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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 09:42 GMT
Second hype or second life?
We should not underestimate the importance of the virtual world of Second Life argues regular commentator Bill Thompson

Thom Rimbaud, Bill Thompson
The virtual Bill Thompson: Thom Rimbaud
Not content with occupying vast chunks of the television schedule for weeks at a time, Endemol, the company that produces the "Big Brother" reality TV programme, has announced that it will be hosting a special edition of the show inside the Second Life virtual world.

Participants, or at least their online representations in the form of cartoon-like avatars, will be confined in a house with transparent walls, and the winner will become the owner of a whole Second Life island.

This seems to be piling the self-referential onto the virtual to the point where it becomes impossible to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to survive in what has recently become the hippest and trendiest of online environments.

For one thing, few of us are going to feel at all engaged with the trials and tribulations of a bunch of pixels.

It might help if the people behind the avatars were forced to appear on webcam and remain in their homes for the duration of the contest to add some much-needed verisimilitude to the proceedings, but I doubt that this is the plan.

Still, at least it will give the just announced in-world gossip tabloid newspaper something to write about.

The "newspaper" is being set up by German publishers Axel Springer and promises "a colourful tabloid with snippets about show business and tales from the avatar world". It will be sold for Linden Dollars, the currency used throughout Second Life to buy goods.

Social space

Big Brother's arrival in a computer-generated world is of course completely ironic since, as I have pointed out previously, site owners Linden Labs already know absolutely everything that happens in their world because it exists in their servers.

As George Orwell might have written, "if you want an image of the future imagine a bearded systems administrator examining server logs, forever".

Bill Thompson
We're still at a very early stage in building usable and useful online environments so for the moment it's better to play, and to try for a second childhood rather than a fully developed second life online.
Bill Thompson

It's easy to dismiss Second Life as just another overhyped and inadequate online service, one that knows how to give journalists something to write about but is actually a distraction from the real work of building usable online environments.

Technology writer Andrew Orlowski has written a series of scathing articles in which he calls it "Sadville" and lampoons those who have so little to do in their real lives that they find Second Life interesting and engaging.

On the technical side, my hardcore gaming friend Simon simply can't work with the unwieldy user interface and finds the network lag that makes even the simplest scene stutter too infuriating for words.

These criticisms are valid, but only to a degree, because there is something going on here, something behind the PR hype and the breathless reporting, and we should not underestimate the importance of Second Life as a space for social and technological experimentation.

For one thing it has a good-sized user-base. Over a million people have gone to the trouble of downloading the multi-megabyte client before registering a username and figuring out how to dress and move their cartoon-like avatars around the fast-growing world.

They may have experimented with different forms of clothing, worked out how to fly and even managed to make the mouse-camera work. Certainly, a large number of them are spending significant amounts of time logged on, and they are using the tools available to construct virtual environments that others find engaging and interesting.

A small number are trading successfully, finding new ways to turn online activities into an income. Perhaps Axel Springer will even find a new way of generating revenue for the newspaper industry, and without having to buy a single roll of newsprint.

Hippy hangout

For me the really useful aspect of a virtual world will be if it can provide a single point of contact for all my many online activities.

Screen shot from Second Life

At the moment "virtual Bill" is scattered across cyberspace, with photos, blog entries, essays, videos, calendars and all the rest of my online life completely dispersed.

It would be nice to tell people to go to one place - a virtual home - where they can see my favourite photos on the wall, browse through my blog entries on the desk and see my calendar and to-do list on the fridge door.

But Second Life could offer a lot more. At the moment it is like a bohemian playground, a safe place where we can try out the technologies, improve the interfaces and figure out what forms of social relationship work online. It is a sandpit, a place we can all come to play and explore.

That means we should expect it to change, and change frequently. One of the minor irritations I find with the service is the number of times I try to log on and get a message telling me I have to download a new version of the client before I can do so. But this is in fact a good sign and shows that progress is being made.

The real danger is that current ways of working become embedded in the interface even though better alternatives are discovered, simply because users would be unhappy if things changed too much. But site owners Linden Labs may have realised this already.

One option would be to learn all they can from the current interface and launch a new site - Life 2.0, perhaps - sometime next year, without making any effort to take Second Lifers with them. After all, when the virtual worlds go mainstream the last people you want are the old hippies and early adopters who believe that they are the only ones who truly understand what's going on.

We're still at a very early stage in building usable and useful online environments so for the moment it's better to play, and to try for a second childhood rather than a fully developed second life online.

I'm Thom Rimbaud, and happy to meet up or be your friend.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet




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