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Second Thoughts on Second Life


Second Thoughts on Second Life

Apr 06, 2007By Michael Stoner

Second Life is a metaverse-a 3‑D, totally immersive virtual world. Visitors to Second Life create an avatara character that represents you as you wander about and interact with others through text-based chat. You can buy land and build a house or purchase merchandise using virtual currency, create an event, and do things with other visitors. In Second Life, the only limitation is your imagination-and that of others, since part of the attraction of SL is interaction with other residents.

You can teach classes in Second Life, as Sarah Robbins, a Ball State University graduate student, is doing. Or create a virtual island for your college, as Vassar did, and offer tours to visitors. Or build a gymnasium, giving visitors a taste of what it would be like to visit the real gym, which they could help to build on your campus if they make a (real) contribution. 

Realistically, though, much of the current wave of activity in Second Life is based on the media hype around it. Linden Labs has touted the growth of its virtual world. And there’s been a huge wave of PR by commercial entities like Reebok, Adidas, American Apparel, H&R Block, Toyota, Duran Duran and others who established “stores,” “islands,” or other (virtual) presences in Second Life as beachheads for their brands. For example, an announcement that American Apparel was launching in Second Life resulted in a huge amount of publicity. Last year, SL got a lot of publicity when it reached 2 million visitors.

Do I sound skeptical? Call me a Luddite, but I think advancement offices and recruiters have more important things to do than think about Second Life right now. To me-and many others-this is all too reminiscent of the dot.com boom, with lots of hype and magical thinking about what this metaverse might become. The key word in that sentence is “might.”

For all its promise, the fundamental problem is that no one has convinced me that Second Life has enough visitors to make a presence worthwhile. Clay Shirky and others have commented pretty convincingly on SL’s churn. While a lot of people have heard about Second Life and visit it to find out what it’s all about, the number who return-and return often-is much, much smaller. Some people are interested enough to persist, but many more get frustrated and give up.

Having a presence in Second Life isn’t like installing AIM on your computer and starting to chat with your friends. It’s just not that easy to develop an avatar and maneuver within the world. It takes some patience and commitment on the part of visitors-and who has patience these days? And, from the standpoint of an organization or an institution, committing the time and resources to create and manage your presence in Second Life is a challenge. You have to know the world and the expectations of its residents-you have to go native. If not, you’re in trouble: other Second Lifers will spot you for a fake.

The LA Times reported on how disappointed Second Life residents are in the efforts of the marketers who’ve infested the world but weren’t committed to creating something worthy of it. Some residents established the Second LIfe Liberation Army, whose protests have included exploding atomic bombs outside a virtual American Apparel outlet; other residents gave the SLLA (virtual) money to buy (virtual) guns and other weapons to enable their protests. In short, virtual NIMBYs at work. 

I do find all this fascinating. At best, it’s engaging and fun. At worst, nonproductive—with little sign of a (real) payoff any time soon. It’s one thing to let alumni know that a class has established a presence in Second LIfe and invite them to join in the lectures. It’s another to devote scarce resources in PR, development or alumni relations to something more ambitious. For the moment, I’d follow what’s happening in this virtual world while keeping well-grounded IRL.

IRL? That’s “In Real Life”—an acronym common in earlier MUDDs, MOOs, and virtual reality experiments and still very important.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?