R.I.P Second Life?

Second Life CemetaryWell, it looks like Wired has gone and written a eulogy for the virtual world that has been getting so much attention over the last year. In an article published this morning, the technology magazine pronounced that Second Life is a virtual wasteland for advertisers, with most branded areas being deserted or not returning ROI. To give you a taste of the article:

“Companies say, ‘It’s an experiment’ – but what are they learning?” Tobaccowala asks. “Basically, they’re learning how to create an avatar and walk around in Second Life.” Which is fine if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t expect to sell a lot of coke.

I take issue with this assumption. And for more reasons than just because I’m the lab’s resident expert on virtual world and I’d be searching Monster.com for jobs if this were true. Direct ROI is not applicable to Second Life. We know this. It isn’t new. Above all, Second Life is a platform for building engaging experiences. Saying that the technology itself is flawed if brands are not attracting people in-world is like running a 30-second spot that only says, “Buy My Shoes!” and then condemning television as a medium because it didn’t work.

What Wired doesn’t mention, though, is that some companies are being successful in Second Life. The one I’m most fond of is Showtime’s L Word Island, which has been acting as a congregation point for fans of the show since early this year. And, yes, you heard that correctly. Showtime is using Second Life to provide an engaging experience to already-existing fans of the show. They’re not trying to attract folks from inside Second Life – they’re trying to provide a three-dimensional community for people who already love the show.

In addition, the American Cancer Society raised about US$40,000 by hosting a virtual Relay For Life and Starwood Hotels got valuable customer feedback on a new brand of hotels that they haven’t even built yet in the real world.

These three scenarios embody the three best possible applications for Second Life that I discuss with clients:

1. Community-driven applications
2. Short-term, event-driven applications
3. Research-driven applications

The problems identified in Wired’s article, namely the lack of large amounts of people congregating and technological issues that make such large congregations either fraught with difficulty or downright impossible, are things that the lab initially identified as major difficulties using the virtual world when we published a white paper on it back in January (quick note: a lot of the other problems we addressed, namely the lack of a standardized metrics measurement system and the local of user demographics, have been diligently worked on by developers like the Electric Sheep Company since the white paper’s writing).

Personally, I think that a lot of this will begin to be alleviated as Linden Labs begins to open up the server software as open-source, allowing engaged third-parties to make revisions to the actual code that makes up the virtual world in addition to creating engaging experiences within the world itself. This is already going on with the large community of third-party developers within the virtual world and the already open-source client software and it will certainly continue on once the server software is opened as well.

Regardless of technological problems, though, we do know that Second Life, or other virtual worlds like it, are going to be a significant part of the future of the Internet. One of the few things that 800 scientists, policy makers and forward thinkers agreed upon in a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report on the future of the Internet was the significant usage of virtual worlds in the coming years. Second Life itself might not survive, but the popular worlds of the future will certainly have Second Life-like characteristics, namely intellectual property rights and real world exchange rates, and operating within Second Life today provides companies valuable trials and learnings for the coming future.

Yes, technically, Wired is correct. The amount of active users on Second Life is small (only approximately 1.6 million at the moment). Most areas remain deserted and the interface can be unwieldy to new users (although, this problem can now be addressed through the use of the open-source client software and the ability to take new users directly to well-planned, third party-developed orientation islands that make the transition into the virtual world easy instead of Linden’s original orientation island). But proclaiming the land a exorbitant money hole for Madison Avenue is going a little too far.

As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”