Failure to Disrupt: Why Second Life Failed

Am I being premature? Second Life has outlived its many obituaries.

This is not an obit. At the same time, only the most ardent SL-cheerleaders would deny that the virtual world has stagnated. In the case of education, I expect no more than a gradual decline in participation.  Other worlds await us, and many of them are linked together and provide content. When I saw a noted artist from SL building in InWorldz, I knew something tectonic had shifted.

Why? Given that my PhD work was in the history of technological systems and public enthusiasm for them, I cannot resist a Rebel Yell on this topic. It’s taken a recent book, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, to convince me why Linden Lab failed to change the world. That was Philip Rosedale’s vision, if I correctly recall  the 2007 Rolling Stone profile of him.  The magazine pulled the story from its archives, but nothing really dies online, especially the sort of hubris behind this statement: “I like the idea of being a young Apollo. All marble. Like I’m made of stone.”

That is our Philip, quoted by reporter David Kushner.
Gone to his Head

I see two aspects of Linden Lab’s failure.

A Failure to Set Standards For Interoperability & Commerce

What the talented Mr. Rosedale failed to grasp is that the technology he brought to us was not godlike enough; it disrupted little and, when challenged, its keepers failed to innovate but instead worked harder to sustain a market they’d drawn from The Sims Online players and other early counterparts, then cornered.

Had Rosedale a better grasp of industrial history, as Tim Wu has in spades, he’d have seen the difference between what Wu calls disruptive and sustaining technologies. The former destroy whole industries while creating new ones and setting standards: the telephone ended telegraphy. The latter sort of technology continues the dominance of a current system: pricey SUVs kept Detroit in business for a few more years, AT&T Princess Phones hooked teenage girls on an existing technology but did nothing to change the nature of telephony. Something like Skype could, in theory, have ended telephony as we know it.

The Internet itself is, unsurprisingly, an inherently disruptive system of technologies. Just ask anyone still working at a record store, book shop, or newspaper.

The problem with a system controlled by a monopoly or small group, Wu contends, is that such control can deliberately hinder innovation. Researchers at Bell Labs, AT&T’s research firm, discovered magnetic tape and built a working telephone answering machine in the 1930s. AT&T suppressed this because management feared that recorded conversations might erode confidence in privacy and lead to less use of the telephone network. AT&T, a tethered and regulated monopoly working with the approval of the Federal Government, lacked the vision to see that the innovation, marketed well, might bolster its profits by creating new markets and needs beyond real-time voice.

Linden Lab is no AT&T of 1931, or even 2011, but it tried to act that way prematurely.

(Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

For a shining moment from 2005 to early 2007, about the time my avatar rezzed in world, Second Life was a media darling. Every brick-and-mortar business wanted an in-world store (without considering why anyone would shop there). No other virtual world could compete, and even as other grids developed from the Lab’s momentary generosity with its server code, Linden Lab could cheerfully pat them on the head and say of these spin-offs, essentially, “that crayon-drawing looks nice, kid.”

As management changed and OpenSim worlds evolved, offering pricing and features SL could not, however, some early work in interoperability ended. Thus the Lab pulled its version of AT&T’s blunder, but it did so before it had really set a standard: the Lab squashed an innovation from within that it could have dominated and developed.

These guys should hire more humanities types, ya think?

There are many precedents for customers and industry in such ham-handed actions. In the case of magnetic storage, Wu shows how it came to American shores not from AT&T’s Bell Labs (where it languished in censored research and buried memos) but from German firms. And it came decades later than it might have done. But Linden Lab did not have decades to dominate. In the era of broadband and ADHD media, it had a year.


Now OpenSim grids offer interoperability, and we’ll see some clever entrepreneurs develop features such as integrated social media, robust functionality on mobile devices, and an inter-grid marketplace.

So instead of becoming disruptive, Second Life’s new features were sustaining their temporary monopoly, with even voice offering little that a Skype connection could not.  Web-on-a-prim should have come years earlier, and it would have constituted a real step toward a “3D Internet,” a promise of Rosedale’s early and Apollonian days in SL.

The same is true of the Lab’s failure to make the Linden Dollar and SL Marketplace the de facto standards for all SL-derived worlds.  Linden Lab once had the market position and, key point, media spotlight to convince content-creators to license products for multiple grids. It also had enough respect for its currency to offer Linden exchanges outside of SL’s grid.

The lack of such a marketplace and currency-of-choice is temporary. Thomas Parke Hughes, an historian known for his scholarship on the rise of the electrical networks, refers to such obstacles to technological progress as a “reverse salients.” These may hinder forward moment much as a stubborn fortress might in an army’s line of march. Eventually, they are overcome, like Constantinople’s walls, or bypassed, like the Maginot Line.  I see no reason why, given the financial incentives for building an inter-grid market, that this salient won’t vanish like most others in the history of technology. This could have been an easy win for Linden Lab.
June 2010 Road Trip
But in both the case of interoperability and commerce, the Lab did not act. Instead they made the garden-wall around SL taller and thicker.

I am no insider to LL boardroom politics even third-hand, but I sense a failure of vision and a desire to stick to Rosedale’s Snow Crash ideal of making one big Grid, not a constellation of grids with a common currency, marketplace, and means of transportation.

We educators will live amid and build upon the rubble of the Lindens’ failed vision.

A Failure to Make a 3D Web

A virtual world with rich integration of Web resources would indeed be disruptive. Imagine an SL with a Unity-style client having been launched in 2007. Imagine the client bundled in every release of Firefox. We might meet mom and pop via our browser do more than exchange photos or status updates. If it were easy enough to use, we’d convene to race Formula-One cars we designed ourselves, or we’d play volleyball. In theory and with a better physics engine, SL had that potential.

Such environments could, for instance, replace current social networking. There are advantages to embodiment online, since we are wired as biological entities to react to other people in certain ways one does not see in the 2D world of a teleconference.  And I’m not just talking about cybersex.

A 3D Web experience could lead to, say, Amazon’s online bookstore yielding to a 3D one where virtual books could be perused as easily as one scrolls through an iPad or Kindle. As one browsed, reviews could be checked with a click to invoke a virtual copy, fellow customers chatted up real-time about their picks, and more. Second Life would be about selling the experience of buying books, not just making a fake version of a bookshop rezz online.

Experience is what occurred in Snow Crash‘s Metaverse, and to switch screens would be doing what Stephenson called “breaking the metaphor.”  On my imaginary 3D Internet, a Kohler customer could import a 3D mockup of their home to the grid, then rip out the kitchen and bath. Next, Lego-style, they’d plug in mesh items from Kohler’s in-world store. That would indeed be different from what companies like American Apparel tried in SL. In fact, with augmented reality and new projection devices, in-world objects might be projected into the actual living space. Here’s an SL ad from an alternative version of the year 2011:

Want to see what the IKEA chair looks like, Tyler Durden, in your swank living room? Put this IggyO Industries™ RLRezzer™ on the floor, then from your iPad’s Metaverse-Hopper app, click on the items your avatar just tried out in Second Life.  Don’t forget that you cannot sit on the hologram! Paypal and InterGridBux accepted!

Back to actual 2011 a.d.: Linden Lab failed because it did not think far enough outside the prim.

Will we ever get a 3D Web? Unlike routine vacations to lunar hotels, where the incentive may exist, the costs are not prohibitive and the infrastructure exists. I presume the Net Neutrality will continue and companies like Verizon and Comcast will be constrained, under FCC principles for Common Carriers, to act according. If not, other nations with more enlightened policies may build the next Internet. Like the Interstate system, it will transform daily life (and not in always wonderful ways).

June 2010 Road Trip

Whoever builds a 3D Web, I doubt that Linden Lab will be more than an historical footnote in e-texts about the next era of information technology.

The hour is past for them. Today I demo’ed our OpenSim build of House of Usher to the folks from our Digital Scholarship Lab. All went well with lag, rezzing, scripts, etc. When I mentioned that our campus has left SL, however, I got a telling reply from one senior technologist.

With no irony in his voice but with all the flatness of established fact, he changed the subject by saying, “Well, no one talks about Second Life anymore.”

(This article reprinted with permission from Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.)'

Joe Essid

Joe Essid directs the Writing Center at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses in the departments of English as well as Rhetoric & Communication Studies. He holds a PhD in American Literature, with a specialization in the History of Technology, from Indiana University. As Ignatius, Joe can be found wandering Second Life or, as Iggy Strangeland, in Open Sim grids. He writes for Prim Perfect about grids beyond SL. He has published several articles about pedagogically effective ways to teach with technology in writing-intensive classrooms. He also publishes short work about gardening, history of technology, and sustainability. Ever a geek, Joe designs and plays old paper-and-dice roleplaying games. His at-times snarky blog, "In a Strange Land," combines these interests from Joe's perspective as neo-luddite who rides a bike, refuses to use a cell phone, works on a farm, yet thinks avatars provide an ecologically sustainable way of communicating and building immersive simulations.

3 Responses

  1.' Iggy O says:

    This piece appeared in its original setting before Rod Humble became Linden Lab's CEO. He has some unique opportunities to revive the brand.

    My hope? As CEO, he could open SL up again as the standard for content creation and virtual currency across many grids. LL has the power and capital to overcome technical hurdles that could lead to licensing SL Marketplace Content to other compatible grids. With a click, I could download it, and I'd be a happy customer! Certainly, the problem of asset-theft after a hypergrid teleport is not insurmountable.

    Similarly, the Linden Dollar could have become the defacto currency of the connected galaxy of virtual worlds.

    I did not see anything to that effect in Hamlet Au's interview with Humble. Pity.

  2. LMPierce says:

    Thank you Iggy O, and a very clever line: “… Linden Lab failed because it did not think far enough outside the prim.”

    I feel the main critical loss to the community regarding Second Life is a loss of confidence in the paradigm of a substantial and stable virtual world community. Second Life seems to have been the standard bearer that educators and business people could make reference to. Many of us know that technologies like OpenSim and Unity have great strengths and potential, but the market is soured because Linden Labs has let so many people down before the alternatives have gained the critical mass and infrastructure to instill widespread confidence and migration. As a professional, I cannot recommend OpenSim without significant caveats, but I could recommend Second Life and feel that whatever shortcomings came with it, Second Life was still the industry standard.

    I have an upcoming meeting with technology educators to discuss the site for their college in Second Life. I am approaching our discussion in an entirely open-ended way, because there are no clear signals for me to give them. If, however, the discussion turns to a sour note regarding SL, it will be good to know that other educators have also found plenty to despair over regarding the de-evolution of Second Life.

    I believe us humanity types involved in virtual world technologies must also remember to “think outside the prim”, just as this article has illustrated in examples such as a 3D furniture projector for IKEA customers. We are informal guides during this time when public virtual worlds are in the “trough of disillusionment” (re: Gartner Hype Cycle).

  3. SL might be failing, but have OpenSim worlds ever been alive? The list of worlds here claims less than 53 thousand users for the most popular world with only 5400 uniques in last 30 days.