Why aren’t virtual worlds mainstream yet? And should they?

Back in June, I wrote a piece on Philip Rosedale’s (and others’) illusion that Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life would become the next worldwide web, according to statements he made to the Guardian in May 2007. Of course, 6 years on from then, i.e. from the era when SL was the darling of the media, we all know that Second Life and the other virtual worlds are certainly not considered mainstream. It’s true that SL is the most prolific and popular virtual world platform, but it simply doesn’t have the number of users (or the image, but that’s another issue entirely) to make it “mainstream” in any generally accepted sense of the term. Mind you, none of the other virtual world platforms that were spawned from it have fared any better – in fact, some have even gone under.

If you try to look for explanations and theories for this failure of virtual worlds in general to become “mainstream” and fulfill the promise and the hype of yesteryear, the internet is full of them, but most of them concern Second Life only, which I personally find expectable, as it’s the most prominent target for criticism and scrutiny – even on this blog, there’s an older post that tried to approach the matter, albeit I now think my then-limited understanding of the technical and conceptual aspects of virtual worlds affected its ability to get to the core of the issue. Skim through any of these explanations: you’ll see people constantly complaining about lag, griefing, complex viewer software, content portability and tier cost. While it’s true that these issues are important to many, some are largely specific to Second Life and, in reality, they are not problems, but symptoms: they are manifestations of underlying problems, as I have explained before, and I think it would be beneficial to reiterate this particular point if we are to have a meaningful discussion of the subject at hand.

Problems and Symptoms

Before we go any further, we must sit down and consider whether the “problem-solving” that LL engages in and is demanded to engage in actually solves problems or not. Please note that I did not place the emphasis on “solves”, but on “problems”, straying quite far from the norm when it comes to speaking of LL’s and SL’s woes.


Because far too many people confuse problems with symptoms. I believe that right  now is the best moment to draw a clearly visible line between the two, to help not only the analysis that will be part of these posts, but also readers’ understanding of it.

Symptom: It is the result of a problem; it is caused by a problem. It is, in essence, the evidence by which a problem can become known to us. However, because symptoms are usually all the warning and indication we get that something is wrong, and because of a lack of rational thinking that characterises far too many people (especially among those arrogant, ignorant fools who fashion themselves as “paradigms of rationality”), symptoms are misidentified as problems.

Problem: It is a holistic and systemic failure of something we are trying to accomplish and manifests itself through a variety of symptoms.

Why is this so important? Because, when you mistake a symptom for a problem, you are not fighting the underlying cause, but the result. This is a waste of time, money and resources. Lots of time spent, and what are the results? Nothing. It has no end and, by allowing the underlying problems to persist, the symptoms will persist too, resulting in frustration, disillusion and, more often than not, serious tensions.

On the other hand, identifying the problem and treating the problem instead of its symptoms gets things done; it has an end. It creates momentum and, yes, satisfaction. And, of course, it allows you to move on to the next issue.

Talking about failure

Linden Lab's infographic on Second Life's 10th anniversaryNow that the “problem vs symptom” issue is behind us, I believe we have a common ground for this analysis and we will be able to better focus on what’s really important instead of merely scratching the surface ad infinitum. The title of this section is “Talking about failure” and I’m sure most of you will be familiar with the almost boilerplate articles about how Second Life has “failed”; they keep popping up every now and then in the media, only to be followed by apologetics written by members of SL’s community. Occasionally, we may see some PR fluff from Linden Lab itself, such as this infographic that LL posted as part of its 10th birthday PR efforts.

Personally, I’m beginning to find this game of table tennis between SL’s detractors and apologists to have less and less value, as it’s becoming more and more a set of parallel monologues; journalists who know nothing about SL take a few bits from sources of dubious credibility and reliability, sneeze the shoddy source materials together and write articles that aren’t worth the electricity and caffeine used to write them. Then, people who like SL try to debunk the crap (some of them even seem to take it all personally). In other cases, of course, there are journalists who simply are not willing to forgive LL for its numerous mistakes and keep raising those points, especially if nothing has changed in the interim – but LL’s relationship with the media is a different topic entirely.

The thing is, has Second Life failed?

If we’re to see things strictly from a businessman’s point of view, the answer is no. It hasn’t. Ten years after, and it’s still got a steady number of dedicated users who simply won’t consider leaving. While this is certainly far from the levels of World of Warcraft‘s success, it’s still a profitable business that can afford to do serious development work to improve its platform. Actually, it’s still lucrative enough to continue being Linden Lab’s flagship product – and LL is a profitable enterprise as well. So no, neither Second Life nor Linden Lab have failed.

But it certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype of the “golden days”. It has not become the next worldwide web, or even part of it. It has not become the marketing tool for corporations. And, even though virtual worlds provide some utterly amazing opportunities for artistic expression, what has been achieved by the artistic communities is generally shunned, as it doesn’t make for the kind of sensationalist “journalism” that focuses on gambling, griefing and the sexual aspect of SL and SL-based virtual worlds (oddly enough, they never focus on the sexcapades that IMVU users keep spamming their friends’ Facebook profiles with – but that’s another story). In this respect, we need to acknowledge a certain perceived failure. As I wrote earlier in this article, many bloggers (including yours truly) and journalists have tried to explain this perceived failure, but most attempts have been superficial, at best, with only a few people bothering to attempt to get deeper than the epidermis.

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3 responses to “Why aren’t virtual worlds mainstream yet? And should they?

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  2. Very astute separating Symptoms from Problems. Far too few think that point through enough to comprehend the difference, let alone further it to the point of realizing why it’s important. Just because a company creates a platform is no reason they know the difference either. As evidenced by LL’s continued gyrations and constant missteps.

    LL has IMO spent the entire lifespan of SL trying to fix the current set of symptoms that they see. Part of their myopia is the pressure from their investors to focus on one specific symptom: lack of massive income.

    Years ago, while discussing the goals of our latest entrepreneurial endeavor, my current business partner and I hit on the one common goal that we felt was not only easily achievable but was also defensible: We had to be “comfortable”. That meant that we didn’t need to be rolling in excess income, nor did we want to be doing daily hunts to find the money to pay the latest bills. All in all, we felt that we could define, create and (most importantly) maintain a level of operations that met all the needs, had sufficient margin to fulfill most of the wants, and had a lifespan that could be measured in decades and not just “Internet Years” (aka calendar months).

    Thus it should be no surprise that I agree with your conclusion that Virtual Worlds don’t need to be World-renowned rock stars to be successful. Unfortunately when trying to run a company that is funded and motivated by Venture Capitalist investors, establishing and maintaining a realistic set of goals is often next to impossible.

    The new ToS that is presently shaking SL to its very core is, I believe, a symptom of LL’s internal mindset that SL is no longer going to be its foundation source of income. I suspect they’re signaling that other titles in their stable will soon be the ones carrying the LL banner. But we shall see what comes next. Just don’t be surprised if SL starts showing up in the back row of company photos.

    • I’ll start from the new ToS. While it is true that content creators have made a commitment to SL with their content, now the risk of content loss is far more visible than it ever was before – far more visible even than it was in the days of the (largely idiotic) Copybot scare. You see, back in those days, leaving SL was something that each content creator would have to do by themselves, at the risk of being perceived as a drama queen, and let me tell you that quite a few content creators are idiots: from those that have deployed spyware like the RedZone or the Gemini CDS Ban Relay, to those who, in the name of “quality”, fill even the smallest object with numerous 1024×1024 textures (even though many such objects don’t take more than 50×50 pixels on the screen), turning it into an instant lag factory.

      Now, though, content creators may feel forced to leave SL, because they no longer feel safe to use stock content they purchased (textures, 3D models) in SL. Already, CGTextures and Renderosity put the kibosh on usage of their stuff – modified or not – in SL. This could put content creators in serious legal trouble.

      After CGTextures and Renderosity, who’s next? 123RF? Crestock? Turbosquid? Eventually, SL content creators will find their products running afoul of the new, retroactive licences of the providers of stock content they used in the creation of their products. Is LL going to stand up for its userbase and go to court when, inevitably, any stock content provider starts filing DMCAs left, right and centre, or suing SL content creators? I think not. Hell, they still allow GPU crashers to be sold with impunity on the Marketplace, despite having been inundated with hundreds of abuse reports.

      And what was the best LL could come up with? They told us “look, we don’t want to steal your stuff,” (which is true) “but you have to trust us.” This is the best way to destroy customer confidence, especially when other parties are concerned – parties that are having none of the content of Mr. Gray’s damage control canned statements. And then, we had the all-knowing Hamlet go on the offensive, basically telling everyone “you’re fucking paranoid, get back to giving SL your dough.”

      I really don’t understand how certain people within LL get away with putting it through debacle after debacle, and it all becomes even more baffling when you consider that, really, it’s so easy to avoid most of these fiascos.

      At any rate, that’s the way things are with LL. Now, as to your remarks on investors and venture capitalists, you must be inside my head. Venture capitalists and investors (angel or not) only care for “the big time”, the “mainstream” and for making a quick buck (and then running off). Their obsession with quick profit blinds them to even the most basic rules of entrepreneurship and marketing. That’s why they kept beating the “corporate presence” drum for SL, that’s why they tried to present it as being all things to everyone, instead of focusing on a certain number of markets that would remain loyal for years to come.

      As I’ve said a few times before, the fact that SL has not only survived LL’s long and well-documented history of piss-poor management, but is still quite profitable is proof of its validity and plausibility as a business concept.