Friday, July 20, 2007

Revisiting Second Life

Eight months ago, I did a five-part series on the world of Second Life, the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

As I explained in my first post on the subject here, Second Life (SL) is a metaverse, or a universe within the universe of the Internet. I became interested in it because of the implications this virtual world, operating since 2003, has for copyright.

Unlike most online games, Second Life did not set up many rules for its players, called "residents." Linden Lab, its creator, provided the world and gave its residents tools to manipulate that world along with a virtual economy to provide a skeletal structure.

Residents can drift through the game, or they can make a commitment to lease or purchase their own little piece of Second Life. They can use this property for any legal purpose--to set up a store in which to sell goods, to set up a nightclub in order to attract other players or to merely build a home to decorate and inhabit.

Unlike many online games, Second Life is not set up for gamers to "win." There are no progressively difficult levels of achievement. Instead, SL is intended to mimic the real world. And, as in the real world, the way to show your superiority is in subjective ways: the clothes you wear, the house you live in, the vehicles you drive, the job you possess and the number of friends you have.

At the time I posted my series, the corporate world had discovered Second Life and had begun moving into the virtual world. Companies as diverse as American Apparel, Dell Computers, Nissan and Starwood Hotels had purchased land inside the metaverse in order to get customer feedback and sell their wares. In Part II here, I described the economy of Second Life. And in Part III here, I offered details of some of the scams and cons that threatened residents.

In the last two parts of my series, I discussed the new legal ground being explored by Second Life. In Part IV here, I started the conversation on copyright while in Part V here, I discussed how the real world was beginning to take notice of the virtual world. Reuters had set up a news bureau inside SL, and the U.S. Congress was becoming interested in taxable implications.

So, why am I revisiting Second Life today?

Because of a small item in Tuesday's Shelf Awareness:

The literati of Second Life's role-playing world are taking virtual classes, discussing Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and even creating buildings based on the novels of Gloria Naylor. In addition, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the "American Library Association has joined Second Life too, in an area called Cybrary City . . . to disseminate ALA news, and also to hold events and interact with the public."

While everyone is aware of the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, there has been less attention paid to the social networking power of Second Life. In the second post in my series, I talked about the terrific potential SL offered as an educational site:

Tim Allen, head of technology at Crompco Corp., an underground gas tank testing firm . . . built a virtual gas station, graphically showing all the tanks and gas lines under the asphalt. He says it's much easier to grasp the station's workings this way than it is on paper. "It's great for training new hires and showing changing regulations to existing employees," says Allen.

In the April 16th edition of BusinessWeek Online, there was a story titled "I Was a Second Life B-School Student." The writer pointed out that a number of undergraduate programs already have a presence in Second Life, but that INSEAD, "an international business school with real-world classes in France and Singapore," is one of the first management programs to purchase an island there.

Miklos Sarvary, associate professor of marketing and manager of the International Centre for Learning Innovation at INSEAD, told BusinessWeek that this experiment will put "the INSEAD community at the forefront of new technology, . . . [and] help the school cut back on travel and physical building expenses. It also enables the program to make good on its commitment to diversity by bringing together students and professors from across the globe . . ."

If INSEAD doesn't impress you, how about Harvard Law School? During the fall semester of 2006, the course Law in the Court of Public Opinion was offered jointly by the Harvard Law School and the Harvard Extension School. The website for the class included this:

Enrollment to the Harvard Extension School is open to the public. Extension students will experience portions of the class through a virtual world, known as Second Life. Videos, discussions, lectures, and office hours will all take place on Berkman Island. Students from anywhere in the world will be able to interact with one another, in real time.

Beyond formal educational purposes, Second Life offers a terrific opportunity for informal networking. I've often talked about the future of the Internet. Back on November 17, I posted this:

We repeatedly see references to Web 2.0. Everyone "knows" that it refers to the next generation of the Internet, but what does it really mean? I checked Wikipedia and found the following definition:

"a phrase coined by O'Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a supposed second generation of Internet-based services--such as social networking sites . . . that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users."

I belong to more Yahoo Groups than I care to admit here. I probably receive one or two invitations to join a new group every week. The sheer numbers have forced me to be a lot more selective in which groups I join.

Those Yahoo Groups are a two-dimensional form of social networking. Second Life is the three-dimensional version. Think of it as a Yahoo Group on steroids. Then think about the awesome potential it offers for making connection--around the world.

I'm just going to leave you with a couple of statistics. Back when I wrote that series on SL eight months ago, I said, "Second Life now has 1.6 million residents. Linden Lab claims Second Life's population is increasing by 38% every month. There were 14,192 residents logged on when I looked."

I just went over to Second Life here to check the current stats. The bad news is that SL has not been able to sustain the 38% growth per month. However, they did grow by 500% in the past eight months.

Second Life now has 8.2 million residents.


Peter L. Winkler said...

A lot of SL's residents register for a free account, drop by once or twice and never return. Linden Labs still includes them in its total number of residents.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: You're probably right. The bell curve applies in the virtual world as well as in the real world :)