"This is no time to go wobbly," Margaret Thatcher once famously said. That's especially pertinent advice right now. Second Life and its owner Linden Lab are going through tough times. And, nascent as the virtual world industry is, many people confuse it with Second Life itself. To the less informed (and even to some people in our industry who should know better), Linden's current difficulties speak directly to the viability of the medium of virtual worlds. They're wrong, of course; for those of us who work on other worlds and platforms, business has never been better.
Here's some of the news that should make us all bullish on the future of our industry: according to a recent Forrester Research report, in a mere five years virtual worlds will be just as important to businesses as the Web; the ever-staid Gartner Research predicts that in four years 80% of Internet users will have avatars; and, as a sign of industry maturity, there are now many participants in each market segment of our industry--from platforms to service agencies to users of all stripes.
But it's undeniable that dark clouds have gathered over Second Life and some of the companies that have relied on it. I don't think I need to recount all the ominous stories from the last few months, but the bottom line is that many companies and consumers are now avoiding that world. Linden Lab is going through some internal turmoil and may be on the verge of lean times itself. Even staunch Second Life cheerleader IBM has people wondering if it's hedging its bets by mocking virtual worlds (the second article).
When a high-profile ally begins showing public doubt like that, it's natural that we should be concerned that these troubles will affect the wider virtual world industry, perhaps stalling investment and development by mainstream companies. The good news is that this isn't happening. The companies actually venturing into the medium of virtual worlds with mature plans are getting more excited by, and committed to, the opportunity, even as they move past the hype of the last couple years. An example: a few months ago, I was in the office of a marketing executive at a major media corporation discussing our company's virtual world platform. She happened to mention that she had seriously investigated building an island in Second Life. When I asked why she didn't take that project forward, she said, very definitively, "Second Life won't work for us." I asked her why she felt such conviction. She went through a detailed list that she'd obviously thought through and, as I was later to learn, had used to justify her decision to her CEO: it would be bad for her brand, which she felt would be subsumed by Second Life's; she couldn't really customize it or control the consumer experience, so she didn't feel she could create anything very unique or deep; and even if she did make something really compelling, she wouldn't be able to have more than a few dozen people see it at once; and then there were the flying body parts--as she characterized it, the last thing she needed on YouTube was a video of them dancing around her logo. Now here's the good news: after she listed those reasons why that world was a no-go, she said, "but we're really eager to get into virtual worlds." Since then, that same conversation has played out again and again for many people in our industry: "We don't want to use Second Life, but we want to build a virtual experience." "Second Life is dead--long live virtual worlds!" is a ridiculous rallying cry and one I don't subscribe to. There are just as many people in Second Life as ever, even if it hit a population plateau recently. And there's a good chance that Linden will continue to be a significant player in this industry. But I think the most likely outcome is that it becomes the 21st-century equivalent of the WELL--that pre-Web, proto-online-community that blossomed in the early '90s. Widely credited as being the place where "netiquette" developed, setting the culture for how people interact with each other online, the WELL earned its place in history.
But the WELL's leadership was reluctant to take the hard steps necessary to build a real business and discouraged the individuals who tried to. Like Second Life at the moment, that particular online "space" ultimately didn't secure any long-term residents (businesses or consumers) who weren't early adopters. (In another historical parallel, outside the scope of this discussion, the cause of mainstream adoption wasn't helped any when the masses got online, logged on to the WELL with its mildly arcane interface, and were rebuffed by numerous cranky and insular pioneers, who wanted all these damn kids to get off their lawn.) As the doubters began to question the viability of that online community, technology created by Netscape and others helped open up the Web to basically anyone. Eventually, folks moved from the WELL to the wider frontiers of a new medium. We should all respect what Second Life has done. Linden's impressive achievement has opened up the industry to support newer players and garner serious attention globally. But the medium is much larger than any one company. To use another British turn of phrase (I've been doing a lot of business in the U.K.), "Keep calm and carry on."