"How Facebook Killed the Virtual World" is a new editorial on Wired by my colleague Mark Wallace, who co-wrote a couple books about Second Life, edited the Second Life Herald blog, and worked for a short time at Linden Lab itself. Despite (or because) of that background, Mark Wallace now argues that Mark Zuckerberg's social network has eclipsed the once shining and buzzworthy idea of virtual worlds:
Facebook’s near-universal appeal — and virtual worlds’ near-universal failure — has as much to do with presentation as anything else. The very concept of a virtual world works against its acceptance. If I’m your great-aunt and I need a place to post pictures of your cousin’s bat mitzvah, I don’t necessarily mind joining a network in order to do so. But do I really want to join another world?
There's some truth to this, but saying "failure" seems to me a stretch. Because if we're to define "virtual worlds" as graphically simulated spaces in which users interact in real time through avatars (a definition that includes MMOs), that category is in aggregate still quite large; not only that, usage has been growing, not retracting, with the rise of Facebook:
Estimating very very roughly, there's well over 200 million people regularly using a virtual world. That's a quite conservative guess. Shanda, a single Chinese MMO game publisher, alone counts 90 million monthly active users across its online worlds. There are now MMOs and virtual worlds on iOS and Android mobile (which didn't exist a few years ago). As a multiplayer game, Minecraft is arguably a virtual world. And so on. (For that matter, about a third of Facebook users use Facebook to play social games which invoke a lot of virtual world concepts -- simulated spaces, avatars, virtual goods, etc.)
All in all, then, it's probably more accurate to say this: As an asynchronous web-based system that operates on real names, Facebook has made it far easier for more people to connect and share experiences with each other than any single virtual world. But for that very reason, virtual worlds still retain their value as an attractive "third space" online -- places where we can casually and imaginatively socialize through pseudonyms and whimsical contexts, in ways that Facebook generally falls short on, or even makes difficult to impossible. If I'm right, Facebook and virtual worlds will both keep growing, because they both provide social spaces many of us need for different contexts at different times, and for somewhat different reasons.
Hat tip: Petr Hastings-Vanbeeck