Second Rate

Every time I see the words ‘Second Life’ and ‘Library’ used in conjunction with each other, I die a little inside.

As you may have guessed, I’m writing about this because I’ve been dying inside a lot lately. The primary culprit has been what came out of Internet Librarian 2007. Various people have been merrily blogging away from inside the conference and, to my sad surprise, there has been quite a bit of chatter about Second Life, including at least one presentation devoted to it. But the straw that broke my silence was Online Outreach session, which, according to the Shifted Librarian, started off with the following gem:

Name 3 places your library should be on the web besides your library’s website
From audience:
1. Second Life
2. MySpace
3. Flickr

Ye gods. Where to begin?

First off, unless your library’s website is – and this is rare in my experience – great or even just plain good, there is no ‘besides’. You should not be worrying a whole lot about your online presence elsewhere until your own house is in order, plain and simple. Your website is the place that all those other social sites are going to refer back to. If it looks terrible and has poor functionality, what, exactly, is the point of having a beautiful Second Life island (though I sure as heck don’t know why you’d want one) or an awesome MySpace page (if such a thing is actually possible)? It’s just going to turn your users and your potential users away.

Now, seeing as I’m sure everyone who was attending that particular presentation has an absolutely killer site that would leave me in awe were ever to visit it, I’d like to look in on the misplaced priorities the above list seems to indicate. Second Life should not be at the top of that list. It, in fact, should not be anywhere near the list at all.

The fascination the library industry seems to hold with this particular virtual world both disturbs and disappoints me *. This is because, and let me be blunt here folks: Second Life sucks. It’s not the future. It’s not really even the present. I would tender that there are exactly three reasons it gets so much play, particularly from various media outlets.

  1. It’s a lot easier to explain to the uninitiated what Second Life is and how it works than something like, say, World of Warcraft (WoW). The former is a virtual dollhouse or sandbox game, with direct parallels to real life. The latter is an MMORPG which offers more structured play and is more akin to Dungeons and Dragons (only it’s much more repetitive).
  2. People are fascinated by the much-touted idea of owning virtual real estate. Not that this is not a new concept either; the daddy of modern virtual worlds, Ultima Online has been doing this since 1997, and I’m sure we could find some granddaddy MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) or MUSHs that did it too, if on a smaller, more primitive scale.
  3. On a slow news day, it’s relatively quick and easy to write up a piece about how player x built the world’s first virtual car dealership in Second Life and make is sound important.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I agree that libraries need a strong digital presence. I’ve also been known to play around in virtual worlds for fun and profit (more of the former than the latter, it must be said). It’s just that I very much doubt that Second Life is a worthwhile place to be focusing library resources. It suffers from usability issues – the utterly unintuitive camera system and clumsy inventory management mechanism immediatly spring to mind. It also labours under a host of technical problems, not the least of which is an outdated engine and a lack of scalability. It’s increasingly becoming dominated by marketers and advertisers and business interests; corporate space, rather than public or even private space. But all of that would be forgivable if it were popular enough. You can, for example, get away with establishing a presence on MySpace because it’s wildly popular in spite of its (many) flaws. But Second Life is not popular enough to justify spending large amounts of time and money establishing a presence there.

What may not realise is that when Linden Labs say that they have almost 10 million registered accounts or ‘residents’, this does not mean that 10 million people play Second Life. This is an inflated number that discounts the fact that each real person – each unique user – can have multiple accounts, and does not factor in how much each account gets used. Put another way, this means that you’re considered part of that 10 million if you’ve ever created an account, even if you only logged in once for half an hour. If you created five accounts, all five are seen as part of that 10 million, even though they’re all owned and used by the same person. Their week-to-week amd month-to-month stats suffer from this same conceit – they count ‘residents’, not actual, individual users.

So, how many people actually play second life then? Various estimates put their real user base at but a fraction of that 10 million, and their number of active users (individual people who have used the service in the past 30 days) at between 200,000 and 300,000. While I don’t have statistics on this, I’d be willing to bet good money that a noticeable percentage of those 200,000 are corporate shills or educators of varying stripes – that is, people who are paid to be there.

Now, once upon a time this figure of 200,000 would not have been a bad set of numbers for an MMO/virtual world. But ‘once upon a time’ was pre-World of Warcraft. WoW now claims 9 million subscribers world wide**. Second Life also falls short in the concurrency stakes (the number of users in a single game world at any one time), a prize which goes to Eve Online, a game that claims a mere but realistic 200,000 users. Oh, and Eve also allows players to own things in game, has a limited out-of-game transaction system and has such a complex economy that the developer just hired an economist to help them keep it ticking over.

Be realistic: how many of your users and potential users play around with Second Life? How many of them are even aware of what it is in more than a vague, ‘seen it on the telly’ kind of way? How many of them have both the computing power and level of internet access needed to run it? And how many of these people are going to want to download the client to talk to you, particularly when their current set of instant messaging programs will get the job done with far less hassle?

“But Second Life is the way of the future!” I hear the people cry. “Just because it’s not really popular right now doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be!” I hate to break it to you, but it’s in its fourth year of existence. If it were going to get wildly popular, it would have done so by now, especially with all the unwarranted media interest. And yes, while 3D social networks may well be the way forward, Second Life is not the future, given form. We’re still waiting for the killer virtual world social application to arrive – the true ‘metaverse’ of Snow Crash that is good looking, deep and, above all else, fun and intuitive to use. Keep a weather eye out for it. My money’s tentatively on google right now.

“If not Second Life, then what, oh wise one?” you ask? Well, as you might have gathered from my earlier talk on getting your website in order before all else, I like fundamentals. Kill time waiting for the killer app by learning to love major instant messaging clients. Download Trillian or another program that connects to multiple IM services (or use meebo), sign up for library accounts on each supported one, then log on and stay logged on. Get all of your staff members to do the same, and get chatting. Get your users’ IM account details as signup and be sure to add them to the library account promptly, and be sociable if they decide to interact with you. It’s all free, cheap and easy, can be integrated into your website, and doesn’t waste a lot of your time if your users don’t take to it. Already got a killer site with an awesome, intergrated OPAC and superb IM reference service? Now you can go and play around with Facebook as much as you want.  Just don’t touch Second Life.

*It also occasionally infuriates me, but this, I’m, told, is a Character Flaw.
**A figure you should, as with any developer statement, take with a grain of salt. While closer to reality than what Linden Labs uses, it is still not an accurate estimate of the number of unique users.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 4:10 am  Comments (3)  
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