Why Second Life failed

O'Grimacey_CupNot my headline -- I took it from this article published Tuesday in Slate.  (You may want to take a look at it before reading further, since I'm reacting to it here.)

Once upon a time, I posted about my consternation that our blog was insufficiently interested in Second Life vis-a-vis the amount of media attention it was receiving.  I personally wanted to like Second Life more than I did, but it just didn't grab me.  This was despite my deep respect for Cory Ondrejka and my intellectual interest in the IP-related aspects of the platform. 

But now times have changed, at least in the media consensus.  Second Life has spent five years in the trench of the Gartner hype cycle (though perhaps, despite this Slate article, it may be climbing out). The media's souring toward Second Life was no surprise.  Ren suggested in 2006 that the media's love of Second Life was so strong that it was doomed to burn out in 2007.  So this week's article in Slate is about five years late to the "why Second Life failed" party.  In fact, it's pretty much a 2011 repetition of what Ren said people were going to say (and then said) in 2007:

In 2006, the future was Second Life. Business Week put Second Life on the cover. American Apparel, Dell, and Reebok, among many others, rushed to build virtual storefronts. Reuters even created a full-time Second Life bureau chief. People rushed to sign up and create their own avatars. Blue hair and Linden dollars were the future.  Looking back, the future didn’t last long. By the end of 2007, Second Life was already losing its fizz.

Note that the inset video in this article is about Second Life prostitution -- points 1 and 2 of Ren's prediction. 

The gist of this article is the claim that Second Life failed because it doesn't fill a consumer need.  Brilliant -- welcome to 2007.  Actually, maybe 2003, since this is basically the same criticism that many of us had when Second Life launched (do we really need a Metaverse?) and the reason the more game-focused set of us always had a little trouble liking Second Life.  It seemed like a very cool tool that was not particularly fun to use.  Without a game mechanic that lended purpose to your presence on the platform, what Second Life offered seemed a lot like an avatar-populated uncurated 3-D art gallery.

Today, though, my feelings have flipped (at least a little).  I still don't hang out in Second Life very much, but I do respect the technology and community in a way I failed to do in 2007. 

Part of this is probably that we are now entering a gamification hype wave, where not only is it the kiss of death to have a virtual world with no game-like elements, it is the kiss of death to sell anything (e.g. toothpaste) without badges, trophies, and epic wins.  I have no idea how long this gamification bubble will last, but in any event, the spread of game mechanics everywhere makes me more interested in those virtual platforms, like Second Life, that deny that they are games.

The other thing that has changed my mind about Second Life is that, almost against my will, I have gotten to know it better.  Part of this is simply from reading about it.  Academic interest in virtual worlds has often congregated, for understandable reasons, on the virtual world with the real economy that was not a game.  So it is hard to participate in academic conversations about virtual worlds without tracking the state of Second Life.  After all, some of the most interesting books about virtual worlds are about Second Life -- I'm thinking particularly of TN author Thomas Malaby's book, and Tom Boellstorff's book

But more importantly, I've now used Second Life on many occassions to speak with audiences.  The Slate authors say that Second Life is a neat technology that no one wants to use because it meets no consumer need.  Actually, it really isn't a bad technology for certain forms of distance teaching and collaboration, as IBM and other firms have learned.  Other forms of social software are more popular, but spatial simulations make possible certain forms of interaction that a technology like Facebook does not provide.  To put it in the framing of the Slate authors -- there are actually some useful milkshakes in Second Life.  Not everyone needs them, but some do.

So Second Life has not failed, really.  Wired and the tech pundrity seemed convinced that we would all be logged into Second Life working virtual jobs in 2011.  We're not.  The tech media in 2006 bubbled over with the belief that all these companies seeking free publicity by launching offices in Second Life were going to make big profits within Second Life. They didn't.  So, in my view, Second Life never failed--the media reporting on Second Life failed.

Additionally, the Slate authors aren't so graceful when they stumble on a key fact about Second Life:

In the first half of 2011, the company reported that an average of about 1 million users logged in every month—which, you have to admit, is about 999,990 more than you expected.

Really? Why should we have expected that? Oh -- I know why -- because it has been common knowledge for five years that Second Life "failed."

Actually, it seems to me that if Second Life has 1 million users each month, the company is actually serving some need for some market.  The question is: what kind of milkshake are those 1 million users drinking? 

Based on my admittedly limited experiences, I'm sure that some of them are using the technology as a distance collaboration tool, because I know it works well for that purpose.  John Carter McKnight raises another possibility -- maybe Second Life has "failed" to the extent it has systematically failed to realize the rather peculiar flavor of milkshake that it offers. Perhaps, like the Slate authors, the creators of Second Life think they haven't got a milkshake to sell, or perhaps they don't think it is a milkshake that the world wants to buy.

And perhaps, in terms of broad demographics, it isn't: Second Life is a tool for those users with the passion and ability to make and customize their own fantastic worlds.  That's a pretty niche interest, isn't it?  Sort of like a Shamrock Shake.  But obviously, and perhaps suprisingly, a million people today are willing to buy it.  If I were Slate, I think that's the story I'd want to run in 2011.

Comments on Why Second Life failed:

Andrew Oleksiuk says:

I seem to recall an entire decade (the 90's) when people told me that the Mac and Apple sucked. I learned everything I could about Macs, built a successful tech career from it, and then proceeded to learn other operating systems (Windows and Linux) while using my Mac to publish, surf the then-new world wide web, and pursue a myriad of other interests related to computing.

So I agree with you, Greg, that the naysayers are hopelessly lost. Especially in comparing Second Life to the iPhone. The Slate article is clearly coming from the perspective of a bubble burst based on hype and misinformation in the first place. Second Life remains uniquely successful as a 3D virtual world operating system.

Posted Nov 10, 2011 2:09:08 PM | link

kevin says:

Maybe it failed because people wanted to do more than live in a virtual world. Maybe if you could meet people from your neibourhood or build easy houses, then it would have worked better.
Also it was a trend that just faded out.

Posted Nov 10, 2011 2:35:21 PM | link

Tom Boellstorff says:

Thanks for the shoutout! A couple quick comments. First, it behooves to recall that the dismissal of Second Life has never been separate from the dismissal of all online worlds and games. This is linked to the way that population and money get conflated with what's interesting. Anthropologists study small groups of 100 or 1,000 people all the time - when I started my research in Second Life it had about 5,000 accounts and max concurrency of around 250, and I would have been able to do my research just fine had it stayed that size. There's a reason social scientists don't just study China and India - smaller socialities often have much to teach us with broader import.

Now that my 5-year tenure as Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist will be done fairly soon (next summer), I'm thinking about new research projects. One likely candidate will probably involve gay men's use of Facebook, cellphones, and other online technologies in Indonesia, bringing together two big areas of interest to me. But I think I might also do some follow-up work in Second Life. I barely get into Second Life nowadays - once every two months or so is all - but there is so much there worth further exploration.

Thanks for these thoughts!

Posted Nov 10, 2011 4:35:31 PM | link

Jimpurbrick says:

"population and money get conflated with what's interesting" - exactly. There are a large number of interesting things in Second Life that for a while got lots of press, then the confusion that this interesting tech thing must therefore be the future of everything happened. Yes the people who wanted to make gobs of cash out of Second Life being the future of everything are disappointed, but it remains an incredibly interesting virtual world that we'll be learning lots from for a long while.

Posted Nov 10, 2011 5:37:44 PM | link

Victor Keegan says:

Is that a millon a month paying users? I retain a greatly scaled down presence in SL because you can still do such cool things but like others have started up in InWorldz where you can do the same cheaper. Social aspects of SL are now done better on Facebook, Twitter etc

Posted Nov 10, 2011 6:05:34 PM | link

P.d. MacGuire says:

I can think of several ways in which Second Life has done an awesome job of filling needs. It is a great social resource for the handicapped and homebound. People who have never been able to walk or dance get great satisfaction from doing so virtually. Gay men and lesbians living in repressive societies can safely socialise in SL, and Saudi women can drive a car, if only virtually, without getting bits chopped off. Many architects and designers use it so that clients can do a walkthrough in which they can really interract with the environment. Some of the machinima videos made in Second Life are real works of art. Check out "Watching the Worlds" on youtube for a really profound experience of this.

Posted Nov 11, 2011 1:41:12 AM | link

Dayset says:

Sl has no 1kk users
SL sell shakes (or maybe i wrong and its charity organisation that lives on donations?)
SL is 'still' profitable but with comparsion of other media/creative/tool -it's FAIL
Oh i forgot Second Life also fail about their name, and many other thing but who cares.

Posted Nov 11, 2011 8:50:35 AM | link

bolt says:

When I first found out about Second Life, I really wanted to like it. After creating an avatar and exploring around, I discovered that as much as I wanted to like it, I couldn't. Maybe it's just me, but I have never gotten the point of what SL is all about. I hear people talk about it, but I could never get as excited about it others seem to be. I never could understand why all the hype. Maybe it's just me.

Posted Nov 11, 2011 9:29:28 AM | link

Marvin says:

I think Second Life did a great job and I like it.

Posted Nov 12, 2011 9:26:54 AM | link

greglas says:

Thanks everyone for the comments. I was reading the reader comments on Slate and many are (justifiably) much more pointed than mine.

This is off-topic, but is comment 9 here (Marvin) a form of link spam? I don't get why it would be spam, since it's just a brief comment with a link to Marvin's QQ email address, not a URL. I see the same email listed as the contact on a bunch of flash game websites.

Marvin -- are you legit? Do you use Second Life frequently?

Posted Nov 12, 2011 9:43:42 AM | link

francois says:

Before evaluating purposes I think we should look at accessibility and immersion which are a prerequisite for engagement.

On this levels SL is a failure, at least for people playing 3D video games; the way to move and look around doesn't follow the standards set by the industry and is counter intuitive to gamers (therefore setting an unnecessary and frustrating learning curve right from the start).

Immersion is also a failure, the world looks cold and angular, despite plenty of polygons the characters modelling and animations look so awkward... Within the same technical constraints the video game industry is light years away.

Maybe it explains why most people I know who use and like SL are not regular 3D gamers, they wouldn't need to unlearn first and would have less expectations (a survey on this would be interesting).

For these reasons SL is for me the first death of metaverses. Niels Stephensons seems to agree when he said recently: "The virtual reality that we all talked about and that we all imagined 20 years ago didn't happen in the way that we predicted. It happened instead in the form of video games"

That said I don't believe the video games industry is there yet but it will.

WoW is mainly a theme park even if it gets accessibility and immersion right. WoW and all its clones are for me the second death of metaverses (rewarding mainly extrinsic rewards, skinner boxes design, strong vertical character progression versus horizontal, no user generated content ...).

The good news is that the current breed of MMORPG are slowly dying (WoW lost 2 millions subs and all new MMORPGS see their subs going down after the initial rush), all this despite an incredible hunger for virtual worlds by gamers who now expect much more from them. Even Blizzard is risking important changes in their upcoming expansion for the genre they themselves popularized.

I'm optimist in the future of metaverses and that we'll see a "renaissance",

They are many MMOs coming in the next few years exploring the frontieres between themeparks and sandboxes and catering for different kind of players.

I'm also hoping that one day the video game industry will provide (by accident or not) the platform to create what should have been SL and metaverses (http://goo.gl/S2Dv8)

Posted Nov 13, 2011 9:15:05 AM | link

Lisa G says:

Not successful forever does not equal failed. SL has had a good run, and might again if they ever make the creation systems usable to non geniuses.

Posted Nov 14, 2011 1:57:38 PM | link

shander says:

Internet Relay Chat ...

Or maybe just "Cheers" bar , where everyone knows your name.

As much as the point has been raised and aknoledged, the IRC component of the interest in games is too frequently dismissed.

Different too from something like instant messenger where you talk to people you know in real life, very often people just want to be social with few strings attached (ok not talkings about the cyber sex part thats just one small permutation)

There is some pleasure to finding new people to hang out with and the mmo's allow this....and while some times real life friendships (and even marriages) come from the associations, I think equally often, people enjoy the very fact that they can re-experience the early stages of making friends, or just the abilty to be cordial before people expect you to actually remember things about them.

Just saying hello thought isn't enough a hook for everyone and lots of people play the games to both escape from the real world and yet still have communication with real people.

A CONTEXT, the game, not the platform, gives people something to talk about...hit tables, new ship or piece of equipment people long for, pointers, comiseration, humor about co-players..etc . The ablity to talk with others meaningfully about important things within the context but absolutely unimportant in one's real life..well thats more for most people.

Still, Second life was a fine IRC for people who wanted to chat with strangers about real life stuff...not much in game to talk about.

Posted Nov 14, 2011 3:07:07 PM | link

Thoreau says:

Why is SL a failure yet Minecraft is incredibly popular?

Is Minecraft just enjoying some temp fame or is it doing world building better than SL?

Also, I wonder if the x-rated role-play stuff had a negative effect or the removal of casinos.

Posted Nov 14, 2011 7:47:15 PM | link

Dayset says:

Thoreau do you realy want to know answer?

Posted Nov 15, 2011 3:21:31 AM | link

Paul says:

If the second life is more a "second life", I think there would be much more users. Imagine if how u see things in second life is exactly how u see in real world, and how you move your limbs is the same as how u do in real world, that will definitely result in a blooming user-base and maybe everyone is engaged in it. The "milkshake" here is all the experience of actual sensation with dramatically and relatively low cost.(to say the least,u wont break your leg when you jump of from the 3th floor)

Posted Nov 15, 2011 5:14:13 AM | link

Thoreau says:


Yeah, I'd like to know.

According to Minecrafts stat page 42000+ have downloaded the game in the past 24 hours and 7000+ have bought the game during the past day.

Is SL putting up those numbers?

16,437,116 registered users, of which 4,067,787 (24.75%) have bought the game.

In the last 24 hours, 43,592 people registered, and 7,317 people bought the game.

Posted Nov 15, 2011 5:34:54 AM | link

Nathan J. Evrard says:

What is failure?

It seems rather silly to me to say that Second Life is a failure when there are 1 million people logging into the world every month. Greg noted this point in his write up also. Second Life is a "failure" because it didn't meet people's expectations of what it would become.

Second Life is a success as a platform because of the world that it has created. You can't go into the world and order something from Best Buy or even be fully immersed in it's graphical capabilities. What makes it successful, to me at least, is the sense of community that can be found within the world.

Second Life provides an opportunity for people to find like minded individuals to hang out with. Gays and lesbians around the world can meet new people and discuss things that they may not feel comfortable with in the real world. Role players can get together to live out their medieval fantasy life. Still others can find people who are into S&M.

Ultimately people need to stop looking at Second Life as a game with set rules and more like a place where anything can happen. SL is definitely not for everyone. But, it certainly provides some very simple distractions from the real world.

Posted Nov 17, 2011 3:52:35 PM | link

Andrew Oleksiuk says:

Pooky Amsterdam has a fine rebuttal to the original article at It's All Virtual.


Posted Nov 21, 2011 4:04:40 PM | link

Nathan J. Evrard says:

Thank you for linking that article. There is a treasure trove of economic data there that will help me with my final project coming up next month.

Posted Nov 21, 2011 8:06:48 PM | link

Francis_7 says:

I am no huge fan of Second Life, but I read the article by Dan and Chip Heath. It reads as a sort of lighthearted rant. It really never gets angry, but you can tell the two authors do not like it very much.

So which one do you think has the andrognous skater as a virtual girlfreind? Dan or Chip? See! It is pretty easy to respond as a lighthearted rant. Maybe I should make a book!

With the recent onset of 'maker' culture Seocnd Life would seem poised to inherit a whole new culture of virtual makers. If only they would find thier way to Second Life.

No wonder Dan and Chip have to give thier book away... not sure if anyone would pay anything for it.

Posted Dec 4, 2011 12:28:21 PM | link

DMX says:

Second life might have been a lot more successful if they scrapped that bloody currency that made everybody less interested in fun and more interested in shaking each other down for cash, and gotten all those companies that wanted to set up in there and marched them out at gunpoint.

Seriously, walking around that place and seeing all the IRL businesses set up there gave me the creeps. I do that 9-5, not 5-9.

Of course I was saying this 5+ years ago, and it was heretical. I think history has proven me right. If it aint fun it aint worth it.

Posted Dec 6, 2011 10:45:24 AM | link

DMX says:

And I'll eat my hat if theres really 1 million people playing that gave. EVE-O barely scraped a quarter of that number, and that place is teeming compared to this.

Posted Dec 6, 2011 10:46:58 AM | link

Yourmachinima says:

the in fact and in my oppinion, second life has started badly, in essence, the question is not "if we need virtual worlds" the main question is how the heck we keep this virtual world working. How to keep this world "under control". I had mention this post after post, these people like philip linden they are much more programmers (ideologist) rather than hihg skills on economics, costumer services etc. Try to compare with a eveonline for example. Yee you pay a fee to have an account, yes the custumers service it is good, yes every month there is something new and even more attractive. Does second life have this??? No. Now that is where sl fails.

The rest it is just retundant questions for pointless answers

Posted Dec 7, 2011 2:58:59 PM | link

DD says:

I happened upon this article as I was looking for information on using Kinect to create animations for Second Life.

I have been a resident of Second Life since 2007. I am in SL at least a couple of hours every single day. When I lost my job, I spent every waking moment in SL when I wasn't doing housework or job hunting. I am not interested in cyber sex or fantasy role play, but I know people who are and we get along just fine.

My husband introduced me to SL in 2007 because he saw an opportunity there for me to have fun with my graphic design skills and artistic talents. He still has an avatar but rarely ever goes in anymore because he would rather play structured video games. He needs to have a path and a goal laid out for him. I am quite the opposite. I prefer unstructured environments where I can create my own goals and activities. And if I can create the environment as well, then I am in nirvana.

My husband was exactly right when he told me I would love Second Life. For me, SL is like a blank canvas that I can turn to and create upon whenever I choose. I also have a built-in community of appreciative like-minded souls with which to share my creations if I wish.

Just as importantly, every week I get to hang out with my 30-something daughter in SL. She lives in another state but we share a plot of virtual land, and together we terraform and landscape it to suit our fancy. For several years we had a tropical paradise. This year we decided upon a swampy marshland. At the end of our respective days, we have a peaceful environment where we can meet and relax and listen to the crickets and chat about things that moms and daughters chat about.

Our virtual lives may not sound very exciting to a lot of people. We are not chasing cars or shooting things or blowing up buildings. Those things are fine for other folks, but not for us. I like to design clothes and build structures. Frequently I have Photoshop open at the same time as Second Life, and I am uploading textures (for free if I'm testing them) to make all sorts of things. Now I am trying my hand at animations. My daughter and I like to explore beautiful sims together and marvel at the creations of our fellow residents.

As I am writing this I am thinking of the other hundred things I/we love to do in SL but which would be enough to fill a book. I would need to have been blogging for the last four years to tell you all about it.

Occasionally I enjoy playing video games with my husband, but it is never as satisfying for me as it is for him. And that's okay. The way I figure it, there are different strokes for different folks, and I am glad there is something for all of us. And on that note, I need to go and continue my never-ending pursuit of knowledge, so TTFN! Peace.

Posted Dec 21, 2011 7:03:45 PM | link