Second Life: Megatrend-In-Waiting Or Just A Dumb Fad?

During the Second Life boom not too long ago, enthusiasts predicted it would take over the Internet. Is that still a likely outcome, or is Second Life becoming as irrelevant as pet rocks and leisure suits?

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

September 17, 2008

4 Min Read

This article is a follow up to Second Life Tries For A Second Act.

As someone active in Second Life, I wonder where it's going. Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale predicted that Second Life would become universal, a mainstream activity embraced by everyone in the world (or everyone with a computer and an Internet connection, at least).

The avatar of Second Life enthusiast Jennifer Grace Dawson.

(click for image gallery)

A more skeptical view is taken by Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at NYU who studies social media, writing at the height of the Second Life hype cycle in January 2007. He said Second Life is, and always will be, a niche product, used by a tiny group of passionate users, but never by a big group of people.

Shirky notes that we've seen the Second Life hype cycle once before. Back in the early '90s, before the emergence of the Web, a type of text-based virtual world called MUDs and MOOs became popular. Enthusiasts predicted MUDs and MOOs would become mainstream and would change society.

But those predictions didn't come true -- they look laughable today.

And predictions that Second Life will become mainstream will look laughable pretty soon, Shirky wrote.

Shirky's view was wildly unpopular in Second Life, and it was contrarian at the time he wrote it, at the peak of the Second Life hype cycle.

But it's looking now like he was dead right.

Or was he?

I discussed Shirky's conclusion a few weeks ago with my friend and Second Life enthusiast Jennifer Grace Dawson (we had the discussion in Second Life, of course).

Dawson is a virtual worlds veteran -- she started in LambdaMOO -- one of those MOOs Shirky discusses, founded in 1990 -- and still occasionally visits that world. She blogs about her Second Life experiences, and takes screenshots of Second Life scenes, which she posts to Flickr. She will be traveling to Berlin to present one of her photos to an architectural firm at an art exhibit, and she had Second Life photos published in an architectural journal in Italy. Dawson manages House of RFyre, a Second Life clothing store which sells historical-based outfits for Second Life residents to dress up their avatars.

In real life, she's a homemaker who has done postgraduate studies in anthropology.

She concedes that MOOs and MUDS never did become mainstream. Nor did Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a Unix-based chatroom technology that was popular in the pre-Web era.

And yet all those services were based on text chat. And now text chat is mainstream, through services including AIM, Skype, Google Talk, and SMS messages.

Dawson is right. Consider: Usenet was popular in the niche market of Internet users before the Web. It never did become mainstream. But the kinds of text-based discussions pioneered on Usenet are now part of mainstream society, on blogs and Internet forums. Heck, the next president of the United States has a blog (pick one: Obama or McCain.)

Likewise, new technologies will likely emerge in coming years that preserve the essential nature of Second Life. They'll look very different from Second Life, and Linden Lab might not be a player in that economy. But the new technologies will be descendants of Second Life, the same way blogs and chat are descendants of Usenet, IRC, and MUDs and MOOs.

Will the mainstream descendants of today's virtual worlds be immersive, like Second Life, with animated avatars and three-dimensional landscapes and artifacts and movement? Or will they be two-dimensional and cartoonish, like Habbo or Google Lively? Second Life blogger Wagner James Au said, "The world wants a more cartoonish experience, but Linden developers are pushing ahead and making it immersive and 3-D." There's no evidence to suggest that the mass market wants the immersive, 3-D environment being promoted by Linden Lab.

Another issue that Second Life -- or its descendants -- will have to deal with: Mobile phones are becoming as popular as PCs for Internet access -- more popular in some parts of the world. Second Life demands a powerful desktop or laptop computer with a nice, big display. Second Life (or its descendants) will have to find some way to run a virtual world on a cell phone.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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