Wired, CNET, Reuters Agog Over Second Life

    by Mark Glaser
    October 23, 2006

    i-f9047daa812dce29b08e2ae8d63cae5b-Second Life.jpg
    A friend of mine who works in PR in San Francisco came up to me at a party last week, and was wide-eyed at what’s been going on lately at the virtual world Second Life.

    “Now that Reuters has a correspondent actually reporting on stories from Second Life regularly, is this now becoming a real world?” she wondered. “How can you tell the difference anymore?”

    It’s a good question. Second Life (SL) isn’t really a game. It’s a virtual world created by Linden Lab where you “walk” or even “fly” around a 3D graphical environment, interacting with avatars — computer representations of actual people who are also in the world. It doesn’t cost anything to join the action, but if you want land or posessions, you need to pay real money for them. And if you build up property or can create a cool line of clothes, you can make a business out of it that pays you real money converted from the game’s “Linden dollars.”


    More and more real-life companies are spending time and money trying to figure out how to promote their products in Second Life. The virtual world recently logged its 1 millionth registered “resident,” though that pales in comparison to the 6.5 million players of the most popular online game of all time, World of Warcraft. But media companies are clamoring to write about Second Life and its culture bleeding into the real world, while simultaneously setting up a virtual presence there to promote their writers or publications.

    I have received a growing number of emails from random friends who have heard about Second Life but wonder “Who has time for all this?” Obviously, these media companies are making time for it:

    > Wired Magazine recently ran a Travel Guide to SL in its magazine, and announced it was opening up virtual offices in the world where it would host events and lectures with writers and editors.


    > CNET built an in-game replica of its own headquarters building in Second Life, and plans to conduct interviews there and host events as well.

    > The Reuters wire service has gone the furthest by creating an in-game presence in Second Life on its own island, along with a special SL website on Reuters with charts on the Linden/U.S. dollar exchange rate and real dollars spent in SL each day (nearly $600,000 today). Plus, Reuters reporter Adam Pasick has been assigned to head Reuters’ virtual bureau in Second Life under the avatar name of Adam Reuters. You just can’t buy this kind of hipster quotient, or can you?

    > BusinessWeek, rather than set up its own virtual building or bureau in Second Life, chose the easier route of just hyping the entry of media companies into the game, with little criticism or thoughtful reporting. In fact, the photo essay accompanying the story online might as well be a series of ads for the companies that have set up shop in SL.

    Reality Check for SL

    While I haven’t checked out Second Life first-hand yet, I have played many of the percursors to it such as Ultima Online and AlphaWorld in the mid-‘90s. The problem with marketing products in these virtual worlds is that everyone is spread out over large plots of virtual land and don’t experience everything in the same way at the same time — as they do watching a TV show or even visiting a website.

    While the 1 million figure for residents of Second Life has been trumpeted in the media, keep in mind that this is the total number of people who have registered for the game in its history. Many of those folks probably checked it out, got frustrated with long lag times or lack of quests, and left forever. More useful numbers are the dynamic ones posted on the Second Life site, which this afternoon read: 12,354 residents logged in now; 459,062 residents logged in over the last 60 days.

    Just because CNET puts up a building to host events doesn’t mean people will attend those events, and that it will garner any modicum of attention there. And the Register recently questioned a close relationship between CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman and Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale.

    [UPDATE: Terdiman tells me that the Register article was biased against him, and that the Register writer “hates Second Life.” While the Register complained that Terdiman had listed Rosedale as a reference on his resume, Terdiman says he put Rosedale there because “he could speak to my reporting skills.” See more on Terdiman’s response to me in the UPDATE below.]

    A recent “appearance” in Second Life by singer Ben Folds resulted in just 25 avatar onlookers, according to The Age.

    “Obviously an effort like this isn’t about record sales [by Ben Folds], but it’s also clearly not about offering Second Life residents a valuable experience,” wrote blogger Tony Walsh at Clickable Culture. “Like the handful of similar events preceding it, this one could only be leveraged for its external media buzz potential. The Age and other mainstream publications don’t know enough to identify events like this as anything but a major-label snow-job (that’s what we have bloggers for).”

    Walsh has been checking out SL since its inception, and rang an early alarm against the hype last April, noting the small active user base and the technical glitches caused by user hacks of the system. But now that the media coverage is in overdrive, even Walsh has been unable to ignore Second Life, writing about the virtual world in six blog posts over the past week.

    Despite the problems and excessive hype, Second Life and the other massively multiplayer virtual worlds do represent a strange and wonderful phenomenon worth writing about for journalists: people living in an alternate reality — literally creating their alternate reality — that affects their “First Life” either through virtual relationships or by running real businesses. Hopefully, more journalists will be able to tell the story of these cultural shifts without becoming the pawns (and customers) of the game’s creator.

    What do you think? Do you play Second Life regularly and what motivates you to spend time there? What do you think about Reuters having a correspondent in the game, and the media companies’ push to open up virtual presences in SL? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: In an email to me, CNET’s Daniel Terdiman, who has been writing about Second Life, explained that he didn’t see a conflict of interest for media companies writing about the virtual world and also setting up shop there:

    The money that CNET and Wired and Reuters (though I can’t speak for them, because I don’t know the specifics, but I am making an educated guess), spent setting up presences in Second Life didn’t go to Linden Lab. That’s not how Second Life works. At least in the case of CNET, our investment went entirely to a third-party contractor, and Linden Lab got none of it. That’s the point. When I pitched the idea of a CNET presence in Second Life to my bosses, I made the explicit point that the money would not go to Linden Lab because I knew that if it did, there would be a direct conflict of interest.

    And just to be clear, I don’t even pay for the account I use for my CNET activities in Second Life. It’s a free account, since I don’t own any Second Life land. So as far as the CNET/Linden Lab relationship goes, not one penny has changed hands.

    That might be true, however the fact that media organizations such as Wired, CNET and Reuters have made a concerted marketing push into the game seems like a validation of the game as a business platform. Would Adam Reuters ever write a piece explaining why Second Life will never really gain critical mass, and tell people not to visit the world, when he is now living his professional life there? I still believe that the journalists and media companies here are treading a thin line between being objective observers and touters of SL. Why couldn’t Reuters just assign Pasick to cover online worlds or online gaming in general and not specifically Second Life?

    Tagged: reuters second life wire services
    • Hi Mark,

      When I first heard about Reuters’ bureau in Second Life I wondered why, if they may have they difficulties negotiating the basic internet interaction (as many news agencies) they would be setting up a such a thing. Perhaps it is to simply put up something that’s more like an character-animated website…

      Then, is it more the illusion of interaction? In essence, is it more buffaloing of the news consumer into thinking news orgs are interacting when all they’re receiving is another kind of static news program?

      I wonder a lot, too, about the hype. As someone who rode the wave of early rave culture in ’92, I watched my friends “play around” on an important business tool–organize events, market them totally by w.o.m. online, and even meet. (One friend met her husband there–they were married in ’95. unthinkable back then.)

      So, I look at Second Life and think there’s potential the same way there was potential in ’92–then I wonder how much is hype perpetuated by people who already live in something of an internet bubble. In many ways, it all seems so planned and manufactured this time.

    • I have played around with it first hand and am in the “not getting it” category. I understand the concept but can’t imagine spending my spare time in Second Life.

      Note also that I hear a lot more hype about Second Life from marketers than from actual users. Maybe its a fluke, but I don’t know anyone who spends time in Second Life in their spare time. Everyone I know that has looked at it has done so for business reasons.

    • I don’t play any other online games, but spend some spare time in Second Life. I don’t use it for business at all, but as recreation and entertainment. I am not sure how it will work as a form of making money as is promoted in some marketing materials, but the open ended nature of what you can create is more interesting to me than games, online or off, where everything is created by someone else.

    • The problem with CNET/Daniel Terdimen’s operation isn’t even so much that Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, is on his resume or that he’s had a generally close and comfortable relationship with Linden Lab for some years — that can be overcome. Rather, it’s that he’s set up shop on the island owned by Millions of Us, one of the leading metaversal consulting and marketing companies led by a former Linden. That means his news coverage is likely steered and skewed by his literal home set-point inworld.

      Reuters bought their own island and in theory have more independence, but they, too, have relied heavily on this world’s sherpas in the form of the Electric Sheep, another metaversal marketing company also with years of ties to the Lindens since beta. That shapes their presence and connections and contacts heavily, as can already be seen by the choice and tilt of the stories and the blogroll they up, etc.

      These news agencies need to break away from the cotton wadding and soft berth that these Linden-related and marketing company relationships represent and get out and walk — or fly — the beat, especially on the mainland, away from the country-club atmosphere of private islands.

      Yes, there’s hype, and there are probably only something like 100,000 really logging on steadily every day, not a million, but Second Life is still a very important phenomenon and it is growing exponentially. It’s important that Reuters has come in to cover this, but they need to cover not just the old-media and rust-belt industries trying to gain second lives with new media campaigns, and not just try to purvey meat-world news inside the virtual reality, but start covering the issues of virtuality itself — and they aren’t trivial.

      Many people, especially the intellectuals and creative intelligentsia of many industrialized countries spent more than 8 hours or even 16 hours a day online either doing actual work at their jobs or pursuing various leisure or educational activities. SL is bringing all this together by making it possible to meet other people without travel, to display information, represent data and ideas, experiment and accelerate models, and experience culture and socialize in ways not possible in real life. The artistic, creative, and educational capacity of virtuality is enormous and explosive and it is still largely untapped.

      Like other new media before it, it has mainly an entertainment and geek base at first and now seems to be invaded by media hypesters all of whom need a reality check, but that doesn’t discount its revolutionary potential.

    • “While I havent checked out Second Life first-hand yet”

      Then you really shouldn’t be writing an article about it. I wouldn’t think of writing about World of Warcraft without trying it; I wouln’t try writing about New York City without going there.

      Why are you writing about SL, and expressing a baseless opinion, pro or con, without using it?

      This is incredibly unprofessional.

    • Niko Donburi

      The current rush of corporations flocking to Second Life is reminiscent of the rush to get a website back in the 1990’s. For the most part, it is little more than another way to get some PR.

      The story you need to be focusing on is not the “real world” coming to Second Life but rather Second Life coming to the real world. Reuters has obviously recognized that Second Life may be the platform of the future, much as Mozilla and Netscape were back in the beginning stages of the web, and are willing to consider happenings in Second Life as newsworthy events. Educators, from Harvard Law School to suburban high schools, have realized the potential of Second Life as an educational platform and begun teaching classes there. Musicians, such as myself, have found Second Life to be an excellent way to perform for a live, worldwide audience, that wants to hear–and support–original music.

      There is, quite simply, nothing else like it.

    • Phaedra Whitlock

      I have been a Second Life resident since March 2006. I find it to be an amazing place, one where I can go to a live concert, a movie, a club, a mall, a beach, and live a life or create whatever I feel like.

      I currently build themed homes for friends, and clothes. Seeing people enjoy (even buy) something I made totally on my own gives me great pleasure, and the ability to create anything easily and cheaply is very freeing. All it takes is my time.

      That said, I also spend many hours helping new players and starting can be rough. But worthwhile.

    • Kami,
      I do wish that I had had the time to check out Second Life first-hand before writing about it. However, my approach to it here is not as a review of the world, but more of a commentary on the media hype and phenomenon surrounding it. I have played many online games before and visited early versions of virtual worlds at AlphaWorld and Ultima Online in the ’90s. I have always been fascinated by people living their lives and fantasies out in these virtual spaces.

      One hurdle for me to enter and check out Second Life is that I currently don’t have the system requirements needed for a good experience, and will need to get on a friend’s computer. That, to me, is a knock against Second Life being a much more easy-to-enter experience for a broader sector of the First Life.

    • Mark; I am another Kami, actually the caller/blogger that talked with you on TON yesterday.

      As I mentioned there, Second Life is merely a harbinger (much like the Kami Harbinger in this comment thread) of things to come. Its long-term potential is in its ability to allow a 360-degree virtual experience. Companies that will succeed in this arena aren’t the ones getting in to feed on this early media attention, but ones that get that the technology can be used to better interact with their customers. But here is the meat behind the hype, in my opinion.

      What if you vested an automotive website and you could interact with the car, get in it, drive it, change the color, and even buy it, without going into a car dealership? There are so many applications. I don’t necessarily think all of the real benefits will be fully realized in SL or other virtual worlds out there, but in a more open-source environment.

      However, you bring up the excellent point that technology isn’t quite there yet. You need some pretty new hardware, with excellent video cards, and also a broadband connection to participate in this stuff. Thus, you can’t join us right now for a spin in that car that GM will apparently be building in SL. That is a problem for mainstream adoption.

      In the meanwhile, universities have really taken to this. There are something like 75 universities doing various educational programs in SL. One notable one is Harvard University, who is teaching a class (for free) in SL this semester.

      So, I disagree with your assertion that education won’t use this; they are the newest and most persistent users of the technology. That said, it is early days, and as the capability picks up, I expect to see more 3D interfaces and opportunities.

    • I do wish that I had had the time to check out Second Life first-hand before writing about it. However, my approach to it here is not as a review of the world, but more of a commentary on the media hype and phenomenon surrounding it. I have played many online games before and visited early versions of virtual worlds at AlphaWorld and Ultima Online in the ’90s. I have always been fascinated by people living their lives and fantasies out in these virtual spaces.

      And that’s fine for a general idea of what it’s like, but when you make specific analyses of how marketing works in a VW, without the in-depth understanding that comes from living there for a while, you make mistakes and come to false conclusions. For instance, SL overcomes the lack of foot traffic (“not experiencing it in the same way”) in several ways, such as infohubs (formerly telehubs), ad spinners, classified ads, in-world search, and third-party enhancements like Second411, BlogHUD, and Snapzilla… And more conceptually by encouraging personal use of “advertising”, like the bouncy adidas shoes or American Apparel t-shirts.

      If you’re trying to do real journalism, you lose credibility and spread misinformation if you skip research that way.

      One hurdle for me to enter and check out Second Life is that I currently don’t have the system requirements needed for a good experience, and will need to get on a friend’s computer. That, to me, is a knock against Second Life being a much more easy-to-enter experience for a broader sector of the First Life.

      Eh. The requirements aren’t that high. I primarily use a bare-minimum Intel MacBook, and while I don’t get good performance in busy or complex areas, it’s fine for social use. You do pretty much need a machine made in the last 2 years and broadband, but that’s not terribly hard.

    • btree

      Teaching classes in SL as Harvard’s answer to MIT’s Open Course Ware? Color me skeptical. Looks like the dot edus – just like the dot coms – are first and foremost digging the free publicity. They are basically ‘voting’ for the kind of virtual reality *concept* Second Life represents as opposed to other virtual reality concepts like, say, World of Warcraft. As ‘corporate citizens’ with marketing muscle, they distort the playing field in exactly the same way they do in ‘real life’. They’re supporting the Republican candidate as opposed to the Democrat, as it were.

      But is this truly the PR person’s wet dream? Do companies really get to play to a captive, docile, unsuspicious audience that let’s them in on their most intimate dreams and desires? Do they get people’s credit card details thrown in for good measure – without having to ask!? Do they really get access to people’s ‘minds’ the way they never can in meatspace?

      It’s easy to see why there’d be so much interest in ‘communities’ like this not just from marketeers but from anthropologists, psychiatrists, ethnologists etc. but in terms of the broader public debate about this stuff, I think some hard stats are what’s missing most. How many regulars are there – a million, a hundred thousand, ten thousand? How many paying subscribers versus free riders / gawkers / non-committed? How many are gladly handing over their credit card details to this outfit, and how many go ‘no way Jose’? And just what does this subscriber base really look like? Just how white, male, American, monolingual, teen or twenty-something is this? Just what kind of a closed and self-referential North American thing is this anyway? Is this some kind of virtual-reality version of a Todd Solondz movie? I suppose these are questions some people may have..

    • Quite the hot topic you’ve chosen!

      Here’s my .02.

      I go to Second Life so I can “get it.” While there is an absurd amout of hype right now, there is also a lot of potential. Right now things are still gimmicky — but so was the Web at the beginning.

      You said, “he problem with marketing products in these virtual worlds is that everyone is spread out over large plots of virtual land and dont experience everything in the same way at the same time as they do watching a TV show or even visiting a website.”

      By that logic — we shouldn’t do magazines, billboards, or Web advertising. Like any sort of advertising you need to understand the medium, your target audiences and the best way to reach these people via this medium. There are highly “populated” regions, you can host events, you can combine SL efforts with offline advertising. It’s only limited by your imagination. And for those who say no one’s using it — Linden Labs posts it all on their home page. Here’s the count as of right now:

      Total Residents: 1,140,375
      Logged In Last 60 Days: 473,958
      Online Now: 10,278
      US$ Spent Last 24 Hrs: 560,870

      As for using it as a communication tool, there is incredible potential. I’ve take virtual classes — they are painfully boring. Again, while it’s gimmicky now — I would be much more interested in taking an online class in this environment than a standard chat room. In a chat room you never know when someone is trying to speak. In SL, you could have people raise their “hands” and the teacher could call on them.

      I hope most marketing people don’t ever “get it” it will save it as a valuable outreach tool for those who take the time to figure out the rules of this new environment and medium.

    • Robert

      You write: “Would Adam Reuters ever write a piece explaining why Second Life will never really gain critical mass, and tell people not to visit the world, when he is now living his professional life there?”

      I respond: The journalism principles that Reuters espouses prevent Adam from telling people to do anything regarding Second Life. He can write stories containing other people’s opinions about Second Life, but not proclaim it a success or a failure.

      Second Life will stand or fall on many things. The most that Adam and other hard-news journalists should do is write stories about what goes on inside Second Life, as well as the experiment itself.

    • Hi Mark,

      Very nice piece, I think your comments about media coverage are spot-on. I was talking to one of the many companies springing up to provide services to businesses keen to try out Second Life, and part of the pitch is that while only 25 people may come to an event like the Ben Folds concert, this is then picked up via blogs, magazines, and even TV. There’s an echo chamber here that means a dollar of marketing spent in Second Life gets you ten dollars of exposure in other places. One key factor is that it generates nice pictures for both magazines and TV: those clunky graphics look stylish on a double-age spread, and small clips work well on a brief news report.

      The trouble is: Second Life is interesting, and it is fascinating to me that so many people are so passionate about the world, but as a responsible journalist, how do you give it attention without feeling like you’re just stoking the hype? I quite agree with you about the Business Week piece for example: it might has well have been written by Linden Labs, and was featured prominently on the company’s home page for many weeks. Yet at the same time the BW reporter did a good job of providing a basic intro to the world for general consumers.

      Stepping back, the passion of the feeding frenzy and the ethical problems it creates gives me a strong intuition, as someone who rode the Internet boom first time around, that it’s really “here we go again.” The trend behind Second Life is simple. It’s a mash-up of gaming and the Web. Rubbing those two sticks together is going to generate huge social change, business change, technology change. Second Life, for all its faults, is a pretty sophisticated collision of gaming and the social aspects of the Web – although much the same thing is happening in World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and Habbo Hotel. I think that’s that’s why the media loves it, business is all excited, and your post is generating all these comments.

      Finally, much of the hype doesn’t make sense to online gamers who have already had a lot of experience of being in virtual spaces, interacting with real people in an imagined world, and so on. It’s precisely because Second Life seems to bring in non-gamers who are getting all of that good stuff in a rush that you get the eerily excited tone and messianic fervour of many new users.

      Thanks for the smart post!

    • Wife of Second Life

    • phonetics

      is there anyway of contacting you? maybe an email? cause i kinda have an idea that needs realization. It’s very much related to your whole theme… I just thought that this was something worth taking a shot at. I’ve been here many times now and I’ve always thought of your articles as intriguing and entertaining pass times during office hours. Thanks.

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