The virtual world Second Life has shown web users an alternative way to work and play on the internet, compared to browsing and interacting using text, images and multimedia that make up other Web 2.0 sites.
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This month Second Life had 16,785,531 residents, 522,526 of whom had logged on within seven days. No fewer than one million had logged on within the preceding 30 days. What is the secret behind its success?
"With a healthy and growing in-world economy of more than $330m annually [343 Linden dollars buys one euro], our users are able to make real money and pay more than half of our fees with credits from selling Linden Dollars that they earn by creating valuable content," says CEO Mark Kingdon.
Kingdon claims that those businesses that effectively use Second Life for collaboration will have a significant competitive advantage thanks to reduced travel costs and improved teamwork.
Unlike a game, Second Life has no defining objective, something that deterred early-stage investors. That said, you could argue that Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo and MySpace have no objective other than facilitating conversations.
Also, when Second Life did secure millions of dollars of venture capital investment it was when financiers realised that it had an eBay-like potential for commerce.
Kingdon says, "There has been a real shift in use by businesses. Initially many businesses saw it as a shop window or a billboard. It was all about the eyeballs. The thinking went: if you have got millions of registered residents it made sense to get your brand in front of those people."
But now businesses are looking to engage, not just display. So Second Life is hosting recruitment fairs and product demonstrations. Companies are even using Second Life for in-world meetings, training sessions and collaboration. There is a major move away from simply "being there" to making that presence a very real and strategic part of the business, according to Kingdon.
Second Life is also used in education. "Universities can not only hold lectures and seminars 'in-world', they can create fully interactive, immersive environments where students can communicate with tutors and professors and explore virtual learning tools," he says.
In fact, in the last few weeks even movie studios are creating sets in-world to plan scenes and logistics before building on a real-life soundstage, according to Kingdon, which shows just how flexible the Second Life environment can be.
Certainly for Kingdon, virtual worlds are not just gimmicks. They may be the way forward for 21st century businesses.
Five reasons to get into Second Life
- Many businesses (such as BT and IBM), charities and even organisations such as Nasa have experimented with it as a platform, or to create virtual counterparts of real-world events. Since 2008, the US Army and Air Force have had a recruitment presence there, for example.
Although some argue that virtual models simply replicate problems of the real world online, Second Life's residents see the potential for global collaboration and marketing.
- Just as Napster once proved the market for online music distribution, we can regard Second Life as a living experimental prototype for what works and does not work in online interaction - and witness the increasingly complex relationship between cyberspace and terra firma.
There have been runs on Second Life banks, virtual stock exchanges have issued press releases about new virtual HQs, and, most notoriously, the first real-world divorce citing adultery with an avatar took place last year. The internet has been rewriting the rules for intellectual property precedent by precedent now, Web 2.0 platforms are beginning to rewrite the rules governing human interaction.
- The use of Second Life encourages a more collaborative way of working. Businesses can try ideas in Second Life very cheaply, without having to make huge upfront investments, that they would normally need in the real world. Linden Labs itself has found this has benefits in terms of a flatter, knowledge-sharing organisational structure in the real world.
- Businesses and end-users can use Second Life and its evolution to make some predictions about the shape of Web 3.0, which will doubtless offer mobile, immersive, rich content that is based on users' locations in both the real world and the virtual.
- Second Life can also tap into residents' expertise. Although few might know how to code, Linden Labs partner Jnana has created applications to help residents share their knowledge on whatever topics interest them this, too, will be a hallmark of Web 3.0.
Privately held Linden Lab, the company behind virtual world Second Life, was founded in 1999 by ex-Real Networks CTO Philip