'Second Life,' after the backlash

Participants in this weekend's user conference in Chicago are unfazed by negative press. They just want to go back to their virtual world tinkering.

When nearly 800 Second Life users hit Chicago this weekend for the third annual Second Life Community Convention, most will acknowledge it hasn't been a smooth ride lately for the virtual world.

At last year's SLCC in San Francisco, Second Life was still viewed by mass media as a quirky hub for bizarre subcultures and utopian dreamers.

But circumstances have changed. The Second Life that will be the centerpiece of 2007's SLCC, an event almost twice as large as its predecessor in terms of attendance, is facing a different public perception as the most written about and sometimes the most reviled virtual environment (even though it's by no means the most popular).

So what happened?

Second Life became a media and corporate darling. Companies from NBC Universal to Coca-Cola commissioned in-game presences. (CNET Networks has its own virtual building.) Events as mainstream as a Jay-Z performance on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night talk show were simulcast in virtual arenas, and the colorful 3D landscape was talked up as the future face of commerce, advertising, job recruiting and even dating.

Within months, there was a backlash. The virtual world's oft-clunky interface became the subject of parody, and the pratfalls of the infrastructure created by parent company Linden Lab became apparent with well-documented lag times and crashes.

The fact that Linden's servers limit virtual event attendance to a few dozen avatars also didn't bode well for companies that wanted a Second Life headquarters to reflect their brand popularity. Skeptical bloggers began posting hand-compiled statistics about how Second Life's's seemingly fast-growing population was largely inactive, and Wired magazine's August issue featured a story by Frank Rose called "How Madison Avenue is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life."

According to active Second Life users, it was too much, too early. "It's an experiential, experimental type of place," said Linda Zimmer, who runs the Business Communicators of Second Life blog. "It's not a mass medium, and it won't be for years down the road...I think that some companies jumped in with unreal expectations."

Tracy Ryan, an associate professor of advertising research at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in the new-media ad landscape, agreed Second Life should be considered an experimental sandbox. "You have to jump in and do it to figure it out, because people haven't been marketing in virtual worlds for very long," Ryan said. "We don't know exactly how it's going to work, or what branding's going to be like, or how residents of Second Life or any other metaverse are going to respond to branded communications in that kind of environment."

"The first mistake is companies assuming, 'OK, well, I have a store on Fifth Avenue that's very successful, so I could put a store in a heavily trafficked area of Second Life and it'll be successful.'"
--Tracy Ryan, associate professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

Companies are learning, she added. Some have backed out, discovering that their brands haven't adapted to Second Life quite as well as they'd have thought. "The first mistake is companies assuming, 'OK, well, I have a store on Fifth Avenue that's very successful, so I could put a store in a heavily trafficked area of Second Life and it'll be successful.' Second Life doesn't work that way."

At SLCC '07, there are no panels about how to brighten Second Life's image in the media or attract mass-market crowds. There are, however, panels about virtual sex and relationships, how your avatar can run its own video blog, the issue of intellectual property rights, and entrepreneurship. There's also a party on Saturday night that's a clear throwback to Second Life's roots as a hub for quirky subculture--a "lace and leather" themed masquerade ball (perhaps not an ideal branding opportunity for Coca-Cola).

There's also live music by artists who have become well-known in Second Life through simulcasted shows. One of them is Chris Shigas, a vice president at emerging media firm French-West-Vaughan, who will be playing on Saturday evening. "I've been doing virtual concerts for about two years," Shigas said. "I think it's wonderful...The ability to perform for an audience from my home was valuable, and it was really attractive to me."

At this weekend's conference, the panels on Saturday and Sunday are divided into four groups--business, education, social and "" (a conglomeration of "machine" and "cinema"). Participants are encouraged to choose one topic and follow it for the weekend, thus narrowing the focus and providing more direction and productivity.

Organization, users say, is going to be key to solving Second Life's identity issues. "Crowdsourcing," or inviting the public to do a task typically performed by an employee, and user-generated content are hot marketing concepts. But when it comes to a massive and versatile platform like Second Life, the laissez-faire Linden Lab essentially gave free license to the marketers and corporations diving in, as well as the journalists meticulously documenting its emergence into the mainstream, to shape and brand the virtual world's image.

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About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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