BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

What happened to Second Life?

American Apparel Second Life store closed
Some shops opened with a fanfare then quietly closed

By Lauren Hansen
BBC News Magazine

Not long ago Second Life was everywhere, with businesses opening branches and bands playing gigs in this virtual world. Today you'd be forgiven for asking if it's still going.

Once upon a time Second Life had a Twitter level of hype. Even those without a cartoon version of themselves couldn't plead ignorance due to blanket coverage in newspapers and magazines.

Second Life is a virtual world started by the US firm Linden Lab in 2003, in which users design an avatar to live their "second life" online.

And everything about this world can be customised for a price - new outfits, drinks in a bar, even a luxury mansion can be bought with Linden dollars.

Mentions of Second Life first crept into the UK media mainstream in early 2006.

The Maldives virtual embassy
The Maldives were the first to open a virtual embassy in 2007

A year later, newspapers fell over themselves to cover it, devoting many column inches in their business, technology and lifestyle sections to profiles and trend pieces. By the end of 2007 Second Life had secured more than 600 mentions in UK newspapers and magazines, according to the media database Lexis Nexis.

IBM bought property in 2006, American Apparel opened a shop the same summer, Reuters installed avatar journalist Adam Pasick - also known as Adam Reuters - to report on virtual happenings, and countries established virtual embassies.

The number of people joining the site jumped from 450,000 to four million in 2007.

But just as quickly as it had flared, media interest ebbed away. References plummeted by 40% in 2008 and dropped further this year. And businesses diverted their resources back to real life.

American Apparel closed its shop just one year after opening. Reuters pulled its correspondent in October 2008. When asked about his virtual experience, Pasick says: "It isn't a subject we like to revisit."

So, what happened?

In Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, a seminal sci-fi work of the 90s, one of the plots is that there was this whole metaverse exactly like Second Life, only cooler. You had a whole generation of people who read Snow Crash and were talking about this idea of the internet as a 3D world you could immerse yourself in
Ben Hammersley

Not much, says Wired UK editor-at-large Ben Hammersley, and that was the problem.

"You could go and open these stores and no-one would turn up," he says.

"They would have 20 to 30 people there when it opened, and after that no-one would bother going in there again. It just wasn't worth the spend."

The "spend" varied from business to business. A retailer like American Apparel might spend £10,000 on designers, as well as storage space from Linden Lab, to build a virtual store.

But at the peak of the hype, the cost of purchasing or building property was worth it.

"The first to go online would make the front page of the Guardian," Mr Hammersley says. "But when you're the 15th country who goes on Second Life, no magazine, no newspaper touches it."

Some businesses and users found it wasn't quite for them. The technology wasn't easily grasped and some computers couldn't handle it.

Second Life has had to temper its ambitions for the quality of graphics to extend its accessibility across varying speeds of broadband around the world, leading to complaints about the cartoony look and feel of the site.

And there is a fundamental question about whether Second Life is a game or a social networking site.

"It's not a really good social space," Mr Hammersley says. "Not as good as Facebook or any general online forum.

Avatrs gather for a virtual dinner
Avatars can walk, fly and teleport

Simon Gardner, a 23-year-old freelance social media marketer, believed the hype in 2007.

He signed on, created an avatar with a shock of red hair that vaguely resembled him, and jumped into what he found to be a lacklustre experience.

"It was a real pain. You have to learn how to control things and read manuals on how to get to islands and get off. Half the time you're just wandering around talking to weirdos."

After three months Mr Gardner became bored and left.

Mobile dilemma

And the online social network scene is a crowded one. "The key to anything online is to get a broader reach of people," says Jim Clark of market researchers Mintel. The learning curve required for Second Life prevents many general users from returning regularly.

As more people turn to smart phones, sites need a mobile presence to stay relevant.

"Mobile is the future of any activity online. This is something that Second Life will struggle to penetrate," says Mr Clark.

This is because the graphics require more memory than current smart phones can handle.

But Linden Labs isn't worried, because the number of users continues to rise.

"Monthly repeat login - a metric we use to gauge the number of users engaged with Second Life - grew 23% from September 2008 to September 2009," says Mark Kingdon, chief executive of Linden Lab.

IBM Virtual Green Data Center
In IBM's Virtual Green Data Center, avatars can seek IT advice

On average, a million people log in each month, he says. In October 2009, 75,000 of those were in the UK.

And the site continues to evolve, Mr Kingdon says. It launched a new product earlier this month geared towards businesses, and will soon be launching more user-friendly and intuitive software.

And many companies and organisations are still holding on to their virtual selves - 1,400 of them says Mr Kingdon. IBM continues to be an avid supporter of Second Life.

But for many others, the jury is out.

Below is a selection of your comments.

It's the ultimate sandbox to build whatever you can imagine. Hospitals & universities are using it, Harvard Law School is one among many who teaches there. Reuters missed every major story while they had a site in SL. It's wonderful for builders, artists, and live performers to start out, but no-one is going to login to it to buy trainers.
Pam, UK

I've just had my third "birthday" in Second Life and fully intend to have many more there. I attribute my happiness there to four simple rules I follow, three DON'Ts and one DO:
1) I don't run a business - I have enough of that in real life. Second Life is a hobby and I'm willing to pay for my hobby.
2) I don't get into relationships - far too dangerous as I'm a happily married family man. My Second Life friends are not 'friends with benefits'.
3) I don't get involved in arguments and fighting - enough of that in real life.
4) I do have a reason to go there - like real life, Second Life is not Facebook, which is simply about keeping in touch with people in your network. I was lost at first, but quickly found new friends and new things to do. I help run a travelling vaudeville theatre group and write & perform comedy acts - something I'd never have thought of doing in real life. In fact my second life is as busy and involved as my first. Second Life has a healthy and growing population that doesn't need hype and counter-hype to continue to grow and enjoy it.
HeadBurro Antfarm, RL is Lancashire, SL is Steelhead

Another of SL's weaknesses is that events happen in real time. Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace would not work so well if you could only communicate with your friends when you're both online. My experience of many events in SL is that I tend to spend more time explaining to people about Second Life, how to use it, how to set up microphones etc, than I do enjoying the event. Perhaps if a client were available for consoles then interest could be bought back in.
Darren Wall

Updates; that was what killed it for me. Every time you revisited you were compelled to upload more and more updates, which seemed really cool at first, until you realised that you were inflating the spec. Eventually, the technological improvements outstripped the natural upgrading budget of the average PC owner - there were a lot of stay-at-home moms, kids and freelancers online when I was there - and the experience became like wading through buggy sludge until it crashed on you. Not pleasant.
Jon A, Bristol, UK

I joined SL but it was absolutely impossible to navigate. I could barely get out of the intro area and once you did, there was no help or guidance left. I wandered round and round in circles for a couple of days and then gave up. It was a great idea but just didn't work in practice. Shame, really.
Emma, UK

Use media as a measurement of how well an online community is surviving is much like determining the health of your car by the number of pedestrians that look at you drive past. Secondly, the idea of the Net in Second Life's form was from William Gibson in the 80s, not Stephenson in the 90s.
Rob Lang, Reading

I don't remember the media falling over themselves to cover Second Life. The BBC always did though. I could never work out why, with so many larger, more important online communities out there, the Beeb chose to focus so heavily on one that was relatively small and obscure.
Sarah, Maidstone, England

Second Life (and I'm not a user but have/had an account) is just as viable than it was before the hype. It appeals to people who wish to escape reality - so anyone trying to replicate reality find there was no business case. Unfortunately this tenancy to seek out and hype the new and quirky (and equate numbers growth with success) confuses and distracts people from what is important - and proven - online v what is novel and unproven.
Duane Raymond, London, UK

Twitter will go the same way.
Adam, Dundee

I spent two years on Second Life. Were it not for finding good company in the trivia game community, I would never have stayed that long. Most of the other things I found a bit pointless and superficial.
Rickson Barbosa

Don't confuse hype with success. I am sure you are as aware of Gartner's Hype Cycle as I am: Second Life has been through the over-hype, where it suffered particularly from corporates completely missing the point - they could hardly do anything but fail. Today, Second Life seems healthily on what Gartner called the Slope of Enlightenment, on the way to the Plateau of Productivity. Where Second Life really scores today in my view is as a teaching environment, and as a venue for virtual conferences and events which are far more cost-effective and environmentally sound than flying people across the world. As far as teaching environments are concerned, look at the Frideswide region where the University of Oxford's WWI Poetry Digital Archive has established a stunning presentation of aspects of their collection in a simulated Western Front.
Richard E, Cambridge UK

I set up a Second Life account and spent a few hours trying to figure out how the whole thing worked - I failed and gave up and have never been back. As with any technology or service usability is important.
Ed, London

Second Life is boring! You can't do anything without spending money, so for the person casually checking it out, there's absolutely nothing to attract them. And despite the comment in the article about "talking to weirdos", it's actually quite difficult to find anyone in there to talk to at all.
Vince, Croydon, UK

I have been visiting Second Life on and off for three years and it is what you make of it, like anything else. I do not consider myself to be a weirdo and I am certainly not looking for cheap thrills or an extra-marital affair. I have SL friends who I regularly chat with and they range from university professors to gardeners and from teachers to artists. A wide social mix of people visit Second Life, which is certainly the best virtual world without a shadow of a doubt. As a building tool Second Life is terrific eg: I designed a kitchen extension online that you can walk around as opposed to paying an architect a fortune to draw it for me. It is not for everybody but to write it off now would be incredibly premature.
RC Robjohn, London

It's better than any social networking or chat room. It's more interactive. Although there are a lot of rude people on there especially new users/avatars. I met my wife on there. However you can grow bored of it and its speed sometimes is slow. I now go on it once every couple of weeks.
Rob H, Wolves, UK

Second Life is STILL huge... any search on the web will prove that due to the reams of blogs, articles and content generated by the metaverse. The problem is it faced a lot of negative press, which detracted from the actual user experience. It's not all about geeks and perverts - many people use Second life as a way to perform their music in a live environment. It's also a great outlet for creators, I know of many people who make living wages from the items they sell in-world. That said, it's not all about money, it's all about user experience. I've made lots of new friends and learned new technical skills from my time in world. People who want to try it should research it first and assess their expectations - sure you can use it as a social networking tool, but you have to build up that network first of all unless you already have friends in world. Basically, if you go into the metaverse with no clear ambitions then you are going to struggle, but if you want to use Second Life as a creative outlet then you'll find it a very rewarding one indeed.
Kitty O'Toole (Lisa Millar), Jasper Islands, Second Life (Chesterfield, UK)

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