Package holiday to Second Life

Given my current project to get immersed in all things social media, it was only a matter of time before I washed up on the shores of Second Life. It’s the online community of the moment, the one you can’t avoid hearing about – but also the one I approached with the least personal enthusiasm.

It didn’t start well. After registering and downloading the software, I initially found I couldn’t use the teleport function, which in Second Life is rather like being house bound: no fun at all. Even though a subsequent download of beta software seemed to fix it the problem keeps recurring at random moments. Today, for example, it worked fine first thing but then not at all since.

Second Life Logo

Trying to sort this out plunged me into the Second Life website’s myriad of alleged help pages, which ranged from bland basic “how to” FAQs of no help at all, through user forums where there were lots of questions and complaints but no answers, to a wiki that points back to the support centre home page and an incident tracker that’s an IT service desk manager’s vision of hell and should never be let anywhere near the general public. It wasn’t reassuring when I found my issue was already logged – and was some 30 pages long, compiled from dozens of different incidents, and despite being ongoing for a year was still classed as ‘unresolved.’

I think somewhere in my travels I read that Second Life were worried about user retention – and that there was mention of a 90% drop-out rate or new members within the first hour? As astronomical as that sounds, after my own experiences I can well believe it. Only complete stubbornness and my inner geek kept pushing me to keep trying. And for a time the software was stable enough to allow me to take a touring holiday of the promised virtual land.

Despite glitches that make this seem more like a modest beta release than anything resembling a read-for-public release, it’s nonetheless astounding what Linden Labs – the makers of Second Life – have accomplished with this software. A massive world of thousands of locations, with tens of thousands of simultaneously logged-in users, all able to walk through, interactive with and even build the world around them. And all delivered to the quality of a console game of the likes of the original Tomb Raider – only built completely on the fly and then successfully stuffed down a broadband connection.

The fact that the members of the world are also adding to it is crucial, because it means that the world is as creative and imaginative as only thousands and thousands of completely individual minds can make it. No one person or team has built this: in one area you might find a world right out of Blade Runner; in another, an island retreat with a village in the shadow of a towering castle keep; a Japanese garden here, an ordinary business street there, now an office block, over there an Italian Renaissance township. There’s even a vision of hell – but apparently it’s quite difficult to get into, despite what the moral guardians in the real world tell you.

Orbiting dance club

My personal favourites include a terribly inaccurate but charming pastiche of London (Big Ben is apparently in Chelsea, and you can bungee from it) and a very geeky online Doctor Who experience that catalogues with incredible anal retentiveness every type of Tardis console and exterior ever seen in the original classic series. Top of my list however would be an orbiting dance club, situated in an asteroid field and offering some of the most wonderful vistas I’ve seen in Second Life. Even the trance music is to my taste, and I can spend long periods of time spinning around the universe up there watching everyone else float by. You can find some other great locations on Second Life from New World Notes by Wagner James Au, Second Life’s “embedded journalist”.

But the thing with being a tourist is, after a while it gets a bit dull just wondering around and seeing the sights. An online community has to offer more than just vistas: it has to offer community too, and there didn’t seem to be much of that around. Other than a few introductory exercises and notices to help you learnt to walk, pick things up and fly, there wasn’t much in the way of a welcome wagon from Second Life itself. Most of the people I ran into were similarly bemused, walking into the furniture and too busy attending to their appearance to chat. (In fairness – so was I for the first week.) The one conversation I did have went something along the lines of:

Her: “You look hot. Want to be my boyfriend?”.
Me: “No thanks”
Her: ” Why not?”
Me: “I’ve only just met you.”
Her: “So? Why can’t you be my boyfriend?”

Fearing this level of emotional maturity was worryingly suggestive of pre-teen entrapment, I got the hell out of Dodge. Thank goodness the teleport function was working that day.

One more time around the universe...

As well as bringing the best of our creative natures, it seems we’ve also brought the worst of ourselves to this new land – “wherever you go, there you are” as the saying runs. Too many places are littered with crass adverts; other supposedly public places shut you out midstride with red ‘do not enter’ forcefields. Buildings are locked and barred, fraud and theft is as rife as in the real world. And then there are the ‘griefers’ – the equivalent of message board ‘trolls’. These clowns unleash waves of icons (Bill Cosbys, demonic Captain Americas) all yipping away with some random sampled sound as they swarm and flood over the area making it completely unusable for the duration. Actually, the first couple of times I found it fascinating and great fun – but it gets old pretty quickly.

What I have I have enjoyed is just sitting around and people (avatar?) watching. And you see all types of people – from elves to trolls, Amazonian women dating Darth Vader, vampires and angels walking side by side. My own avatar – as you’ll see from the screen shots – is very ordinary, just jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and jacket: I just didn’t think I could pull off the winged look, not this soon.

I’ve watched an “only in Second Life” gun fight (one person pulls out a gun, the next pulls out a machine gun; the first person responds with a cannon, and the second trumps it with anti-aircraft artillery from the deck of a warship.) And I’ve watched the sadder moments, as an avatar created the basic building blocks of a mausoleum for another Second Life character, before packing up the building blocks to take them away to the intended resting place. I depart, wondering whether it’s the avatar or the person behind that character has passed away – and realise than in some genuine sense it doesn’t make any difference to the moment.

But still for me there wasn’t a connection to this place, a reason for being here. It looked nice, and was a decent idle distraction for a half hour or so, but would I really return here much – or at all?

Lounging in front of the virtual fire

Fortunately I have one trump card – the fact that I’m a member of The WELL (the “original” online community, you might say, from when text-only bulletin boards were the awesome, advanced thing of their day.) It seems that everywhere I go on the social web, there will be some WELL members already there – and it makes all the difference to have someone to call up and say “Help!” or more likely “WTF?!”

By chance I happened to be sleepless and awake this morning at 4am and was online. I fired up the Second Life viewer by habit, and for the first time got an invitation to meet up from a real live WELL friend. (The 4am is key here – being in London it means that I’m in the wrong time zone for most real time, synchronous events. It’s why I like the asynchronous communities like The WELL for the most part, since the 4am thing really is once in a very long while.)

I got a tour of a lovely quiet corner of Second Life, beautifully realised and charming with its little passages and hideaways concealing all manner of deft touches. And I learnt the history of this place from my friend which gave it a truly affecting personal resonance – as well as revealing a whole new side to someone that I had never had the chance to know on The WELL and who has now sadly passed away. Second Life had managed to make me truly sorry that I had not been able to get to know them better.

So finally Second Life had given me something truly worth the trip which I would treasure. The irony of it is that it was with friends from an older online community, and when we stood around ‘talking’ it was through the medium of type – IMs – just as it would have been back on The WELL. The only difference is that I could watch their avatars’ hands dancing in mid air to illustrate them typing: the audio chatter of birdsong and the distant rumble of thunder over the speakers were the only multimedia enhancements of merit there. Oh, and I got a Cuban cigar and a glass of port to play with as we chatted, which were greatly appreciated.

Enjoying that Cuban cigar

One thing that Second Life can do that would be hard in any other online community environment is performance: there are plenty of stages that bands can rent and put on a show, and there’s even a replica Globe Theatre for a serious acting troupe to work with. I’d be interested in seeing how companies can use these tools to do corporate presentations or engage staff; and moreover, how governments and politicians can reach out and engage with citizens.

I haven’t seen anything like that yet, but the prospect is one of the reasons why I set up my avatar – as a foothold in Second Life, a quick way of getting back in should an intriguing prospect come up. I’m on the look-out and if you know any good events coming up then let me know, so that I can write part two of this article- instead of ‘package holiday’ you could say it would be more like ‘business trip to Second Life’.

And if you’re around Second Life and bump into Draml Braveheart, do say hello – unless you’re a pre-teen angling for a boyfriend waaaaaaay too old for you!


  1. Fantastic piece, almost made me want to revisit SL. Maybe I will.

  2. Sebastian Crump

    You have not sold the ticket to me at all, I’m afraid.

    I also remain unconvinced that too much real world should be foisted upon SL. Surely, part of the ‘attraction’ is the escapism. Why would you want to face the real world messages, especially sensible governmentesque thou should/n’t. Therefore it will not really be getting to that ‘hard to reach’ demographic but only those that are engaged with the issues already. I have similar concerns about in-game advertising.

    [Disclaimer – same as Andrew’s 😉 ]

  3. andrewlewin

    I’m not convinced I’ve sold myself on SL, either, but I do find myself popping in on a regular basis, and it’s growing on me. I’ll doubtless do a follow-up piece before long.

    No, my only point is: at least try it out. See what the fuss is about. It may very well not be for you, but for anyone working in social media, SL is going to come up and we should at least know what it is, how it works, and have experienced it before we advise others, even if it’s just to be able to say: “don’t do it, and here’s why.”

    I can’t agree with the idea that we shouldn’t intrude on escapism; otherwise we should apply that to the web, or TV, or any other entertainment channel. In any case, much of SL is reimaginations of real world items like economies and shops and jobs, anything that’s relevant to the users. Are we really saying that government and politics are not relevant to people using SL?

    To blunder in and do it wrong can be a disaster or at least embarrassing, but not to do it means we are failing to reach out to key demographics impossible to reach any more through traditional channels. The trick is making it work in the environment, for the audience – just as we’ve made government information work on the web which was similarly resisted at the start. So for example, could we create an island with a working parliamentary democracy and use it to show people how the UK system works, give them a chance to try it and engage with it? For drugs/drink, could we use it to simulate the effects of a bad trip/one too many? For Army recruitment could we model realistic training scenarios and hardware? And so on and so forth. It’s a whole new way of providing key information in an engaging way.

  1. 1 Second appearances « andrewlewin: let me think about that …

    […] So does this mean I’m having a better time of Second Life since my first look earlier this month? […]

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