Not 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.