Valleywag on Second Life

I’m a Second Life sceptic. Plenty of other people are too, like the author of this Valleywag piece. Interesting stuff in the comments, too.

So what accounts for the current press interest in Second Life? I have a few ideas, though none is concrete enough to call an answer yet.

First, the tech beat is an intake valve for the young. Most reporters don’t remember that anyone has ever wrongly predicted a bright future for immersive worlds or flythrough 3D spaces in the past, so they have no skepticism triggered by the historical failure of things like LambdaMOO or VRML. Instead, they hear of a marvelous thing — A virtual world! Where you have an avatar that travels around! And talks to other avatars! — which they then see with their very own eyes. How cool is that? You’d have to be a pretty crotchety old skeptic not to want to believe. I bet few of those reporters ever go back, but I’m sure they’re sure that other people do (something we know to be false, to a first approximation, from the aforementioned churn.) Second Life is a story that’s too good to check.

Second, virtual reality is conceptually simple. Unlike ordinary network communications tools, which require a degree of subtlety in thinking about them — as danah notes, there is no perfect metaphor for a weblog, or indeed most social software — Second Life’s metaphor is simplicity itself: you are a person, in a space. It’s like real life. (Only, you know, more second.) As Philip Rosedale explained it to Business Week “[I]nstead of using your mouse to move an arrow or cursor, you could walk your avatar up to an Amazon.com (AMZN) shop, browse the shelves, buy books, and chat with any of the thousands of other people visiting the site at any given time about your favorite author over a virtual cuppa joe.”

Never mind that the cursor is a terrific way to navigate information; never mind that Amazon works precisely because it dispenses with rather than embraces the cyberspace metaphor; never mind that all the “Now you can shop in 3D efforts” like the San Francisco Yellow Pages tanked because 3D is a crappy way to search. The invitation here is to reason about Second Life by analogy, which is simpler than reasoning about it from experience. (Indeed, most of the reporters writing about Second Life seem to have approached it as tourists getting stories about it from natives.)

Third, the press has a congenital weakness for the Content Is King story. Second Life has made it acceptable to root for the DRM provider, because of their enlightened user agreements concerning ownership. This obscures the fact that an enlightened attempt to make digital objects behave like real world objects suffers from exactly the same problems as an unenlightened attempt, a la the RIAA and MPAA. All the good intentions in the world won’t confer atomicity on binary data. Second Life is pushing against the ability to create zero-cost perfect copies, whereas Copybot relied on that most salient of digital capabilities, which is how Copybot was able to cause so much agida with so little effort — it was working with the actual, as opposed to metaphorical, substrate of Second Life.

Finally, the current mania is largely push-driven. Many of the articles concern “The first person/group/organization in Second Life to do X”, where X is something like have a meeting or open a store — it’s the kind of stuff you could read off a press release. Unlike Warcraft, where the story is user adoption, here most of the stories are about provider adoption, as with the Reuters office or the IBM meeting or the resident creative agencies. These are things that can be created unilaterally and top-down, catnip to the press, who are generally in the business of covering the world’s deciders.

[tags]second life, valleywag[/tags]

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