My Thoughts on Second Life
I and no doubt tens of thousands of others have thought a lot about why Second Life's phenomenal early growth spluttered to a halt. Most of them are far more aware of the 'behind the scenes' problems than myself, so these are just the thoughts of a very ordinary ex-user. Though it may sound like it, this is not intended to be a criticism of SL, but an explanation of why it isn't bigger than Facebook. I don't dispute that SL is one of, if not the single finest achievement of the internet. At its best it is breathtakingly beautiful, amazingly creative and as exciting, peaceful, challenging or relaxing as one could hope for. But, there are so many buts... here are a few of mine -
1) Internet giants Google, Facebook, Yahoo etc were initially driven by enthusuiasm for the net and what could be done with it, whereas SL gives the impression it started with a business plan and a set date for when it intended to start trading on Wall Street, and this led to a rigidity in decision making and lack of 'organic' growth.
2) For its first few years, not being able to choose one's own name would have put off most people who wanted to use it as an extension to real life work / hobbies / education / relationships etc. IMHO this alone doomed it to being an also-ran in the world of online 'entertainment'. Many people would have given up SL before even entering, under the impression it was a trivial game. (My impression is that SL is now being increasingly marketed as a game.) I only continued past the 'naming stage' because of a friend's enthusiasm, but it always rankled that my name was decided by others, no matter how wide the choice. Ok, after huge pressure over several years SL eventually allowed people to use their own names but they charged a significant amount for the privilege. It was too little, too late. This isn't how the internet works.
3) SL's policy of insulating itself from the rest of the net was a huge mistake. It implies a basic misunderstanding of the essence of a network. The inability to move avatars in and out of different virtual worlds and lack of cooperation with other metaverses was the major reason I stopped using it. Uploading practically anything cost money; sharing and downloading was almost impossible. Even worse its interaction with the rest of the net was inadequate. Access to the web etc from within SL was possible but far too chunky to be enjoyable or useful. Seamless integration with email, ftp, skype, video streaming etc was essential for SL to become a major internet player. But this went against the whole insular ethos of SL. Things have improved a little, but for example, SL seems determined to isolate itself from developments in virtual currency which could have given it a whole new lease of life, and there's no hint of the type of slick interaction that exists between external web sites and the big social networks which most net users now take for granted.
4) SL was very ambitious, but unfortunately this meant for many people it was unusable. At one point I stopped using it because my bandwidth and equipment just couldn't cope with the graphics, even when set at their lowest. This was a major contributor to SL's 'exclusiveness'. Today it's less of a problem with broadband now the norm in many countries, but there are still parts of the world where bandwidth is little more than a trickle. The success of online companies are based primarily on their ease of access. When purchasing goods online, people want to do it as fast and efficiently as possible; I can only take so many screen freezes and reboots!
5) The legal problems with online gambling must have been forseen. If SL wanted gambling then they should have relocated to a country which allowed it. The way gambling was encouraged in SL it became an essential part of the virtual economy, and was a factor in the growth of financial organisations and property prices. When gambling was banned, confidence in SL as a major independent economic environment collapsed. I don't think it ever recovered. There is also a longer term, perhaps more significant perception that when US authorities say "jump", SL jumps. This has implications for worries over privacy of personal, financial and political data, and means SL should be used with caution for anything important in RL
6) The lack of control over inventories was a constant grouse with SL users. At first inventories are confusing, but they are easy to master. However as they grow, more and more time is spent looking after them, and this had to be done online. Inability to back up inventories meant it was often impossible to replace "lost" items. People get angry when things they've put time and money into disappear, even if they sometimes eventually reappear.
7) SL's search facility varied over the years, but it could always have been better. Sometimes it was ok, but other times it was appalling. Often it was quicker to come out of SL and use Google and hope to try and find a reference on an SL user's blog.
8) There is a big learning curve. Admittedly it's a difficult problem, but ten times fewer graphics developers and ten times more Torley Lindens might have made a difference. SL is very much a 'sink or swim' environment, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that in practice SL will only appeal to the exclusive few and will never appeal to the ordinary many; and it's easy to get the feeling that this is the way SL's remaining inhabitants prefer it.