Second Life was ahead of its time

Around fifteen years ago, some big brands started playing in Second Life.

For me, memorable names and what they did include General Motors with a cool Pontiac sports car: that’s virtual me behind the virtual wheel in the photo above. GM issued a press release in October 2006 about starting up in SL.

There was Dell who experimented not only with letting you configure and buy a computer in Second Life but also getting customer service and tech support. They held a virtual press conference in November 2006 to announce their plans.

And Coca-Cola, who I mentioned in a previous post, ran brand events including contests in Second Life in 2007.

In June 2006, Shel Holtz and I set up a virtual outpost of our For Immediate Release podcast where we could meet listeners and chat about all the kinds of things of mutual interest as you would in a real-world venue.

And there were others: IBM, Cisco, ABN Amro Bank, the BBC, Mazda, Sun Microsystems and many more – there’s a long list of real-world companies who experimented in Second Life.

Much of this past action isn’t in the mainstream memory today when people talk about ‘the metaverse’ and make comparisons with Second Life those years ago.

I think we’re now so used to powerful computers and mobile devices, amazing graphics, network connectivity on demand, always on, wherever you are… it was a very different picture in the mid-2000s where many people still used dial-up modems, costly but fast (relatively) ISDN if you were lucky, to get online.

Think about it – in average terms, only 16.8% of the world’s population had access to the Internet in 2006, and that was not evenly distributed. In 2021, it had improved to 63% but still not evenly distributed as this chart from Statista illustrates.

As Statista notes:

“In 2021, it was estimated that 90 percent of people living in developed countries used the internet, compared to 57 percent of individuals living in developing markets. The global online access rate was 63 percent. In the least developed countries, there was an estimated 27 percent of internet access in 2021.

In an interview published today in the English-language edition of Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Wagner James Au – writer, consultant, and author of the highly-rated The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World published in 2008 – makes reference to lack of connectivity in those early days as well as the dearth of widely-available capable computing equipment:

When it started, you really needed a desktop computer and a dedicated broadband line and that only applied to about 10% of the population at the time. Back then, only gamers had that kind of equipment. Even as Second Life got more and more mainstream [attention], the technology requirements were not mainstream. Then there was the user experience which, even today, looks like it was created by engineers versus designers.

Back then, you really did need to have bags of enthusiasm to persevere with using Second Life. His reference to gamers might help you see why so many people refer to Second Life as a game, which it really is not.

Wagner says that Second Life could have been much bigger if Linden Lab, the creators, hadn’t made some bad decisions early on:

It was intended to be used by hundreds of millions of people and its creators had aspirations to build the metaverse. But Second Life couldn’t run on a laptop. And then there was a shift to smartphones. There is still no official Second Life app, which is just mind-boggling.

As for the future and how metaverses might develop, Wagner is pretty bearish:

There’s a very good chance that metaverse platforms will not grow further. If you consider Roblox a metaverse platform, which I do, it has 200 million active users. But since its IPO, Roblox has not grown. Its website traffic is not growing. And my theory, I call it the Metaverse Age Cliff, is that metaverse platforms are really popular with kids into their teens or early 20s. But usage drops really quickly around 24 or so. We can infer a lot of reasons for that. People start becoming adults, going out on dates, hanging out with friends, getting jobs and families and they have less time. They’ll still use metaverse platforms but it’ll be for an hour.

Second Life today has 900,000 monthly average users according to Linden Lab, pretty far short of Roblox’ 200 million or so.

Yet we’re not comparing like with like. I see Wagner’s perspective but I have optimism for virtual worlds and Second Life. It isn’t likely to become ‘The Metaverse’ (capital M) but, broadly speaking, if you make it so compelling that people will want to come and spend their time there, you’re in a good place. Whether you can make it a business success, well, that’s another matter.

Still, I think it’s got a good chance of developing into ‘a metaverse’ (lower-case m). I’m still in Second Life from time to time; look me up and connect if you’d like to chat.

We need to showcase those early adopters I mentioned before to illustrate that what they did paved the way in so many ways for what others are doing today across the whole spectrum of Web 3 and metaverses.

And it matters.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.