3DSecond LifeVirtual Worlds

Second Life Reality Check

By January 5, 2007 2 Comments

Second Life log 

Alan over on Broadstuff has been saying for a while now that Second Life is overhyped – this is the latest in a series of posts.  In it he points to a ValleyWag post Second Life – A story too good to check.

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I am fan of Second Life and a believer in the potential of virtual worlds to have a significant impact on the way we live our lives.  I retain that view, but now with less conviction that anything will happen quickly.

The ValleyWag post is a reality check on the state of Second Life.  The post is well worth a full read.  The four main arguments are:

  1. The numbers are overstated – the headline grabbing announcement of 1m residents in (I think it was) October, and then 2m a couple of months later mask much smaller numbers of active users.  It may even be that our Second Life Real World Millionaire is not as real as we were led to believe.
  2. Second Life is the sort of story the media like and so gets over-reported.  I particularly like the twist that a lot of what is reported is top down unilateral activity – Reuters has a resident journalist, XYZ brand opens an SL store, etc – this reporting on what decision makers are dong is “catnip to the press”, but the really interesting thing is the bottom up activity.  I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone – the press releases come out and it all sounds very cool, the bottom up activity meanwhile is harder to make stories out of.
  3. The virtual world story is old hat and the promises of what it can do are nothing new.  They didn’t pan out last time round and they won’t pan out this time either.
  4. Virtual worlds aren’t really good places to do many things – 3D interfaces are not the best for most things that we like to do online

The first two arguments are good ones.  Very good.  The third and fourth I am not so sure about. 

Most successful companies are not the first ones with their idea, they are the ones who get the timing right.  Skype wasn’t the first VOIP company, delicious wasn’t the first social bookmarking company and so on.  Broadband is making the timing right for a lot of applications that failed before and so it could well be with virtual worlds/Second Life.  As someone pointed out in the comments on the Valleywag post the user content creation tools in SL are on a different level to anything we have seen before – that is the power of the SL 20MB client, something that wouldn’t have worked until recently.

I’m not so sure that the folks at Linden Labs will be losing too much sleep over the fourth point either.  The community at SL may be smaller than we had thought, but it is a vibrant community none the less, and it is still growing.  Vibrant and growing – that would keep me happy.

Moreover, some dominant activities do seem to be emerging – gambling being one, and I’m sure others will come over time as well.  If you think of SL as a 3D social network (which in many ways I do) then this issue of what people are doing is second order.  The important thing is that people are spending time there.  That tells you they have found something they like doing.  It would of course be nice if there was a Second Life killer app, and one may emerge (or move there from the real world) but belittling SL because you can’t see it today is to somehow miss the point.

One thing I think the folks at Linden won’t be so happy about though is the way they are perceived to have misled the world with high headline resident numbers.  They made a mistake here and now they are paying for it.  I blogged last week that companies should take control by defining their key metrics and publishing them on their websites.  If you are going to do that you had better make sure your figures are not misleading (flattering is good, misleading is a step too far).  Otherwise, you will end up where SL is.  There might be a school of thought that says they got the good PR so be dammed with it, but I’m not so sure about that.  These things usually come round to hurt you in the end.