A New, In-Depth Article About Second Life Appears in EGM

Mark Hill has written an article about Second Life for Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) magazine which is probably the most comprehensive and in-depth look at the virtual world since Leslie Jamison’s lamentably-titled profile in The Atlantic.

The article, titled The Second Life That Wasn’t, takes an interesting approach to its subject: Mark hunted down and spoke with the authors of five guides to Second Life which were published by Wiley between 2006 and 2009, with the official cooperation of Linden Lab:

  • Second Life: The Official Guide (published in 2006);
  • The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second Life: Making Money in the Metaverse (2007);
  • Creating Your World: The Official Guide to Advanced Content Creation for Second Life (2007);
  • Scripting Your World: The Official Guide to Second Life Scripting (2008); and
  • The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement (2009).

The article covers the corporate boom and subsequent corporate bust of Second Life in some detail. One of the authors of the Wiley series of books, tech journalist Daniel Terdiman, is quoted as saying:

SL was one of the most-exciting topics in technology. Every big name you can think of was opening up in SL, and while there were obviously major problems (usability being the most threatening), it looked like it could grow to be a major platform with millions of users, tons of brands, and a flourishing economy. That notoriety was why I was able to get a book contract very quickly. Of course, with every hype cycle comes a crash, and in SL’s case the crash came so quickly that by the time the book came out we were already well past hype and into the skepticism cycle. Brands were pulling out, and we had trouble selling the book.

Mark writes:

… while it’s easy to flip through these books and conclude that the world has long since moved on, but Second Life didn’t die so much as it quietly powered through the insane expectations that were created for it. In 2019 the Second Life community forums saw a spirited discussion on “Tipping Guidelines for Gentlemen Clubs” (in another throwback, one employee of a Second Life club comments, “Most of the women I work with, myself included are professional phone sex operators”). In the game’s subReddit just shy of 6,000 users share screenshots, discuss their favorite in-world creations, offer shopping deals with slick videos, and troubleshoot technical problems. Complaints that Second Life is dead and requests for tips on getting into SL can be found on the same page.

As of 2017 there were a reported 600,000 active accounts, with contemporary concurrent users hovering around a maximum of 45,000. Even accounting for some bot activity, that’s better than a legacy MMO of comparable age like EverQuest. No SL user will again grace the front page of Business Week because of all the money they’ve been making, but no one is predicting an imminent plug-pulling either.

And (of course!) there’s an interview with Wagner James Au of the long-running SL blog New World Notes, who seems to be the standard go-to person whenever the mainstream news media wants to talk to a so-called “expert” on Second Life:

Just what are Residents still doing? James Au provided some highlights. “The majority treat Second Life like a kind of Sims-type dollhouse for their avatar, tricking it out with the latest user-made fashion/skins/accessories/housewares. Second Life users who create and sell content make as much money from Second Life as [Linden Lab] does. Probably the second biggest niche are roleplay communities, who’ve created roleplay regions inspired by Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Fallout, etc. Then third is likely a sub-niche of extreme adult roleplay, some of which has led to a huge lawsuit. There’s also a small but very active community which reflects Second Life’s glory years, when it was embraced as a platform for creating art and imparting 3D-based education, and for using it as a tool for real life therapy. For instance, there’s a community for using SL to address Parkinson symptoms.”

It’s a good article, and I would encourage you to head over to the EGM website and read it yourself.

One final thought: it is interesting that Second Life continues to be a moderate success despite not having any real-world corporate partnerships (the only recent example I can think of is Sanrio, with their Hello Kitty world). Perhaps there is a lesson here for Linden Lab with their new social VR platform, Sansar, where the company has been trying mightily to woo corporate suitors by (among other things) banning adult content.

A quote from another of the authors Mark Hill interviewed, Kimberly Rufer-Bach, underlines the harsh truth that it was not the corporate presences that upheld SL, but individual Second Life residents who simply desired a world where they could be anybody (or anything) they wanted to be:

When the first real-world organizations came into SL, they were mostly educational institutions quietly doing small research projects. But then came the marketing projects, which generated and lived on hype. It was not realistic to figure a copy of a real-world store was going to make big bucks selling virtual shoes or shirts. There weren’t yet enough avatars in SL to make enough money. Plus, they were competing against established brands in shops run by SL [Residents].

Similarly, I don’t think anyone figured that the SL userbase would visit a company’s virtual shop and then run out to buy real-world items. Leveraging the hype was all about getting press for your organization by being one of the first to enter into this cutting-edge virtual world. For a while it was a sure thing; hire some SL developer to establish your organization’s presence, and you would reap lots of profitable press coverage. Because of this, SL unfortunately experienced a flood of carpetbaggers promising clients unrealistic things that couldn’t really be done with the platform, while underpaying Resident content creators, sometimes disappearing without paying at all.

Linden Lab would be wise to keep Second Life’s past history in mind when making future plans for Sansar. A virtual world full of corporate sponsors shilling products might be the very last thing people want when shopping around for a metaverse. (Facebook Horizon may learn this lesson the hard way, too.)

Thank you for telling me about this article, Neobela!