When I joined SL, there was one big thing that it was renowned for and two that it wanted to be renowned for. The one big thing it was renowned for was sex, which Linden ended up moving onto its own continent and adult sims, causing huge controversy amongst residents at the time. For example, enormous helicopters came to airlift entire adult clubs across the sea – some still with dancers in them – resulting in three venues being lost at the bottom of the ocean in a series of “unrelated” in-flight accidents. Actually, it wasn’t that controversial, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking so at the time.
The first of the two things it wanted to be renowned for was business, by which I mean RL companies establishing an SL presence. I’m still not entirely certain how it was that Linden actually visualised the manifestation of this idea. What exactly was there that a car company, for example, could achieve in the metaverse? Were they expected to bring products to the SL market such as officially licensed versions of their RL creations? Were they expected to promote their RL business through inworld sales reps and SL freebies? I’m fairly certain I must still have an old Mazda hatchback in my inventory from this period; thinking of it now brings back a fuzzy memory of a gleaming showroom in a pristine sim – spoiled only by newbies zooming and bumping around in their free Mazdas. I might be wrong, but I think it possible that a constant stream of simulated fatal road accidents just outside the store wasn’t quite the image the company had been hoping for in the metaverse. It might not have been Mazda, by the way – there were quite a few car companies in SL back then.
Then again, the very same question – what were they expecting? – could probably have been asked of the web back in the days of its early expansion prior to the dotcom boom. Companies practically fell over each other back then to throw themselves onto that bandwagon, with little actual strategy as to what they were going to do on the web once they got there. Much the same could be said today for the continuing stampede of businesses to Facebook and Twitter. Does anyone actually follow these organisations for reasons other than a Like getting you some sort of discount voucher or extra levels in Angry Birds? Is there anything other than simple raw exposure to be gained from establishing your business there?
I’ve more or less come to the conclusion that simple raw exposure was about the only bit of the SL business boom that was actually worked out. In came organisations like Vodafone, Sony, Mazda, Renault, Mercedes, Coca Cola, the BBC and Calvin Klein, lured by Linden’s seductive talk of SL as the ‘3D Internet’. The rhetoric was all about developing new ways of “interacting and developing our relationship with our customers”, but really this was just another stampede of organisations wanting to be part of the Next Big Internet Thing. The details of what they were actually going to do could be worked out once they’d opened their nice shiny building with their logo on the front: basically, a website made 3D.
But Second Life didn’t become the Next Big Internet Thing; once that was obvious, all the businesses left.
The second of the two things SL wanted to be renowned for was education. There was a lot of talk about this back in 2007, with a number of universities signing up and establishing virtual presences, encouraged in part by the reduced tier Linden was offering at the time for educational organisations. I’m not unduly bothered by the departure of business, because I see that only as a consequence of SL’s mainstream popularity: if SL were to become big one day, the businesses would return in the snapping of a finger; no-one’s really the worse off for their absence and it’s not like they attract new people to the metaverse. But the failure to establish SL as a worthwhile platform for learning is an enormous shame.
Unlike business, it’s not hard at all to imagine how education could work in the metaverse. In the real world, training sessions are hampered by two key logistical and financial factors: venue and travel. For sure it’s a swings and roundabouts situation: no-one would deny the benefit of being in the physical presence of a skilled trainer for a teaching session, but if that trainer happened to live on a different continent to you and attending a session run by him or her in Second Life would cost you $50 instead of the $1000 you simply couldn’t afford on travel and accommodation, wouldn’t that be an acceptable compromise?
Obviously, SL isn’t the only way in which online education can be achieved. There’s a staggering number of educational videos to be found on YouTube these days, from filmed speeches to custom made animations: many of these are excellent and I think it would be true to say that the earnest learner has never had it quite so good. But teaching has always held interaction close to its heart and this is the unique selling point that SL has – had – to offer online education. When you’re in a class you get the opportunity to ask questions. The teacher gets to gauge from your questions your understanding and can modify his or her strategy. As an RL trainer myself from time to time, I often find myself branching off – pulling up completely different slides from those I’d originally intended to talk to – because a question from an attendee reveals something I need to explain better.
And learning, let’s not forget, is a social experience. The conversations we have with our fellow learners help us to make sense of the material we’re hearing. No YouTube video gives you the opportunity to whisper in the ear of classmates who are hearing the exact same thing as you are at the exact same moment.
Second Life is now marketed by Linden as a ‘shared, creative space’. In one respect, that’s fine: I’m certainly not going to undermine the value of creativity. But most of the education institutions have gone now: it’s an opportunity missed and a lesson not learned.