Atin 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
Within months, there was a backlash. The virtual world's oft-clunky interface became the
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."
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.
There's a big downside to that: an outsized reaction when a morning news show talks about Second Life's potential as a terrorist training tool, or when a blogger comments on how nothing seems to draw the crowds in-world like a sadomasochism den--not to mention all the high-profile stories about disappointing advertising ventures.
But recent history could be in Second Life's favor. "A lot of the negativity that I've heard about Second Life echoes nearly exactly some of the complaints about the World Wide Web in the early '90s," Shigas said.
"Where people say there's nothing to do, or it's too complicated for people to understand, or there's too much sex, or I'll never trust my banking information--all these arguments were really prevalent in the early '90s about whether people would embrace the Web and whether it could be a place for commerce or business," he added.
In fairness, signs of user-friendliness are already starting to appear in Second Life.There's already Slurl, a Linden-grown project that assigns HTML addresses to specific in-world locations so that your avatar can "teleport" to a new spot on the grid through your Web browser.
In other words, Second Life gurus willingly admit that the overdose of media attention and subsequent scrutiny gave the virtual world quite the hangover, but it still knows how to party.
Even if corporate America doesn't want to attend.