Second Life: What it is and why it matters - a Social Signal white paper (and spoiler)

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So you've been reading, seeing and hearing all the hype about Second Life, but you're not really, exactly, completely sure... um... what it is. Or why you should care.

I may be able to help. Catherine and I are releasing Social Signal's white paper Second Life: What it is and why it matters today, free for the downloading. (It's a PDF, about 450 kb in size. It's also a pretty quick read, so it's perfect as a crib sheet before your next chichi cocktail party, where you'll be the one who doesn't have to fake-nod-and-laugh their way through the inevitable Second Life conversation.)

But let me spoil the ending. Here's why Second Life matters:

  • It's a big community, and growing quickly: from 100,000 user accounts at the end of 2005 to well over 2 million today. That's a lot of people.
  • It's social. You can quickly develop an extensive network of contacts, professional and personal, using everything from Second Life's built-in interest group functions to chance encounters.
  • It's a community of open-minded, motivated users. Second Life residents are coming to that world expressly to engage, and its very nature encourages active participation.
  • It's instantly ready for e-commerce. Whether you want to raise funds or sell virtual widgets, you can set up shop quickly and easily without getting entangled in merchant accounts or security certificates.
  • It's a no-to-low-cost way to collaborate and communicate. Your team members can join each other quickly and easily from around the world, whether for an informal chat or a two-hour meeting.
  • It's an ideal space for innovation and experimentation. The informal rules and economic structure of Second Life are still shifting, and the opportunities for social and technological innovation abound.
  • It's a uniquely rich experience. Think of the intensity of video, the interactivity of the web, the intimacy of face-to-face contact – combined. Now think of how that level of communication can enrich your engagement with an audience.
(By the way, for a healthy reality check on Second Life's numbers, have a look at Wagner James Au's blog post from December. He's suitably skeptical, but his overall conclusions are still very positive.)


Clay Shirky says

January 4, 2007 - 9:33am
But Wagner James Au's piece says Second Life *doesn't* have 2 million people, right? It's not nearly as big as you claim.

Beth Kanter says

January 5, 2007 - 8:23am
Alex: Congrats on your Open House! I got my time zones mixed up and missed it, but looks like you a good crowd. we should not focus on the numbers just yet as it brings out the naysayers (case in point - one of your commenters). What isn't being discussed is the experiences we're having in second life and what we're learning in terms of using it for social change, education, and community.

Rob Cottingham says

January 5, 2007 - 4:01pm

Clay, the struggle continues over how best to frame SL numbers concisely, in part because a precise number of individual users is impossible to come by - hence my link to James' article. And it's to avoid misleading people that I say "user accounts" and not "people" or "residents".

(Background for readers who haven't been following the story: Clay Shirky posted a scathing and controversial article at Valleywag last month suggesting that Second Life's numbers, and the way many tech reporters cover them, are unrealistic. To put it mildly, debate in the blogging world ensued.) 

But we think the two million figure, relative to one million user registrations in October and one hundred thousand a year ago, says volumes about Second Life's trajectory. And my point stands: growth from one hundred thousand to two million user accounts represents a lot of people.

Finally, I think Beth's right: the numbers debate is ultimately much less important than the actual experience people have within Second Life. (Incidentally, she has a superb discussion of that experience here; be sure to read the comments as well.)   

Jordan says

January 4, 2007 - 11:01am
Thanks for the great read! In a not-so-bizarre coincidence, my wife found herself in one of those "inevitable Second Life conversations" just yesterday, so the timing of this post couldn't have been better. I think I'll finally go to the trouble of filling out my SL profile too, surrendering BadBad Leroy's anonymity. He is me, and I am him. Thanks again for the help with navigating through the virtual world Social Signallers, all.

Pramit says

January 9, 2007 - 4:23am
I have doubts on Second Life. I fear it becoming a glorified Myspace- spammers and all.

Rob Cottingham says

January 10, 2007 - 4:43pm
Pramit, I've read your blog post and I'm still not sure I understand what you mean by spammers in Second Life. I'm even less sure how opening-sourcing the viewer leads to spamming; can you elaborate?

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