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
Now 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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