Second Life: virtually a real business

One of the sure signs that something is important is when opinion on it keeps ping-ponging back and forth, between those who say it’s irrelevant and those who say it’s the best thing since cheese in a spray can. And if there’s anything that draws that kind of polarized commentary, it’s Second Life. This week alone, we had a story about IBM’s embrace of the virtual world, and Darren Barefoot’s hilarious send-up, Getafirstlife.com. And now the BBC is planning its own Second Life for kids.

Meanwhile, Clay Shirky teamed up with Valleywag to pore over Second Life stats and conclude that the whole thing is overhyped, and there was a recent announcement that Second Life was going to open-source the software interface to the game. And virtual millionairess Anshe Chung claimed copyright infringement after being attacked by giant flying penises.

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Is Second Life a joke? Yes, in a way. Not only is it weird to be flying around in a blocky universe (let alone the penises), but it’s a little goofy that people try to promote the business aspects of the virtual world while sporting avatar names like ePredator Potato — the name of IBM’s Second Life evangelist. And yet, there is clearly something there. No doubt many people thought the idea of uploading videos was a joke too, or using the Internet as a phone.

Ethan Kaplan is right, there are still issues with Second Life (Webomatic has had some too), including lag and other problems. And Valleywag’s informant is correct that the financial side is closer to a pyramid scheme than a real business. But those issues will be fixed — if not by Second Life, then by someone else.

I came across a post that made some good points on (where else) Second Life Insider. Everyone likes to talk about how Second Life is dumb because, well… it’s virtual, instead of real. So if you talk to someone on the phone, is that real? Of course it is. How about if you message them using MSN? So why isn’t chatting with them while flying around in a video game just as real?

Update:

There have been several reports — which Mike Arrington of TechCrunch summarizes here — that Google might be looking at turning Google Earth into some kind of virtual world a la Second Life.

Open sourcing the virtual universe

I think the folks at Linden Labs have made some mistakes when it comes to creating their virtual world of Second Life, and there has certainly been plenty of debate lately about whether SL has gotten overhyped based on flawed numbers, but the latest move by Linden — to make the software that powers the world open source — is like a beam of sunlight. It’s huge.

In fact, if creating SL was like creating the world, then going open source is like the invention of fire, or maybe Ford’s invention of the assembly line. Having played around with Second Life a bit, I know that much of what is interesting about the world comes from non-Linden developers, whether it’s the ones who created the heads-up-display that lets you play golf, or the guy who sells roller skates from vending machines.

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Not only will this accelerate that by making add-ons and plug-ins and mash-ups a lot easier to develop, but it might make using the SL frontend software a little more user friendly as well (official Linden statement here). In the same way that Firefox helped to strip down and focus the Netscape/Mozilla browser, open source development could help streamline and extend Second Life’s software in interesting ways. At least, that’s the potential.

Some people will no doubt continue to dismiss Second Life as a haven for sexual deviants (and admittedly, the flying pink penises don’t help), or not as good as World of Warcraft — which is presumably better because you get to kill things — but I think the virtual world has a lot of potential. Potential for what? For just about anything. Education, political activism, social engineering, entertainment. Kind of like the Internet. More thoughts about the implications at RedMonk.

Update:

The very smart Susan Wu, a VC at Charles River Ventures and former CMO at the Apache Foundation, has some thoughts about the open-sourcing of Second Life that are well worth reading.

Things get busy in Second Life

Herewith, a roundup of recent Second Life-related news events, as the virtual world continues to get more “real” (for better or worse):

  • The Economist has a long piece on Second Life, including a fascinating tale of a psychology professor who set up a place in Second Life where his students could experience something akin to schizophrenia firsthand.
  • Professor Charles Nesson of Harvard Law School recently held his first class in Second Life as part of an online-only course called “Law in the Court of Public Opinion.”
  • IBM recently held an alumni meeting on the island it owns in Second Life.
  • CNet has launched a presence in Second Life which consists of a virtual replica of the company’s offices in San Francisco, where the news agency says it plans to interview both real and virtual people.
  • A Swedish online dating company has made the natural leap from dating site with photos to Second Life dating world with avatars.
  • Scottish girl-rockers The Hedrons are the latest to put on a virtual gig inside Second Life.

Going to school in Second Life

Sure, Second Life has its weird side — what with spiky-haired avatars wielding swords in cellphone stores and whatnot — but it has a serious side too. There are conferences, for example, held by prestigious groups such as the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard. And increasingly, educators are using it as a tool to assist them in reaching new audiences and teaching in new ways (pdf link).

In a recent post, Rebecca McKinnon — a research fellow at the Berkman Center and former TV journalist who co-founded Global Voices Online — mentioned that she has gotten involved in Second Life in order to take part in an educational exercise set up by Charles Nesson, founder of the Berkman Center : a class called Law in the Court of Public Opinion. Rebecca has some interesting thoughts about how Second Life reflects some of the world’s existing prejudices, despite the fact that there are very few boundaries the way there are in RL (real life).

Update:

Henry Jenkins, the director of the comparative media program at MIT, has a (rather lengthy) excerpt from the thesis written by one of his students, Ilya Vedrashko, which is well worth reading. It’s about the evolution of the relationship between advertising and games, including Second Life. The complete thesis is available in PDF format from Mr. Vedrashko’s website here.

Preview pile-up in Second Life

I confess that I’m no expert on Second Life. I’ve tried it out several times, for differing periods of time, and I’ve done a bunch of things including customizing my avatar (Mathew McFly) a bunch of different ways. I’ve learned how to fly and how to build rudimentary objects. I’ve danced at a party with a complete stranger — who ran a script that allowed us to dance completely in sync — and was given money by another complete stranger so I could tip the dancer. The other day I even paid some Linden dollars to hit a few virtual golf balls at a Second Life driving range.

So while I’m not an expert, I know a thing or two. I’ve even written about how companies like American Apparel are setting up virtual stores to sell their products to avatars, and how bands like Duran Duran are setting up shop in the virtual world as well. But then I came across the following passage about a “preview pile-up” in the game, and I realized there is a whole lot that I don’t have a clue about. Try to follow this:

“The preview grid took an avatar bashing this afternoon when Vektor and Brent Linden organised a mass pile-on to the preview grid. It was the first time I had participated in a formal pile-on as far as I remember, I have been to the preview grids, but not normally when the pile-ons occur. I was in early, building a waterfall and playing with Starax’s wand.”

“We were asked to join the official preview testing group, and the spam commenced. People worrying about their inventory, others telling them off, people complaining about the people complaining. I crashed. When I came back the sim seemed to have rolled back – from a fully finished waterfall with rocks etc, I had two prims left.”

There’s more. Just for fun, have a read through it and try to figure out what they’re talking about. It’s like reading one of William “Johnny Mnemonic” Gibson’s short stories where he makes up all this weird slang that you have to just immerse yourself in until it starts to make sense. Needless to say, I’m not quite there yet.