Avatars in Wonderland

The Missing Link?


One of my biggest sins in either life is that I’m pretty much thinking about one thing or another.  Churn, churn, churning about this or that.    There are myriad reason why I do it, of course.  Part of it has to do with how I’m wired, but there is also part of it where I yearn to understand things that aren’t making sense to me.   The good and bad thing about Second Life for someone like me is that there is so much that doesn’t make immediate sense.  While Linden Lab has often been nonsensical in some of its actions in the past couple of years, I couldn’t escape the intuitive sense that there was some huge disconnect occurring but I was having a hard time wrapping it into a pretty package that made sense to me.  Between the fodder from Philip Rosedale’s recent town hall meeting and the SL blogosphere, my brain has been churning overtime and just maybe I’m starting to get an idea of that missing piece that I haven’t been able to put my finger on the past months.  So what is it, Lanna?  What seems to be Second Life’s missing link?  Read on after the jump to find out..

Hold your horses, please.  I’ll get to the missing link stuff in a second.  First, I need to give a little bit of a preface.  Let’s go back a few years to when Second Life was all about the old slogan “Your World. Your Imagination.”  People who got excited about Second Life bought into that idea despite the fact that SL is an open-ended and entirely user-driven experience.  Sure, there was lots of grumbling about ham-fisted efforts made by Linden Lab that fell flat, but there still was a feeling that we were in the midst of something larger than any of us.  Then Mark Kingdon took the helm of the Lab and it felt like the efforts all focused toward selling Second Life more broadly.  This, of course, seems like part of the natural life cycle for a company.  Create a product and then try to get as many people to use it as possible.  The only problem is that it felt like during the past two years, Linden Lab wanted to make SL into something else entirely just so it could be neatly packaged and sold.  Suddenly, M is gone and Philip is back for the time being.  What struck me most about Philip’s comments was that he elevated the conversation from strategy and tactics to vision.  Faster than you can say “Avatars United was a mistake,” we’re back in the world of high-minded concepts like “improving the human condition.”  The contrast was striking and gave me fuel to try to put words around what has felt wrong.

So what is it, you ask?  There is a missing link in Second Life.  No, not some evolutionary freak of nature (although I have seen some avatars that might fit that description), but a link that needs to be explained to the rest of the world.   So, here goes, my pithy take on Second Life’s missing link:

The magic of Second Life and why it has the potential to matter cannot yet be explained succinctly.

For those of us who are regular users of Second Life, there is almost an intuitive feel of why it can matter.  On the larger scheme of things, it appears that at this point in time people either grok Second Life or they don’t.  It is that simple.  And for those who don’t, there really aren’t many good ways to describe it in ways so they can see how it could matter. There are many reasons why I love Second Life, but can I explain what it is and how it advances the human condition?  No.

A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to have a long conversation with a marketing executive of Proctor and Gamble.  In his opinion, part of successful marketing is having a product that has the ability to address a need that a person is unable to articulate.  He used the example of Pampers disposable diapers; that prior to their development, parents could not express the value of a disposable diaper but once P & G created it, they were able to understand their value immediately (and no, I’m not espousing the use of disposable diapers, they are a landfill nightmare but they illustrate his point).

While a disposable diaper is a much more tangible product than Second Life, it is still very challenging to articulate the value of Second Life.  It may simply be that Second Life only has a value to a relatively small segment of the population.  I’m not certain this is true, but I would love to see if there were ways we could elevate SL and virtual worlds to a place of wider understanding of the value.  Grace McDunnough’s  efforts to capture the culture of Second Life were a big step in the right direction.

Here’s my questions to you, dear readers, is it possible to describe the value of a virtual world to the uninitiated?  Does Second Life have a broader purpose that appeals to the masses?  Or does it simply resonate with a smaller niche of society? Can you describe why Second Life matters to the broader population in just a couple of sentences?  Anyone up for the challenge?