SecondLife Concerns

I want to preface this post by saying I'm not trying to attack SecondLife, nor any of its supporters. My sole intention is to identify what I see as some important issues that need to be addressed when individuals and organizations investigate moving into SecondLife. There are many people doing very cool work in SecondLife, and I respect them for it. I now pull on my asbestos underoos… 

I've been following much of the SecondLife cheerleading over the last year, watching as it got hyped higher and higher as The Next Big Thing That Will Change Everything. And I've been getting more and more nervous about it. As a piece of technology, SecondLife is really amazing. It's a seamless integration of multiple virtual realities, providing ways for individuals to come together and interact, create, and play in a pretty impressive 3D environment. My issues aren't with SecondLife, per se, but its elevated status on top of the hype pyramid as something that will revolutionize business and education.

Imagine! My campus can have a virtual space, so students can get together and learn in virtual reality! My company can have an immersive online store experience, where shoppers can walk through the product line and buy stuff right there! This is going to change everything!

Except, it isn't. It's just a shiny 3D environment. That's all. We've had that before. VRMLHotSauce. Both of those where The Next Big Thing in Virtual Reality, over a decade ago. eWorld was supposed to change the way we interact with networks and communities. Heck, even Gopher was hyped (albeit with less fervor) as The Next Big Thing (20 years ago). I remember playing with each of these as they came out, and the feeling was quite similar to the excitement around SecondLife today.

But what, really, is SecondLife? It's an economic system with the sole purpose of driving revenue to the company that owns it, Linden Labs. That is the only reason for SecondLife to exist. All other aspects of the system serve this goal. Including education. It is not open, nor Open. Yes, you can write scripts, as long as you stay within the boundaries imposed by Linden Labs in order to protect the economic viability of the system. Copybot was an attempt to bypass the artificially imposed economy of scarcity, with one based on open abundance.

So, as long as we're willing to colour within the lines, and behave according to the laws mandated by Linden Labs, then we're able to use SecondLife. Which is fine, except you need a place to hang your hat "in world" and that costs money, both in "Lindenbucks" and real hard cash. This can range from $5US to $195US per month to rent a parcel of "land" to build your home on. If you want your own island, as many companies and organizations do, it'll cost you $1675US to create the island, then $295US per month to keep it.

So you could wind up spending thousands of dollars to essentially rent some drive space on a Linden server somewhere. Which means only the rich will be able to own land, setting up a nice class or caste system. Rich landowners get to make the rules, homeless paupers get to wander from region to region until they find a place that works for them. Even things as simple as choosing your own in-world name can cost you money. There are stores to buy new skin, hair, clothes, even coffee. You can actually pay real money for virtual coffee.

Now, LindenLabs has made a giant leap in releasing the code for the SecondLife Viewer application, making it possible for the community to enhance and extend the functionality of the SecondLife interface. But, they haven't opened up the server. We can modify the source for the client application, but we're still chained to their economic engine if we want to do anything with it. 

Linden is essentially building a new 3D world wide web, controlling the entire network themselves to maximize profit to the company. They control the horizontal and the vertical. And we're welcome to play (and pay) as long as we follow their rules. 

For interactive 3D environments, especially for education, I am much more interested in the Croquet Project –  an open source platfom that allows anyone to create their own world(s) for free, and to easily create hyperlinks between them. Anyone can run their own server. Anyone can run the client, and create anything they are willing and able to create. For free.

Sure, the Croquet system isn't as mature as SecondLife. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it's getting closer. 

16 thoughts on “SecondLife Concerns”

  1. Sean, THANK YOU! Finally a compelling example of something that is actually done better in a shared 3D metaverse! All of the other examples I’ve seen (with the exception of the Space Museum in SecondLife) have felt overly contrived attempts to force conventional techniques into the 3rd dimension. This architecture example is very cool.

  2. .

    my initial inclination is to agree. my impression has been that Second Life is as doomed to fail as Alphaworld and the Black Sun stuff. i think pursuing a world beyond physics *emulate* the real world is fundamentally flawed.

    but then again, i was adamant people would never fall for the cameras-in-telephones thing either. SL is making money. go figure.


  3. I’m not saying SL is doomed to fail, just that people who are setting up shop need to go in with eyes wide open – it’s not an open, nor Open environment. It’s company property, and everything (everything) that happens inside is allowed to happen only to maximize profit for The Company.

    I’ve ranted about faithfully recreating the constraints of this reality in what could/should have been a limitless playground. It just doesn’t make sense, when we’re handed a world with literally no physical boundaries, and we spend the time recreating walls, and doors, and chairs. And wheelchairs.

    I agree with you that camera phones should have failed. Who’d have guessed that crappy cameras (both in optics and resolution) would become so popular? Especially here in Canada where (at least on Rogers, where our cell phone is parked) you have to pay to send every photo off of the camera by emailing it through their web interface so they can charge you per packet delivered. There’s no way that should succeed – crappy quality, expensive, and inconvenient. But it’s small and always in a pocket. Go figure…

  4. Second life costs. Period. Anyone who thinks they will make as much money as the Linden crew, forget it. They made the “game” and folks are willing it seems to play it for however much it costs. Amazing. As for me, I’ll stick to Oddessey – or Jewel of Indra, http:/ (for adults, subscriber based and passworded). It does not lag

  5. Ya know, I tried Second Life and didn’t like it. It just seemed hard to get around and not very friendly. I checked out the that oddessy one at and it was nice. Friendly folks and all. But, for me, I think the Jewel of Indra one was the best: has friendly folks, amazing 3D, and very sexy with no kids around. I liked that the best. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Dave – Yes! Exactly! I hadn’t seen that, but I would love to sit down with Ethan and Charles over some brews and talk about it! Ethan raised some incredibly important points there. Thanks for pointing that video out!

    Alan – You’re right in that you don’t need to buy land, but to do anything interesting in SecondLife you do need to spend money. I’ve spent around 10 hours “in world” – less than half of that was spent doing things that didn’t cost me money (vehicles, clothes, etc…)

    I completely forgot about The Palace! I’m sure there are many others I missed. Wasn’t aiming to write an encyclopedia of Next Big Things That Never Were, but history is important.

    And, I do agree with you that SL is currently the only viable platform for testing these metaverse concepts on a large scale. My fear is that SL will get first-to-market momentum (as if it hasn’t got it already) and make it difficult or impossible for other metaverses to develop and thrive.

    I really wasn’t meaning to throw stones, but it seemed like nobody was talking about the very real issues that are part of the SL world. There are even more serious issues of governance that Ethan outlined in the video linked by Dave (you are subject to the laws of The Corporation. Any rebellion will likely be met with eviction from regions, possibly to Corporate Gulags, or even out of the SL metaverse altogether). It’s not a happy democracy, it’s a very real Company Town.

  7. I just grabbed the latest build of Croquet, and it’s so far from being ready for prime time that it’s currently not a viable option. I do have some additional and separate concerns about the appropriateness of a 3D metaverse for education in the first place, aside from the gee-whiz demos… What, really, could be done in one of these environments that couldn’t be done more effectively using “conventional” tools and metaphors? I’m really curious about that.

  8. As someone who’s been involved with Second Life this year, I’ve come neither to praise nor bury it. I have never gone wrong by checking in on your views here, and I have nothing to disagree with them. Yes it is mostly proprietary, and yes it costs real $$ to put your institution here.

    But among the misconceptions is that without building you cannot really do much here, and I’ve been amazed by an increasing number of open educational sims.

    Yes, there is quite a bit of hype to duck. Anything that suggests this is the next web, or that it is the next distance learning platform or …

    And on your history list, you left off my disappointing avatar environment of the mid 1990s- The Palace which still seems to be a happening place for some.

    On the other hand, as Dave points out, Second Life is an environment where virtual worlds can be tested now on a large scale, not the only, maybe not even the “best”, but there’s something there. I too was hooked by the groovy Croquet demos over the last years, but never quite found the beef. How many of us are able to explore and dabble there? I could never get the thing to work.

    But there is a thriving and growing community of educators giving this a try for some innovative ideas- and sharing them for free. There is an interesting cadre of artists and musicians sharing their craft.

    So I am neither a frothing cheerleader not a stone throwing skeptic, but sense there is something there… and do not consider SL the be all destination.

    Now where is my pink penguin outfit? I have a meeting with a blonde werewolf…

  9. Hey,

    Interesting… and interesting echoes of the same concerns in this fantastic interview .

    In my mind… and to most of the people i’ve talked to, Second Life is a really great place to test out a few theories, and get some people moving in interesting directions. I don’t ‘believe’ in secondlife… but in terms of discussing what 3D worlds are going to look like, seems like as good a place as any to start. It is here, now, and will be gone, sometime in the future. Where else could we actually do large scale research of this kind…?
    in both cases things aren’t shiny enough to get stuff started.

    croquet will come… and we’ll probably move there. But the secondlife lessons will do alot of help us work out what we could be doing

  10. This is something well worth thinking about (and in my experience Second Life supporters and users are generally open to informed questions and even skepticism… there are a few bad apples, but your asbestos should remain untested) for educators.

    We have purchased an island (i.e. are renting a server) and are slowly developing and figuring out how to share with our constituents… nut the intellectual property issues ties with the issues of economics are unanswered and a little troubling. In many ways they greatly magnify existing, overlooked issues with collaborative workspaces, 3D or not. I remember a friend who, upon first seeing blogs and comments, wanted to talk about the whole proposition of opening and hosting that space and what that meant… which is a similar issue, but foregrounded in SL.

  11. Chris – thanks. I’m not saying any of these are necessarily fatal flaws, but they really concern me, especially when people (and institutions) are jumping in without mentioning any of them…

    Sami – that could be cool. I’m planning on using Google Earth for some geology education stuff. There’s some awesome things done with layers and .kml files. Seriously impressive, far beyond anything I’ve seen in SecondLife. And, following one of the links in the page you mentioned turned up this. Flight sim built on top of Google Maps. Also cool :-)

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