why second life failed

This post is about why Second Life failed – but not in the sense of, “here are the reasons why Second Life failed,” but instead, “here is why it is true that Second Life failed.”

Slate published an article titled “Why Second Life Failed” that also, like this post, is not an elucidation of reasons why SL failed – but unlike this post, it is not an authentic attempt to support the proposition that SL indeed failed. It is simply an effort to market a new book by posting an article with a catchy headline. There is an unavoidable paradox in that any marketable headline with the structure “Why [X] Failed” must use for X something that has first achieved at least some significant success, otherwise the title would be too obscure to attract readers. I started a company called Bynamite that folded after less than two years – no one writes articles titled “Why Bynamite Failed” because no one’s ever heard of Bynamite.

This mild paradox isn’t sufficient defense for SL’s ardent users and thoughtful critics. As is often the case with posts about SL’s demise, the comments to the Slate article are full of well-informed, intelligent and passionate conversation that puts the original article to shame. At Terra Nova, Greg Lastowka suggests that SL remains fertile ground for study, with the pointed rejoinder that “Second Life never failed – the media reporting on Second Life failed.”

As a former Linden, I appreciate the desire to insist that Second Life hasn’t failed. I joined Linden Lab in 2005, at a time when we had a few dozen employees and registered users in the tens of thousands. By the time I left four years later, we had around 7 times the number of employees, several hundred times as many users, and almost a hundred times the revenue. It certainly felt like success to me. I left sated with a feeling of accomplishment, and great hope for the future of Second Life.

But I also left feeling depleted. We had stumbled our way from obscurity to something like prominence, but I didn’t know how to take it to the next level. We weren’t making progress despite having bountiful talent, desire and resources. We had a beautiful company, a real culture of beauty and love, genuine emotion for each other and for the world we were helping to build. And it wasn’t working, not well enough and not fast enough and not big enough.

Perhaps there never was a next level. Perhaps it was always the destiny of Second Life to be an innovative niche product for a select group of people, a worthy subject of serious study, a constantly evolving emporium of edge cases. Maybe we should have just hunkered down, and focused on maintaining an elaborate playground for only a select audience of passionate and creative people. We could eke out a fine living, and damn the rest of the world who just didn’t get it.

But I couldn’t damn the rest of the world, because dammit, I’m from that rest of the world. I was never a true Resident of Second Life; I was a visitor, an outsider with the good fortune to see the incredible things that people can do in a truly free environment. I was inspired, amazed and delighted by Second Life – as well as occasionally revolted, offended and demoralized – and the diversity and depth of this experience was a revelation to me, one that I believed that everyone can appreciate.

And I still believe that, which is why I have to accept that Second Life has failed (so far, we must always say so far). The reality is that Second Life is still a niche product, and to deny that I wanted it to be something more would dishonor the heartbreaking glory of our ambition. It’s fair to say that Facebook became our second life, but it’s also shortsighted. Not so long ago, people laughed at the proposition that anyone wanted to maintain a virtual presence online that could form the basis of social interaction. Facebook did put an end to the dismissive chuckles on that topic.

But it’s equally laughable to say that this is where we’ll stop, that the final destination of online interaction consists of wall posts and text messages in two dimensions. I still believe that there’s no sensible way to define an impassible boundary between where we are today and a time when people “live” in a three-dimensional virtual environment. I’m still a true believer, an old true Linden in that way. So I have to admit that Second Life has failed.

So far.

12 thoughts on “why second life failed

  1. What would define its success? Would it have to become Facebookian in scale to “win?” The terms are applied so often, yet neither is adequate to describe the current state and end up being merely an attempt to encapsulate an individual experience. Did it fail for you? Perhaps. Did it fail for me? Not yet, but the gild is coming off the lily, for certain. In the end, the doors are still open. New people still, incredibly, sign up and stay. It is a human need to quantify experience in some way, particularly at the end of it. When I look back at my past, however, at the various “chapters” of my life they make up a collective volume of who I am. Some are certainly failures and some successes, but most are neither…just something I have experienced. If there comes a time when I stop logging in to SL, I cant say I will look back and say it failed. Perhaps, in many ways, the company running it failed the community supporting them. My business has been both a success and a failure. As an application or an environment, I cant see the Second Life experience as a failure, though. It has never been the medias darling. It has never been accepted by the private sector. But something about it still removes the veil of place and mortality to show me something I cannot get in any other way. Can the technology be better? Can it run smoother, cost less, be bigger or smaller and still work? I hope so.

    In the end, though, It does not fail. It does not succeed. As long as the grid is up, it simply “is.” It exists. What you do there, what you make of it and most importantly what you take away from it defines your victory or your failure in it, just like first life. What did you learn there? Whom did you love, or whose life affect?


    1. Max, I appreciate the perception and wisdom in your comments. I treasure what I did, made, learned and loved in Second Life and Linden Lab. But again: it would dishonor the gift of that treasure to say that what Second Life is today satisfies the ambition that we had. It would be like denying that a lost love was ever really love at all, just so that you could pretend that your heart wasn’t broken.


  2. Is the Zager & Even’s vision of the future in Year 2525 the yardstick for success of Second Life? LOL goodness I hope not! That Second Life is a niche venture is reasonable, and even healthy for our society as a whole.

    For the vast majority of SL residents, Second Life is a lovely place to visit as you say, it **is** an amazing place, ever changing and filled with the imagination, dreams, skills, talents and sense of community that people bring to it. It is also something far more important than that for a lot of people… it can be their creative outlet, it can be their voice, it can be their income, it can be their means of communicating and connecting with their fellow residents of that RL place that may otherwise be out of reach to them… SL to me is a platform of equity and possibility.

    That SL did not achieve a place in the broader communities every day life as with facebook is an unfair and unrealistic expectation of success… and to my mind, certainly not a desirable goal. Yes we want SL to continue to grow, but to want it to somehow take the place of living in RL should never be an ambition.

    I love SL, I consider myself not only a resident of this amazing place, but also a proud member of it’s community… I helped to make SL what it is today after all just as every other resident has, just by being there, interacting with people, appreciating the creations there, exploring and just enjoying what can happen when a whole bunch of people take hold of the awesome opportunity to actively build a world, as they can imagine it, without the divides and strictures that the world outside SL often throws at us.

    My hope for SL is that we take the things we learn, our acceptance and celebration of difference and show the world outside what is possible there too. I love sl, I continue to grow, to create and learn in this environment and it enriches my real life outside of SL. How is that ever failure?


  3. Agreed Second Life is a marvelous place, with great people. I don’t see that it has failed however, because profits are up, and membership is up. I bought a Linden home and explored around, and found that many of the homes around me were also occupied. So that was a good choice by LL to give everyone access upon premium membership to have a pretty nice home. Easy access to places to explore for new members is also good. I have been there since 2009 however.

    I wouldn’t compare Second Life with Facebook however, that is not a good comparison. It should be compared only to other virtual reality environments, such as IMVU, Kaneva, Onverse, Smallworlds, Twinity, Active Worlds, Woozeworld, and Perfectworld.

    Nice blog, btw.


  4. I suppose I look at it slightly differently – that Second Life has not yet succeeded, as “[X] has failed” suggests a certain finality to it. Of course it is a *commercial* success, and on that basis alone it cannot be considered a failure, I should think.


  5. Eggy Lippmann here. I blew up Philip’s disco in Beta and developed what was, arguably, the first major professional project, Wells Fargo’s, and started a successful development company shortly thereafter, with multiple Fortune 500 clients and even government contracts.

    It’s very clear why Second Life failed and everybody repeatedly told you. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting Philip himself, and the lack of vision from the visionary astonished me.
    Everyone came here and said “there’s nothing to do!” and “I don’t know anyone!”. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. All of those that didn’t stay.

    Philip asked me, “You have all this experience. Tell me – what CAN be done with Second Life?”
    Well, not much. Passive content. The scripting language has not evolved at all while builders have enjoyed enormous leaps. It’s simply not possible to do anything worthwhile – such as a normal game. I keep telling people, SL isn’t done until Blizzard seriously considers building the next World of Warcraft on top of it.

    There’s a limit to how many people can enjoy an illustrated chat room. Facebook has games. Try developing Farmville in Second Life. It doesn’t even have a GUI toolkit – I can’t draw a text field or a window or a button. Everything has to be painstakingly done with raw geometry. It’s insane. We should obviously be able to draw the same type of windows that are built into Second Life, and there should obviously be a way to develop in a controlled environment where the user cannot simply cancel everything we do, such as pressing ESC to cancel our camera, or standing up from our vehicle, or simply not giving permissions. Have you seen a game that asks the user for permission to do anything? We have *always* wanted to make serious, professional, ambitious, well-polished, commercial types of games, and I don’t mean Tringo.

    And we can’t improve anything ourselves because there is no normal way of developing abstractions, modules. It’s like pre-historic man, before the invention of writing allowed culture to pile up and people to develop on top of what already existed.

    The other major problem is that we cannot import our contacts. We need to choose between talking to the people we know and like, using a normal IM program, or making an effort to meet new people that we will never see in our lives. And even if we do meet some people, we can’t expand our network through the friends-of-friends mechanism that all social networks offer.

    All Facebook games constantly force us to promote them and ask us to invite more people, over and over again. Linden Lab made absolutely no effort to promote Second Life. Linden Lab supplied no mechanism through which we could directly incite users to buy stuff from us – they had to buy L$ separately. There was never any mechanism for ad-supported content, either.

    Second Life very purposefully avoided anything that enabled professional development of large-scale content, profitable content that would attract people to “Second Life” without them even realizing that it’s run over Second Life. We could and should have ***commoditized*** MMO development! What better way to sell dozens of sims for a single project? Let us create something of value that we can actually sell! Second Life could and should have been Massively Multiuser Online Torque. Immersive, creative, worldwide collaboration. A CSCW IDE for MMO development.

    Firing Cory Ondrejka was the worse management decision I’ve ever seen, comparable only to firing Jim Purbrick. They should have fired everyone else and put someone with an actual technical background and enough vision to steer what is essentially a technical project. Design is irrelevant, you can just import stuff from turbosquid or whatever. Prims were silly to begin with, streaming textures has always been the same order of magnitude as streaming a mesh, and we all had broadband in 2003.

    The Activeworlds people also considered it “done” and then fired the devs and sat on it for years. We all know how well that turned out for them. Linden is an engineering company which should be run largely by engineers.

    I’ve never seen anything I actually cared about in Second Life, and I’m not hard to please. I love playing DOS games and Facebook games and stuff that’s simple. But nothing is really simple to develop in Second Life because we have no control over anything and you need a thousand scripts to develop a sim instead of one script that centrally controls it – and there’s no easy, abstract way to manage your content, such as a file hierarchy, the model used by FTP and CVS/SVN/etc.

    I’m done with Second Life. I have removed all mentions of it from my resume, and then I removed any mention of virtual worlds. People don’t know what it is about and they don’t care. We bet on the future of game development and catastrophically lost.


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