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'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.

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.

"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."
--Sibley Verbeck, CEO,
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.