Second Life: the new Disney or vaporville?

0005_1 Is Second Life the future?  Or a cul de sac?  At this point, it’s hard to say. 

Clay Shirky put a cat among the pigeons when he asked whether the Second Life numbers were reliable.  The SL website now claims 3,350,286 residents with something like a third of these having actually made an appearance in the last 60 days.  Shirky called earlier estimates "methodologically worthless."  He figures 5 out of 6 new users abandon their accounts before the first month is up.  After 90 days, 9 of 10 "residents" have disappeared. 

Shirky’s skepticism forced a reframing of the question: "ok, if we can’t prove this argument by the numbers, is there another way to make the case?"

Shirky is skeptical here too.  He believes Second Life

will remain a niche application, which is to say an application that will be of considerable interest to a small percentage of the people who try it.  Such niches can be profitable…but they won’t, by definition, appeal to a broad cross-section of users. 

Both Henry Jenkins and Beth Coleman beg to differ.  Coleman says that SL gives us an important "amplification" of the virtual world possibility.  Whether SL is the virtual world that takes, there can’t be any doubt that some virtual world will. SL matters, she argues, because it represents a "tipping point" that releases virtual worlds from their niche status. 

Henry Jenkins calls SL is a "test bed for innovation" for business, government, education, civic, nonprofit, and amateur media makers.  He suggests SL offers virtual worlds a kind of "proof of concept" (my term, not his)  For all its failings, SL is perhaps good enough to help install the possibility (the idea and the potentiality) of virtual worlds in popular culture. 

It’s a niche play, Shirky says.  No, say Jenkins and Coleman, that’s precisely what it just ceased to be. Numbers aside, they say, SL just cleared the bar.  It is now part of our culture. 

I hear both arguments. 

an argument for Second Life

I agree with Jenkins and Coleman.  SL makes this much incontrovertible: it is now technologically possible for a very large number of people to gather and interact in a visually rich and responsive virtual space. Incontrovertible and astonishing.  It is hard to think of a real world correlate.  It’s as if another Disney empire (Disneyland, Disney World, Disney Resorts) just dropped from the sky. Um, that doesn’t go nearly far enough.  It’s as if a Scandinavian world was just lowered onto the planet.  At a minimum, we’re obliged to say our culture and our marketplace just got vastly larger.  We would be unwise to dismiss or diminish it.

We might also risk a bit of filmic wisdom: if you build it, they will come.  Whatever else they are, human beings are relentlessly curious.  Give them a social space to occupy it and they will fill it en masse.  And fill it they did, three million of them. 

But that’s the issue, isn’t it?  Yes, they came, but did they stay?  Are they "residents" as SL likes to call them, or the most capricious kind of tourist?  The fact of the matter is that SL churns like crazy.  This could be yet another technology that cannot find a problem to solve. Yet another hammer looking for a nail. Still, Coleman’s point is a good one. These are early days.  Indeed, television took several years to find a place in our lives.  Why should Second Life be any different? 

I have another colleague at MIT who believes he knows exactly what Second Life can be.  Ilya Vedrashko says it is, among other things, the new mall. All of us shop on line but we can’t drift from store to store, observe the shopping choices of other people, or enjoy the effects of serendipity.  (We didn’t know we wanted another gadget from Sharper Image the last time, but there it was…at the mall.)  Second Life can duplicate all of this even as it makes it possible to try things on without the privations or indignities of a changing room.  Click on something and look in the mirror.  (Vedrashko makes a larger, more interesting argument than I can here.  Catch it if you can.)

Second Life also has the potential to change tourism, working like a time machine in space, as it were.  Let’s suppose that someday, the virtual Lindentown will someday be as different from my usual virtual haunts, as Miami is from New York City.  If I wish to go to Miami, it will cost me money, time, effort, and inconvenience.  But an afternoon in Lindentown costs me nothing more than the click of a mouse.

Second Life could serve as a magnificent platform for the new global university or b-school.  Now all that fund raising would be about intellectual content and content providers, and hiring good teachers.  Not a penny need be spent on bricks and mortar.  Even the reunions can be held on line.


For all we know, Second Life might be the place that consumers go to help create the brands they care about.  It would be easy to create open air laboratories equipped with tools for developing concepts and changing prototypes.  And this will matter as marketing moves from "see" to "be."  (My "see to be" model: if you want me to see the marketing you will have to have given me a chance to be the marketing.  (But see my doubts noted yesterday. It is necessary that I had a chance to be it.) 

These are not small claims.  Changing the nature of retail, adding new terrains to the world of tourism, inventing the new university, creating the products and brands of the future, these would make Second Life something more than a cul de sac.  By this reckoning, SL not merely part of the future.  It will be one of the things that makes the future.

an argument against Second Life

I’ve done my due diligence as an anthropologist.  I signed up for Second Life. I spent some hours trooping around, poking my head in where it was not always welcome, pestering people with annoying questions.  And on balance I must hear agree with Shirky.  So far there is more smoke than fire.  When people bang the drum of enthusiasm for SL, they cannot be talking about the present SL.

For most of my visit, Second Life felt like a ghost ship.  I admired the ingenuity of the architecture, the skill of the coding, the homes on the water, the view from some properties.  But very often I found myself in a world without people. Lindentown is vaporville.  There are lots of buildings.  Just no people.  It’s a little like downtown Detroit on the weekend.  You can walk for miles and see not a soul. 

Then it dawns on you.  (It always takes the anthropologist longer.)  No one lives here.  It is fun to build these spaces but all appearances to the contrary, you can’t actually live in them.  No one goes to their Second Life pied-a-terre for the weekend.  (Pied-a-vapeur?)  No one rushes there to stage a dinner party, welcome the kids home for the weekend, or curl up in front of TV. 

This problem creates a problem.  Second Life is frequently a stage without actors. What is missing isthe small murmur of activity, the gentle dynamism that other people bring to our lives.  This may be what we mean by "perfect strangers." These are the people who create movement, visual stimulation, a steady current of minor commotion without actually ever impinging on our lives in any irritating way.  Second Life has no perfect strangers.

The absence of this dynamism means, among other things, that SL cannot create a new tourism.   The existing world of Second Life fails to capture us for the same reason that Celebration, Florida (the instant town build by Disney) originally disappointed.  The place was well appointed but it lacked perfect strangers.  There was a stillness to both places that made them unfit, or at least uninteresting, for human habitation.  I am told that Celebration addressed this problem. We shall see if SL can do the same. 

No people, no anthropology.  I ported to places where there are lots of people, to a dance party or a club.  Yikes!  I would end up talking to people who are so preoccupied by political power or sexual congress, so limited in their vocabulary, syntax, and dramaturgical interests, they might as well be bots. 

This is not a well world.  This is a deeply tedious world.  No wonder people sign up only then to wander away.  Sexual motives can create social universe, but finally, and I think I can risk this assertion, virtual sex is always going to be a pale imitation of real sex.  And conversation preoccupied with power, well, this is uninteresting in the real world.  And Second Life removes the contexts and consequences in which power plays out.  So who cares?

What I need to make SL interesting is a coffee shop or a restaurant where people just happen to congregate and just happen to give off those streams of sound and sight that make life interesting.  I need people to "happen" around me when I am in a virtual world.  (And I am perfectly happy to reciprocate by "happening" around them.)  The thing is I will never go to a virtual Starbucks for coffee.  I will never go take my wife out to dinner at a virtual restaurant.  I will go for person to person interaction and at the moment, this is just not very interesting. 

The other big hit against Second Life is that it sorts very badly.  I haven’t actually met anyone I find illuminating.  I am not asking that my SL network feed my real world network.  I am not as pragmatic as all that.  But I don’t want to step down my standards of conversation and curiosity just because I am on line.  That’s, surely, not what the virtual world is for.  If anything it should allow me to reach out to more people in the world and increase the chances that I will like the people I meet.  But this never seems to happen.  I would like to hear about this one from the SL supporters.  How many interesting people have you met in-world?

I did have one happy encounter.  I stumbled into a magic garden of some kind.  Eventually, I was approach by a rabbit who very kindly gave me a tour of the garden and an introduction to the actual and social physics of this world.  Blimey, now that’s the way to an anthropologist’s heart.  Here was a nascent culture, that might someday become something capable of supporting.  Who knows what might spring from these beginnings.  It might just be a Pookie festival, but what if Second Life were someday as productive as New York City in the 20th century?

Right now, Second Life is not helping me sort.  In fact, there is even less sorting in the virtual world than there is in the real world.  When someone presents themselves as flaming cloud or a bunnie, I have some measure of their imagination, but all other information is denied me. 

summing up

On balance, there is in Second Life lots to like and lots to loathe.  But I believe two things are clear.  We now have proof of concept.  And as Second Life supplies real opportunities for engagement and sorting, this social world will expand at pace, supplying in the longer term, every kind of cultural innovation and commercial opportunity. 


Anonymous. Economic Statistics.  Second Life.  Last Updated: Sunday, February 4, 2007. here

Coleman, Beth.  2007.  Second Life backlash: Clay Shirky blows up the spot.  Project Good Luck.  January 5, 2007.  here

Coleman, Beth.  2007.  Beyond Second Life Toward V-Economy.  Project Good Luck.  February 1. 2007. here.

Jenkins, Henry.  2007.  Second Thoughts on Second Life. Confessions of an Aca/Fan. here.   

Shirky, Clay.  2006.  Second Life: What are the real numbers?  Many2Many.  December 12, 2006. here

Shirky, Clay.  2007.  Second life, Games and Virtual Worlds.  Many 2 Many.  here


Thanks to Pat Crane for getting me started.   

11 thoughts on “Second Life: the new Disney or vaporville?

  1. Adam Richardson

    Interesting thoughts. Personally I think SL or something like it has a lot of potential to (re)define entertainment time in the same way that TV did, but as you say it’s quite a long way from that yet.

    On the numbers, this is reminiscent of AOL’s problem for a long time, which was the rate of churn. People would try the service for the free period, then drop off. This gave them enflated numbers for a while but it became apprarent that there wasn’t legs to it, and they had to adopt. Then the self-assembled environment of the internet came along and largely blew the walled garden of AOL off the map (along with Prodigy, Compuserve, etc.)

    What all these places tried to do was create centers of attention that were like the corner bar or the coffee shop. The intentional vastness of SL perhaps works against that at the moment. It’s like a new subdivision – lots of buildings and manicured lawns and saplings, but no people.

    I agree on the intelligent conversation front – unfortunately the anonymity of the internet seems to breed rudeness and vacuousness, despite the wealth of information and culture at your fingertips. So I wouldn’t get my hopes up there. The last time a really intelligent prolonged conversation happened on the internet was perhaps on the WELL (OK, I’m being blunt here to make a point).

  2. botogol

    An interesting round up
    You refer to and recommend Ilya Vedrashko, but (unless I’m missing it) there’s no link? Is his analysis on-line somewhere?

  3. Hiro Pendragon

    Isn’t “vaporware” something that never comes to market, and wouldn’t SL, by definition that it has paying users, be not vaporware?

    I think your idea that Second Life has to be a place for people to live is way off. People don’t live in virtual worlds any more than people live on MySpace. And yet, MySpace is hugely popular. Second Life is an Internet extension, not a new place to live. You totally nailed some of the possibilities in your “for SL” section, and then promptly ignored your own advice.

    Granted, the name kind of implies what you were thinking, so it’s misnamed.

    “You build it, they will come” is absolutely not the principle behind SL. That’s a common misnomer, and one that I always am explaining to clients. SL’s principle is, “They come and build it.”

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  5. Frenk

    Although I agree in principy with what you’re saying, you’ve glossed over the importance of a large link network, which we all knew before there were any worthwhile search engines, which is TRAFFIC without the search engine itself.

  6. Prodigal

    SL actually appears to have the potential to outlive other virtual environments by virtue of Linden Labs migration of it from a product to a separate Internet protocol. So far they have already released the source code and encouraged co-development with the general user community, and they have announced that they will also release the source code to the servers, after which the grid will be wide open for anyone to connect through free clients to surf virtual lands hosted on private, business, and publicly sponsored servers. Just like web sites.

    The forced and artificial inflation of their numbers wasn’t just to draw potential premium users or encourage more USD to Linden$ transations, it was also to demonstrate their claims of the platform’s scalability. The predictable churn following hasn’t perturbed them because it did raise a boost of revenue and investment interest while allowing them to monitor and report how their grid responds to the traffic burden, while costing them nothing but the goodwill of their earlier userbase. Admitting that I’m among that earlier userbase is to indicate how cynical that last observation is — their performance during that stress test was not what they promised, if it’s what they really believed.

    What will they do when they’ve relieved themselves of this property they’ve so promoted? Well, they’ll also be relieving themselves of the liability of the free expressions they have encouraged in Residents up to now, so they’ll be positioned as the squeaky clean leaders of sim technology and development. After charging the users for years, the users will be able to ride for free, because they are the market audience that businesses will buy sim hosting for.

    Linden Labs may retain some premium lands for those who like that ‘private membership’ feeling, they may produce premium plugins to provide improved content and capabilities, but I think their prime business will be in tech support services and sim-design for those corporations who have bought in or will buy in to hosting on secondlife:// protocols.

  7. Prodigal

    And as for finding interesting people, I never seem to have any problems. What do you do when you want to find interesting web sites? Use a search engine? SL has one, just enter your button words and you’ll find someone who’ll push your buttons. Or tap the creative potential to entertain yourself and you’ll find you’ll entertain others, and others will be more likely to entertain you back.

    One of the common complaints I hear is from people discouraged that they didn’t get their hand held, that they didn’t see what they wanted presented compellingly to them in the limited time that they gave it. Go hunt for it! Or make it yourself, and they will come. SL is huge, and is not limited in personalities or intellects. There are more channels than cable TV, and you know how difficult it is to find anything interesting in that medium.

  8. Calia

    I don’t think SL will catch on until the learning curve drops. Right now it takes hours for the average person to learn how to use an avatar, put on, take off, and buy clothing, and walk or fly. And when they do master the system, they find themselves flying alone, buying clothes and having no one to show them off to, looking for people and finding them all engaged in cheesy virtual sex. Until the average person can learn the basics in a half hour, I don’t think it will ever catch on.

    If it did catch on, it would need conversation to hold peoples’ interest. It will probably never be a place for an effective life of the body (sight is the only sense really engaged), but it could become a place for a second life of the mind.

  9. Joseph Dunphy

    I would add that where circumstances offer the possibility of abundance, Second Life clings to a system that evolved to deal with the issues of scarcity – Capitalism. In most of the places one teleports to, one can hardly seem to go more than a few steps before slamming into one of those nearly invisible virtual walls. “Private property” greatly outmasses public space, despite the reality that in the virtual world, new land can be created.

    Think of places in the real world where parks and other public space are absent – the streets are deserted. Art is imitating Life.

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