The Decline and Fall of Second Life

Posted on 5th January 2010 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out

Carbon Buckeyball Model at the Second Life Science Center

Carbon Buckeyball Model at the Second Life Science Center

I’m one of those people who saw incredible potential in Linden Labs’ Second Life and sang its praises, while so many critics demanded to know what the virtual world was good for. All too well I remember critics of the Internet over ten years ago complaining, “It’s just a bunch of magazine pages.” Second Life had magnificent promise in academic applications. I used to love exploring the International Space Museum, NASA’s virtual home there, the garden of Physics demonstrations, and the NOAA’s island of activities.

Then I tried to bring my class of grade school kids into Second Life to go on a virtual field trip and see these places… only to be thwarted by Linden Labs policy of not allowing more than five people to log into the world from the same location unless they had a premium account (It actually locked us out after one student registered, meaning mine was the only other account successfully logging into SL). I looked online, and people told me to call Linden Labs and request an exception be made, but by that time it was too late to attempt the field trip.

Why ban multiple users from the same location? I’m guessing it’s to prevent Cyber Cafes and other public locations from offering Second Life access without Linden Labs getting their cut. In other words: Greed.

PC Pro’s Barry Collins, who spent a week immersed in Second Life in its heyday, recently returned there to find the virtual world is a ghost town (except for the porn island). Valleywag and others have the virtual world on a death watch (ht BMF).

Where did Second Life go wrong? In his free Creative Commons book The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig recounts the tale of two protocols competing for the Internet standard, and why WWW won:

Berners-Lee feared that competing protocols for using the Internet would wipe away interest in the WWW. One protocol built about the same time was called Gopher. Gopher enabled the easy display of a menu of options from a site. When you went to a Gopher-enabled site, you would see a list of links that you could then click on to perform some function. Gopher was extremely popular as an Internet application—running on the Internet protocols—and use of Gopher took off in the early 1990s.53

…His fear, however, was not realized, both because of something Berners-Lee did and because of something the creators of Gopher did—and both are lessons for us.

Berners-Lee was no bully. He was not building a protocol that everyone had to follow. He had a protocol for displaying content on the World Wide Web—the HTML language that Web pages are built in. But he decided not to limit the content that one could get through a WWW browser to just Web pages. Instead he designed the transfer protocol—HTTP—so that a wide range of protocols could be accessed through the WWW—including the Gopher protocol, a protocol for transferring files (FTP), and a protocol for accessing newsgroups on the Internet (NNTP). The Web would be neutral among these different protocols—it would in this sense interconnect.54 That made it easy to use the Web, even if one wanted to get access to Gopher content. But the second doing was much more important to the death of Gopher as a standard.

As Berners-Lee describes it, high off its success in populating the world with Gopher, the University of Minnesota—owner of the right to Gopher— suggested it might exercise its rights to charge for the use of the Gopher protocol. 55 Even the suggestion of this terrified developers across the world. (It was, Berners-Lee writes, “an act of treason.”56) Would developers be hijacked by the university once they depended upon their system? How much would they lose if the platform eventually turned against the developers? Berners-Lee responded to this by convincing CERN to release the right to the Web to the public. At first he wanted to release the protocol under the GPL, or General Public License (the “GNU General Public License,” which we will see much more of in chapter 4). But when negotiations over that bogged down, he convinced CERN simply to release the rights into the public domain. Anyone had the right to take and use the protocols of the WWW and build anything upon them that they wanted.57

The birth of the Web is an example of the innovation that the end-to-end architecture of the original Internet enabled. Though no one quite got it— this the most dramatic aspect of the Internet’s power—a few people were able to develop and deploy the protocols of the World Wide Web. They could deploy it because they didn’t need to convince the owners of the network that this was a good idea or the owners of computer operating systems that this was a good idea. As Berners-Lee put it, “I had designed the Web so there should be no centralized place where someone would have to ‘register’ a new server, or get approval of its contents.”58 It would be a “good idea” if people used it, and people were free to use it because the Internet’s design made it free.

This has always been Second Life’s fatal flaw. Unlike the World Wide Web, where anyone with a server can plug in and host content, Linden Labs has total control over their world. No virtual world will succeed as the future standard unless it is completely open so that anyone can plug into it and host content themselves. Second Life is just a fantastic ghost town now, filled with amazing creations by people who ultimately do not own what they have built.


Photos from my visits to Second Life:

  • Science in Second Life

  • International Space Museum in Second Life

    International Space Museum in Second Life
  • David Brin give a talk in Extropia

  • David Brin Talks in SL

    David Brin Talks in SL
  • Yuri’s Night Dance Party

  • Extropia Dance Party

    Extropia Dance Party

    8 Comments

    1. Interesting piece!

      (But has SecondLife really “fallen”?)

      Comment by ClintJCL — January 6, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    2. I’m sorry for your negative experience. I’m all for control too and I’d prefer that Second Life would be more open.
      I don’t think though that this is a “fatal flaw” for Second Life as a business (and Second Life *is* a business, it’s an online service ran by a corporation).
      If it was such a fatal flaw, Second Life would have already collapsed, or it will do soon.
      We will see in 9-12 months :)

      Let me also add some corrections:

      “Why ban multiple users from the same location?”

      The actual answer is:
      to avoid a person using many (as in dozens or hundreds) accounts at the same time.
      You may be surprised to know that this was a widespread situation until some months ago (people did that using bot software in orded to boost their ranking in the Search results). It still happens.

      Linden Lab profit mostly by land selling – Premium accounts are a secondary income for them. I don’t see greed behind this limitation – Second Life can be fully enjoyed with free basic accounts, and Linden Lab don’t profit from them.

      PC Pro and Valleywag stories about Second Life can be easily dismissed as Second Life anti-hype, and I’ll just give a few links as reference:
      http://dwellonit.taterunino.net/2009/02/22/goodnight-valleywag/
      http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2010/01/slashdot-fail.html
      http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_13517103

      Comment by Opensource Obscure — January 6, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    3. While I agree that Second Life isn’t going to really die, it’s porn industry will keep it making money, the virtual world is a ghost town now. I’ve visited the locations described in this post several times in the last few months and have found less than five other people hanging out in them.

      Things built in Second Life don’t belong to the people who build them, they belong to Linden Labs. If anything were to happen to shut Second Life down, all that hard work would be lost. The community should open itself to other hosts to ensure it becomes the standard protocol for the VR web.

      Comment by ideonexus — January 6, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    4. I don’t mean to be rude but secondlife isn’t decreasing that hard. Secondlife is far from being a ghost town. There are still a lot of locations that are up and there are a lot of places that are non-porn related site.
      No secondlife does not allow you to host your own land but many other virtual worlds do the same. This is one of the most open worlds there is on the internet. Instead of complanning why don’t you continue playing secondlife and actually look at some more stats. Secondlife does have some restrictions that are annoying but why don’t you take this suggestion.

      when you want to take a virtual field trip why don’t you call the company to book this virtual fieldtrip.
      It’s a safety measure and not a greed measure. You shouldn’t be logging into secondlife from a cafe. You should be at your own home unless you are somewhere that needs it.

      The reason seconlife is so big on porn is because so many people like it. It is called demand. The power of consumers. It dosen’t have that much porn there are many non-porn lands.

      Comment by Youdon'tneedtoknow — February 27, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    5. Get a life, go outside and meet people.

      I play video games allot myself, and even I think Second Life is a complete waste of time.

      Why dont ypu actually go to the Air and Space Museum and actually see real planes and real actual lunar capsules. Its so much better than sitting on youre computer in your room pretending you have a social life because you type, not even talk, you type to other people sitting in their room by themselves.

      Comment by BOB — May 26, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    6. Wow, you could write a book about this and constantly quote what happened to the internet in the 90’s and the book Guns, Germs, and Steel which at its best analyzes what happens when continental culture rand sacks island cultures. You could use the model of what is happening in my home state of Oregon at this time, where an influx of entrepreneurs from California and New York have displaced local workers and reinstated the past failures of New York and California misusing the concepts of racial politics, environmentalism, and feminism. You could review Seattle and Washington in the 90’s. Second Life may be the last victim of a mainstream acquisition. On the other hand, as the people in power like to say It’s about business. Who cares about quality if massive amounts of people are interested.

      I’m a newbie and I feel very frustrated with second life. After reading how you started your journey with the application, I’m reminded about when I first saw the web site insert silence and started forcing myself to learn flash. It was in high demand for a bit, but the demand faded in the same time frame of second life. If I had begun second life in 2006 I’d be jumping into it like I did flash. Not only that, all the promotion and hype was there (U2, Regina Spektor, etc.)

      These things come and go. I think apple should do a buy out and integrate it as a 3d internet application within Itunes in the next five years. They are really good at slimming down excess and simplifying things for the mainstream, while leaving creatives involved. If you want “The Man”, you can’t do better then Steve Jobs. The previous mistakes of second life could be a learning experience for the integration.

      What do you think? Right now Second Life for me seems to be a great idea that became a total mess with new builds and regulations that don’t serve the purpose of why I’m there. It’s like trying to figure out our legal system.

      David Chipps

      Comment by David Chipps — June 16, 2011 @ 5:25 am

    7. Beeing a resident for over 4 years now.I know what you mean.
      But,,,,its what you make of it the end.
      You choose……
      A lot of nice sims dissapeared,,Mostlely becose of the crisis.
      It aint cheap to rent a full sim.
      About the number of accounts: i am against many acc, simpley 1 big reason
      Creating alts and screw around in sl.
      Sl is a world where trust is one of the most important things, Sad to say a lot of people misuse it by creating alts,and run different agendas.
      But nower days you CAN be on with more than 1 acc.,..i know that people are on with 50 at the same time,(playing Tiny Empire)….And it should not be alowed.,.its cheating,
      But in the end,,,,its of course al about money……
      Sometimes LL forgets that a lot of free accounts creat sl now.by building incredible stuff or perfom.like i do……..
      SL is a great world to be,With the right people…………
      Escaping Rl…and unwind.,…………..

      Merry Meet.
      Azazael

      Comment by Azazael — July 8, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    8. SL had a lot of potential but the reality is that maintaining any virtual world takes money and getting the money stream to flow was aways going to be an issue. You also has the Jack of all trades master of none issue–there was no focus or real direction. So you wound up with this patchwork world of great vistas peppered among vast wastelands of nothing

      Comment by Necron — July 29, 2011 @ 7:28 am

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