Second Life & Facebook Were Once Considered Social Network Equals (Or, a Case Study in Mistaken Assumptions)
It may seem strange to say so now, but there was a time not long ago when Second Life was considered as viable a social network as Facebook itself. This is a video from 2006 at the prestigious Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, featuring Robin Harper (then Linden Lab's Community VP) on the same panel with Mark Zuckerberg -- who at the time, was all of 21. (Joined by heads of LinkedIn and MySpace.) Notably, Robin is introduced first, way before that Zuckerberg kid, and the moderator's first question, along with the talk's general framing, assumes that it will be virtual worlds which will define the future social network experience. (The panelists are asked who they'd like to be in a virtual world; Zuckerberg hesitates to answer, and then gamely agrees that being Cher might be fun.)
At the peak of Second Life's inflated expectations, this did not seem like an odd grouping, though it certainly does now. It is however a telling illustration of how wrong market forecasts can be:
Back in 2006, Facebook had (I believe) members in the low eight figures, while SL, a tech and media darling, had a reported 2 million "Residents". (And journalists then did not generally ask how many of those Residents actually used SL -- a point that did not often come up until we raised it here at New World Notes.) Silicon Valley mistakenly thought Second Life would dominate (or at least be a leading player in the Internet's future), partly because Second Life, unlike social networks like Facebook and MySpace, looked like a game. And as we all know, games are what kids are into nowadays. (Only a couple years later did people start noticing that kids were actually avoiding Second Life, which was (and is) dominated by people in their 30s and older.) At the same time, many analysts were discounting the power of creating and fostering loose ties that social networks made possible. And when Facebook introduced third party apps, which allowed for social games, effectively making it possible to put a virtual world-type experience within the social network, its dominance was secured.
Now, of course, Facebook counts over half a billion unique users, while MySpace, universally seen as waning, still records over 40 million visitors in the US alone. Second Life currently counts only 800K active users, a growth of about 600K since this 2006 talk. The largest online group related to Second Life is on Facebook, and my friend Robin Harper, having left Linden Lab, now works for Playdom, a company that mainly makes games... for Facebook.