Second Thoughts on Second Life

When I first stepped into Second Life, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her crashed house into Oz. I was blown away. The graphics, the architecture, the wild and sexy avatars, the locations to visit, the flying — it was all cool and amazing, and I looked forward to each future visit. “This could be addicting,” I even thought. Fast-forward just a few short weeks and I’m pleased to report that I’m having no worries about the need for SL Addicts Anonymous.

Like many people, I’ve read all the positive press and seen the encouraging stats, and I agree that Second Life has incredible potential. But, as an online destination point for me, it’s got a long way to go. I’ll take YouTube or a podcast site any day over Second Life.

Yes, I know it’s jumped from 321,683 residents in June 2006 to 12.4 million this month, but what does that mean exactly? All it means is that those people have checked out Second Life. It doesn’t mean they’re staying long or coming back. In fact, recent articles suggest that many are not. And that doesn’t surprise me. I’m no Luddite, but in my opinion you need to be a gamer — and a pretty decent one — to really appreciate Second Life. As cool as it may first appear, Second Life has a steep learning curve. So, I seriously doubt that many non-gamers (like me) will have the desire or patience to fumble through the endless, hard-to-follow instructions. All my non-gamer friends support me on this one.

Here’s another thing I noticed. After visiting a few SL neighborhoods and observing the many Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter-esque avatar choices — and their wacky behavior — I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting that the residents who hang with Second Life are the same folks who trade PC games on eBay and have every word of the Star Wars trilogy memorized.

What about Apple, Sony, BMW and all the other sexy brands staking their claim in Second Life? Good question, and I’m not sure the answers are clear yet. As a virtual place to experiment with store design, gather market research, spot trends or test products, Second Life provides a cost-effective option. But how helpful is that collected data? And that’s assuming, of course, that you can even collect it. When the big attraction to Second Life is the ability to be someone (or something) you’re not, how willing will SL residents really be to offer up the kind of truthful, personal information needed for any kind of reliable quantitative or qualitative research? Of the two-dozen avatar profiles I clicked on, only one had any understandable information about the user’s “first” life. And, who knows if that info was even true. About 90 percent hadn’t bothered to write a single word. So, as far as the sexy brands currently on Second Life are concerned, my guess is that many of them aren’t totally sure why they’re there — they just believe they need to be.

Toyota’s Scion was the first automotive brand to begin its Second Life, and I bet some guy on the SL sales team contacted somebody at Nissan, Honda, Ford and General Motors about 10 minutes later with the news. And so on and so forth. I have no doubt the same will happen once we start colonizing the moon. But, if you want your brand to be thought of as cool, you pretty much have to be on Second Life, even if you have no clue what to do once you’re there other than build a really cool sign and hope the press writes about it. The same is true if you’re a media or entertainment company, a pop-culture or youth-oriented fashion firm (American Apparel is open for business in Second Life) or an S&M novelty goods specialist. I’m still trying to figure out what Ben & Jerry’s is doing on Second Life. Maybe it’s because the ice cream won’t melt there.