Monday, February 23, 2009

Is Second Life Dying Out?

The folks at Valleywag/Gawker (whatever they call their shrinking blogosphere empire these days) have an interesting article on what they call the “deathwatch” for Second Life, the online virtual world that most people have read so much but remember so very little about because, frankly, it is as VW/Gawker says: Overhyped and kinda boring.

I spent a semester in Second Life as part of a class for the masters in technical writing degree I’m working on. I created and customized an avatar, made virtual clothing and spent a lot of time wandering the PG-rated ins and outs of Second Life’s world. My most vivid memories:

1) Getting stuck inside a Jetsonmobile. I could get in. I could not get out. I had to teleport out, rather than exit the more traditional way.

2) Chatting with other members of my class about an “in-world” project (it sounded so exciting and important at the time) we were working on. As I think back on the experience now, Second Life served as little more than an IM system, albeit one that had sorta-cool places one could wander while one chatted, if the others in the group could keep up with your comically fast Second Life strut.

3) Watching my avatar sit in the lotus position while lilty sitar music playe din the background. I checked in on good ol' Jacob Rabinowicz a few times whiel I was in the real world, doing other stuff. Every time I came back, he was still sitting there in that lotus position, looking totally blissed out. He still looked that wasy after I watched the entirety of Apollo 13. Good for him.

Sorta cool. I think that’s the telling part of my Second Life experience. I sort of enjoyed wandering through NASA’s “island” in Second Life. But wandering through their island felt as satisfying as driving by the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall without bothering to go inside.

VW/Gawker mentions that Reuters’ presence in Second Life is now gone. That does not surprise me. I spent some time wandering around Reuters’ rather impressive pavilion there. Met nary a soul, nor find anything interesting to do there except wonder if I could find a can of virtual spray paint so I could write “Frodo Lives!” on one of their rather sterile walls. That, at least, would have given subsequent visitors to Reuters something to look at.

The rub is this, and it goes down to basic tenets of good web design. If the information/experience that the searcher is looking for is there on your site, you are providing a valuable service. The more I wandered Second Life, the more I realized that what I want is not there. There’s a lot of “there” there, but the feeling I got from wandering this virtual world is that damned few people have figured out the “why.” Most of the people I met were like me – wandering souls with little to do in Second Life than wander and gawk and, I believe, wonder why they were there in the first place.

Part of our objective in taking a class that centered on Second Life was to determine how such virtual worlds could be used in the workplace. Virtual reality does have its place in the unvierse. in fact, the higher-ups where I work (a nuclear waste dump) had toyed for years with using an iteration of virtual reality to allow heavy equipment operators control their machines remotely, rather than having to suit up and enter that radioactive world. But that idea came to naught. And aside from obvious educational and entertainment applications, even after a semester of poking and prodding at Second Life failed to convince me that such worlds have application in the workplace, or at least the workplaces I'm familiar with.

Same goes for the stranger workplaces I'm involved in. A side project has me collaborating on a web project with team members scattered across the United States and India. This might seem an obvious application for econd Life -- but there are far simpler tools out there (IM, e-mail, video conferencing, text-based virtual offices, et cetera and ad nauseum) that are easier to use than Second Life. Second Life certainly pushes the envelope on bringing international teams together, but one has to wonder why that envelope has to be pushed when stuff that's already in the mailbox works just as well, and is much less time-consuming to begin with.

After said semester ended, I pretended to enjoy spending my after the kids are in bed hours in Second Life. But the sad tale is I soon found that the time I had to dedicate to Second Life was better spent in first life, accomplishing tasks that held my interest as well as the virtual world did: doing dishes, collecting firewood, reading books. And I didn’t need a custom-made avatar to accomplish those tasks. I have a custom-made body for that.

That’s not to say Second Life doesn’t have something for somebody. Many have lamented the absence of gambling in-world. Gambling was a Second Life staple until Linden Labs banned it, under pressure from the Feds. Then again, there is (or so I’ve heard; I never saw evidence of it) opportunity for rather randy experiences in Second Life that I won’t describe on this blog. So. Gambling and pr0n. Whee.

Second Life advocates now are touting the virtual world’s educational opportunities, outside of the two realms just mentioned. That day may come. In the meantime, there are other online educational services that function just as well – or better – than Second Life. I’m nearly done with my masters degree, a feat I’ve accomplished entirely online. I may not even attend graduation in December because the trip, in the physical universe, seems superfluous to the point of the entire exercise, which is getting the degree.

My last contact with Second Life? It came in a rather snarkily-worded e-mail from New Citizens, Inc., which informed me I’d been ejected from the group. Probably due to lassitude on my part, as I had not been online in Second Life for more than six months. And I don’t miss it a bit.

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