Last week I argued that Second Life is misnamed, and should thus be re-branded, because few people, even active SL users, actually seem to want a "second life". Why do I think this? Because of Second Life's actual user activity patterns. These are Linden Lab's last published granular stats:
These figures are from August 2009, but there's no reason to think they've changed much since then. (If anything, active user hours seem to have decreased.) As you can see, 54% of the userbase is in SL less than 3 hours a month. On the other end of the spectrum, only 6% are in-world 200 hours or more per month, which averages out to 6+ hours a day. As a Linden staffer once said of them, "Those people really do want a second life". But again, they're a fraction of the total userbase. For the vast majority, the usage patterns strongly suggest people who use SL for light and/or occasional entertainment, not a "second life".
Are there different ways to interpret this user data? Maybe:
For example, you could argue that many of the 41% in the 4-200 hour/month band want something like a second life. If you log in-world, say, only 8 hours a month, but those 8 hours are incredibly intense and immersive, I suppose it could be described as a "second life". But then again, that would be a minority. It's extremely difficult to imagine people logging in less than 3 hours a month doing anything that rises to the category of "second life".
To be sure, a lot of SL activity happens outside of SL. Nowadays I go in-world maybe 12 hours a month, but probably spend 40 hours writing about Second Life here, and looking at other SL blogs and media. But again, it's hard to describe that activity as a "second life", with an identity and activity that's totally removed from my first life. That's true of most web-based SL activity. Almost all SL blogs are about virtual fashion, where avatars are treated not as a separate identity, but as the owner's personal Barbie doll. Almost all SL users on Plurk, the popular microblogging service, seem to spend as much time talking about their RL family and day-to-day issues, as they do talking about SL. I know very few SL avatars (and I suspect you don't either) who keep their real and virtual identity totally separate. (They at least reveal their RL geographic location, RL gender, basic details like that.)
So what's the best way to interpret this user activity? Probably this: Most active SL users seem to want a separate identity only inasmuch as they use it for online activities they enjoy: Lightly socializing, playing in-world games, fashion, creating content, and so on. This is not to discount the very active and impressive roleplaying communities of SL, but again, they're a minority. And in that case, their activity is probably best described overall as gaming, not roleplaying. (It's generally believed most MMO players do not actively or consistently roleplay in the guise of their character.)
When Linden Lab first launched Second Life, they did so on the belief that people would embrace the idea of having an alternate identity where they could explore, develop, and experiment with different aspects of their identity. And to be sure, some do that; but overall, however, the hard numbers strongly suggest most don't -- certainly not with any evident fervency or long-term engagement.
At the same time, there's a much larger market of millions who've tried Second Life, and walked away, most of them confused by what they're supposed to do in Second Life -- other than have a "second life", which most of them aren't looking for. Which again brings me back to my advice to Linden Lab, paraphrasing Don Draper: If you don't like what people are saying about Second Life, change the conversation. And start by changing a name that isn't even accurate to how your product's actually being used.