It's the Seinfeld of MMOGs: It's about everything and, simultaneously, nothing. As Linden Labs, its creator, has repeatedly asserted, Second Life is not a game, it's a virtual world. And yet, it looks like a game, plays like a game and exists, like a game, on your computer and various servers over the internet. And yet, unlike a game, once you sign on and start your account, there is absolutely nothing to do. Just like life, only with fewer opportunities and none of the physical contact; which, to some, is not a bad thing.
The purpose, the meaning, the story of Second Life are all provided by you. Linden, like The Almighty, made a game, but left its design up to your individual will. There is no overarching plot, no story, no missions, quests or rewards. You show up, find something interesting (or not) and explore. You can make things and sell them, or buy the things made by others. You can be an entrepreneur or a tourist. Just like life, only ... digital and less visually appealing. So not like life, then. Perhaps the name Second Life is painfully apt.
Clay Shirky has been making a lot of noise lately by refuting the various media stories about Second Life, mainly their lax fact-finding when it comes to attributing a number of users to the "Second Life phenomenon." Linden has volunteered the number 2 million when referring to how many people are "residents" of Second Life, and no one disputes that number. What is in dispute is the actual meaning of the word "resident" and how many of those 2 million people actually spend time in Second Life, and how many signed up, or were signed up, and never bothered to drop by. Or, as is more likely, signed up, stopped in, saw nothing of interest and left, never to return.
The appropriate analogy would be the number of people who receive sales circulars for the local grocery store versus how many take that circular to the store, clip out the coupons and buy a ham. A lot of people are registered for accounts on Second Life. These people are all considered residents. But few of them actually play the (not) game.
This discrepancy in numbers is important, and not just because it highlights a common problem with technology journalism; without that arbitrarily inflated user number, Second Life would be a historical footnote and not, as it currently stands, a media darling. Shirky estimates that Second Life actually boasts about 600,000 repeat users - a far cry from the estimated 2 million, but 600,000 does not a media sensation make. Two million is a far catchier number, and if Linden can prove they have 2 million accounts, why not use that number in a press release? And why not make a headline out of it? Well, because it's not accurate, for starters. Secondly, even if there were 2 million people currently playing Second Life, it still wouldn't justify the rampant, misleading media speculation surrounding the (not) game. Because, after all is said and done, it is, in fact, only a game, just like any other; it's just better at hiding it.
The media hype surrounding second life is, I suggest, a necessary evil for Linden. And I have to applaud them for tailoring that part of their game so well, to attract the right kind of media attention to the right aspects of their operation. A virtual psychological playground, after all, doesn't make nearly as impressive a headline as "virtual property worth millions." And as any dominatrix will tell you, it's the little touches that attract the curious. Taking a page from the dot-com profiteers of the late '90s, Linden hyped the money-making opportunities to be had in Second Life, the celebrity status and the desirability of real estate in their world and the ease with which anyone could create anything, to attract the attention of just about everyone. But what are these celebrities and large companies doing once they arrive in Second Life? Nothing. Just sitting there. They're bait on the hook. The users come chasing headlines and (some of them) stay to exercise their wildest fantasies. That's it, folks. That's Second Life.
Celebrities all along the spectrum of relevance have been tuning in to Second Life (and dropping out of the Space Ship Common Sense), to see and be seen in Linden's virtual world. Bono is just the latest and perhaps most relevant, but since its inception, SL has touted some appearance of some has-been or another, desperately ambulance chasing a foothold in the new frontier by way of following press releases to the New Hotness. Duran Duran comes to mind here. Hipster companies like Wired have also chimed in, as has the government of Sweden, banking a small tithe to The Electric Sheep company on Second Life's longevity.
Driving all of this speculation is the marketing machine at Linden. Again harkening back to the salad days of the dot-com gold rush, they've created a new sock puppet for a new generation; a marketing tool far surpassing the usefulness of its product. To populate their world, Linden needs to attract people with nothing better to do than spend hours making "things" in a virtual world, and the skills with which to make those things interesting. They're looking, in other words, for needles in haystacks. What better way than with a magnet? A large net with wide holes. And so far it's working.
A recent excursion to the virtual world proved this theory. Or at least gave it a good shake down. Using an online guide to the top 10 "hottest" attractions in Second Life, I spent an afternoon exploring night clubs, museums, corporate offices and some truly wacky-looking edifices. All told, I encountered about two dozen of the world's supposed 2 million residents. It wasn't until I stepped off the beaten path, past the Disney World-like attractions, and into the red light districts of Second Life's virtual underground that I found where the people actually were, and what they were doing. The answer? Still not much, but most of it was sexual. I found virtual torture chambers, underground night clubs and magical mystery tours all (seemingly) based on the idea that a real-life counterpart may exist for each and everyone, but nowhere on Earth would you be able to find an analogue with as many bared breasts. And really, isn't that a good thing?
It's no surprise that virtual worlds are (and have always been) hotbeds of illicit, underground sexual activity. To be fair, any sexual activity in an online space is often looked upon with the same righteous scorn as we reserve for real-world pederasts, but Second Life, even in this atmosphere, is a special case. The real question is whether or not Linden intended their world to be used as a virtual playground for the feather and leather crowd, or if, as their marketing and attendant media hype suggests, they really intended it to become a second internet; a visual, virtual world for the enjoyment of everyone. If the former, well done guys. Well done. If the latter, I suggest we all prepare ourselves for a bit of a letdown. Because it isn't going to happen.
The reason? Second Life isn't designed to be a revolution in social networking. Actually, it isn't designed to be much of anything at all, and users' ability to modify it into something worthy of the appellation "metaverse" is limited, severely, by the flaws in its construction and lack of purpose.
Second Life very well may spark a new migration of social networking from text-based technology to (finally) avatar-based virtual worlds, but Second Life will not be the final destination of that exodus, no matter how many stories are written about it. Folks outside of the echo chamber of game and insider blogs are reading about Second Life and therefore demanding more information about it, oblivious to the fact that it's all smoke and mirrors; an Ouroboros of media hype.
Linden is selling their dream to the masses, to the money men and to you, but the dream is tailor-made for the outcasts, those to whom the celebrity shine is far less important than the ability to build custom-made bondage chambers and wear dragon wings. Bono may attract me, you and the journalists of all the major papers, but none of us will be buying and selling property on Second Life, enhancing the desirability of Linden's real estate market and the valuation of their dollar and building the attractions Linden forgot to include in the packaging, and at the end of the day, most people will leave it far behind as they search for something more relevant, more "them." It's a shame they're not hearing about more things they might actually find useful, or, perhaps, that there aren't more of them being built.