May 13th, 2008
07:46 PM GMT
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NEW YORK – Call them growing pains. The virtual world Second Life has had a tough time of it lately.

CNN's own hub in Second Life.
CNN's own hub in Second Life.

Last month, its founder Philip Rosedale said he will step down as CEO of Linden Labs – the company which runs the community. He said he was staying on full-time as chairman preferring to focus on innovation rather than people management.

The management part certainly looks like it is getting harder. Over the last two years millions of users all over the world signed up to mix, mingle and play out their fantasies on Second Life. It was the hot thing. The virtual world had its own currency, its own economy and it didn't take long for the business world to catch on. Companies rushed to open virtual stores and offices.

But the initial hype has faded. Although it has an estimated 13 million registered subscribers, only a small portion – as little as 5 percent - are considered active. Corporations are shuttering their virtual stores. A series of banking scandals prompted Second Life to shut down all virtual-only banks in January. Lawsuits involving everything from land deals to copyright infringement have been filed.

Like real life, Second Life is getting ... well ... complicated.

That doesn't mean businesses are giving up. While the direct marketing opportunities didn't quite live up to expectations, companies are finding Second Life provides a great platform for bringing scattered employees together.

This past weekend the Los Angeles Times ran a great article featuring some companies who are actively using Second Life to hold strategy meetings, training sessions, question and answer forums and even throw parties! As you might expect, technology companies like Sun Microsystems, IBM and Intel are at the forefront, but it is expected to grow.

I am totally fascinated by this partially because I am a complete outsider. I'm not a resident of Second Life. I thought about it, but juggling work and family leaves me barely enough time for my first life. That may soon change.

A couple of weeks ago, Forrester Research analyst Erica Driver released a report in which she makes a case that Web3D is the next major Internet wave.

In 5 to 7 years, many of us might find we are asked to create work avatars that communicate and network with other employees in a digital world. Whether companies will use Second Life for that, create their own virtual worlds or use a combination is an open question.

How they manage that world will also present challenges. One of the interesting things about Second Life is that people feel free to explore and express themselves in ways they might not in their everyday life (so I am told.)

I loved reading about Intel employees who showed up at meetings in Second Life in the form of a half-man half-animal or another with blue skin. Will human resource departments be able to cope with that level of non-conformity?

I'd like to be optimistic and think that unlike e-mail and Blackberries, which stopped people from actually talking or interacting, having a work avatar might increase the sense of camaraderie and community within a company.

But almost as soon as I had that thought I started to worry about what my avatar should look like. Will I understand the slang? What if I land in the wrong place? Maybe it will just create more stress.

What do you think? Will widespread use of Web3D make work more interesting or just corrupt the fun of Second Life? What will your work avatar look like?



soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. kelly

    With the initial rush gone it sounds more like life saving efforts to transform it into a work tool. Video and web conferencing tools are already bringing teams together and large companies are already expanding these services to more and more desktop users. The virtual life side would add too many unrequired elements and would most likely be limited to already creative oriented companies only. Can't imagine investment banks and major corporations doing this.

    May 14, 2008 at 7:28 am |
  2. Maria Giovanna Villari (Naples, Italy)

    Considering internet already a second life I would call Second Life Third life!
    And yes, it will help us in the real one so that I can send my avatar somewhere in a business meeting instead of picking a train or a plane!
    But, but, I miss people coming to pick me up all of a suden without having sent a sms, an email, or something else trough the net.
    I miss nice written letters like the ones described in a William Shakespeare poem.
    Maria Giovanna
    ps as a lawyer I would prefer to meet avatars instead of real people, such as collegues and judges!

    May 14, 2008 at 8:17 am |
  3. Jayle Enn

    Honestly, I think it's empty hype. What few people seem to mention about Second Life (and VRML before it) is the major cost of hardware to get it to run worth anything. This isn't something like a bare-bones e-mail client, that will run on hardware that hasn't been updated since Windows ME was released.
    Virtually anything that can be done in a 3D interface can be done more easily, efficiently, and cheaper with traditional methods, that don't require employees to be trained in the use of said interfaces, or management to devise rules for governing their use.
    Finally, Second Life as the basis of these technologies? Not likely. Linden Labs' core business is a victim of its own success: by granting property rights to their users, they've obligated themselves to keep new developments compatible with old data, layering workarounds and building onto an increasingly decrepit codebase.
    There are already other outfits developing virtual interfaces, with modularity and extensibility in mind. SL has already had its fifteen minutes of fame, and it's on the way to obscurity with other virtual worlds like 'There' and 'Activeworlds'. It's not the first, and it's certainly not the last.

    May 14, 2008 at 8:21 am |
  4. marc asperas

    I am a professional in his 40's and, apart from business, am an avid second life user. In my time in SL I've met CEO's of fortune 500 companies, Rockstars and Politicians. So I do think there is a real life (or RL) aspect that can benefit from SL. What I am convinced of however is that the real world needs to adjust its use of SL, not vice versa. First of all, some things work in the virtual, but not others. Your example of companies rushing in and opening stores, is a perfect example. One can view pics of the latest sports car but simply cannot test drive a car in 3D, smell the leather interior, get a feel for the real world handling. For antoher thing, SL to a very real extent has its own dynamic. Content creation and shopping dominate with clubbing a close third behind. eLearning and forums are catching up, but the mass conscious lies somewhere between complete fantasy and the realities of life and death. Having said that, SL ports well to any forum since it is so dynamic and flexible. It really shows what can be possible. And I really do not see the technical issues to be much of a bar to the modern day office worker who spends most of his/her time surfing the internet anyway. What I can imagine is that SL creates some kind of business forum, perhaps as a different platform to offer a more conservative environment for people who want to engage in business while preserving the main grid for the dreamers of the dreams. At least that way *grins* businesses won't have to deal with such complex issues as employees showing up with an off color avitar, or the usual offensive griefing disturbances (which will definitely occur if known companies host events on the main grid).

    May 14, 2008 at 8:52 am |
  5. Amanda

    I am a avid user of Second Life, I love it. I've been a resident for almost a year having found it after a similar world was showcased on a TV show. I think if it were to catch on in the business world it might help with camaraderie (spelling?) It would definitely be interesting if this is how bosses decided their employees needed to report to work instead of wasting money on gas everyday. Imagine the oil companies chagrin when the majority of working people didn't have to drive to work anymore, they just have to log on. Companies can and probably should put rules into effect on the appearence of avatars, it's a business, avatars should be dressed and shaped appropriately. I just recently started a business on Second Life with friends I met there, it's success is still questionable but I'm sure it will be apparent soon enough.

    May 14, 2008 at 9:29 am |
  6. Chris

    I know here in Germany a few of the larger companies such as T-Mobil, Vodafone and Deutsche Post have attempted to have a presence commercialy inside SL. But I dont think they were succesful in connecting SL and RL businesses.

    As for most companies like the forementioned Video Conference, IM, Wikies and Internal Social Networks tend to do a better job at communicating, socialising and are more reliable then SL.

    May 14, 2008 at 11:20 am |
  7. Nick

    This would be a HR nightmare. People tend to express themselves differently digitally. Being an avid user of forums for a few years now, be it tech or sports or anything else for that matter, there is definitley a breakdown in basic human respect when someone assumes an e-identity. Even in the professional world, I still see emails that boggle my mind – complete lack of "netiquette." And this is 2008! If people still haven't learned how to show the same level of dignity online that they would in person, it will probably take another decade before something like this can be used. Maybe as younger users of virtual worlds enter the workforce, we may see a shift. But even after all this time, I still see a breakdown in communication when someone is in front of a monitor compared to when someone is talking face to face.

    May 14, 2008 at 12:23 pm |
  8. Rich

    It's all fun and games, but serious business? No way. I dunno what *your employees are supposed to be doing, but I'll bet surfing the net and chatting with all and sundry isn't it.

    I did a lot of business using the combo of browser, IM and phone, and I promise you goofing around on SL as a green and blue striped centaur would have been totally counter-productive.

    Nick is right about netiquette, but then *thats been going downhill since the invention of the telephone.

    May 14, 2008 at 1:26 pm |
  9. Lizard Dastardly aka Ran

    The most striking thing about SL is how RL it can be. For the last few years, as a member of SL, I have watched it grow, sputter, grow, sputter. SL is still a remarkable place for talented people to explore and let their imaginations run wild (and some people certainly do). As with the initial internet (remember when there were only geeks and nerds using it?), Web3D is have growing pains, boredom, and idleness, but there is a potential there for a global communication network that even the original web designers never for saw. Give it another 2 years. You will eventually need an avatar all your own, just like you needed a computer to surf the internet.

    May 14, 2008 at 1:52 pm |
  10. KDH

    I have confidence that Second Life will figure it out. The great thing about it is the ability of people to do/create what they want so as long as they can keep that up as much as possible, they should do well.
    As far as using it for work, I would welcome that. I work from home at least 3 days a week and I do tend to feel isolated. Just strolling up to a co-worker in Second Life would go a long way to improving productivity because that is the way a lot of work gets done. Much easier than setting up a conference or trying to make sure you are both in the office at the same time. We are always looking to have more team building excercises but people tend to frown on that when they have to come into the office to do it.
    To answer what my avitar would look like. Not sure but as long as mine has hair on his head, I will be happy. :-)

    May 14, 2008 at 2:52 pm |
  11. Brian

    I agree with "The Office".

    Dwight: "Second Life" is not a game, there are no winners or losers.
    Jim: Oh, there are losers.

    May 14, 2008 at 3:30 pm |
  12. Unknown SL Resident

    Second Life will most likely not reach a "work-force version" due to the fact that people only use it for fun. Those who build (the process to make the wire-frames and textures), those who script (the process of adding actions, whether menu-triggered or commanded in other ways), and the "consumers" who buy these items primarly do this for the fact that is a fun way to get away from reality.

    You can get almost anything you can think up of in SL, and if you can't get it, you can easily request it from those who build like items. If you want an avatar to look like Cousin It from the Addams Family, then you can buy the item or make it yourself as it is easy to find the tools you need for such an endeavor.

    Now, seeing it as a viable "work-place"? Eh, no... doesn't seem plausible for many companies due to the fact that it would only be productive to digital-content creators for business. This 3-D avatar chat client is very taxing for performance on most systems due to being a high-end graphics.

    You want a client that may be more oriented to a work-place setup? Try IMVU, SL is a "world" where you see, move around, do things.... IMVU is more oriented towards "rooms" where you are least likely to get outside interference from other conferences going on and require less system requirements.

    May 14, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  13. Mondo Tomorrow

    I have an avatar on Second Life that I started because of my company, but nothing seems to have come of that effort. On the other hand, I've hang out on SL when I travel a lot for my job because I become an insomniac on the road. There's usually always something interesting going on, even if its 3:00 am. I'm not sure it will ever be a business platform in the way many corporations might require, but it certainly is a compelling place. I for one, believe corporate involvement will probably wreck the place. The whole reason it works is that it is NOT real life. If it becomes real life, what's the point in having an alternative universe?

    May 14, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Ken

    Second Life is a waste of time. Its only really there for those that wish to escape reality. Its shame that people even go there. Its not a viable work place and whole concept was detined to fail to begin with, There is actually a whole real world to explore believe it or not. Virtual worlds are bad places to go and Second Life is a true example of why a lot of the internet is such a waste.

    May 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm |
  15. Paul

    As I see it, a key aspect of SL is that your avatar doesn't necessarily mirror who you are, as far as looks go. In opposition to that, a usable conference application would have to guarantee that the avatar conveys the idea that it is actually you who is represented, i.e. mimic your essential features, physical and psychological. Else, participants will be misled in many ways and in the end become mistrusting, rendering the whole idea useless. This might look like taking a step back for SL, since it is about freeing oneself of such barriers, but in the long run it will be apparent that it has to become more secure for those wanting to be in "indentity-safe" environments such as conference sites.

    May 14, 2008 at 5:45 pm |
  16. Ken

    Amanda I just read your post and it appears you may be in need of therapy. Your obviously having difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality thats what makes Second Life so dangerous. Its a reality escape tool kinda like LSD. Its not a business tool and it certainly is not a social networking tool. Step away from the PC and go out and enjoy the sunshine.

    May 14, 2008 at 5:46 pm |
  17. SL Resident

    Very interesting article and comments. I have visited SL for 1 1/2 years. In that short time I have seen alot of changes. I entered SL after listening to Science Friday on public radio discuss it and seeing several articles about it. I have found it an immensely rewarding place to visit. I live VERY remote in RL. There are no local places to visit and discuss topics, to continue my education, or to hold business meetings. I have found this and more in SL. I have found that you can create what you want in SL. SL is not the end all for business meetings, but it is one of the tools available to use. If used properly, it can be quite successful.

    And as far as Kens' viewpoint.....please keep an open mind. It was surprizing to me to find all the benefits in SL. But as you say, there are drawbacks and people do get lost and fail to distinquish between what is real and not. But the same people who fall into the trap of SL would fall into another trap if SL were not available. And when You chose to sit at a computer or a Tv instead of enjoying the real world, you have definately lost out. I have conducted business in SL with people from all over the world that I would never have been able to network with in RL. It is a tool. Nothing more or less for business and should be used to that effect.

    On a side note, as far as AV's (avatars) , you learn to listen to the person talking and not see the "shell". Isn't that the ideal of what most people look for?

    May 14, 2008 at 7:42 pm |
  18. Rodion Resistance

    I am a Filipino working for a metaverse development company based in Cebu City, Philippines. Two years prior to joining this company, I was (at first) just a casual, curious SL user and "explorer", just trying to see what this new technology was all about (because I was an avid fan of simulations, both for entertainment and education, because I was in the academe at the time, working for a local university) and trying to figure out if there are potential benefits from it. Coming from a developing nation, I've seen how little things like cellphones and email can dramatically transform how things are done in a country like mine.

    When I got into SL, I was amazed at the variety of people (being global in nature) and the fact that you can actually create things using only its inworld tools–you don't have to be an expert in say, Maya, or 3D Studio MAX, to actually recreate an entire university campus or say, design a new concept vehicle. Because of this, I was able to learn the complex interface (it takes patience but the rewards are great) and in a matter of months I was already selling my creations inside this world, and was able to convert the inworld currency to my currency, Philippine Pesos.

    This had a tremendous impact to me, because in Second Life, I saw a level playing field–a place where people won't judge you for what degree you're holding or what school and country you've graduated from–it's all about output rather than prestige, and what better way to showcase quality output than to thrust a quality virtual item literally "in the face" of an SL-using corporate executive 10,000 miles away from where you are, and let him judge your work directly, and then get hired immediately to help enable their company to establish presence in this engaging world. And yes, prestige eventually develops later, for if you just work hard on your skills and be diligent in learning all about how makes this virtual world tick, you can make it serve your purposes in the world of eCommerce.

    May 15, 2008 at 12:14 am |
  19. Daniel

    I have tried Second Life anda given up. I really like the concept but there are too many bugs and too much lag. For example, avatar looks is an important part of SL and there are bugs that has been around for years that cause your avatar to be mishaped on other peoples screens, while you look perfectly ok on yours. Bugs like this one, that never gets fixed, the lag and general instability of the platform cause even SL fans (like me) to eventually give up. I hope SL can sort it out eventually, or that some other large company (Google?) create a stable virtual world.

    May 15, 2008 at 8:43 am |
  20. Djarum Tigerpaw

    Well, I'm in second life, just for the fun of it..and using it as a work tool, might be the last place for it to go. The last however many months have been devastating for Linden Labs. Asset server issues, inventory mess ups, and severe crashes on everyones end (computer related or Server based) has caused a lot of if's on whether or not to purchase land there. Alot of people have been complaining that they are tiering down(subtracting land from their accounts) due to the problems. The stability of the mainstream viewer is the issue. Linden Labs has to come up with something more stable and less demanding on older computers. Technology moves fast for companies, but the public has a harder time following along. The misuse of scripts and HUD's cause most of the problems. and the campers... well lets not even go there. Most definitely use Second Life for work. It would help out the community tremendously. Any folks who want to look good going to a meeting give me a shout. Check out Naughty Skin, Analog Dog hair.....a few more but you will have to message me for that! :))

    May 15, 2008 at 9:59 am |

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