Second life for Second Life

IStock_000003231386XSmall Friendster!  Remember that?  Me neither.  It came.  It triumphed.  It completely disappeared.  Innovations like Facebook, on the other hand, go from strength to strength. 

It's the job of bloggers, planners, designers, and cultural creatives of every kind to have a look and take a guess.  What is wheat and what is chaff?  What will endure and what will pass?

I'm on record as saying that Second Life was not worthy of the hype.  I did my due diligence.  I wandered the pricey real estate, and came to the conclusion that Second Life was "vapor ville."

MIT colleagues like Beth Coleman and Ilya Vedrashko begged to differ.  They could see something here that would endure.  Well, we have data in hand.  They were right and I was wrong. 

Here's what Chris O'Brien of the San Jose Mercury News said recently:

So how are things going? Since Second Life launched in 2003, users have spent a total of 1 billion hours "in-world." User hours grew 33 percent year over year to an all-time high of 126 million in the second quarter of 2009. The average Second Life resident spends 100 minutes in-world per visit. The in-world economy grew 94 percent year over year from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009.  So, pretty darn good. Back in the real world, Linden Lab has seen revenues continue to climb and is now profitable, Kingdon says. The company doesn't disclose revenues, but one analyst has estimated they will be about $100 million in 2009.

Yes, these numbers come from Linden Lab and, yes, they may be unreliable.  But I think it was Clay Shirky a couple of years ago who objected to Linden Lab numbers, and I am certain they don't want to go through that again.  These numbers are likely sound.

Two facts jump out.  1) that visitors are spending 100 minutes in-world.  This is an absolute stunner.  This metric suggests residency, not tourism.  2) Linden is profitable.  Profitable?  Profitability is so rare in this world, as O'Brien points out, it counts almost as an eccentricity. 

Clearly it's time to examine my assumptions and look again.  What is it that is keeping people in place for 100 minutes?  When I wandered around Second Life a couple of years ago, I stumbled into many worlds: Alice in Wonderland gardens, clothing stores, S&M parlors, people struggling to sustain intelligent conversation, unconvincing dance clubs.  Which of these has flourished?  Perhaps all of them have and Second Life has added up many little worlds into a going proposition.

One of the key indicator must be the economy that grows so relentlessly.  What are people buying and selling?  What value is being created and exchanged?  This might be a place to start.  Anyone who has been to Second Life lately is encouraged to give us the benefit of their experience.  Sing out. 


O'Brien, Chris.  2009.  Twitter, meet Second Life.  Mercury News.  October 10.  here

10 thoughts on “Second life for Second Life

  1. Jorgen

    I would be interested to know what age group the participants of Second Life falls into. I think they would be mostly Gen X’ers, that still ‘need’ a direct translation of the real into the virtual. I think a younger generation sees the virtual copy cat merely as hassle and will not be present there. Their ‘second life’ takes place in FB or on MSN. If that were to be true, then the next question will be: will those Gen X’ers be ‘forced’ to migrate (due to Digital Demographic Revolution) to other platforms and has this been there entry point into the virtual?

    I’ve got to disclose that I have left Second Life a long time ago as well. So perhaps something has changed there…?

  2. Colleen Wainwright

    I dipped into Second Life myself a few years ago, and couldn’t wrap my head around it. There’s a steep learning curve, from what I was told, which might have contributed: since there are so many sites with great UI (like Twitter), I’m inclined to ditch the tricky ones quickly, unless I really, really need access to the tools that they offer.

    A new client who works in education and is NOT social media-savvy has me reconsidering SL again. They use it as a collaborative tool, and it works well for them. It’s not their sole means of communication, but with campuses spread out across the U.S., it made sense to try it.

    If you’re really interested in exploring more, I know a wonderful woman who might be a Sherpa of sorts. Her name is Joyce Bettencourt, and she’s @RhiannonSL on Twitter. Super-smart, very much gets the SL community but is a good bridge for those of us who don’t (yet).

  3. debbie millman

    Hey Grant. Great post. I also doubted SL, and frankly, I still do. No matter the numbers, I still feel it lacks broad, mainstream appeal. But maybe I am just too old. : )

  4. Charles Edward Frith

    I don’t get it. The numbers say Second Life is here to stay and so it exists. Why the dysphoria?

    Nobody sniffs at World of Warcraft being bigger than the population of Greece (BBC World Service about half an hour ago). Second Life exists and the only way to eliminate the cognitive dissonance is to embrace that a lot of people are happy to hang out there rather than an alternative reality of war.

    Either way they’re probably in better shape to survive a nuclear winter or some such cocooned like existence (Matrix?) that I’m certainly not able to as I’ve failed to get the hang of my first life yet. That doesn’t mean I don’t get it.

    I owe you a mail Grant. Just juggling things but I’m getting there. 🙂

  5. zigadena gabardini

    Population vary in 19-60 years I would say.
    And yes , many “log in and die” after a week, they never even get off welcome-island ..
    But some gets in.. and deeper and then they are online.Instead of Tv.. Chat or some other hobby..they lead a second life and they love it.
    But If your last visit was some years ago .. gosh you have a lot to see…

    Welcome to contact me inworld for some great landmarks
    Zigadena Gabardini

  6. Grant McCracken

    Colleen, thanks for this glimpse of how it works and for the link to Joyce…and for the link to Mr. McBarton.  We met in Berkeley and had a wonderfully lively conversation.  Thanks for the intro!  Best, Grant

  7. Holycow

    Great and timely post Grant. I predict that Second Life will get its Second Wind in the next 12 months. It fell off the radar because the early adopters got bored and so moved on – no blog posts – no signal – no noise. But, it is still there and growing and will become a destination when it goes multi-platform i.e. A Facebook Connect style component that automatically generates a personalised avatar which connects you to your friends in that world.

    On a separate note the person you need to speak to is a mate of mine: Justin Bovington who helped monetize the whole thing with Linden – he works at Rivers Run Red so he’s your man if you want to know anything about it. Not only is the most charming and knowledgeable chap but he was also the source of inspiration for the protagonist in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition novel. Do give him my regards



  8. Robert Frolick

    Like any good researcher, we always want to ask more questions.

    How does the increase in members and usage correlate with unemployement? Are those on the fringes of employment and Second Life colliding? Are these people looking for an escape from their everyday lives to find something that they imagine can be better controlled?

    With greater access and bandwidth to getting online via all the usual locations, devices, connections, are users just too lazy to log off?

    What’s the median log ins (is this right still) and time spent per session? My guess/hypothesis is that time is driven driven by the hard core users and the lazy (see above).


  9. Josh

    I’ve been bouncing around Second Life for a while and even when the statistics showed otherwise, participation by residents was strong.

    The social community seems stronger to me than it is on facebook, myspace, twitter, plurk, etc. Indeed interestingly the social networks within Secondlife extend themselves and I’ve seen them replicated on the other platforms. (I’ve yet to see it work the other way around)

    I agree with Robert’s hypothesis that heavy users are mostly the drivers of usage stats (since when is this unusual?). From my personal observation I’ve seen plenty of 30-40 somethings gainfully employed doing this as a social thing with their evenings INSTEAD OF TELEVISION, as much as I’ve seen the disabled, homemakers, and caregivers. So, in the case of Second Life TV advertisers seem to be the ones losing out.

    Anyway, I detect I’m rambling, and I have some non-virtual leaves to rake.

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