Why are we special?

Massively LogoThe recent announcement that one of the most popular e-zines for Second Life, Second Life Insider — a year-old collaborative blog with SL’s best authors — was “transformed” into Massively deserved several comments from popular bloggers of the SLogosphere (I’m eagerly awaiting the opinion of Hamlet Au on New World Notes too). Second Life Insider had, as so many similar blogs on Second Life, a peculiar characteristic: it was not only about what happens in Second Life (thus, the same model as any of the other more popular blogs of AOL’s blogging network, like WoW Insider), but also about the impact of Second Life in the future metaverse-enabled society. In fact, this is what the most read blogs and sites about Second Life tend to talk about: what it means to be a resident of the metaverse.

Why are we so special?But what does that actually mean? It’s not as if the rest of the games, MMOGs, and social worlds don’t have their own share of “serious” blogs. In fact, one can consider Terra Nova to be the most serious of them all, seeing that it sprouted from academia and research on virtual worlds and MMOGs. But there are far more, blogs, forums, websites with cheats and tricks and tips, community sites for specific hordes in WoW or clans in [insert favourite MMORPG here] — an endless list in hundreds of languages and different writing styles, all massively targeting the massively multiplayer market (alliterative pun intended). In fact, Second Life’s own SLogosphere is not so “big” when compared with what all the other games have to offer. A few searches on Alexa will show you how much gamers and players will read those sites (incidentally, this might be the major reason why SL Insider was “absorbed” into a blog featuring at least another dozen virtual worlds/MMORPGs — the traffic for SL alone did not justify a separate blog, but this is just my outsider’s perception).

And it’s not as if the style is uniform among these sites. They range from the ultra-cool-geeky one, but Prokofy Neva’s previous incarnation on The Sims Online show us that the “serious” aspects of gaming, issues like censorship, manipulation, control, and all the nasty side-effects of virtual worlds are explored regularly by other writers for other platforms beyond Second Life. So it’s not as if thigs are very different here… are they?

The Fashion Lesson

Let’s take a different approach. Take the following examples in style, writing, and the kind of advice they give to you:

http://www.thebudgetfashionista.com/ (Real Life)

http://fabfree.wordpress.com/ or the widely popular http://lindenlifestyles.com/ (Second Life)

Notice the similarity in style? Granted, the Second Life site has far more pictures, but you can see that Cherlindrea Lamont or the authors at Linden LifeStyles follows the same type of writing in a “show and tell mode” with practical advice that is so typical of modern fashion advice blogs.

So far, so good (please bear with me if you’re not into SL fashion). But let’s do a few Google searches. What is the fashion for this fall/winter in, say, World of Warcraft? Oops. Bad example; Orcs are not known for their fashionable outfits, so we should be more honest and get into the social virtual worlds with user-created content — IMVU, Kaneva, and There.com, to pick a few that have at least a few hundred thousands of users, many of which are active fashion designers.

Google’s not kind on them. A quick search on “fashion” and “second life” on Google will give over 5 million hits. The same query for IMVU gives 200,000, but you’ll see that the top ones are part of the forums and/or official sites for IMVU. There.com fares worse, with just 58,500 hits, and most of them “official announcements” or There.com’s Fashion Contest (which is organised by There.com’s owners). Kaneva is sadly a common name in Bulgaria, so it’s hard to figure out what those 134,000 links are actually pointing at — real fashion web sites in Bulgaria, or virtual fashion on Kaneva?

You’ll also see a lot of magazines, sites, e-newspapers, and blogs, all talking about fashion on those “other” virtual worlds, as a mere curiosity. But where are the designers’ blogs? Where are the virtual shops? Where are the fashionista blogs? Contrast that with Second Life — from the top 10 hits, two are from LL’s own site (fair’s fair), the rest are all guides and blogs on fashion in Second Life; then follow the uncountable articles on RL brands that have come to Second Life.

So here we can notice the huge difference between Second Life and the rest of the virtual worlds. People make business in fashion design; this is solid, real business — not “having fun in their spare time”. The top design creators in SL make far more money designing fashion for avatars than by opening their own RL boutique. This necessarily attracts professional and semi-professional writers who will see a market interested in reading about fashion in SL and set up their own blogs; in some cases, they’ll even sell advertising; and in all cases, they’ll be pressed to write about the latest fashion just because it’ll help attract new customers. As my good friend Ana Lutetia writes (herself also a top fashionista), new designers don’t stand a chance of getting noticed if they aren’t mentioned by the top fashion sites of SL. “It’s just like real life”.

So why doesn’t IMVU, allegedly with close to the same number of active accounts as SL, and also with hundreds of thousands of unique clothing items created by IMVU creators, doesn’t have this sort of dynamic? (Notice that some top fashion designers also design for IMVU and There.com, of course)

What about education?

So, well, perhaps I’m pushing the note on fashion. Let’s try higher education instead. In 2004/5, it was common to assume that SL had some interest for “fun and entertainment”, but serious academic research on virtual worlds would be made on OpenCroquet, which was sort of “born” from academia, was open source, free to download, and had lots of papers published on it, as well as providing a good, solid focus for mastership and doctorship thesis.

What happened two years later? Second Life and “university” get 3 million hits on Google; OpenCroquet a humble 85,000. There.com is not forgotten thanks mostly to the “University of There” (a player-run university in There.com). IMVU fares better mostly because of research papers that focused on both Second Life and IMVU. Kaneva is always a problem, since you’ll get lots of people named “Kaneva” that are related to universities; I couldn’t find a single reference, but I might have not gone deep enough on the Google searches. Well, there is a “University of Kaneva” which features “shops, campus buildings, parks and a road! Several shops and hangouts.” One wonders what kind of research they do.

One might consider the comparison unfair; after all, the same search made in 2004 would probably only get a handful of hits on OpenCroquet (it was still being developed), but very likely a lot on ActiveWorlds and a few obscure platforms. Assuming that the links are still live, ActiveWorlds still gets 175,000 hits on Google, and most of them are, indeed, research efforts made in ActiveWorlds. But the contrast is staggering. Even in late 2005, there was already NMC in SL, and dozens of universities doing research here. From the several hundreds in 2006 we’ve come to the several thousands. The list just for British universities fills several pages — and the UK “only” has 6-7% of all SL residents.

So one has to be honest and consider that the references to “other” social virtual worlds are made to round up a nice research paper, where it’s good practice to visit other worlds and see if they also exhibit the same kind of behaviour that is found in SL. However, the number of universities currently offering e-learning courses on any virtual world except Second Life are virtually zero. In Second Life, we’re talking about hundreds — some of them offering complete courses all held in SL; most just offering a few classes as part of graduation.

Environment, sustainability, special interest groups

Thanks to people like Delia Lake and Michel Manen, I happened to meet a lot of people that are currently using Second Life to explain and raise awareness on environmental issues and discuss solutions for sustainability. Companies like Grundfos are in Second Life with sims promoting environmental education. Every week, activists of these causes are setting up panels, debates, discussions, and conferences in Second Life — which is a natural medium for doing so (virtual presence does not require commuting, and, thanks to Better World Island, you can even buy “green credits” to run your sim with green energy). Now all these groups popped up from nowhere in a short time. They could have used any other medium to pass their message — they’re adepts at public relations and use all available media. But they’re using Second Life.

Even the Catholic Church has no less than two organisations in SL — the “Canção Nova” group (from Brazil), which specialises in the new media for evangelism, and the Jesuits have announced a presence too. Not surprisingly, since SL has been for ages a medium for several religious organisations to spread their word — Google gets 1.5 million hits on “church” plus “second life”. Alas, the Good Word seems not to have caught on other virtual worlds — the links there are spurious and related to individual items that can be seen/bought in-world.

Other support groups are also in Second Life, from the Alcoholic Anonymous to the popular sim of supportforhealing, which has been around for several years. These groups are too many to list. Sure, they appear here and there on other virtual worlds too, but their homepages just list their SL presence.

Corporations

Finally we cannot fail to mention how widespread the presence of corporations in Second Life is. While 2 years ago the gaming world was stunned on how “corporations” on EVE Online (ran by players) managed to make dozens of thousands of US dollars, nowadays it’s real corporations that come to Second Life to open up their virtual presences there. The word “virtual presence” did not even exist (in the context we take for granted these days) three years ago; today, a search for “corporation” and “second life” yields 1.5 million hits, 12 times as much as IMVU and 50 times as much as There.com. And if you look closely at those links, many are, in fact, talking about Second Life and mentioning those other virtual worlds as a footnote.

Still, there are corporate virtual presences on other virtual worlds. MTV was perhaps the first one to launch their “Laguna Beach” environment in There.com. It cannot be a coincidence that this was work done by the Electric Sheep Company — who are definitely far more famous for their work in SL, being a company of SL residents that, well, incorporated in RL to deploy their services as metaverse consultants.

The word “metaverse” itself was coined by Neal Stephenson over a decade ago but has become almost synonymous with Second Life (which should probably be renamed as “First Metaverse”). It’s impossible to talk about anything else that gets hyped on the media — where will the next SL-killer-app come from? — without comparing it with Second Life. Multiverse will be better; VastPark is just like SL but with user-created meshes; Metaplace is an environment able to create 2D virtual worlds and SL-like 3D ones; Sony Home will dominate the residential market by putting a metaverse in every PS3 console; and, well, ultimately, Google Worlds will banish SL out of the face of the earth once it gets launched.

So in the “metaverse market” we all have this vision of dozens if not hundreds of competitors, all “better” and “more flexible” and “way more stable” than Second Life, all aggressively manoeuvring to put Linden Lab out of the market and make SL a sad memory of the past. They all have better programmers, better game designers, vast financial resources, better system engineers, better renderers, and, well, a better knowledge of “what the market wants”. SL is, therefore, doomed.

Again.

What’s so special about Second Life?

When seeing some pictures of what those “future competitors” of SL will provide us, my eyes water. They all look so cool and so nice! The graphics are astonishingly good; frame rates are always above 50; the interface is slick, simple, easy to use; everything works flawlessly and not a single bug is to be seen; and, of course, it’s all designed by professionals who are in the market for videogames for ages and don’t use obsolete code or technologies like Linden Lab does.

Well, I can be very sceptic about the ability of LL to deploy a “SL 2.0” with vastly better improvements — it’ll take 3 years or more, quite enough for competitors to pick up where LL left SL and do a much better job of “creating the metaverse” — but the truth is, they’re working on it as we speak, and they’re not alone.

So let’s be a bit sceptic about what “the competitors” are doing, shall we?

First, the technology — since that’s where the legions of SL residents claim that everybody else would quickly win the race with LL. Sony Home postponed the launch of Sony Home because they figured out that having just 16 avatars in a single place (64 on the “public areas”) was not enough. Google wisely seemed to have abandoned SketchUp and joined forces with Multiverse. Only someone who has rendered a 5,000-polygon object in SketchUp will know why — talk about lag (SL renders thousands and thousands upon thousands of polygons per frame). Castronova’s Arden changed technology twice and is still being postponed. Metaplace will start with 2D MMOGs and “only implement 3D games on a later stage”.

But still, everybody’s claiming that “any group of college students with lots of spare time can do a rendering engine from scratch”. That’s partially true, but… how many actually did it? And then moved to do something infinitely more complex — a distributed network of servers to manage remotely hosted content that is dynamic and user-created? Not many. A few are working for Linden Lab. Most, however, prefer a cooler job doing special effects for Hollywood, which also requires those kind of expertise (look up the biography of top programmers for Linden Lab like Qarl Linden — they have a solid Hollywood background doing special effects using computer-generated images).

It’s undeniable that all newer-generation games for consoles and top-class PCs do indeed have far superior graphics, effects, and physics. Many MMORPGs also start to use the high-end engines. People using Second Life start slowly to upgrade their computers and have graphic cards also capable of running the latest-generation engines. So is SL doomed to become obsolete?

The more years that pass, the more this question is pushed into the foreground. After all, World of Warcraft allows 35,000 users on a single server (shard). Granted, they don’t need to handle user-created content, and the servers are needed mostly just to track positioning information. Still, WoW is able to do with one server what Linden Lab can’t with 4,000. Something, obviously, is wrong with this picture. It’s also not a new one; we’ve known this for ages. And it won’t be something “fixed” with the New Architecture for SL 2.0, which will still be using most of the same conceptual design, just with some improvements and extra features (like being able to use multiple asset servers serving several loosely-connected independent grids).

But when we think about everything that requires a change of technology, we have only to look at what the so-called “competition” is doing. After all, it doesn’t seem to be so easy to deploy a Second Life-killer application — and now we’re talking about the huge software development companies on the world with the best experts in MMORPG development, not tiny underfunded start-ups with eagerer, freshly graduated programming wizards with a lot of free time, insane knowledge about what it takes to roll out a fully-fledged metaverse, and a good understanding of what the audience wants (which is basically something with the realism of the Matrix movies, without lag, and a million people online on the same space).

Then we come to the second issue: financing the enterprise! This comes from having a solid business model that pleases the investors and venture capitalists. Again, everybody thinks this is “easy”. Multiverse proposes to split the revenues with anyone using their platform instead of charging for licenses (one wonders, then, what happens if you want to have a virtual world with 10 million free users, like Second Life). Metaplace suggests that everything is free except when buying credits for their in-world microcurrency, which will be sold exclusively from their site (SL took 4 years to develop a stable economy based on a microcurrency, with a LindeX that even makes a few million US$ of income to LL; or perhaps about 1/20th of what they need to run the whole operation; one wonders how Raph Koster will manage to do better and prevent others to create their own currencies and undermine his business model). I have no clue what business model Sony Home is proposing; all they’re saying is that “the application will be free to download”. Kaneva, IMVU, There.com are traditional monthly-fee-based subscription schemes, which still seems to be one of the best ways to get a positive cash flow. Google will very likely sell advertising, but we all know that Google Earth/Maps do not generate enough income to pay for the development, much less the maintenance costs of running their virtual world (Google, however, has infinite resources, so they simply might not care).

One can naturally agree that “it’s not that expensive“. Consider the CBS investment in the Electric Sheep Company for a mere US$7 million (“a mere rounding error for a big network’s budget”, the Sheep claim). A new game launched in the market costs around U$30 million in development — high-end, high-profile games might have larger budgets, not unlike the size of Hollywood movies, but they have a very solid business model to pay for everything. Blizzard is making insane amounts of money out of WoW and will continue to do so, as they’re always introducing more and more content and expansions and AddOns and new versions, and will very likely continue to do so for years and years. Their customers are very loyal to the brand; their 1999 Starcraft game is still being played by millions upon millions of users every day, in spite of being very old and of fans patiently waiting for version 2 of the game.

By contrast, LL started with Philip’s pocket money in 1999, and by 2003 launched a tiny game, that only attracted a few millions of venture capital. They managed to keep it going in spite of everything. They raised a few more funds afterwards, but not much. And now Linden Lab is valued at more than US$5 billion. That might be true or not, but the issue remains: Linden Lab’s business model is solid and it yearns profits, even if they’re small. All the competitors are suggesting new, unknown, or unproven business models. Will they make sense? In the post-dot-com-bubble days, ideas are supposed not to be so important as valid business models. We know about a single example that became a successful company with a self-sustaining product: Linden Lab’s Second Life. And this is just because Linden Lab is quite transparent with their business data. We have no clue about how the others are faring (nobody discloses data). And we know that for some the business model is unimportant (Google being the best example) — just doing cool things is important.

When looking for a major contender in the metaverse arena, I personally go straight to the business model first, and the technology next. One might have been sceptical of Linden Lab in the past (since their business model relied mostly on income from Premium accounts; when they changed it into renting server space, it became obvious that it would work out; although it might be still unclear how this will work in the future with multiple, interconnected grids), but we know that Linden Lab doesn’t rely any more on having “millions of users” to continue to provide access to their grid: they only need “thousands of sims” to be rented and paying their monthly fees every month. We have to look carefully on where the money is going to come from to fund a long-term sustainable environment from LL’s competition. And, sincerely, in November 2007, things look grim for SL’s competitors: all of them are based on VC funding on unknown/unsound business models (or at least incompletely explained models) and “wishful thinking”; or simply wasting money because they can afford it (or perhaps they can’t afford to be out of the metaverse business).

The third issue is the complex social environment. Forget MySpace, LinkedIn, or even Facebook for complexity. Second Life has the same level of social interaction as a whole country. You can describe the way any of these social Web sites work in minutes. You can track down the number (and type) of interactions between users of those systems — in fact, some even show them visually (ie. a list of friends, their friends’ friends, and what interactions you have had with them), like Facebook’s “News Feed”.

Now jump to Second Life. The environment is so rich and allows such complex interactions that you have no way to track them down. In fact, some interactions are untrackable by a machine, since they rely on human interaction of a kind that it takes a human to understand what’s going on. This takes anthropological and sociological research to understand and attempt to explain — and papers and books are being published on it. However, they might be disappointing to follow: they’re just too similar too real life. At this stage, I wonder if Edward Castronova’s not right after all when he claims that Second Life has no real value for research since it’s too close to real life to be of any interest 🙂

So we need to take a look at all the metaverse wannabes and critically ask of each of them: “what will they give to a user in terms of rich social interaction?” Close to this is the question of how the social interaction is conditioned by the platform owners, ie. how much freedom one has to “step out of the intended use” of the platform. For instance, can I open up a place on Sony Home to talk about Nintendo or Xbox games? (Probably not) Can I create things in Kaneva that the company owners are against? (Very unlikely) Can I patch up IMVU to be able to import content without their approval? (Most certainly not) Can I set up a virtual brothel on Google Worlds? (Hardly likely) Nevertheless, all of the above are possible in SL, and Linden Lab routinely engages their users in participating in the re-making of their own platform — from the days of the First View programme (where selected residents are invited to come over to Linden Lab’s HQ in SF and give their opinions), to the Office Hours, to blogs and forums and wikis, and more formal groups like the open source team developing tools to enhance (or debug!) Second Life or the Architecture Working Group that works on the design of the future grid. Granted, Linden Lab could (and should!) do much more, but at least they’re doing something.

Any serious competitor have to address the same issues. Metaplace and Multiverse tend to give away the code as well, and encourage a community of programmers to participate. However, SL is not just “technology” — and those groups that work with Linden Lab, formally or informally, are often dealing with several other aspects beyond technology. They deal with aspects like community building, helping out new users, discussing the economy, discussing ethics.

Then we need to take a look at what is being done with Second Life that is actually very marginal to the platform itself. And here is where SL really shines.

What to do on a metaverse?

A few years ago, the question we all made about Second Life was how to describe it to a friend. “It’s a 3D environment where people create their own content.” Well, and what about the ones not interested in creating content? “It’s a virtual world where you can chat and interact with people, and attend millions of events”. What about the shy people or the ones that didn’t really care about online discussion groups or “virtual dancing”? Well, you could certainly find something for them: it could be running a business; it could be cyberdating or cybersex; it could be looking at emerging art forms; it could be attending classes; it could be listening in to live music and interact with the performers… and so on. You soon would be lost in enumerating everything that could be done within SL.

Linden Lab also reformulated the way their platform was announced to the public at large. In fact, it’s strange how they don’t really say what you can do with it. Take a look at the competition:

Kaneva: “Meet friends, explore places, play games, music, videos and win prizes. The place to hang out and chat with your friends together in 3D. Design and decorate your ultimate 3D home… show off your favorite videos, photos and cool stuff.”

IMVU: “IMVU is a cool new way to hang out and have fun with your friends online! Just like an old-school text-based messenger, you download IMVU’s software onto your PC. But with IMVU you create your own avatars who chat in killer 3D scenes. Check it out and experience 3D chat for yourself!”

There.com: “There is a beautiful virtual world where you can:

  • Create a 3D avatar
  • Hang out with friends
  • Play games
  • Build a home
  • Design and sell things”

Metaplace: “Build a virtual apartment and put it on your website. Work with friends to make a huge MMORPG. Share your puzzle game with friends. We have a vision: to let you build anything, and play everything, from anywhere. Eventually, anyway. We have to finish first.”

Multiverse: “Multiverse lets you to build an MMOG or virtual world for less money and in less time than ever before. Multiverse technology is scalable, extensible, and highly customizable, enabling you to build your world with its own unique look and feel, gameplay, and mechanics.”

Active Worlds: “Active Worlds, the web’s most powerful Virtual Reality experience, lets you visit and chat in incredible 3D worlds that are built by other users. […] The Active Worlds Universe is a community of hundreds of thousands of users that chat and build 3D virtual reality environments in millions of square kilometers of virtual territory.”

The Sims Online: “[…] gives you and your friends mor of your favorite characters and pets from The Sims, plus take your Sim to work in all-new, fun-filled job experiences!”

Habbo Hotel: “Habbo Hotel is a virtual Hotel, where teenagers can hang out and chat. Each person in the Hotel is represented by a personalized character called a Habbo. It’s a bit like a computer game, but all the characters are real people in different places.”

Google Virtual Worlds doesn’t exist yet, but it might be: “The company has already announced a partnership with Multiverse which will allow users to create their own virtual worlds by combining Multiverse’s technology with 3D data from Google Earth and Google SketchUp.”

Sony’s PlayStation Home: “Home is a real-time online 3D, networked community available on the PLAYSTATION®Network. It allows PS3 users to interact, communicate, join online games, shop, share private content and even build and show off their own personal spaces to others in real time.”

I think you notice a trend here. Everybody is talking about the same thing here:

  • avatars (that you can personalise) representing real people
  • interaction/chat; get in touch with friends
  • having your own place
  • having fun
  • includes multimedia (video, audio, photos)

The exception is Multiverse, which, even more than Active Worlds, is totally targetted to developers who wish to create their own virtual worlds.

So, well, what is Second Life then? Linden Lab does not tell us much: “Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely created by its Residents.” Then it goes on to explain that you will meet a lot of people; perhaps get a place for your own home or business; that all content is property of their creators and it can be traded; and that there is a marketplace with a working economy.

Strangely enough, the mere notions that “it’s going to be fun” or “your avatar can be personalised” or “everybody has a place of their own” (notice the word perhaps on LL’s description!) is notoriously absent from LL’s sales pitch.

Either they take it for granted (in the sense that those are, indeed, remotely important areas that all virtual worlds have to address anyway, and, like saying “you need a computer and an Internet”, they’re trivial) or LL’s message is actually much vaster, and simply cannot convey the feeling of what it’s all about. In fact, the website for Second Life has always been like that: they could never present a good idea of what SL is about. They prefer to rely on pictures, videos, and pointing to other sites created by the users and let them explain in turn what they think what SL is supposed to be.

So what becomes immediately clear is that all the “competition” has a clear strategy of what their virtual world is supposed to be. They define what the “metaverse” is — for them. They have a vision, and their virtual world reflects their vision (again, Multiverse, and perhaps Active Worlds, seem to be the exception: they simply tell that they’ll provide the tools to developers to create their own personal “visions”). In other words, their vision is closed — their ideal metaverse is one that has been thought out in advance and rolled out for their users, providing them the kind of experience that they think is best for you.

Linden Lab has no such pretensions. They’re even humble when they say that “perhaps you might buy a plot” or “Some people decide to purchase Virtual Land, which allows them to open a business, build their own virtual paradise, and more!” But Linden Lab does not even claim that this is what everybody does, or if it’s fun to do, or even recommended. They don’t proselytisesome people have fun with that, some don’t, some find fun elsewhere, we don’t know what’s best for you, because this is a virtual world created by the users, not by Linden Lab.

Conclusion

One might argue that Second Life is what it is by “chance”, ie. it was wholly unpredictable, back in 2003, if this would be a huge success or not. It might also be argued that Linden Lab was extremely lucky to have attracted a considerable number of talented people who spent so much time at the very beginnings to get the content snowballing — or else, SL would be empty without anything to do. One might even argue that LL’s luck was in having attracted people that did know what to do with this “metaverse”, and knew it much better than LL, and by a stroke of luck, things got started at all.

Or one might bow to the genius of Philip, Cory, Robin, Andrew, and all the core team at LL, that were humble and pretty much clueless on what to do with their technology, so, they let things take its natural course and did not interfere much. So when much later people were claiming: “SL is the ultimate educational tool!”, LL would reply: “Uh… sure, if you say so.” If they claimed: “This is the best spot to do online concerts!”, their answer was: “Gotcha! You’re maybe right…”. If residents said that “This is the best way to make money out of content!”, they’d go: “Whatever… you tell us“.

And this is a bit what has been happening in the past years. LL’s still clueless about what makes Second Life special. They’re not writing things on stone. In fact, they’re mostly hacking away at things, and in spite of being very stubborn on several areas, it’s not less true that they’ve allowed people — their residents — to change completely the way Second Life is used for. And they just smile and wave, smile and wave.

So we can conclude that the biggest reason why we — the inhabitants of Second Life — are so special is because we say what a virtual world is supposed to be. And it’s not just “saying” it; we, the residents, implement it. This is the biggest difference between a SL resident and, say, a user of any other virtual world: while we can certainly whine and complain that things are not as we (individually!) would like them to be, we can change them. Sure, perhaps not all of us have the required expertise — technological, social, or business — to do what we’d like to do, but we have equal opportunities to change whatever we like, to suit our personal tastes and not anybody else’s.

And this goes way beyond “personalising an avatar”, or “having your own 3D home to hand out with friends”, or “having lots and lots of fun”, or even “integrating multimedia with your place”. In fact, while the technology of several other competitors might look awesome to us poor stressed-out SL residents with our insane lag and low frame rates, the difference is really that we’re not talking about technology at all. We’re talking about what a “metaverse” is for us — beyond technology.

In effect, even if SL disappears in a few years, it has already made a profound change in the history of the future societies: it is the first virtual world that is massively used to discuss, well, virtual worlds — and implement the shape of things to come. In effect, every SL resident — even if in the future they hang out more on other virtual worlds — has contributed to make Second Life the hub of discussion of the prototypal future generation of multiverse users, by using SL as indeed the gateway to the metaverse of the future: an environment where we have fun (certainly!), but communicate, interact, establish contacts and acquaintances, make professional business relationships, learn, perform arts or attend to artistical performances, and, in effect, make the “metaverse” become another one of our daily modern tools — like the computer, the mobile phone, or the Internet.

We are possibly not aware of why we’re so special. As pioneers of a new all-encompassing environment that is just now being created, it’s hard to step out and look at what we’ve accomplished. It doesn’t seem much. However, this is what the pioneers of mobile phones and emails have also felt when they started to incorporate these tools in their everyday routine — both for pleasure and for work — and didn’t feel overly “special” about it. They just complained that others didn’t use the same tools since they were so obviously useful. But they were paving the road for the dawn of a new age.

We’re all doing the same, too. And that’s why we’re special!

CC BY 4.0 Why are we special? by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • I’ve been Trevor Steptoe in SL only since late 2004 and I’m in awe of what’s happened in the short time since I first landed on the mainland. But tonight I started using the Whirled alpha and together with Metaplace it seems like 2008 is going to be chock full of variations on the “world as canvas” which made SL so special.

    I can’t help but wonder if the novelty seeking nature of early SL adopters is going to send them off to new worlds just like it did for The Sims Online and others before it. Without the intense creativity of the early adopters, what is a world as canvas?

  • Pingback: Second Life web resources for November 10th 2007 through November 11th 2007 | VintFalken.com()

  • Simple. Second Life has real real estate you can buy and sell.

    Freedom of the Metaverse belongs to him who owns a piece of it.

    None of the other things have real real estate.

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  • great read. Love your thoughts, and mostly I agree with you. SL and LL are great, I am truly amazed at the vision that Philip and early LL team had, and how they managed to make it a reality, and it doesn’t matter if they fail because of someone bigger coming to the game( Google for example) they still paved the road…
    Great post Gwyneth, thanks, made me feel good when reading

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  • Thanks for SignpostMarv Martin for pointing out some incorrect descriptions about WoW 😉

  • Tsuitengu Kuramoto

    In the minds of many, when the word ‘competition’ is used, it tends to have a tone of ‘us’ against ‘them’, or vice-versa. When in truth, and fact, competition in a marketplace sense isn’t necessarily an ill that needs to be purged of all impurities, it very well can be a benefit.

    Outlined in ‘What to do on a metaverse’ — we are aware, all these platforms are focused on an entirely different market segment of a networked immersive reality; and, I would say, this is key to understanding not only the initial question posed ‘why are we special’, but also, where we fit in with the grand scheme.

    In ‘Corporations’, contrary to belief, having vast sums of funds to put forth to a project; even with the most knowledgeable and skilled sure does make one feel confident but does not always lead to success. Far better to have less than adequate funds and a team that is passionate; it leads to open possibilities, being creative to reach for ones goal, and staying true to the vision. It is really amazing the degree of possibilities that come out of constraints, all we have to do is look at the residents of SL. On another note, I fear quite a number of residents do have a sense of heightened fear and doom for the future. And why shouldn’t we, SL has it’s many issues, things of which I care not to get into here… but, instead of fear/doom we should look at all this ‘stuff’ that ‘may’ come in to being as a natural course of events with the hope that something for the greater good evolves.

    However, this does not mean the community we are a part of disappears. Not only are niche communities here to stay, they are not easy to build. With this in mind, the landscape is far and wide — much room for competitors.

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  • Fleabite Beach

    Wonderful article Gwyneth!

    Some friends and I staged a Tax Revolt in SL back in the olden days to protest a L$ tax on land and content which we saw as inhibiting creators. It seemed perhaps a tiny bit risky at the time, not having been done before…virtually rising up against a company that provided for our virtual existence.

    But to LL’s great credit, rising up has become commonplace. It strikes me that you’ve got more freedom to protest and complain in SL than you do in real life…certainly more freedom than other companies would tolerate on their servers. And I suspect that the Lab is more likely to listen to and act upon reasonable demands than most (if not all) real world governments are.

    After all…you’re not paying tax on your virtual land are you 😉