Second Life is like an empty restaurant

by Andy Polaine on July 31, 2007

I wrote a post a while back about how dull I thought it was that Adaptive Path were researching Second Life (along with many, far too many, media academics). I still don’t ‘get’ Second Life’s appeal, but maybe that’s from experimenting with virtual worlds long ago and not finding much difference 12 years on.

However, Chris Anderson just wrote about why he gave up on Second Life and points to an article by Frank Rose that he commissioned for Wired. It’s called How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life and pretty much confirms the anecdotal evidence that once you have, in the words of the article, “put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn’t much to do.”

The hook and hype of Second Life is that it is new, to most people. But once you’ve experienced the tedium of a virtual world that’s mostly empty it’s like an empty restaurant at 9pm on a Friday – you don’t bother going in.

Long ago, my first job as an intern was on the Virtual Nightclub. It was clear even then (1993 I think) that you go to a nightclub to listen to music (which you could do in the VNC), but mainly to meet, try and seduce or merely gaze at other people. The Virtual Nightclub had a smattering of people, but they were static and didn’t do anything or speak to you. Needless to say, it wasn’t a brilliant success especially as the time it took to produce it mean that all the music and styles were out of date when it was released.

Second Life strikes me as a similar phenomenon – I know there are ‘real’ people in there and some people seem to have sex chats with each other, but as the Wired article points out, you never really see a crowd (which is a limitation of the software engine). (Granted the sexual activity in Second Life, er, scores where the Virtual Nightclub didn’t.)

I’ve often talked about this ‘new tech’ problem with interactive artworks and installations too. When the newness of the technology – rather than a smart or creative idea – is the drawcard it dates and becomes boring very quickly. Germany’s ZKM has a whole collection of pieces like this – awful blocky avatar heads reading newsfeeds about politics in a robot voice, for example. I can’t help feeling that Second Life is heading for the same fate.

At the very least, chucking ad dollars into it without really knowing what or why you are doing seems to be the usual approach of advertising folks desperate to be on the bleeding edge. To me it Second Life feels like a feeble ‘dad’ version of a multi-user virtual space for people who don’t ‘get’ MMORPGs.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 yacco July 31, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Very nice headline for describing Second Life.

2 tim August 5, 2007 at 8:12 am

I would have been on the same research vessel with you back in the mid 90ies. I wrote my thesis on (text-, 2D-, 3D-)avatars and the users emotional attachment to them, as their agent, as their representation. The 3D worlds back then all shared a vast emptiness and the jazzed-up chat as their only appealing functionality to create community. That said, I still see potential in something like Second Life. Voice transmission plus facial animation adds enormously to more meaningful and lasting interaction between users and will spread in these platforms. Of course there are plenty of other aspects one might want to discuss…

3 Andy Polaine August 5, 2007 at 4:38 pm

I’m really not so sure. There’s more to communication than communication technologies. I’ve seen it happen in eLearning too – the idea that somehow video and/or voice communication in a 3D space might work better. In general it works worse….

I don’t think it’s just the bad 3D engine that’s the problem. I think the learning curve is way to high – they have to get past the whole aspect that people’s first experience is basically walking into walls for fifteen minutes.

Like all new technologies I think it’s important to strip away the ‘new techness’ and look at what’s underneath. At the moment I don’t find it very substantial or thrilling. The numbers of ‘residents’ is either a joke or a lie, and it’s really not an enthralling space at the moment. Surely it could be a bit more enticing than a giant, ugly shopping mall? It strikes me that this is more old media (read: advertising/marketing industry) thinking hopping on a bandwagon – one that they can understand because of it’s relationship to the physical world – and feeling like they’re bleeding edge. But it seems to me that advertising in SL is equally as dismal as most advertising in real life. Why should sticking it in a lame 3D environment make it any more exciting? They might as well make a rap out of a Wordsworth poem…

4 tim August 6, 2007 at 1:44 am

Well, I have recorded much more meaningful and fruitful interaction once voice was inserted into the mix, e.g. Utopia back in 1997. People gave up gender bending, impersonating, flaming…because it was either not possible (gender, age) or really dissatisfying to the disruptor. Everybody was basically the person they really were.
And I think you sometimes like to bash advertising people for “not getting it”. Convincing a marketing person to spend some experimental money is not that easy and SecondLife is an easier reference because it borrows and uses many known (and admittedly cyber-cheesy) metaphors. Maybe it leads to marketers understanding networks and MMORPGs (many of which are very hard to advertise in, combine with brands) better?
All that said, now that the “wired” turns into a “tired” story I would advise ad clients to not invest now but wait for a. a hotter world that delivers a better user experience or b. for an interesting development out of the open API.

5 Andy Polaine August 6, 2007 at 9:35 am

I’m sure that was the case, but then you’re bringing the virtual space back into being like any other space, so what else does it offer? Surely the whole point of a virtual environment – or anything translated from real-world to the screen – is that this translation adds something (see my comments on the Etched In Time post)?

So whilst I see what you’re saying about voice making every the people they really are, what is then the added extra of being in a crappy virtual world compared to a conference call?

I know I bash ad people for not getting it, but I’ve worked with many of those people for 13 years and not much has changed. Really, what I think you’re accidentally saying with the points you make is that Second Life works for ad guys if it’s brought back down to being like real-life again, aka the stuff they already know about. It’s the same with the Web – there are still plenty of ad guys who will create a ‘digital campaign’ which is basically the video of the TVC chucked online or at the very least the same creative approach.

Lastly, maybe people shouldn’t advertise in Second Life, in videogames and MMORPGs. Maybe the fact that it’s difficult to advertise in those spaces tells us something about advertising’s pervasiveness?

6 tim August 6, 2007 at 1:34 pm

I wasn’t suggesting SecondLife should be completely like SIMS, after all, the least this world could do is change the offline fact that I am fat, bald and have a bad sense for ties. All of which might prevent you from getting to know me more if it was a video conference, because your gut feelings tell you to stay away from unattractive, unfashionable people.
I am sure we could go and on and ping-pong on “what if” scenarios of SecondLife. Your point about ad people using outdated classic approaches to the new digital reality goes uncontested of course. I agree that too many out of them are either too untrained or too lazy to construct the more complicated patterns that are necessary to reach a critical mass. And a Cannes winner like Droga5’s “still free” would have encouraged a few more to stay on the 30- (or be it 60-)second path.

7 Andy Polaine August 6, 2007 at 9:42 pm

Are you saying there’s something wrong with being bald?

Seriously though, I’m open (though it might not seem like it) to someone showing me something really compelling in Second Life that changes my mind… Any ideas?

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