Whatever happened to Second Life?

It's desolate, dirty, and sex is outcast to a separate island. Barry Collins returns to Second Life to find out what went wrong, and why it’s raking in more cash than ever before

Three years ago, I underwent one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life – and I barely even left the office.

I spent a week virtually living and breathing inside Second Life: the massively multiplayer online world that contains everything from lottery games to libraries, penthouses to pubs, skyscrapers to surrogacy clinics.

Oh, and an awful lot of virtual sex.

Back then, the world and his dog were falling over themselves to “be
a part of it”. Rock stars were queuing up to play virtual gigs, Microsoft and IBM were setting up elaborate pixellated offices to host staff training seminars, Reuters even despatched a correspondent to report back on the latest in-world developments.

Brighton pier

At its peak, the Second Life economy had more money swilling about than several third-world countries. It had even produced its own millionaire, Anshe Chung, who made a very real fortune from buying and selling property that existed only on Second Life servers.

Three years on, and the hype has been extinguished. Second Life has seen its status as the web wonderchild supplanted by Facebook and Twitter. The newspapers have forgotten about it, the Reuters correspondent has long since cleared his virtual desk, and you can walk confidently around tech trade shows without a ponytailed “Web 2.0 Consultant” offering to put your company on the Second Life map for the price of a company car.

But what has happened to Second Life? Have the hundreds of thousands of registered players logged off and found a real life? Has the Second Life economy collapsed? And what’s become of the extroverts, entrepreneurs and evangelists I encountered on my first visit? There’s only one way to find out. I’m going back in.

Where is everybody?

The first thing I notice upon dropping out of the Second Life sky once more is how empty the place is. On my first visit back in 2006, I couldn’t walk through the training level without clumsily bumping into the throng of fellow newbies. Now, there’s enough room to swing the contents of Noah’s ark, let alone a cat.

I walk and then fly around the landscape for ten minutes or so, but can’t find a single soul to shoot the breeze with. Well, except for a smattering of Second Life bots, which is the intellectual equivalent of striking up a conversation with The Speaking Clock.

Church

I decide to seek out Second Life’s tourist hotspots, using the game’s search engine as my guide. I check out an amazing Gothic castle, which must have taken someone half a real life to painstakingly cobble together, but I’m the only one admiring the architecture.

I dash off to a shopping mall, listed as one of the most popular sites in the game, and yet it’s only me perusing the countless fashion stores. Admittedly, it’s noon on Saturday in Britain – making it an indecent hour for Second Life’s US-oriented audience – but finding people was never this hard back in 2006.

So I change tack, and search for live events taking place now. Surely, the person who organised them would bother to turn up? The first draws a blank, the second likewise. Finally, I find a huddle of people at a “disco”, a good 20 minutes after I first completed my re-entry into Second Life.

I’m suddenly aware of French accents seeping from my laptop’s speakers. It takes me a few minutes to realise what’s going on. I vaguely remember reading that Second Life had introduced voice chat a while back, providing an audio accompaniment to the text-based chatter we used to make do with in “the good old days”.

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