I recently wrote an article for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Terry Beaubois, an architect from California who is now teaching at Montana State University.
Beaubois has been involved in computers and the Internet since the beginning. He’s a Silicon Valley native who lived down the street from the garage nerds and bought from Apple when it was a “local” company.
Since he started teaching at MSU in 2005, Beaubois has also been a proponent of Second Life in the architecture classroom.
It makes sense, as he told me during an interview in his studio on campus (and in SL). The 3D world allows students to build realistic scale models of buildings. It’s similar to building a cardboard model on a drafting table, except students get to walk through their completed buildings when they’re done and skip the risk of slicing their fingers off with Exacto knives. (I’ve seen the horrible bloodstained-paper-towel aftermath of a few such incidents.)
MSU, mostly because of Beaubois, has tried to expand its presence into SL in other ways, slow, tentative steps into a new world. Landscape designers and engineers apparently love the 3D environment, and some other classes are looking for a way to get into SL. Even the dean of architecture and the university president have avatars (seldom used, to be sure).
Yet even as I was finishing the article about a month ago, a series of articles came through my RSS feeds, like the one that appeared on July 24 in Wired, in which reporter Frank Rose wonders why advertising giants are wasting millions of dollars developing property in such a meagerly populated world.
Rose’s article got me looking at the population statistics that Linden Labs lists on Second Life’s Web page. On the front page of the site tonight, their “total residents” number 8,952,260. Below that, the number who have logged on in the last 60 days is 1,639,432. If you click for more population stats, you’ll find that 1,003,090 users logged on in the last month.
At the time I checked, only about 34,000 were logged in. When I checked these numbers after reading the Rose article, they were more or less the same. About 40,000 people are online at any given time.
Up to this point in August, a total of 9,541 “islands” have been purchased by users. Islands are the 16-acre (65,536 square meter) sites that people may buy from Linden Labs to build their online worlds. Each island costs $1,675 plus monthly maintenance charges of $295.
By my math, the number of islands sold multiplied by the acreage equals 152,656 acres, roughly 238 square miles. That is a total land area the size of Chicago (234 sq. miles) occupied by only 40,00 people at a time (instead of almost four million).
Can you see why it seems deserted? Why many of the events happening in Second Life are sparsely attended? Why the advertisers get so few few visits to their multi-million dollar islands? Why a university that set up shop in the world, like Case Western Reserve get only 40 visitors to their SL campus?
Now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has paid quite a bit of attention to the educational possibilities of Second Life, Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, has rescinded his support of the online world.
On his blog, Anderson wrote:
Like everyone else, I had fun exploring the concept and marveling at all the creativity. Then I got bored, and I started marveling at something else: all the empty corporate edifices. By day I’d speak at marketing conferences that usually had someone pitching SL services, complete with staged demonstrations (the “inhabitants” invariably paid employees). By night I’d go back to the same places, which had reverted to ghost towns once the demonstration was over. I couldn’t understand why companies kept throwing money at in-world presences.
It was Anderson who sent Frank Rose into Second Life on the assignment that produced the aforementioned article.
That article in Wired drew some criticism, especially criticism that used Anderson’s own “Long Tail” argument. The chat logs that happen inside SL, some said, survive long past their fleeting moment in SL and get reposted elsewhere. In a world where everything leaves a record (either the Web or SL will fit into this example), almost everything has value somewhere along the line.
Plus, critic Wagner Jame Au said, the number of people in SL at any one time or visiting any one site is not indicative of how many people have been there or will go there.
A fair counterpoint to the population argument, but I must wonder what Anderson wonders: are those few hits and woefully populated live events worth the money people have put into SL?
When I think of SL, I’m reminded of a scene early in Almost Famous when the young hero meets a rock and roll journalist played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who tells the hero it’s too bad he discovered rock when he did, considering it was already dead.
I wonder if that’s how it is with SL now. Will it survive in a marketable form that advertisers will find attractive, or is the medium already dead and gone, killed by its own immensity and openness?
I also wonder if my article, which does not mention the population decline and which is being republished in the newspaper’s tabloid for the return of college students in two weeks, will encourage MSU to pursue SL further and to pour money into what could be a sinkhole.
Either way, Second Life will not last long as it is. Eventually, advertisers will look at the math and see that their dollars are not going as far as they could in another medium, and they will close their islands and pull their accounts.
When that happens, all that will be left will be the people who are actually using the world for something specific, like architecture and landscape design students building projects for class–not pumping money into Linden Labs. You can only guess what will happen to SL then, and to the universities who pinned so much hope on the online world.