Second Life is like an empty restaurant

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say, it wasn’t a brilliant success especially as the time it took to produce it mean that all the music and styles were out of date when it was released.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.