People view Second Life in a lot of different ways. Its function can be defined differently for every one of its residents. For some, the early web 2.0 startup is nothing more than an advanced video game, offering an open platform of endless entertainment. For others, it is a communication tool to bridge physical gaps in a semi-physical way. There are those that use it as a marketing tool as they do every other social networking application, from Twitter to Facebook. Many, including dozens of Fortune 500 companies and prolific international corporations, have attempted to exploit the virtual world as a commerce tool, ranging from small, fully in-world businesses to real-world entities translated into digital form. Perhaps one of the biggest things the spawn of Linden Labs has going for it is that its platform can encourage and support this sort of variety. It was created with the intent of individual evolution, and was designed to support every possible ambition.
This flexibility is also its problem. After six years in the business, as hundreds of other social networking sites and virtual worlds have been developed, thrived, failed, and molded, Second Life has yet to delineate its presence in the Web 2.0 and virtual world markets. Second Life still doesn’t seem to know what it’s for.
Your world. Your imagination.
That’s the slogan of Second Life, where every primitive shape of its being is designed and created by the users. Linden Lab provides the servers, the bandwidth, and the bare land to those willing to pay rather copious sums for its “ownership.” The people do the rest. As directors of this open world, Linden attempts to cater to groups and provide more tools to encourage growth. But the management and development goals of the world never seem to make much sense.
Linden Lab is always attempting to appeal to particular business and social areas to draw attention and more to the program. A few years ago it was big business, as NBC, Dell, IBM, Reuters and tons of other multinational companies set up shop in-world, then wondered what to do next. They’ve inspired colleges to start virtual world educational facilities, which have never quite caught on. Now, they are aiming their sights at conferences and trade shows, attempting to develop a presence in the teleconferencing niche.
Parallel to this movement is the launch of AvaLine, a new Linden feature where “Residents can receive calls from anywhere in the world, while inworld” (https:/s.secondlife.com/community/features/2009/08/19/bye-bye-beta-avaline-dial-an-avatar-is-now-available-to-all-avatars) This allows people to have phone calls without switching apps, provides discrete contacts and reduces telephony charges. Of course, it has a fee, of around $6/month or $5/month if a year is paid in full up front. AvalLine is a nearly obvious side-by-side feature for launching a campaign to bring in conferences and trade shows. But does it matter?
A few years back, Linden Labs rolled out Voice chat. This was something people wanted, but it was misplaced, and unveiled at a time where the SL grid was riddled with near constant problems. Second Life’s infrastructure relies on a series of servers that are all connected. Avatars are connected, in-world locations are connected, and inventories are connected. When a problem hits one area of the grid, it can often cause problems globally. This was true then, when residents were in a fury that Linden was wasting time with voice chat and not visibly putting enough effort into solving common everyday problems, and it is still true today.
Innovation, and the motto of “Your World. Your Imagination” can only go so far if you can’t get into the world.
Features like voice chat and AvaLine, and other now somewhat ignored relics like WindLight seem to be Linden’s attempts at taking Second Life one step further, but falling short on the execution. Nothing has been properly monetized. Nothing has allowed the company or the users to recreate the way they experience the world, or use the web. It’s as if Second Life is a platform that hasn’t figured out what should be resting on top of it. There is potential there. Linden Labs knows it. The users know it. But so far, few things have shown that anyone really understands how to make it come to fruition. They throw out random tools, play to targeted audiences, the users do their thing, and it’s unclear where it’s taking us.
Linden Labs seems to rely too heavily on the users cultivating the world for them, and every now and then they throw a few tools their way to possibly inspire someone’s ingenuity. “It’s your imagination, so you do it. We’re just a platform.” As someone who has been in Second Life for years, and used the world to generate thousands of dollars of monthly income during 2007 through a number of various entrepreneurial efforts, I never got much of an impression that Linden Labs was well-guided with their customer focus or their development goals. Obviously, maintaining a user-created real-time world of such an epic scale is a bandwidth nightmare, and problems are going to occur. But the freedom they extend to their residents would often be the same variable they would use against them when catastrophes came up. Two years ago, ad farms, spammers, griefers plagued the world and much of the terrain and atmosphere, particularly on Linden’s “mainland,” was becoming purely awful. The aesthetics were ruined, and assault was on the rise. Linden took action by banning ad farms, reclaiming tons of abandoned and unused properties, and sought to make things better. This appeared to be in the best interest of the users, as it would improve the experience and free up a lot of what was clogging Linden’s dated mainland servers. However, the impression much of the community received was that Linden blamed them for the fact the problem started in the first place. It was the residents’ fault things got that way, not the fault of a poorly managed real estate system where absolutely nothing was regulated or managed on Linden’s own hardware. Your World. Your Imagination. Your Fault.
That is not to say nothing has improved over the years. The concept of Second Life is utter brilliance, and it has triggered the invention of a whole mess of virtual worlds and social platforms, one of which is destined to fulfill the ambition they’ve all set out to design. I entered the world in 2006, and was within the first million registered avatars – a milestone they crossed a few weeks later on October 18, 2006. This number was quickly passed again and again, and now the active user base is around 1 million per month. Back then, much of the world was choppy, slow, and there weren’t nearly as many tools and gadgets to enhance the experience. Flexi prims didn’t even exist yet. So, given the population and object growth of the world over the past three years, the fact that visual and developmental progression continues to improve the avatar-world-avatar interactions is quite an awesome feat. The interface is unarguably miles beyond where it started.
Many critics will tell you the reason Second Life is a poor platform for trade shows and conferences, and business in general for that matter, is the unreliability that still exists. Despite constant improvements and community requests, things like failing teleports, crappy search features and inventory problems have been around for years. That makes it a tough platform for big events. That, and the griefers that want to fly around and cause trouble, the price of ownership in-world, and the difficulty of using the world for the average Joe. Imagine teleporting into the world and the teleport fails and you get stuck somewhere, or your avatar ends up naked, or you’re attacked by a dozen nutty people throwing huge pink penises at you. Imagine you are some important business suit having those issues, your first visit to SL. Then imagine you’re having that happen, are a fancy business type, and aren’t totally computer savvy. Your computer is more than a month old, so it’s having a little trouble even running the software at a decent pace. You wouldn’t know how to overcome the problem. You wouldn’t know what was going on. You’d probably end up with a pretty jaded opinion of the company or organization you were there to meet, by no fault of theirs. The platform would punish you. It’s a fact that Second Life has quite a learning curve, especially for those who aren’t as super savvy with these things. The number of operations is massive. There is literally so much to do that it turns you away, because you’re a fancy business person and quite frankly don’t have that much time. Some people have trouble working iChat. Attending a virtual conference in Second Life and conquering its frequent issues would be like asking them to operate the Echelon satellite. Flat out, it’s too much for a lot of people, and this is proven by its repeated failures as a corporate partnership medium.
On the other hand, imagine it working smoothly. Imagine what you could do that you can’t do over Skype or a video conference call. You can greet potential employees or clients, hold structured HR events, discuss privately via text or voice, and get a lot of crossover between the real and digital worlds. With sponsorship and promotion, great exposure potential is there. Virtual products could be given out, videos played for all to watch… though this all hinders on the promoter having a strong grasp of SL, and the attendees knowing how to navigate. They have to make sure all their equipment works, all the attendees will have the right viewer version, the grid won’t haggle you, and everything else. Money will be important, too, as the event will have to be held on a safe location. The only real way to ensure that is to buy your own sim and eat a lot of cash, otherwise you risk vagabonds ruining your fancy event, or having a bondage store crop up behind the speaker’s podium.
Many residents are happy to deal with the problems SL has. Many residents don’t care that most of Linden’s IT solutions and development plans fail. They’re there to have a good time and hang out, meet new people and escape reality with a gamer’s mentality. But others are tired of the constant lack of service. Nearly everyone I used to associate with in 2006-2008 (who, admittedly, were a group of real die-hard 24 hours per day SL residents that revolved their real lives around their avatar’s) have left the world. They fear it is a world shifting its focus to profit more and more each day.
There is nothing wrong with those who are there for fun. It’s a fun world, especially at the right places and with the right people. It is easy to develop an insatiable desire to create, and looking at other users’ creations make Second Life an intense boulevard to drive for inspiration. I’m not particularly skeptical of Linden Lab’s means of making money. They’re a well-funded organization that has been backed by some real big supporters. I’m just wondering when the real good stuff is going to kick in. I’m wondering when the world will reach that next level, and if their movement can continue to support them. It seems to be dying, if it isn’t too late already, in which case death has come. I hope it all ends up well, because I truly love Second Life, despite the misgivings I have about its operation. The latent potential is waiting to be uncovered, as few things foster creativity to this level.
I started this by saying Second Life allows itself to be everything to everyone. That’s great for the users, but not for the company in charge. They need to know what they are. Nobody, user or corporate, has put into action a big change for SL to bring. As time goes by and companies continue to pull out of SL more than move in, I’ve seen nothing but faith being lost by many previously obsessive LL apologists. Big business failed, fruitless advertising led to a catastrophe, and here we are appealing to conference-goers as the next hopeful candidate to pen the definition of Second Life and find a real-world role for mass society. It seems like a weird idea. It probably is – which is why few conferences or trade shows have yet to jump on the option.