Second Life is an idea I want to like. It’s not a game, and it’s not just for playing around either (despite the slightly frivolous avatars and other trivialities imported from actual games). Some of my colleagues from IBM in various R&D; labs around the world - such as the Emerging Technologies Lab here in Hursley - have been doing an admirable job of promoting Second Life as a genuine business tool (articles on Slashdot, the BBC), and I think it’s great that IBM is looking at using something so bright and fresh.
Nevertheless, Second Life is in a dangerous period. The early adopters are familiar with it now, and there some important challenges to be overcome if it is to break into the mainstream:
It needs to shake off the geeky image, as Google, Wikipedia, and others have done before. This is essential for mass sign-up. There is a huge group who will equate it with MMORPGs such as the famous World of Warcraft, and an even larger one who simply aren’t aware of its existence.
It needs to become more robust. The demands Second Life makes on one’s machine are significant, which currently denies a huge potential market, and the client and world in general are not particularly stable - frequent updates and glitches will not be tolerated by most folks. The only way this seems likely to happen in practice is to slow the world’s technology changes for a while so they are further behind the hardware development curve.
Second Life is a lot like the house that Wikipedia built; great from 30,000 feet, but rough round the edges when you zoom in. Left-overs from experiments are everywhere, and the world itself lacks coherency. I’m not convinced this is necessarily harmful by itself, but it is a problem that needs addressing to avoid frustrating impatient later adopters. Wikipedia has done a good job of starting to fix this with voluntary task forces attacking accuracy problems and polishing the edges. Second Life probably needs the same.
Most of all, Second Life needs to decide what it is for. This isn’t to say that Linden Lab needs to do this (although they’d do well to encourage it if they want to stay in business), but somebody sure does. I’ve seen Second Life used for meetings, lectures, classes and similar functions, but other use cases seem to have so far evaded it. I’m sure there must be some more innovative stuff to come; Second Life is, after all, a brand new interface to manipulate data with. Yes, OK, it’s not the first 3D interface by a long shot, but it is the first with such a vast user base and such a high degree of customisability.
Many folks propose that Second Life is merely a ‘taster’ - the Yahoo of virtual worlds - and that the Google is still to arrive. Others foresee a gloomier future. I hope that isn’t the case - I want to like virtual universes, I really do. But like most people, I want to use it for something constructive - a half-way house between a communication tool and a game is no fun. Please, Second Lifers, invent a value proposition.
Update 2006-12-13: Clay Shirky’s analysis of Second Life is spot on.