At the end of this past June, I wrote a simple blog post for DigitalNext addressing why I personally believe that the current hype around Twitter will be more sustainable than the short-lived Second Life craze. Bottom line, “Twitter is light, cheap, open and permanent, whereas Second Life is heavy, expensive, closed and ephemeral.
Twenty-one comments and a series of response posts later, I was invited by Second Life royalty to return to the same virtual world that I stopped visiting back in 2007. My complaint, and the reason why I never returned, is that the client (the “viewer” in SL parlance) was too resource-intensive and quite incompatible with my executive laptop that favored lightweight and slimness over horsepower and graphics cards. Not to mention it required too much bandwidth, preferably a LAN connection instead of Wi-Fi.
Well, after visiting the site several times, nothing has changed in terms of the resource-intensity. However, this post is not going to be about the barriers to entry but rather what one finds once inside the walled garden of Second Life.
The reason I was salty about Second Life when I first arrived had little to so with my hardware, software or connection, but rather my initial experience. I looked like a dork — a n00b — and didn’t have any friends on Second Life. Even worse, I didn’t know how to find any. I may be the king of the geeks, but many of my friends are just Luddites while I explore the cutting edge of innovation. I was lonely and just didn’t get it — and when it comes to tech and community, it often boils down to “getting it.”
Back in the day, I did have an incentive to visit Second Life. My client, Crayon, had an island there and every week held a “coffee with Crayon.” We would stand there, gesturing in all of our Avatariness, and just type at each other. I didn’t see why Inter-Relay Chat (IRC) wasn’t a better solution if I had to type my responses anyway.
Soon after writing the article in June, Doug Thompson of Canadian firm Remedy Limited, aka Dusan Writer in-world, reached out to me and offered a tour of Second Life through his seasoned, passionate and professional eyes. In-world I am called Chris Ebi, and I indeed visited Dusan as he showed me around a pretty fantastic and beautiful realm resplendent with Eames and Barcelona chairs and giant JumboTron and fashionable rockstars sporting beauty and couth. Dusan wanted to show me how Second Life has really grown up since its inception.
When I met Dusan in Second Life, he teleported me to someplace called Immersive Workspaces, which highlighted some of the most progressive creations. He introduced me to Jon Brouchoud, who invented Wikitecture. It allows laypeople, interior designers, developers and architects to collaborate on virtual spaces as they might relate to the real-world building of something such as a clinic in Nepal, an actual example he demonstrated and cited. The experience of Wikitecture and Immersive Workspaces reminded me of the scene in The Matrix when Neo and Trinity enter the Loading Construct, a white room that programs crew members’ items into the Matrix. The room asks their operator/programmer, Tank, for “Guns, lots of guns.” At Tank’s command, endless shelves of assorted firearms from uzis to pistols are spawned in the loading construct. Out scroll an infinite number of weapons delivered via an infinite number of racks. It was sort of like that but instead of Uzis, Glocks and M4s, there were ideas, innovations and architecture.
Second Life as postmodern museum
Then Dusan’s tour led me to eye-candy — something that one must experience in a similar way as when playing with Google Earth or the first time. In many ways, Second Life can be explored as a postmodern museum where some of the paintings are better than others. One exceptional artist is Bryn Oh’s Immersiva, a very bizarre series of work that feels like it is very Steampunk, as if I were even cool enough to know what Steampunk is!
Finally during our exploration, we took a walk along a broad, meandering path. Dusan Writer (aka Doug Thompson, but who knows what is real anymore) told me that Second Life was even an amazing platform for raising money for charity. This virtual path represented a relay race to raise money for the Cancer Society. Called the Relay for Life, people can presumably run their avatars around these winding boulevards while depositing Linden Dollars into coffers, all real monies being used for cancer research. And all without breaking a sweat. Because “all of the planning, serving, hosting, walking and fundraising are done entirely online … and most of which is done inside the virtual world of Second Life, it is an excellent tool for bonding as a community in exactly the same meaningful way they’re used in the ‘real’ world.”
Pre-Interview for my upcoming Metanomics interview
On Sept. 30 I will be interviewed live in Second Life by the gang from Metanomics at noon Pacific time and 3pm Eastern time — be sure to check it out as I am sure this will be a rare occurrence, indeed. There will either be an “angry villagers with torches” motif or an academic slant because of the connection between the hallowed home of Carl Sagan of Cornell and Robert Bloomfield, Editor-in-Chief, along with Metanomics. Maybe we’ll see a little of both. I just participated in my pre-interview, and I can tell it will surely be an exciting event. It was a very professional pre-interview, as JenzZa Misfit (@JenzZa) hooked up my pathetic N00b avatar with some hair and makeup. Now I’m ready to take Second Life by storm — but only time will tell if I really take to it. Lord knows I received some serious Love-Bombing.
My Sexy Boy Band Hottie avatar, thanks to JenzZa Misfit
Even today I still get all sorts of comments about flying penises and furry sex every time I mention Second Life to advertising executives. Dusan reassured me that things were rather different — that far from burning out after the hype faded, Second Life took the revenue and momentum granted by the land rush and has innovated, innovated, innovated.
One of the most exciting things I noticed when I logged in to Second Life is that it supports the most intriguing VOIP innovation. Not only does Second Life allow you to voice chat, but it also supports true surround sound by allowing the ability to track where people are located based on their voices. When people are close, their voices are loud and clear. As they walk away, voices diminish, and when they circle around you, their voices shift from ear to ear, representing physical placement — location awareness. This is really cool. It really makes things much more dynamic and certainly offers a more realistic cinematic experience that truly separates Second Life from being just a very resource-intensive IRC.
Much of what Doug/Dusan told me about was that Second Life has institutionally wiggled out of its collective Furry costume and has donned a slick suit from King for Men or one of the sundry haute couture boutiques. Fashion and style is indeed important for men in Second Life and it is doubly so for women. And cool stuff is why until now Second Life has been smugly keeping its head down and doing business: people make a lot of money by producing super-cool stuff and selling digital copies of rendered code for real money to real people again and again without any production, inventory, or shipping costs.
In fact, I have been reminded again and again that if an architect, shoemaker, fashion designer, interior designer, or industrial designer were really smart, he or she would be better off to design for in-world, pay someone a nominal fee to render that design in world, and then set up shop! Make it once but sell it a million times is the way to go. And, since Linden Dollars (L$) have a real world value: $1 is worth around L$270. Your wares, your code, your virtual kit, and your cool modernist chairs don’t even have to be sold for Lindens but can be bought, sold, and traded using real dollars over PayPal or via credit.
Second Life has always been rocking the mullet — business up front and party in the back — but now, it seems, according to Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon, Second Life is growing up and has visited the barber, chopping off some of the party and plunging in feet first into civility. To wit, according to a press release posted to Lindenlab on Sept. 22, “the virtual world Second Life today announced that Second Life Residents have transacted the equivalent of more than one billion US dollars with each other while spending more than one billion hours in Second Life — significant milestones for the virtual worlds industry. The company also shared a series of additional statistics that reveal the scale of Second Life and its virtual goods economy, as well as the activity and engagement of its Residents.”
To prove this sense of decorum offered up to us Second Life expats and naysayers, it seems that the default viewer download doesn’t even support the infamous adult Second Life experience. While massive avatar orgies still exist, you need to explicitly download the porno-viewer. The other day when I logged back in after quite a few weeks, Second Life told me so in so many words — if I want to party, I need to explicitly commit myself to that lifestyle; otherwise, I had better just be happy with, I guess what? PG-13? R?
This neighborhood cleanup is not unlike what New York went through in the 90s, taking Time Squares from hookers and peep shows to lounge chairs and Disney; from elicit affair-friendly to family-friendly; from Cinemax to the Family Channel. I am in NY as we speak, writing from the New Yorker Hotel’s lobby. This hotel used to be mighty dodgy, right next to Penn Station on 34th street, but now it offers Wi-Fi, leather couches, a coffee bar, and is a renovated value hotel.
I tease and commend Second Life. They didn’t kick out the brothels and porno theaters, they just put them onto a different plane of existence, if I understand it fully — it’s all there, you just can’t see it, or something. It is like having the V-Chip activated by default in your new televisions.
A Giant N00b Kept for Posterity by Linden CEO Mark Kingdon
All of this renovation and motivation and passion is, apparently, aimed to woo companies back into Second Life, and here’s why: Now that broadband, advanced processors, and headsets are commonplace, it is now feasible to choose Second Life as a much more pleasant and inviting place to host your meetings and conference calls, especially in a world rife with Swine Flu and chopped travel budgets. You can easily set up an office space or a conference room and all meet up in-world, together, to engage in negotiations and collaboration. What’s more, you’ll soon be able to loop in all the folks who can’t make it to SL using something like SkypeIn and SkypeOut; meaning, you will be soon be able to call in to a meeting that is happening on Second Life using a telephone-to-Second Life number. Alternately, you’ll be able to call out to someone who isn’t online at the moment and loop them in via a call-out feature. Potentially, denizens of Second Life will be able to send and receive SMS text messages via their in-world cell phone to their friends who’re outsiders, at least according to CEO Mark Kingdon, in the short- to mid-term.
The community reaches out
While all of these innovations are indeed cool, there is the issue of feeling abandoned once you arrive in Second Life for the first time. Now that I made such a big brouhaha back in June, everybody wants to be my friend and show me a good time, a good experience, and be my pathfinder. This is the big secret and the reason I was crucified after I wrote something less than complimentary back in June: Second Life is a real community of real people who are fiercely-devoted to Second Life and fiercely loyal to each other. While they may have fallen off our collective radar in the last three years, the denizens of Second Life never received the memo that Second Life was a fad and that nobody goes any more.
What would I do to improve the Second Life experience for newbies? Well, I would recommend Second Life does that same thing with newcomers that my church does with newcomers: make sure there are plenty of experienced greeters to welcome new Second Lifers who arrive as though fresh from the womb. There is no such thing as a killer app — even Second Life has discovered that — and so it is essential to select folks — online facilitators, online community managers, etc. — to open their arms and their experience to mentor new members. A Second Life big brother or big sister to at least offer their help — not mandatory. I know that I would probably have been sucked in a long time ago if someone took the time to help me get a better wardrobe, understand real estate, understand the scripting and buying and selling, show me a few good “nights out” and some impressive vistas and eye-candy, I would have been hooked. I mean, I am the perfect mark — I am a huge fan of Wild Palms, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, supposedly the science fiction novel that inspired Second Life in the first place.Chris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.