'Second Life': The promise and paradox

Third annual Second Life Community Conference features plenty of hopeful talk about lofty new possibilities for the virtual world. Photos: 'Second Life' ball

CHICAGO--In Second Life, avatars can fly with the push of a button. Maybe that's why it seems like the virtual world's enthusiasts sometimes have trouble staying grounded.

At this weekend's Second Life Community Convention, Philip Rosedale--founder of Second Life creator Linden Lab--ambitiously declared, as he often does, that "this is something that everybody on Earth is going to use" and that the virtual world will be "bigger than the Web."

Minutes earlier, however, Rosedale had been jokingly boasting over PowerPoint graphics showing the extent of Second Life's problems with server lag time, maintenance both planned and unplanned, and glitches that occasionally cause people's virtual inventories to disappear.

"Second Life is still very early and very small," he said, hinting at his disapproval of the media buzz that swarmed the virtual world several months ago. "Everyone in the media (jumps ahead) a lot more than the people here," he said, gesturing to the audience of loyal metaverse residents. "Everybody wants to jump ahead and say, 'Oh my God, the future's alive!'...It's the natural myopia of emerging systems like this."

Then the idealism came back. Outsiders "don't appreciate how big this is going to get," Rosedale said.

It's that disconnect between enraptured mass-market idealism and a 'wait, don't overhype us!' cautiousness that makes the current state of Second Life somewhat difficult to grasp. If anything, the negative press about supposedly fruitless corporate marketing efforts and overhype in Second Life has energized enthusiasts, made them eager to focus on progress.

The convention, as Rosedale stressed in his keynote on Saturday morning, was packed. Crowds were estimated at 800 (several hundred more than last year's convention in Linden Lab's home city of San Francisco), and many of the panel discussions and lectures were so packed that attendees were standing in the back of the room or sitting on the floor. The weekend's agenda was divided into four "tracks"--business, social networking, machinima and education?and each one was characterized by an attitude of sky-high possibility.

In the business track, topics ranged from the potential for retailing physical goods through the virtual platform (by far the hottest subject) to the evolution of intellectual property standards in-world. The social track touched upon event planning, translating virtual relationships to the real world, and the viability of launching a music career through Second Life. The machinima track, meanwhile, featured a number of classes and tutorials to help people capitalize on a form of filmmaking--animation using a virtual world or video game--that's growing mainstream enough to be used in Coca-Cola ads and South Park.

Even more lofty were the possibilities mentioned in the education track: using Second Life as a platform for emergency-preparedness training, for rallying around nonprofit causes and for enhancing the classroom experience of a generation of kids who have already shown a penchant for virtual worlds like Zwinktopia and Club Penguin.

"In terms of kids using Club Penguin and Yville, I think the natural next step is Second Life," said Connie Yowell, director of education in the MacArthur Foundation's Program on Human and Community Development, which has made Linden Lab's virtual world a prominent part of its recent digital learning initiative.

All for one...
But some prominent Second Life figures thankfully realize that enthusiasts need to do more than just dream.

"We're all in this together," Sibley Verbeck, CEO of the virtual worlds development firm The Electric Sheep Co., said in a speech geared toward dozens of people who wanted to hear more about business opportunities in Second Life. "When you look at an industry that's as new as open-ended virtual worlds are, and a platform that's as new as Second Life is, we're all going to sink or swim together."

But to continue the aquatic metaphor, there's no central island to swim to. It's both a valuable asset and a roadblock to progress that Linden Lab is vocally hands-off with its creation. Second Life is a largely member-generated world; Linden Lab wants to be responsible for the technological stability of Second Life and leave the rest to the masses. This has led to explosions in creativity and the proliferation of unique in-world subcultures from role-playing anarchists to "furries" to virtual zombies.

At the same time, it's made for a world that can easily come across to outsiders as fragmented, tough to navigate, even pointless. Second Life cannot yet boast of an attraction that drew in mass "newbie" crowds and kept them coming back.

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