Monday, January 31, 2011

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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.


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anyone want some LL stock?


Sure, how much you want for it?

One thing I note is the biggest websites, like Google, and Facebook, have fairly minimal pages. That means (a) they can scale more easily, and (b) the pages load fast. Maybe there is something to learn there?

Hiro Pendragon

", 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."

And who was complicit with this opinion? Linden Lab certainly didn't object.

Arcadia Codesmith

Facebook is easy. The number of people who like things that are easy dwarf the number of people who like things that are a little challenging.

I think there are multiple fronts on which Second Life could and should be made easier to use.

But if we were as easy as Facebook, and had the numbers of Facebook, would we end up being as bland and conformist as Facebook?

Ignatius Onomatopoeia

US Millennial kids 18-late 20s are augmentationist to the core. They have a social circle and for the more affluent ones, they live like SL avatars. Facebook is the way to connect with that circle of peers.

And I still stand by what I said about we Xers being risk-takers and crazy creatives. Crank some Smashing Pumpkins to that thesis! I just did.


I wouldn't suppose this has anything to do with how Facebook is eminently useable on mobile devices (where all the kids went)...

Or that Second Life, while spending much of the past few years threatening Facebook-like policies, utterly failed to deliver on even integrated 2-way instant messaging, let alone any of the other communication services we now associate with social networks.

Or that SL adopted a strict DRM regime at a time when all the kids were getting into the "share everything, including ourselves" mindset...

See? We can all bash on Second Life and note how many ways the big players succeeded where the smaller ones failed. I still don't think that means we have to *like* Facebook, or any of the other big winners, like, say, Wal-mart, or Bank of America, or China, or...

Hamlet Au

Ananda, because Second Life's main revenue base is so small (about 100K landowners), even a small loss of that total could be devastating. What's worse, it's not growing and not being replenished. With so many older Residents, this 100K will start being depleted naturally as people retire and/or scale back their income. Most successful MMOs can go on indefinitely (Ultima Online is still running), but that's because they're asking customers to pay $15/month or less. $199/month or more? Things get dicey.

In any case, this post isn't really arguing that SL should be like Facebook, just how perceptions and market attention can change so drastically.


Facebook works, Second Lifes been broke for agggeeeessss

Chimera Cosmos aka Liz Dorland

I still maintain that the so-called "golden age of Second Life" (where everyone knew about it and thought it was cool) is a total myth except in places like San Francisco and other "hip" cities. Commonwealth Club, Long Now Foundation, sure. Elsewhere, not so much.

Almost no one I knew in 2006 had ever heard of SL. And guess what? That's still true today! Two years ago, most educators didn't think of Twitter and Facebook as potential classroom tools. Now the discussion is everywhere, but still in its infancy.

Once the 2D web spaces start to seem less scary to the general public (and that's happening) then the benefits of 3D immersion will have a chance of going mainstream.

Hang in there. The revolution is still to come. ;-)

Chimera Cosmos

June Stormcrow


shockwave yareach

Yep. Once upon a time, SL and Facebook were toe and toe.

Then LL started controlling what people could and could not do, started bait and switch sales, tore up contracts, and forced people off their property. Meanwhile, Facebook did none of those things.

So who was right and successful here, the Morality police of LL or the "say what you like" crowd of Facebook?


Comparing facebook and Second life, is like comparing apples and a pile of rocks. Facebook is a social platform that is totally useless if you remove the social element.

Second Life is a simulator environment. Social activities exist within the virtual world, but are not needed or mandatory. They are also a very small portion of the activities available.

Second Life (Linden Lab) does not question your right to privacy. Even your name can be withheld from other users.

Facebook addresses your privacy concerns, but actively seeks to lessen your privacy. Face book would cease to exist with total privacy. Your name at the very least is required to use the site and fictitious accounts are eliminated as soon as they are discovered.


facebook was trying to make realife, virtual...
sl was trying to make the virtual, realife.

you tell me which is easier... and has a greater ROI was dollar makers.


The choice between Second Life and facebook is irrelevant. Use both or neither as you wish, it doesn't have to be a choice. They are two different things.

Facebook is herd mentality, just a fact, I'm not trying to put anyone down.
Second Life is individualistic.
Many Americans were brought up to respect individuality, until recently. The herd mentality is gaining ground the world over, but as many other trends or fads, that will change.

My point? Second Life and facebook are separate entities and should remain that way. Attempts to introduce facebook into Second Life will only lessen the Second Life experience. It won't really affect facebook at all. And hopefully, when the next big fad comes along and facebook is forgotten, Second Life will still exist--however small-- for those who still value it. And what is that value? It's not social networking. The thing that made Second Life and the remaining overwhelming value, is the 3-D building environment. Sure, it's got it's problems, but you can get into it and experiment without spending thousands of dollars or having expensive software.

Ciaran Laval

There's an interesting post on this sort of issue over at Gamasutra:

Joseph DeLappe

I wonder if Facebook won't eventually buy out Second Life or maybe FB will eventually develop 3d modeled avatars and a Second Life like virtual environment. Your facebook profile is already an avatar of sorts. It is only a matter of time. I tell my 20 something students, when introducing SL, that it is essentially FB with heads, hands, feet and a body.

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