Once hailed as the future of the Internet, Second Life is now retro, like manual typewriters and vinyl records. Yet it attempted to solve a problem in Internet relationships, both business and personal, that still needs a solution.
I expect most of you just now said to yourself, "Second Life? Oh, yeah, that was that silly thing with the avatars six or seven years ago that everybody said was going to take over the Internet! Didn't that go out of business?"
Second Life is still around. It's still used by about 600,000 people. That's very tiny indeed compared with the worldwide population of Internet users, but it's a comfortable niche. That's about the same as it was in 2007 and 2008.
And there's nothing quite like it today, nothing that solves the problem that Second Life tried to solve.
What Second Life gives you is the illusion of a shared experience in the same place and time. People around the world can log in and experience an event as though they were together. Services like Facebook and Twitter don't give you that, even with real time updates and notifications. When I'm chatting with a friend on Facebook, it's painfully obvious that we're in different places.
Second Life also gives you nonverbal information not available through other channels. By looking at a person's avatar, you could get an impression of the person, similar to the way a person's appearance and body language give you an impression in real life. You can often tell a person's mood through their choice of avatar, clothes, and overall bearing. It's a little bit like the way you can read body language in real life. Nowhere near as rich, of course, but it's a start.
Videoconferencing and video chat solve some of those problems. But in my experience most people are reluctant to use those tools. I don't see that reluctance fading anytime soon.
So why did Second Life (SL) fail? One major reason is that SL zigged while the technology industry zagged. SL runs on desktop computers, but people are increasingly moving to smartphones and tablets. Second Life doesn't even have an official client for iOS or Android.
Second Life was an attempt to bring people together virtually. As globalization increases, workforces -- and our personal lives -- are increasingly distributed geographically. Mobile and social media are attempts to solve the problems of separation and distance, but they're just not as good as Second Life was at its best. These problems still need solving, even if Second Life and similar technologies turned out not to be the solution.
Another thing Second Life is great for is photography. There's a thriving subculture of people capturing screenshots of striking SL avatars, scenery, and artifacts, and sharing them on the Internet. Click the image below for a gallery of some favorites.
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ó Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution