house in Second Life” then you need to have a presence, but companies like IBM (NYSE: IBM), Reuters (NASDAQ: RTRSY), GM (NYSE: GM) and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC have poured a lot of money into a rather daft gamble by creating complex worlds in Second Life. It’s a drug. On the one hand, if one or two companies are there, then you probably should be too, but it can also be a dead shopping mall where all the big merchants sign up because, well, because their competitors are there, but no-one actually checks to see if there’s the necessary target demographic in the area.
Again, though, I want to emphasize that whether it has long-term staying power or not, Second Life, like so many other sites on the Internet (think MySpace, Facebook, Digg, De.licio.us, etc), can be a savvy place for you to create some sort of presence if their demographic (or demographics) are a good match with your target customers or online community.
From my own experiences, I spend time on MySpace (here’s my profile: myspace.com/d1taylor) and generate both traffic and revenue from that time spent because MySpace is one of my target demographics. If it weren’t, I’d be outta there like a bullet. 🙂
You also ask about a virtual world that competes with a site like eBay. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see the rise of virtual analogs to physical properties like a virtual Barnes & Noble bookstore where you can wander around, browse the shelves, grab a virtual cup of tea and chat with fellow book lovers, etc. Sounds pretty cool now that I mention it!
The problem with a virtual eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) is that it would be like the world’s biggest flea market and when you have 350 copies of J. K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter book, how would that look in a 3d representation? Vertical stacks of books, so you can quickly see which are the most popular or have the fewest competitors? And how would that help you find, say, a replacement hubcap for your ’67 Mustang?
I know there are a lot of Second Life fans in the blogosphere. Am I all washed up, totally missing the point and clueless about the draw and value of SL, or do you agree with me?

10 comments on “Why I don’t think that Second Life has staying power

  1. Yes. And no. While I do have issues with the way Linden Lab handles things (or, more properly, doesn’t handle things), you are talking about a snapshot of SecondLife. It has been overhyped – and so was the internet. It is nowhere near as big as the media has made it out to be. Figure 40,000 people concurrency. That’s not anything, really.
    And as far as IBM’s presence: Have you been there? If you have, you’re a minority. The majority of IBM’s presence is a skunkworks for their own experimentation. Generally speaking, the large companies that plunked down lots of money were basically willing marks. They went in with *no* metrics, spent (by Business Week figures) between $30,000 to $100,000 for a business presence in Second Life… and the truth is what the truth was back then: that’s really a bad investment for most of these businesses. They had no strategy. They had no clue. They talked to someone who knew someone who said, “Yeah, we can do that for you”. Oddly, the “Yeah, we can do that for you” folks are the media darlings when it comes to Second Life – but they just made a quick buck. We saw it in the Dot Com boom. We’ve seen it in Second Life. Maybe it will stop now that enough people have lost enough money.
    As a consultant, I’ve actually turned people away from Second Life because they aren’t ready yet- they have to *commit* in ways that they had not considered yet. Sometimes the right answer is ‘no’. If you go to a surgeon about a toe infection, the surgeon will… want to cut off the toe. If you go to a general practitioner, they will advise medication first – then surgery. So it is with Second Life consultancy and development. When these companies talk to developers, they get the surgeon. Duh.
    (I’m not listed as a consultant on Linden Lab’s site, by the way. But I am a published author on Second Life.) 😉
    When you look at the successful presences, they typically bring their own demographic. Cisco’s audience in Second Life works quite well. They do training. When you look at Reuters, it works pretty good (though I haven’t been through there in a while). Why? Because these companies have dedicated more than their checkbooks. They have dedicated their staff. Their strategy is integrated, as it *should be*.
    The real trouble with Second Life is something you haven’t mentioned – and these are issues related to international policy related to the internet, as well as copyright/trademark law (patents pending, pun intentional). The scale of economy makes most infringement too costly to pursue. That is a limiting factor. Then there is the fact that Linden Lab is far from transparent and is inconsistent in the way it treats Second Life residents. When researching my ‘Making Your Mark in Second Life’, I was asking tough questions that had me passed around or plainly ignored by Linden Lab employees – and eventually, I got stuck on the PR company hook which gave me the company line and, again, ignored my questions.
    Internet Governance has a vital role to play in virtual worlds, and the legal issues are beginning to crop up.
    And all of that is required FOR Second Life or a virtual world like it to hit critical mass. And when it hits critical mass, then the true evolution will begin. Started in 2003, people think Second Life is having growing pains – but in my eyes, these are birthing pains. We have crowning, but because of the ignorance of international policy issues, the virtual world has its own umbilical cord around its neck… and it will require serious intervention if it is to survive.
    This is why it is imperative that Linden Lab open the server source code, as they have said they will do. That’s one way to deal with that umbilical cord.

  2. Your post led me to my own musings, which I’ve posted on my blog. Essentially, I think the nature of virtual worlds stops them from ever becoming replacements for the web, but as a parallel technology they can fill in some of the holes that we have in our interactions with the web.

  3. Great post Dave. I hadn’t visited the site before, and for me, it’s enough to cope with challenges in my real life, without experiencing additional ones in a second life.
    A virtual world would be a great escape if you could have a short, relaxing experience and it actually felt real – eg. a half hour rest on a beach in Hawaii, but I can’t imagine anything coming close to actually being able to enable us to feel that type of experience.
    I just hope that people don’t become so wrapped in this virtual worlds that they forget to live.
    By the way, I love the idea of a virtual bookstore.

  4. I also think the answer is both a qualified “yes” and “no”. No, Second Life won’t look the way it does now in five years time. But “yes”, it, or something very much like it will be increasingly the way a large demographic experience and use the internet in the future.
    Businesses are just the start, but an important one. Companies like IBM (http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2006/10/24/ibm-eyes-move-into-second-life-v-business/)
    don’t just want a Second Life presence to be hip and trendy, but because of the internal-networking benefits the platform allows; others, like Toyota (http://www.springwise.com/automotive/first_car_brand_drives_into_se), are already seeing the rewards of chasing a particular demographic; and then you have a third categories, inworld companies like Hippo Technologies (www.hippo-technologies.co.uk), who are carving out successful businesses in Second Life alone.

  5. Second Life (SL) has changed dramatically over the past year, enjoying rapid growth (from 230,000 to over 9 million accounts in 1.3 years) and the challenges that accompany it. I do not see it in sad decline, but instead, shifting to embrace a new demographic.
    Just as the dot com businesses suffered in the startup years, so do corporations in SL without a good strategy, virtual world business goals and an understanding of the SL culture and the economy.
    You are quite right! Successful businesses offer 1) virtual world services that align with their business goals, and 2) they have the staff to support them.
    Cynthia Calongne
    Lyr Lobo in Second Life
    Professor and virtual world researcher

  6. But do people want to go through the same hassles in a virtual world that we do in the real world?
    At least, people can do things in Second Life, that they can’t do in real life.

  7. “I know there are a lot of Second Life fans in the blogosphere. Am I all washed up, totally missing the point and clueless about the draw and value of SL, or do you agree with me?”
    Yeah, you are missing the point. You use your Barnes and Noble idea as an example but you aren’t thinking far enough ahead. What if you could not only socialize with other avid book fans, but you could also read with them, or buy the book right from the virtual shelf and read it on your PC, or hand held phone or palm. It seems you are seeing Second Life as a different place than our first life, but it’s very much not. It’s an extension of our first life that offers very much some of the same capabilities as our actual reality does.
    You should use it a bit more. For all of it’s missing functionality, it’s a prototype for the next phase of the internet… understanding that is being ahead of the curve.

  8. Dave,
    You make some strong points in this post. During the past eight months, we’ve seen a tidal wave of hype followed by an equally intense wave of backlash. However, Second Life continues to grow steadily. Though some corporations have pulled up stakes and moved on, others (e.g. IBM) are deepening their commitment.
    No matter what happens with Second Life, the underlying vision of an immersive virtual world that is used for entertainment and commerce will endure. In many ways, Second Life is analogous to the WELL and USENET and other on-line communities of the early 90s: it foreshadows better things to come.
    As far as successful business strategies in SL are concerned, one problem is that businesses haven’t taken time to learn about the community before moving in. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I encourage you to check out our recent white paper (7 tips for RL businesses in SL) based on a comprehensive survey of more than 800 residents. The paper is available for download at:

  9. I think the article and some of the responses hit some vital points. However to be able to “foresee” the future of it all, you want to have to look at Second Life from a more universal point-of-view. Just to predict the car would not have a future, because there are no streets, is too short-sighted, IMHO. To me it seems obvious that the electronic communication will become threedimensional. Period. If you want more proof, you can probably find it in extensive research. I like to judge from my own point-of-view, which hardly ever let me down in the past. And that tells me beyond doubt, that I find Second Life extemely fascinating. And I don’t see much reason, why I would be so different from millions of others. You may also notice: there is hardly any major software company in the world that is not involved in some kind of research and even beta-testing of threedimensionality in the internet. It seems everybody wants the same thing. A race to be won by the most universal idea, that would include the most needs and platforms. We are on the way to the “HTML-standard” of the web 3D.

  10. Thanks for reading my short post. I just left the following:
    From my experience you need a purpose (other than socialising) to use it, otherwise it can become boring. That�s why I choose to be involved in all sorts of projects in there, it guarantees I meet people who interest me and it enhances my experience.
    I do agree with your post on how their technology is not keeping up with the users. Although I haven�t tried WoW against SL, I assumed SL was superior due to the freedom to create but as a consequence suffered from more �lag�.
    As you said the beauty of the internet is that there is something out there for everyone.

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