What is Second Life?

Beta HouseNow that some in the blogosphere are saying that Second Life (SL) has no value, others are rushing to defend SL against these perceived attacks. Because of the debates that are resulting, we are being forced to quantify and qualify SL. In order to effectively defend SL, we first must be able to convey to others what exactly SL is, and what it is not.

What is Second Life exactly?  Is it just a game?  Is it a “virtual dollhouse” (I offended several people over the weekend by using this simplified description borrowed from the megahit “The Sims” game)?  Is it a Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) game of some sort?  Maybe it qualifies as an MMORPG (MMO Role Playing Game).  There is a lot of role playing going on in SL, some of it for training purposes.  Some want to classify it as a Virtual Reality (VR), but that term is stuck back in the late 1980’s with a failed technology.  Might it also be a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE)?  Many educators seem to prefer this definition, as it divorces SL from the whole games genre.  Others still want to call it a grown up Multi User Dungeon (MUD), or Multi Object Orientation (MOO) environment.  One thing is very clear, SL defies being classified or categorized when being discussed by more than a few individuals.

Why SL seems to defy classification is actually very simple, it is a different experience for almost every user who creates an avatar and logs in.  Now that Linden Labs (LL) is selling islands (or Sims) for use in education, this is becoming even more apparent.  To quote a popular movie, “If you build it, they will come”.  In the early days of SL, back in 2003, people were content with getting a plot of land, building a house, and inviting their friends over for a chat.  Then building other items took off; planes, trains, automobiles, and buildings of all sorts starting dotting the landscape.  If you could imagine it, you could probably build it. 

I had a small house up on stilts (see the inset picture above) with a nice pond and garden below it.   I had a few neighbors, but they were all like me in having humble residences.  Then one day along comes a huge Goth Nightclub with a distinctly adult flavor.  There were even red search lights out on the front steps when parties were in full swing.  There went the neighborhood!  It wasn’t long before many huge nightclubs sprang up in competition.  It was soon after this that I left SL, and gave my land to my neighbor.  In the two years since leaving SL, gambling and gaming have really taken hold on the Main Grid.  Other distinctly adult trades have also sprung up on the main grid.  I think the invasion of adult content and gaming is what drove LL to finally release their Teen Second Life last year.  This gave the 13 – 17 year old crowd a place to go and not be exposed to these clearly adult districts on the main grid. 

SL has received a lot of press coverage in 2006, almost all of it positive.  Big business has taken note and has started moving into SL in droves.  The press coverage and grand openings attrac more new residents, as users are affectionately known in-world, to come and see what all the buzz is about.  Some take up permanent residency in SL, while others just come for a visit and decide that they are not ready for these virtual worlds just yet.  SL is evolving almost every day.  Neighborhoods have formed in many locations, and with the introduction of islands these neighborhoods can be open to the world or exclusive to members only crowd.

I like to relate SL’s growth and evolution to that of online services over the past 20 years.  Back in the 80’s there were dial-up BBS’s.  If you wanted to visit a BBS you had to put a bunch of settings into your computer, and then dial up the BBS you wanted to connect with.  Hosting services like The Source and CompuServe leveraged this trend by providing a single dial-up service that a BBS owner could move his content onto.  On these services “virtual” BBS’s took the form of online forums.  These forums were very popular with technology companies for providing user support and driver downloads.  The users of the hosting services would have access to all of the providers on the service by dialing up a single connection, usually a local call.  This all but killed off the private BBS’s of the world.  The early 90’s saw the emergence of the Internet, and other graphical online services.  At first it was Prodigy and America Online that grabbed all the eyeballs.  These new services had graphics, sound and video.  It wasn’t long before the Internet took over the online space.  The very success of the Internet lies in the distributed nature of it’s architecture.  Processing power is spread across the many webservers all around the world connected up to this global network known collectively as the Internet.   

Right now, in my opinion, we are seeing SL move from the BBS model to the Service Provider model.  Where once there was a large landmass populated by a few distinct neighborhoods, SL is now spreading quickly with a sea of islands.  Islands are starting to cluster into regions.  Some form is emerging from all the chaos, and we are seeing distinctly different uses emerging for SL.  And it is in these different uses where the confusion lies in the current debate.  Your view of SL depends on what you have personally experienced.  To some it’s nothing more than a MMORPG.  Others see it as a graphical chat room, or social networking environment.  Still others see it as a platform for simulation and education.  In reality, or virtual reality as it might be, everyone is right in their classifications.

If you extrapolate this to the next step, SL will someday move to the Internet model (or some other company will take it to this level).  I touched on this the other day when I presented the Vspace concept.  Mini-grids are just one example of where this could go.  Full on simulators should be made available for license by the various institutions that want to leverage the SL universe.  In this model Linden Labs would take on the role of the DNS provider, routing traffic between grids and keeping a single central database of the critical data (like L$ account balances).  I highly doubt that LL can keep up with the demands in both personnel and hardware that will be required to feed the growth of the SL Universe.  They need to find a way to move to the next level, and to get out of the business of providing all of the hosting for these islands.  The very nature of a virtual island lends itself to being contained on an independent server linked to a larger network.  This change in architecture would also add a level of fault tolerance to the SL Universe.  If designed properly, the entire system would not drop because of a single server or system failure. 

The Internet defies classification.  To some it’s a web of social networks.  Others see the Internet as the emerging dominant platform for mass media.  There are some that only see it as a virtual private network for connecting up distant networks.  Still others see it only as a platform for MMO’s, and other shared gaming experiences.  Your classification of both the Internet and SL are based on your personal experiences, and not the platform or software of your experience.   

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