SHIFT: Why Second Life will never go mainstream

I'm convinced that most reporters who write about Second Life have never explored the world themselves. Maybe they read blogs about it or get press releases with screenshots from Linden Labs, but if they had actually "been" to the "3D online digital world," they wouldn't write about it as if it were a normal place, one where going shopping for Reeboks, attacking John Edwards' campaign headquarters, or raping innocent victims are everyday occurrences.

Until I decided to write this column, I had never been to Second Life. I signed up for a screen name months ago, when Second Life was appearing in the news every day, but after choosing my virtual name I had never downloaded the application that would have let me join the fun. I suspected that creating an avatar and exploring the "world" would be time-consuming, without much reward. I was dead right. The other week when I downloaded the program, I discovered just how much of a learning curve there is, and realized what I'd long suspected: Second Life requires far too much effort and expertise to become mainstream. More of what's wrong with Second Life after the jump.

It's Hard…
News outlets make it seem like anything goes in Second Life, and that anyone can just create a big scary male avatar and go around raping people if he wants to. Anything goes! It's dangerous out there! This isn't exactly the case. Users only have that sort of "freedom" when they know how to write programs that let them do something to someone else's avatar against that person's will. So far, all I know how to do is walk around and bump into people (which doesn't affect them at all). Anyone who commits any extraordinary crimes in Second Life is not just a sociopath, he or she is also a talented programmer with a lot free time. Second Life avatars don't even come with sexual organs. As with most things in Second Life, you either have to design them yourself with a 3D modeling system, or purchase them from an entrepreneurial designer.

Second Life is difficult from the beginning. After downloading an application, users need to complete twelve (twelve!) tasks on a training island before they're allowed to teleport to another training island where they can learn more Second Life skills. The tasks are simple: the idea is that if you are to be a citizen in Second Life you should at the very least know how to fly, drive, find user groups, and redesign your avatar. The training was tedious and took me around an hour to complete, partly because of an annoying programming glitch: my record of completed tasks kept disappearing. I'd bet that a lot of potential Second Life citizens never make it off of that first island.

…And not Very Fun
I did eventually make it onto the mainland, where I set off to find some friends. I had learned in my training how to teleport, so I transported myself to parts of the map that had the most active people. The first turned out to be a casino. Nobody there was socializing — everyone was gambling at slot machines, alone. This seemed like something people could do just as easily at epoker.com. In any case, I didn't see any potential friends lurking about.

The second location turned out to be a strip club called The Perfumed Garden. The conversation was mostly coming from pole dancers chatting with each other. I tried teleporting on the mainland one last time, and landed in a shopping mall full of ghetto-tastic jewelry for thugs.

I wandered away from that building, disconcerted. This is where people spend time in this world? The mainland is full of empty malls and poorly designed suburban-looking houses "for rent." One of my favorite activities in real life is swimming, so I "took a dip" in a few private swimming pools. It wasn't very fun. Or relaxing. Or even good exercise. And since the pools were created by random citizens, they had plenty of programming glitches: that's the problem with user-created content: Users aren't always so great at creating content.

Why Second Life?
Let's say that you'd like to frequent a website where you can network with friends, meet new people, explore common interests, express political beliefs, and even find love. There are a few of those websites out there, most notably Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster. But what about Second Life? In there, proponents might argue, you can do all those things and also fight dragons (or sleep with them).

The question that will largely determine Second Life's future is: Are people more interested in making friends and exploring common interests, or in finding the perfect hairstyle and lazing on a virtual beach? Because if they're more interested in the former, then they'd be better served by Facebook et al. It's easier to use at work (or at school), and it's less like a pyramid scheme.

As networking programs like MySpace and Facebook become more sophisticated, they may not create a space for those who really want to be a rabbit married to a hippopotamus, but they may begin satisfying more simple gaming needs, like joining your friends to battle an enormous robot (something I saw people doing in Second Life). Facebook now lets users develop applications — can a robot-fighting application be far behind? Regardless, Facebook and MySpace are free. They're easier to use at work as well — since Second Life needs to reside on your PC, good luck finding an employer that will let you install it. There's a reason that blogs get the vast majority of their readership on weekdays: exploring and networking is often a form of procrastination. It's harder to pop onto Second Life for a few minutes to see if a friend has changed her avatar, but checking her profile on Facebook just is a click away.

Second Life will probably continue to grow users steadily, but it will remain a niche application. Facebook and MySpace will win this war: Presidential candidates should spend their money there. And they would if the media stopped fawning over Second Life and had a better sense of what it is — difficult — and what it isn't: the future of mainstream Internet socializing.