Red Lights Might Save Second Life

In a move obviously meant to attract more mainstream users to Second Life and salvage some of the realm's lost momentum, Linden Lab will soon be moving mature content to a secondary continent within the virtual world. This has got to be a relief to all those businesses that wasted precious resources building digital offices and outlets in the pixel-based universe over the last few years.

Once touted as an essential locale for hip businesses to open up their doors, Second Life saw something of a real estate boom as companies such as Dell and IBM rushed to build their presence on Second Life's sprawling landscape. But once built, these massive corporate structures turned out to be little more than vast wastes of time and money--gigantic ghost towns in a non-existent gold rush.

For my part, I've always been fascinated with Second Life, but I've never found it to live up to any of its hype. Instead of a bustling social environment filled with cool, cutting-edge experiences, I found myself immersed in a buggy, pointless video game world where everyone wears leather chaps and angel wings, and you can teleport as long as you don't mind your hair coming detached from your head. There was relatively little to do in SL, and most of the gathering places were littered with dodgy offers to make money in relatively stupid ways (such as "dancing" in one spot for hours on end). The few social hotspots generally catered to prurient interests that most mainstream users would find distasteful.

As the initial hype surrounding Second Life died down, mainstream users like myself stopped logging in, leaving a void that only further accentuated the dominance of Second Life's seamy side. So a world that should have been a massive playground for gamers and technophiles everywhere came to be overrun with explicit sexual content that would rightfully scare any parent into banning the software from their kids' computers--effectively alienating what should have been a massive market for the burgeoning online universe. Ghost towns.

Moving mature content to a gulag will be an important first step in turning Second Life into what it once promised to be: a limitless world where everyone is free to explore. Of course, that won't be the only step. Take away all the sexed-up silliness, and there's not a lot left. To complete the transformation, Linden Lab will have to focus on creating a there there. Hopeful as the idea of a user-created world may be, there are too few users creating anything of note in Second Life, and there's still very little to do if you're not into putting on a digital fashion show or playing around with goofy gesture scripts.

To make Second Life attractive to mainstream users--and, therefore, to the businesses that might want to reach those users--Linden Lab will have to create some meaningful content that actually entertains people and gives them a reason to log back in. Once you've designed your avatar and dressed it up in fancy duds, and perhaps built yourself a little chateau on a virtual hillside, there has to be something else worth doing. And that's what SL is sorely missing.

Pessimistic as I may sound, I'm actually sympathetic to Second Life's potential. I've long held a sort of visceral sense that 3-D virtual environments would be an incredible way for users to interact with one another, and for businesses, schools, and other institutions to offer services to the public. At first blush, Second Life seemed to be on the track to enabling all that, but Linden Lab's laissez-faire policies left all of the power in the hands of the wrong set of users, driving off those who might have actually been able to build something worthwhile in the metaverse.

Even worse, the devolutionary spiral left many of Linden Lab's most influential business customers feeling burned and looking silly for all the time and treasure they spent constructing ethereal online palaces that nobody visited. That's particularly sad, because it not only hurts Second Life's chances at a recovery, but also poisons the well for any other innovators looking to take a crack at building on the same model.

But if Linden Lab can put Second Life's tawdry past behind it and get focused on creating a compelling user experience that incents ordinary people to keep logging in, the company may yet have a shot at delivering on the promise of virtual reality. While the demands of users may be complex and varied, the demands of businesses are simpler: Give us an audience that we can sell stuff to, and don't tarnish our brand images with a torrential downpour of giant phallic symbols.

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