Thoughts on Second Life

I want to get Second Life, I want to understand, but no one seems to be able to explain it to me.

I downloaded Second Life to my computer for the first time about a year ago.  I spent time trying to figure out what was going on, and teleporting to some areas set up by friends.  There weren’t a lot of other people around, and “rooms” that did have a lot of people were so busy, I could not get in.

I found the interface non-intuitive.  I found the learning curve steep.  I didn’t see what the big deal was, so to speak.  Why would I want to sit in a conference in SL when I could do a conference call or ichat?  What makes this form of communication and interaction different or better than other things out there?

I get that Second Life is a platform, like wordpress or twitter, and what you do there is up to you- the blank canvas, so to speak.  But for newbies, the tools for the social canvas, what you can and cannot do, the whole gestalt and social rules are hard to understand.  So I gave up.  And other than a few times where I hear about a great concert and dancing in Second Life that makes me feel, well, a bit left out, I don’t feel I’m missing that much.

This past summer, at Blog Philadelphia, a guy from Electric Sheep was talking about all the virtual islands and shops they were building for corporate clients like Ben & Jerry’s.  I asked him to explain it to me- why this was a better experience that Ben & Jerry’s normal website, etc. and what would compel me to come back to Second Life and bring friends?  His answer was at best equivocal, something to the effect of “well, maybe it’s not valuable for you.”

If you want a technology or marketing space to become popular, it seems to me you have to be able to convince people ready, willing and able to use your site that it’s worth checking out.

My feeling about Second Life is it’s not quite ready for prime time, so to speak.  I think we need much more ubiquitous wi-fi, more powerful computers able to handle the graphics load, and a user interface that is easier to navigate- one that doesn’t have a learning curve that is so high.   Ideally, you’d want to be able to have anyone with a computer come in and take advantage of a special event, not just the few people who have already mastered the technology, unless that’s the only narrow group you wish to target.

I would have a hard time convincing clients to adopt a Second Life strategy, because it requires so much pre-requisite knowledge to use.  There are tons of barriers to people accessing easier to adopt technologies like podcasts already.  Podcasts and video on the net requires high speed internet service, which everyone does not have, as much as that may shock our tech-heavy community.  While this continues to change, the point I’m making is many people who could be potential participants can’t, because the barriers to learning and adoption are simply too high.  Which in turns limits the potential outreach for the platform.  Catch 22.

I think the barrier to entry in second life, the ease of use issue,  is a big turn-off.  I think it’s keeping Second Life from becoming more widely adopted, and I think that may even be by design.  You can only participate if you pass the initiation of being able to use the tech easily enough.  It’s geek snobbery, in a way.

Now, I could spend more time trying to figure this whole SL thing out.   But I have a ton of things on my plate as is, and the idea of spending anywhere from a few days to a week on this is not very exciting, unless someone can make the case for me that an experience is available here that I can’t get from someplace else, like twitter.

Maybe this is a topic for Lee LeFever and the Common Craft Show, or someone else who can break this down into english for me.  I am begging you all to teach me about this.   I want to know, but I need someone to give me a good reason, to build a case, why this is important.

Perhaps it’s the lawyer in me, but if you can’t defend the technology or the case to participate to the common person, or a social media/new media geek like me, I think it shows that there’s problems with the platform, and the critical mass required to make it successful will be hard to acquire and sustain long term.

Please educate me.  Teach me.  I beg you.



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11 responses to “Thoughts on Second Life

  1. True enough, SL is not for everyone. However, consider the audience that is using it and those who fall into the “it isn’t for me” category. The hard fact is that SL has a diverse user base. Teens to retirees are logging on to the grid every single day for hours at a time. Many of them even maintain alternate accounts “alts” for various reasons like freebie chairs and contests. That you do not get it, no one can fix. This is like looking at a billboard and saying, “I don’t get it.” The message is that clear and that distinct. Within reason, you can “get” whatever you want in SL. You cannot compare it to ichat or the various business apps designed for multi media communication. That is not what it was built for. It is a viable application of the platform though. SL is a multi media communication suite allowing not only chat, but streaming music and movies. It is an emerging marketing tool which is proving valuable in conducting market research. It is a fantastic educational tool being adopted by high schools and universities to promote team building and social observation. My personal favorite aspect, communication wise, is being able to listen to a live performer who is Ireland without having to leave my apartment in California.

    As far as intuitive interface design goes, I have got to ask are you much of a gamer? Do you use any high end software? Adobe Suite? Maya? Maybe some sound editing apps like Soundforge? Hell, have you ever even just played the Sims? SL has an extensive set of built in tutorials, an enormous knowledge base in the form of user created blogs and a Linden created knowledge base which is just as mighty. That isn’t even touching on the in world education available. Keep in mind there is a large population of users over the age of 55 as well. If someone’s grandparent can “get it” I am not certain what essential piece of the puzzle is missing for you.

    Maybe you are looking at it in the wrong light. Why does SL need to have a client application for you? It sounds like you are trying to take a tool and make it fit a job rather than picking a proper tool for your job. Take a look at making your job (you mention you are a lawyer) fit in with SL instead of the other way around. There are people who would kill for a little legal knowledge on the grid now and then. Not the least with the SL bank issue right now. I would be surprised if some of those “banks” don’t find themselves in some sort of litigation at some point.

    Prime time? Good gods man when was the last time you bought a computer? The standard e-machine from your local computer store is coming with a P4 processor, a 120gig hard drive, 512 of ram and an Nvidia 256 card. That will easily run SL. It may not be optimum but it is more than enough to enjoy the SL experience.

    You bring to mind a conversation I had with my mother many years ago. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time and trying to talk her into joining some friends for a gaming session. Keep in mind that this would be in 1989, so the primary electronic entertainment was via a game console. I was talking about Dungeons & Dragons, geeks, mountain dew and dice sitting round a table for hours at a time stretching our imaginations and battling the forces of evil with gratuitous use of sword and sorcery. She said she just didn’t get it. She didn’t understand how rolling a couple of dice could determine whether or not Og the Barbarian would hit that nasty orc with his trusty broadsword. I tried to explain that it is a statistical model and that to re create the element of chance you had to have a method of determining failure and success and you had to have a simple means of generating a random number. I am going to turn 33 this year and she still does not get it. Do you know what she does get? Second Life.

    My mum, who cannot grasp the mechanics of a strategic simulation nor why geeks (like me) would clothe that simulation in imagination and pseudo medieval trappings, totally understands the creative, educational and communicative potential of SL. It is a global communication tool allowing the sharing of culture, education and various entertainments (yes I mean the sex) via a 3D graphical simulated environment.

    If you don’t get it, there is nothing that anyone can do to help you. You have got to find where you fit. SL doesn’t do everything (despite what we who are addicted to it think) and like any tool in the box you have got to find a use for it that fits your need, not force it to work. You wouldn’t use a wrench to drive a nail right? It may not work for you on a personal or professional level although it sounds like you are looking at it in professional light.

    I had a conversation with an architect recently who wanted to created models of houses for retail real estate sales. The guy wanted to recreate a home for sale down to the last detail then let his clients go into SL and check it out. Yeah they do this at the corporate level with some measure of success but a real estate agent with 50 or 60 houses to sell at any given time in the current market? Forget it. It is easier and more cost effective to create a 360 virtual tour in Flash and post it to a website than to get your client to log on to the grid and get them to your location. SL requires a certain amount of presence to remain viable in that sort of situation. Better still would be just meet the damn client and take them to the house you want to sell. I don’t know how relevant this post will be but the “I don’t get it” aspect touched off a response from me.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mace.
    I guess what I find so frustrating about Second Life is it appears to be built for and around gamers and fantasy, but pretends to be real life. What I mean by this is that you have to start out in fantasy when you get to SL- pick an avatar who may not reflect who you are in real life, and pick a pseudonym, also not reflective of real life. The disparity between real life and second life from the start kinda bothers me.

    The fact that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on and that the search/indexing to find out what you might be interested in isn’t very good.

    While you can create virtual spaces for people to come and hang out, and I get the trial balloon of large corporate building projects in advance, It still seems pretty expensive in terms of time and money to become a member of a community that seems to be pretty snobbish in some ways- I am asking for help and an explanation, and I get a whole lot of responses that say “if you don’t get it, I can’t help you.” What if teachers thought that way when kids are learning to read? If you can’t read or write, I can’t help you. Nice.

    So, that kind of Keep Out attitude I get when I am legitimately asking for help and an education is another big turn off. I totally get the having the right tool for the job thing. I use podcasting, seesmic, twitter, and blogs for different purposes, at different times, when the tool fits the message.

    A friend said today that being in a seminar in second life was great, because it did feel more like a shared experience, and it made a difference, but that finding where and when these things were occurring was a pain. If there was a bulletin board that said “Hey, this is going on here, now” then it might work for me.

    But all I see at this point is a semester’s worth of work to learn how to use this tool, without very many compelling arguments about what happens once I’m there, or what benefits there are, other than spending money to dress up a digital barbie or build a barbie fun house in cyber space. Ok- that may have come out a bit more sarcastically than I meant it, but again, I want to understand what I am missing, and why it is worth my time and effort to spend time (which is a premium for everyone these days) learning this platform.

    And I still say that if SL early adopters can’t make a decent case for why the platform is so awesome to someone like me who wants to learn and understand, they are going to have a hard time convincing the great unwashed in society that this is worth their time, effort and money- and a critical mass of people is required for SL to be successful long term.

    And while the computing power makes it work, not everyone has high speed internet, factoring out another whole section of the population from engaging. We have that problem with podcasting. You might have a great message, but by being a boradband medium, you are invisible to many, which is why blogging and podcasting have gone hand in hand- so those who only have access to the print can still benefit from your content.

    I just want someone willing to teach me, not accuse me and make me feel small and stupid for not understanding. No one needs that. Again, what would happen in every teacher you ever had gave up on you because you didn’t understand calculus, or chemistry or biology? Not everyone knows or understands at first. We all have to learn, but if those that know hold the knowledge keys closely and won’t share, it leaves everyone else in the dark. Which I guess, is fine and may be the point. Have fun in SL with the early adopter clique.

    I just am looking for a teacher and someone with a more informative answer than “You don’t know so scram” kind of attitude.

  3. pirilatte

    Having only started exploring the world of Second Life in December, I can relate to some of the things that you mentioned in your post. I also agree with some of the things that were made in reply.

    Personally, I think that one of Second Life’s greatest strengths is also one of it’s biggest weaknesses, in that you can do just about anything using the platform. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best platform for those activities though.

    Besides the virtual Barbie dress-up or anonymous roleplaying/gaming activities, you can have live musical events, poetry readings, exhibitions of real world art and photography and mock-ups of real world locations to explore. You can do voice-chat, participate in conferences with visual materials and audio, or browse presentation materials from the real world. You can consult with people from around the world, attend university classes or interact with a tutor to learn a foreign language. I could go on and on – the things you can use it for are endless, it’s just the technical bit that gets sticky, just like in any other medium.

    Since there ARE so many things, in order for it to be useful to someone who hasn’t the time to immerse themselves into learning all the skills involved in being able to do everything, you need to identify which of these activities may be valuable to you and focus on them. It’s similar to using the internet – you don’t necessarily need to know how to make things in Flash or how to create an SQL database from scratch in order to benefit from those things – you just need to identify what you want to do, which tools can make it happen and who you can get to do the techie stuff.

    Some activities may be harder to pull together in Second Life than on the web, but I think a lot of that may have to do with identifying people or the “contractors” who have the ability to do the building or scripting. There ARE people who are capable of bringing your visions to life in SL for you, but they are a bit harder to find than, say, someone to make a website. The resources for creation using internet technology are much deeper and richer than what you are probably going to find for Second Life.

    (My apologies for the disjointedness of this, I keep getting interrupted.)

    Second Life is still new compared to the internet and one thing that confuses people is trying to sum it up. To some people, “internet” might mean “email” because that’s all they use it for. With SL it’s harder to chop it up into a nice little chunk that people can easily identify with. The easiest way to explain is that it’s like everything on the internet, but visually interactive like a game. Real specific, huh?

    The possibilities are there. It will require some time to explore what already exists and how you can make use of it for your needs. If you simply don’t have the time to poke it yourself, continue in the direction that you are already, but keep an ear out for ways that people are utilizing the platform that may be of benefit to you.

    Some things aren’t going to translate well to SL, others may find it a natural fit. Regardless, there need to be more “success stories” and “proven methodology” that are accessible to those with an interest with participating without being an uber-genius.

    Personally, there are a ton of things I don’t get about SL. I mean, I “get it” but some things just don’t mesh with my logic. (cyberdating, to put it politely, is one.) I didn’t start out with a direction but after exploring a bit, I decided to just go the hobby/learning route by teaching myself photoshop while creating clothing items to sell to avatars. Who knows, maybe I can generate enough revenue to pay my electric bill. While I’m at it, I hope to try out my Japanese skills on native speakers. Just depends on what you want to do and how much time you want to spend on it, I suppose.

  4. pirilatte

    Ah, I forgot to mention that there are some pages out there for people to get started on exploring Second Life from a leisure activity perspective, such as Natalia Zelmanov’s blog at*%20Getting%20Started%20in%20Second%20Life%20Guide%20*

  5. Ok, I think you are missing the key point. The dominant paradigm of SL is a game. The nature of the beast is escapism which is usually fanciful in nature. If it were reflective of real life they wouldn’t have called it Second Life, right? They are trying to remove you from real life by making you take a pseudonym, common in 90% of all games no matter if it is monopoly or cowboys and indians, and that disparity is the number one reason to log on to the grid.

    It takes zero expenditure in money to join any given community. Your desire to immerse yourself and to what level you wish to be involved will determine if or when you spend any cash. The few exceptions being if you wish to belong to a specific group that charges a nominal fee to discourage people joining just to spam the chat channel. Yes it can take time. Did you learn to read in a month? A year? I started pretty early but I don’t think I read a novel cover to cover until I was seven or so. (Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) It does take time to build any relationship why should that be different in SL? As to the idea of fantasy, how much of the grid did you actually explore? Most of SL looks a lot like South Beach, Florida. Even amidst the vampires, elves, and dragons and furry’s the bulk of the SL population is fantastically mundane as are their demesnes. You say you want to learn but I question how much time you have invested in doing so.

    Ok, I agree the search feature blows space goats. LL is tinkering with that all the time it seems, let’s hope they improve it sooner rather than later. Honestly though a little perseverance usually pays off. But did you try to search for the word seminar? I wager you’ll find a few.

    A semester’s worth? Not even. You seem like a web savvy individual, all of the SL tools are right in front of you. There are mentors and learning resources in world to help you out. Did you work way through orientation island? How about that friend who went to the seminar, did you ask that person for help? Ok, fellow, get off the money thing. You are hung up there it seems. You can make enough in game just form contests to afford the basics. There are promos and giveaways all the time to help turn the frog into a prince and judicial exploration of the vast freebie collection can turn up some pretty good gems. I don’t know your interests so I can’t make recommendations about what to do. Personally, I attend lectures, join discussions (usually about art, literature or poetry) I listen to live music by artists half way round the world and I socialize with people I have become friends with. I am also an artist and 3D designer and maintain a commercial presence (albeit a small one) on the grid.

    Some groups and communities can be cliquish yes. Same as in RL. Don’t take this the wrong way but you are really hung up on this empirical evidence trip. If you walk into a group and basically say, “Ok what’s in it for me?” then yes they are going to shun you like the plague. At that point you are demolishing the suspension of disbelief. You are asking for an answer when you say, “what happens once I’m there, or what benefits there are.” That is something you need to find for yourself. It seems like you are expecting to go into SL and be able to surf it like the web. That really isn’t the case. It’s more like using a card catalog in a library. Part of the fun of SL is exploring the grid. Man, you can find almost anything you can think of. Ok finding really good pulp horror is sort of tough but my tastes are a little obscure. My advice on this is to make a different approach. Instead of saying, “what good is this to me?” which is a negative point of view, instead say, “Hey where can I find –insert something here-“. Check out the blogs, the official linden forums, the forums on Slexchange and Slprofiles.

    SL has a critical mass of people. Everyone seems to think that SL is about tank because of low or shrinking population. The fact is that is has been going strong since 2004 and the prognosis for the next year is that in world population will continue to grow by 50% if not more. If four years of continued success and profit are not long term enough then look at other MMO’s that have been around as long or longer. Virtual Worlds are not going to dry up and blow away unless people stop using computers.

    In 2006 a study found that 56% of residential ISP customers subscribed to high-speed internet service. 24% of rural Americans, we’re talking farmers here, has high speed net access. As of July 2007, approx 70% of Americans have a high-speed connection at home while 23% use dialup. There are 303,215,796 people in the US. That means that 212,251,057 have a high speed net connection. Those 23% on dial up probably live in areas which are not cable ready or don’t have a cable ready ISP. Maybe those are the bums on the street, who knows.

    Kick that early adopter phrase too. It isn’t true there are scads of new users every single day. I work in marketing so I keep an eye marketing trends on the net and since SL is a major hobby for me I am always noticing when a new company creates a presence in SL. There are new entities all the time on the grid doing very well, not just people who got on the band wagon four years ago. Once again it is primarily a social environment with rampant consumerism.

    Part of the issue is that you are really presenting yourself in a negative light. You want someone to prove something to you which means that in your mind you are already set against it. Based on your post and your response you don’t want learn. You are in the space a junior high kid is in when he balks at doing his homework and saying, “what good is algebra going to be for me when I am out of school?” I have taught grades K through 12 and I am sorry dude but you are not portraying yourself with an open mind and ready to learn. Maybe your experience already has left you jaded, I don’t know. I will tell you this, if you login one of these evenings and drop me a message I will make an attempt to help you find what you are looking for. But part of the joy is in the exploration and the journey and if what you want is box lunch on a plate, ready to eat you will be disappointed.

    But before you send me an IM, check out and the forums at

    And I agree with pretty much everything that Pirilatte said especially about Natalia’s blog. It is an awesome resource.

  6. Thanks for the help and pointers, I will check them out! I am not a “gamer” in the WOW or that sense- I like Sid Maier games though….

    I see potential in SL but I just wish the getting started was a lot easier and more intuitive. I am sorry if I am resorting to whining- “teach me”- but with a first experience that was rather boring and frustrating at the same time, I am not trying to say “When am I ever going to use this” but I am also trying to figure out where to most effectively spend my cycles. As the mother of two kids, I don’t exactly have hours of free time to burn, so I am looking to make educated choices about where to spend my social media time.

    Thanks for all your help.

  7. I am huge fan of the Sid Myer games too. If you dig those (empire builders) I can totally reccomend a line of games from Sierra. They are a touch older now but you can still find them at Amazon. Pharoah/Cleopatra, Zeus/Posieden and slightly newer would be Caeser 4. Great games, family friendly too.

  8. Traci Yiyuan

    I understand the difficulty in first attempts at Second Life. If I hadn’t had a good friend from college leading me through the first few days I would have been lost.

    It seems to me that Second Life’s primary value is as entertainment, not as pure education or as a business tool. When seen that way, as a pastime where you set your own goals and winning conditions it makes perfect sense to flail around somewhat till you hit upon something that turns you on. This of course will only be attractive for someone with some time to burn.

    Also, I’ve read a ton of tutorials and website how to’s about various aspects of Second Life. Nothing was as fun or as informative as standing next to someone ‘in world’ and having them show me. I’ve never had any problem getting someone to take the time to hold my hand and walk me through a new experience in Second Life.

    That’s part of the charm for me, realizing that someone from down the street, Brazil, Portugal or Budapest is showing me how to make a 3d sculpture or somesuch.

    Your article is thoughtful. I hope this makes some sense.

  9. Thanks Traci, and thanks for undertanding the frustration, and for the perspective that I really should find someone willing to guide me in world. I’ll try that- hopefully that will help shorten the learning curve.


  10. Hmm, here’s what I think.

    There’s the subject of the technographic, as a form of demographic, which effects usability. So I think someone with gamer experience has a different learn curve with the SL interface then a non gamer.

    I think, from a communications standpoint, you want to pick new media channels that makes sense relative to whom you’re trying to communicate with. So if SL isn’t right for who you’re trying to communicate with, it would be crazy to use it. That said it makes some sense to experiment with it to help you get a better idea of what it is good for.

    On the fantasy subject. This may sound crazy, I don’t know, but reality as we experience it is a construct. We have processes by which were perceive and cognitize. Even in the none modern world we would find our selves in a flood of information, and what you tune into is only a very small percentage of the whole.. So, depending on what facts you are looking at, that’s going to change what you’re picture of reality is. All of which is tied into deeper psychological realities.

    So what fantasy is like is reality without the reality. Another words its a bit like we are exploring the internal process by which reality is constructed by experience, but without having to think it’s “reality.” I know I’m putting this a bit poorly, but that’s the basic idea.

    So a part of what Second Life is about, I gather, is a collective experience of this nature. What this means, if its the context for communication, is something I find fascinating. I mean if meaning has something to do with context, a context like this for communications is like.. well what does that mean?

    Further there is the subject of identity, and how identity contextualizes social experience, which is deep an interesting, and gets a strange new twist in SL.

    But I’m kind of with you, I’ve been visiting SL for more then a year, and haven’t really gotten into it yet. Part of that was because my computer was too slow, and part of it is.. well like you say, where do you go, where do you start? It really isn’t clear.

    That’s not enough to make me write off Second Life. I know Second Life is good for what I want to do, and I also know its the future, though I tend to be more excited about the concept then the reality.

    I’m an artist, I know a bit about 3D, a bit about animation, music, whatever.. That SL, from a graphics perspective is out dated.. and that it needs a hefty system to run makes this even worse. There are things I’d like to do when building in virtual space that you can’t do yet. Things involving algorithmic sound design, lighting, etc.

    Anyway, so I just bought a new computer with a bitch’n graphics card, and too much power. I can’t wait to get in there and start exploring a new. I got a book on how to build stuff in SL, so that should be neat to explore. I’ve got crazy sound tools, so I’d like to explore dj-ing and live band type performance in SL. And I understand the world of art galleries is awesome for artist.

    So I don’t know.. hope these thoughts add something.

  11. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% positive. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Appreciate it
    Isabel Marant Sneaker

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