September 23, 2009

The new Second Life reinvents itself

What an amazing space to have a conversation
Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon and me chatting

Second LifeChris AbrahamAt 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.”

metanomics 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.

chrisAbrahamNewAvatar
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.

giantN00b
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.

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  • It sounds to me like you’re reinventing yourself, not Second Life. SL is same as it ever was.
    Either or, welcome aboard. It’s great to have a solid brain and personality like your in the mix of SL residents.

  • While it’s true that a human greeter would be ideal, this is a far from scalable approach. The thing that continues to baffle me about Second Life (and it part of why my company has gotten involved in Open Source alternatives like the Meerkat viewer and OpenSim) is that there is a strong body of prior art in automated tutorials – it’s called every 3d video game ever made. Linden could be providing a much better new user experience by learning something from the gradual unlocking of new abilities for new users over time as they go through an early tutorial. Right now, the new user experience is abysmal. I hope it gets better.

  • Much more balanced review than your original hit-and-run (which I remember not fondly). Good for you for giving it another look, even if in the long run you don’t find it worth your time).

  • Wonderful post and great to read regarding your experiences in Second Life. It is very much a “selected life’, and the passions we have for advancement, education, communication and creation are fed very fully and very truly here.
    For me, it is to provide meaningful entertainment, and I have pioneered viewer log in entertainment with my shows, machinimas, series and more from PookyMedia.
    What Second Life offers for business as a platform for marketing and message is also unique, as it can encourage real time interaction and engagement with a brand. Yes you are right to say that entering Second Life is more benefited with a guide. And once you have that, you are able to negotiate the landscape more easily.
    You mentioned Relay for Life, of which I played a small role as Chair of the Silent Auction this year. The entire event raised over $270,000 USD. That is indeed a watershed moment for Second Life.
    It was with great joy I read this article as will many be who also contribute great advancement in the sciences and education. The Meta Institute for Contemporary Astrophyics is there, as is the island for The International Year of Astronomy and so much more. The SciLands are a remarkable place and my home for “The 1st Question” which is the most intelligent hour, broadcast live from the Scilands. A real celebration of the great accomplishments of humankind past, present and future, and yes it is “televised and archived.”
    Second Life is an incredibly rich and varied place, which is bringing out the best in us. Our Selected life indeed.
    Thank you Chris.

  • I think the whole idea beyond second life seized to be exciting and became a bit more of a homework, govermental pr or just geekdom …. anything but fun.
    take a look at WoW on the other hand and how even though its a paid service its users are loyal because its simply fun.
    The idea of light and free always works is flawed

  • Seems like it’s not so much that Second Life is reinventing itself as it is that this time you bothered to actually use it a bit before dismissing it. :)

    (Oh, and you don’t need to download a separate “porn viewer” to get to adult areas; you just need to satisfy the system that you are an adult (with a credit card or various other methods), and then check a box saying “I don’t mind seeing nekkid ppl” in the normal viewer.)

    People do say to me “you use Second Life? what about all the porn and sex?”. I reply “you go to New York City? what about all the porn and sex?”. And they laugh, and we move on to more significant topics than porn and sex.

  • Well done Chris! Great article and there is a great deal that this
    remarkable platform has to offer- wonderful that you are writing about Second Life where we have great opportunities to connect, work and create on so many levels.

  • Valiant Westland

    Chris, I’m glad to see you reengage Second Life. When I first logged in to Second Life in 2006 I didn’t find tools that were compelling enough to make me stay. When I came back two years later, I was surprised by how many people were using Second Life for professional education and business collaboration.

    Since coming back to SL, I have been overwhelmed with the talent, creativity and business potential of this dynamic virtual world called Second Life. It’s been both professionally and personally rewarding to work with people like Dusan and JenzZa and participate in Metanomics, a terrific venue for leading-edge discussion on the use of virtual worlds for business.

    I look forward to your appearance on Metanomics. Just as I did when your original article appeared, I invite you to use the following SLURL to visit my company’s Second Life office and learn more about how SL can be used for business.

    http://tinyurl.com/Vuturus-SL-01

  • “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”

    There.com has had this since 2003.

  • Second Life, the community — not to be confused with Second Life the corporate product — is evolving. The only thing I can see from this article that was “reinvented” is your attitude about it. Everybody starts as a n00b… Most people, however, give themselves a chance to assimilate, instead of blaming it on the platform.

    And, by the way, there’s a group of people called “SL Mentors” who do, and have done for years, exactly what what you wish for in your last paragraph. They’re not Lindens (that is, they’re not employees of Linden Labs), they’re volunteers who offer a helping hand (or paw, in some cases) to n00bs with the wherewithal to ask. Again: it’s part of the Second Life community, not part of the “game platform”.

  • Widget Whiteberry

    Chris – for another side of SL, you might want to join us some Thursday at Virtually Speaking, a weekly public affairs program hosted by Jay Ackroyd. Begun to help build the YearlyKos/Netroots Nation footprint on the web; since March of 2007, Jay has interviewed more than 70 pundits, scholars, authors, politicians, public servants, scientists, historians and economists. VS is produced via Second Life for a digitally present studio audience. Jay and his guest dial into BlogTalkRadio and simultaneously log on to SecondLife. The studio audience participates in text, commenting and asking questions which are read by all, and importantly, do not disrupt the on-stage program.

    The show is simulcast and then archived on the web via Blogtalk Radio. As an example, here is a link to Juan Cole discussing the Islamic world: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtuallyspeaking/20

    We are booked into December. This week, Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald, then DemfromCt and Josh Knauer on the global response to H1N1 (Swine Flu), followed by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis and Dave Niewart. Interested? Contact me or – by 6pm pacific – log in to http://slurl.com/secondlife/Virtually%20Speaking/

  • Interesting post — glad you gave Second Life a second chance.

    It seems like many people think of SL as a “game” of some kind where they should be led and tutored into the ultimate experience. In fact, SL is just like first life in that it’s simply a world — vast and various — where you go to have experiences not possible or too difficult in first life — like meeting with friends or colleagues separated by long distances, participating in events that would require expensive/difficult travel, collaborating on projects, creating artwork, learning about other cultures, and so on.

    As a writer, I spend most of my SL time at writers’ workshops, author readings and interviews, and writing “dates” or events that support my daily writing commitment. All of these things that have advanced my writing skills would be difficult or impossible for me in the physical world.

    As other commenters have hinted, I believe the biggest problem people have with SL is that they don’t understand that’s it’s a platform, not a game, and thus their expectations, though inappropriate, are not met.

    So, it’s good that you’ve given Second Life another look — and another review.

    Alas Zerbino in SL

  • Great article. I have been a member of Second Life since 2006 and actually for a couple of years worked within the virtual world with a firm that helped brand real and virtual world companies. There are many possibilities to this wonderful world, but the first step is to think outside the box or “prim”

  • vernes

    The moment LindenLabs publishes a lean mean tiny client and allows sims to export the whole content data as one datafile, we’ll see new markets opening up for SecondLife.

    We need a seperate viewer-client and a builder-client.
    Give me the builder-client, and give the viewer-client to the ceo and anyone just wanting to have fun.

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