What happened to Second Life?

Second Life is an online multimedia platform where users can create a personalized avatar and interact with a virtual world. The platform was created by Philip Rosedale, who in 1999 formed Linden Lab to create hardware that would enable people to become immersed in other worlds.

Over the subsequent years, Rosedale shifted his focus toward software, releasing the application Linden World where users could complete task-based games and “socialize” in a three-dimensional online environment. In October 2002, Linden World was renamed Second Life with some early creators spending as many as 60 hours per week on the platform.

The platform was initially popular with over 2 million registered accounts by January 2007. At its peak, tech companies such as IBM and Dell created virtual offices within the Second Life world and bands played live gigs. Second Life surpassed 36 million accounts by 2013, but the popularity of the platform vanished almost as quickly as it appeared. Today, estimates suggest there are only around 900,000 active users.

Social networks

After the platform peaked around 2007, the emergence of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube caused a slow and steady decline in the number of Second Life users. 

Social media networks took many users away from Second Life primarily because they were the next big thing. There was also another key difference. Facebook, for example, did not require users to be on its network at the same time. Indeed, as long as there were frequent posts and status updates, users remained engaged with the platform. In Second Life, however, users needed to be online at the same time to interact. As a result, those who were online found that special events and other aspects of the platform were poorly attended and utilized.

What’s more, it became difficult to convince users to stay in a virtual world when they could interact with friends in the real world online – particularly when considering the issues mentioned in the following sections.

Usability issues

While Second Life was one of the first incarnations of the metaverse, it was to some extent ahead of its time. To run properly, the platform required a computer with a dedicated graphics card that most simply did not have. This problem was exacerbated by a shift toward laptops with slower integrated graphics cards that rendered Second Life slow or unresponsive.

Even those with access to more powerful computers found that the platform suffered from inadequate broadband speeds in most countries.

Learning curve and product confusion

Another factor affecting usability was the steep learning curve of Second Life and confusion as to whether it was a game, a social network, a virtual world, or all of the above.

The immense learning curve of Second Life was admitted by Rosedale in a 2016 interview with CNET: “Although Second Life is still challenging to get used to, about 10 percent of newly created residents are still logging [in] weekly, three months later.”

In essence, Second Life was hard to learn because with the world at their fingertips, individuals could not decide what to do or where to go. When they did decide on a course of action, it sometimes took hours to figure out how to complete simple actions like sitting down or initiating a conversation.

The usability issues combined with confusion over the product caused many to lose interest in the platform very quickly.

Controversies

Like many similar platforms that are loosely regulated, Second Life has attracted its fair share of controversies that have caused reputational harm. The platform has hosted several virtual riots and Ponzi schemes based on the in-game currency. 

It has also been associated with increased cybersecurity risks around personal data and potential violations of anti-money laundering laws. At one point, the platform’s casinos were also visited by the FBI as part of a crackdown on offshore gambling websites.

Key takeaways:

  • Second Life is an online multimedia platform where users can create a personalized avatar and interact with a virtual world. Second Life surpassed 36 million accounts by 2013, but the popularity of the platform vanished almost as quickly as it appeared.
  • Second Life suffered from the rise of social media networks in the late 2000s, which did not require users to be online at the same time to interact. The game also experienced usability issues since it required a dedicated graphics card to run. Usability problems were also compounded by the fact that the product was poorly defined and required a steep learning curve that many were not willing to commit to.
  • Second Life was also not immune to many of the controversies that plague loosely regulated online platforms. These include actual or alleged instances of money laundering, Ponzi schemes, illegal gambling, and cybersecurity risks.

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