August 26, 2007 3:40 PM PDT
'Second Life': The promise and paradox
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Speaking of mass crowds, that's another thing that Second Life needs to work on. All weekend, the SLCC had set up an in-world hub on "Artificial Isle" with live streams of content from the event and virtual booths from sponsors. It was a clever set-up and attracted genuine crowds. (Take that, Second Life critics). But it was server-intensive and repeatedly crashed this reporter's computer.
Linden Lab, too, is a bit unapologetic about its technical headaches, promising that it has been working to eradicate them but encouraging both current and prospective residents to accept them as a necessary component of such an experimental medium. Second Life got to where it is, Rosedale explained, by not waiting for the kinks to iron themselves out.
The Electric Sheep Co.
"If we had had that sort of traditional 'stop, think carefully, seek feedback, listen to everybody' (mentality), I can tell you that as the entrepreneur behind this thing, even starting in 1999, we wouldn't be here. We wouldn't have made it," Rosedale said.
It might have taken a rash, don't-waste-time-planning strategy to get Second Life off the ground in the first place, but Electric Sheep's Verbeck argued that those days are over. Focusing on the fact that 9 out of 10 new residents of Second Life don't stick with it, he stressed the need for improved usability.
"We need a directory service of cool things to do in Second Life from the point of view of new people coming in," Verbeck said. "This is kind of a scary term, but we kind of need to 'AOL-ify' the experience here a little bit...push a button, and you get in there, and immediately you've never seen that thing before but all of a sudden you've got mail, and that's really nice, and people are sending you things, (and there's) some entertainment, some information, some learning right there in front of you."
The audience at Verbeck's lecture giggled uncomfortably at the mention of AOL, but the analogy is spot-on. For many people in the 1990s, early versions of America Online were the first evidence that this amorphous "Internet" could actually relate to their lives and what they wanted to do. And SLCC attendees, despite their frequently offbeat inclinations, wanted to see the virtual world grow and succeed--particularly those who have a financial or entrepreneurial stake in its success. The crowd was filled with people who have created fashion design, real estate, commerce, and podcasting start-ups (to name a few) within Second Life. They want it to be open, not restricted.
Even Linden Lab, despite its traditionally hands-off manifesto, is showing signs of embracing the usability approach. Rosedale spoke about how new Second Life residents now have the option to get introduced to the metaverse through a more customized experience than the uniform "Orientation Island." There are now "community" orientations geared toward educators, native Japanese speakers and plenty of other niches. "We're sending about 40 percent of the Secondlife.com registrations to those community pages," Rosedale said. "The best-performing (community) sites are actually outperforming ours."
Verbeck hinted at an upcoming Electric Sheep project with CBS, one of its biggest clients, to bring an interactive tie-in with the hit show CSI to Second Life. He excitedly talked up the huge potential for bringing new masses to the virtual world, but emphasized that one good marketing campaign isn't enough to make them stick around. Nevertheless, there's still going to have to be some kind of hook: plenty of people didn't believe in the Internet (that hotbed of porn and irrelevance!) until they witnessed the ease with which any number of people could communicate halfway across the world through e-mail.
Second Life is in need of an 'e-mail moment,' and that's what many of SLCC's big-thinking attendees are hoping to be a part of.
To be fair, a good number of the panels at the convention, like a heavily attended "Sex in Second Life" panel that went into the philosophical minutia of adults-only avatar exhibitionism, were focused inward rather than outward. They were geared squarely toward the core of fringe-friendly metaverse residents for which Second Life has become famous, the ones who showed up at Saturday night's SLCC masquerade ball in goth or pirate regalia. But even the "furries" and leather-clad role players were still thinking big; Linden Lab's world is something they revere, and they'd like to see it succeed.
Until then, the Linden team's talk of being bigger than the Internet sounds like an upstart garage band saying they're going to be bigger than The Beatles. Don't just say it's going to change the world as we know it: show us how.
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