Author Leslie Jamison, a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, has written a lengthy article about Second Life and Linden Lab for The Atlantic, a popular American literary and cultural commentary magazine.
Negatively titled The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future (although the HTML title of the actual webpage is the much more optimistic “Second Life Still Has 600,000 Regular Users”), the article takes a wide-ranging look at Second Life and the people who use it, and it does not shy away from criticism. If Linden Lab was hoping for a shiny, happy, upbeat profile of SL when they were interviewed by Leslie for this article, then they must be feeling disappointed.
Leslie writes that SL “made me queasy from the start”, saying:
I had pictured myself defending Second Life against the ways it had been dismissed as little more than a consolation prize for when “first life” doesn’t quite deliver. But instead I found myself wanting to write, Second Life makes me want to take a shower.
She also touches briefly on Sansar, writing:
Of the 36 million Second Life accounts that had been created by 2013—the most recent data Linden Lab will provide—only an estimated 600,000 people still regularly use the platform. That’s a lot of users who turned away. What happened?
[Wagner James] Au sees the simultaneous rise of Facebook and the plateau in Second Life users as proof that Linden Lab misread public desires. “Second Life launched with the premise that everyone would want a second life,” Au told me, “but the market proved otherwise.”But when I spoke with Peter Gray, Linden Lab’s global communications director, and Bjorn Laurin, its vice president of product, they insisted that the problem doesn’t lie in the concept, but in the challenge of perfecting its execution. The user plateau simply testifies to interface difficulties, they told me, and to the fact that the technology hasn’t yet advanced enough to deliver fully on what the media hype suggested Second Life might become: an utterly immersive virtual world. They are hoping virtual reality can change that.In July, Linden Lab launched a beta version of a new platform called Sansar, billed as the next frontier: a three-dimensional world designed for use with a virtual-reality headset such as Oculus Rift. The company’s faith, along with the recent popularity of VR in the tech world (a trend that Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR attests to), raises a larger question. If advances in virtual reality solve the problem of a cumbersome interface, will they ultimately reveal a widespread desire to plunge more fully into virtual worlds unfettered by glitches, lags, and keyboards?
In reading this, I realized that I felt the same way about Second Life that Peter and Bjorn did: the problem with SL didn’t lie in the concept, but in the steep learning curve that was associated with it. Many first-time users threw up their hands and walked away, never to come back.
That’s why I am hoping, along with Linden Lab, that the new user interface provided by virtual reality headsets and controllers will go a long way toward making Sansar more immersive and easier to navigate than the desktop-computer-keyboard-and-mouse model of Second Life. As I have said very recently, that’s a gamble. But it’s a calculated gamble which a lot of companies, including Linden Lab, are hoping will pay off.
Leslie finishes her article on a positive note:
Did I find wonder in Second Life? Absolutely. When I sat in a wicker chair on a rooftop balcony, chatting with the legally blind woman who had built herself this house overlooking the crashing waves of Cape Serenity, I found it moving that she could see the world of Second Life better than our own. When I rode horses through the virtual Yosemite, I thought of how the woman leading me through the pines had spent years on disability, isolated from the world, before she found a place where she no longer felt sidelined. That’s what ultimately feels liberating about Second Life—not its repudiation of the physical world, but its entwinement with that world, their fierce exchange. Second Life recognizes the ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be.