Second Life


For my Digital PR class this summer, I wrote about the idea of “virtual insanity” and the strange ever changing online world. I’ve also blogged about Second Life and how this trend (well, trend would mean it’s somewhat temporary, but that’s another topic for debate…) has been on the rise lately.

And now, we’re reading Julian Dibbell’s Play Money which details Dibbell’s quest–and success–in becoming a millionaire by selling “virtual loot.” And I’ve got to say. . .this seems like BS to me.

Social networks, blogs, etc–that’s all one league of online behavior and habits that I enjoy and participate in. But the virtual communities and second identities seems beyond what my imagination can stretch to. Second Life and these virtual communities seem like outlets for people to escape their real lives and fantasize about an alternative identity for themselves. This all seems fine and dandy, but what about when it gets out of hand? There have been examples of rape and crime in Second Life–obviously people have taken their imaginations too far.

Dibbell has been able to make a living off of his virtual loot in second life. I agree with what John said on our Google Groups dialogue: “That being said, I think that virtual goods are a stupid idea. There is no reason anyone should pay cash for a free item (paying for entertainment is one thing, paying for non-existent items is beyondme). I dislike the idea of Microsoft points in the Xbox marketplace and I don’t like the idea of having to pay for second life dollars and real estate.”

The fact of the matter is, these virtual worlds aren’t real!!  It doesn’t seem entirely ethical to me to be making millions off of something that doesn’t even exist, and this is why I don’t agree with Dibbell’s business venture. It seems somewhat exploitative; on the other hand, however, people seem to be willing to buy their virtual loot online, even though it fails to actually exist.

What I have to say about this is simple: virtual communities foster some sense of togetherness, but once we go over the boundary of paying for these free good I think people have gone too far.  Go out and explore your real life! Don’t be so dependent on the computer screen and a fantasy world when there are real problems not only in the world but in your own life. I think the rising dependence on virtual communities is unhealthy for the overall online and real world communities.

If you think that Second Life members are just “users,” then the authors of Wikinomics would have to disagree with you. According to Tapscott and Williams, Second Life members are “prosumers.” These prosumers “participate in the design, creation, and production of the product, while Linden Labs is content to manage the community to make sure the infrastructure is running” (p. 125). In other words, they make user-generated content.

Residents create most of the content—not Linden Lab. This empowers each member to build avatars, houses, relationships, and essentially, a second life than can differ from their real one as much as they want. There are about 8.5 million members, with approximately 1.6 million that have logged on in the past two months. When you compare these figures to other social networks like MySpace or Facebook, it doesn’t seem like Second Life is such a big deal. But…countries have opened embassies in Second Life to boost their image. Esteemed universities like Harvard and Stanford are teaching online classes in this alternate world. Brands are selling their products to raise interest to those members that actually log on. What is it about Second Life that makes the trendsetters stumble after it?

Tapscott and Williams think the answer is “prosumption,” and that Second Life is so successful because it relies on the following key points (p. 148):

  • More than customization: rather than being mass customized to tailor to a group of people, Second Life allows each user to build an alternative identity and even use Linden Dollars ($270 Linden Dollars to $1 US Dollar) to mold the lifestyle.
  • Losing control: Linden Labs proudly states that they have little content on Second Life. These enables the members to treat Second Life as their own platform with seemingly infinite freedom.
  • Customer tool kits and context orchestration: Second Life hit the jackpot in making their product “modular, reconfigurable, and editable” (p. 148). This user-friendly nature of Second Life enables anybody to log on, funnel in some money, and use the materials available to them to create their identity.
  • Becoming a peer: This is fueled by treating the members like peers rather than customers. Second Life is successful with this in that Linden Labs only controls 1% of the content—this puts the ultimate power in the hands of the members.
  • Sharing the fruits: Members of Second Life feel ownership and entitlement of their virtual products. Members can buy and sell products, and therefore have a stake in Second Life.

It’s hard to determine where Second Life is going to be in the future. I’m baffled by the idea of an alternate identity to begin with—don’t social networks like Facebook and MySpace reinforce your personal identity and image by displaying your own interests, activities, education info, pictures, friends…? Personally, I’m a fan of this website that I came across: Get A First Life, a spoof on Second Life. Number of total members? Oh, about 6.5 billion.

Despite it’s criticisms and backlash, there are still loyal supporters to Second Life that believe in its general purpose and future. These prosumers will be the ones that determine the potential success of Second Life in the years and months to come.