The Media Potential of Second Life

Having written three books about the Web at the time of its transformation - from a world of dreamers to its unparalleled success as an information media - I recognize many similarities with Second Life.

As in the early days of the Web, there are many wild and impractical ideas cluttering up the landscape. The rapid expansion is causing all kinds of major hiccups. Large companies are jumping in and getting burnt because they have completely the wrong mind set to benefit from the many advantages Second Life has to offer.

Like the Web, Second Life - as an instance of a virtual world - has the potential to become a major communication media. It is not something that will replace the Web, but a phenomenon that will compliment and enhance it. The key factor is the way in which Second Life can so easily and in so many ways interface with the Web enabling them to integrate together into a combined rich environment with unlimited possibilities for information exchange.

The unique value of Second Life isn't immediately apparent. Some 90% of first time users quickly dismiss it as a trivial game and don't stay to find out the very many ways human ingenuity is being used to create novel and useful contributions to information technology. The press also give superficial impressions that dwell upon the more sensational aspects of Second Life without bothering to report the wealth of other progress and initiatives going on.

A case in point is the way the press have sensationalized the sexual aspects of Second Life. By its very nature, Second Life can arouse many real life emotions and desires. This is a natural consequence of a media which is capable of inducing such a rich variety of real life emotions in participants. But, it has to be remembered that the Web was, and still is, also criticized and sensationalized in a similar way. What is not appreciated though is that the porno sites on the Web were the leaders in Web technology in its early days, they were responsible for very many technical advances and breakthroughs.

To truly understand the emerging potential and prospects for virtual worlds as a major communication media it pays to understand the concept of stigmergy. This is a phenomenon that not only underlies the progress and evolution of the web and Second lIfe, it is the conceptual framework that explains the emergence of civilization and the evolutionary process of life itself.

In brief, stigmergy is about a reaction to an environment. Ants instinctively react to an environment that is being created by other ants. They are equipped with genes that cause them to react to their changing environment by adding changes themselves. Out of this comes an order and organization that puzzled scientist for centuries. The essence of stigmergy is that the environment is like a readily accessible data base, containing all relevant information and just like Wiki - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia information systems, individuals both use and add to the content (Wiki is a stigmergic systems also).

Humans also have many genes that cause them to react to their environment, to add to it, change it and improve it. The combined effect of many people contributing, cooperating and combining is an environmental situation leads to vast complexities out of which order and organization emerge spontaneously without any rules or central control. There is a tutorial that explains this phenomenon in more detail ( Harnessing the power of stigmergy ).

The important point to understand is that Second Life, like the Web, civilization and evolution, is a process that undergoes constant change some good, some bad, but moves relentlessly towards increased utility, efficiency and performance. This is not a "maybe" it is fundamental driving force of nature that is unceasingly progressive.

Integration with the web

Up until the end of 2007, full integration of the web with Second Life wasn't possible. Certainly there were many ways that people in Second Life could access the web. Messages and information could be exchanged between people and objects in Second life with web pages and their associated databases. But there was no way for people to visit Second Life directly from a web page.

The breakthrough came in the second half of 2007, when Linden Labs introduced a facility for businesses and institutions to enroll new users directly from a web page on their own web sites and take them directly into an area of Second Life which they owned and controlled. In other words, a proprietary area of Second Life can become an extension of a web site - which can be used to take advantage of the unique features of Second Life to educate clients or promote services or products.

The significance of this step should not be underestimated. It adds to the already established web a totally new dimension, which could herald a wealth of new educational and marketing strategies.

With many major companies now experimenting with Second Life and many educational institutions setting up establishments there, it will not be very long before Second Life becomes an integral part of the web and maybe even rivaling it in utility and popularity.

It must be bourn in mind also that, like Web browsers, the early pioneers were soon overtaken by big money and technological break-thoughs. It is most like to happen with Second Life. They are currently the foremost platform for serious virtual worlds at the moment but there are many others waiting in the wings.

Second Life has many limitations and teething troubles, but, so did the web in its birthing years. None of the current problems and limitations are permanent and are likely to be eliminated very soon. And do not forget Moore's law (Computer power doubles every two years); virtual worlds could evolve and improve beyond all recognition within a very few number of years.

The time to learn about virtual worlds is now and, currently, Second Life is the place to enter the learning curve.

Peter Small (SL: Eliver Rang)

December 2007