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A view of the hype cycle of virtual worlds by Gary Hayes

The sun shines brightly as I stroll along the curving pier above the water, looking out toward a beautiful island with trees swaying in the wind. There’s a looming ampitheater festooned with signs for Thomson Reuters, and a series of concrete buildings that appear ready to hold important meetings. I stride in confidently through the doorway…

You might think I was describing a trip to visit Reuters in the UK, but really, I was strolling through the virtual world of Second Life (SL), visiting the Thomson Reuters island, now largely vacant. The island symbolizes the efforts of media companies not only to cover life in the virtual world of Second Life, but also to live there and set up virtual offices. Reuters made waves by setting up a bureau in SL, with reporters Adam Pasick and Eric Krangel covering stories about the virtual currency and the startup businesses springing up in-world.

But last October, Reuters closed its bureau, and let its specialized blog lapse. CNET and Wired also developed land in Second Life and both have largely abandoned their efforts (though CNET Japan still has an outpost). CNET’s Daniel Terdiman, who helped shepherd CNET’s presence in SL, still writes about virtual worlds on his blog, Geek Gestalt, but hasn’t written specifically about SLfor a year. CNN, however, came later to SL, in late 2007 with its iReport presence, which recently was beefed up to an island where SL users report on their own world as citizen journalists.

How did the media go wrong in coverage — and participation — in SSL, and what went right? It was a typical hype-and-backlash scenario, as I detailed in a previous post on MediaShift. Some journalists simply tired of SL, as so many people tried it and then bailed because of its steep learning curve and high technological requirements. But the journalists that have been more enmeshed within the world have been rewarded with plenty of cultural and sociological (and yes, business) stories.

Robert Hof

“Unless you consider coverage of any kind as constituting breathlessness, I’m not sure the overall coverage was too breathless [back in 2006],” said Rob Hof, Silicon Valley bureau chief of BusinessWeek, who penned a major cover story about SL. “It was just voluminous for awhile there, probably a little too positive at the outset and then, for some good reasons, more negative later…As you know, this kind of cycle is endemic to journalism, for better or worse: Build ‘em up, tear ‘em down.”

John Lester leads customer market development for education and health care for Linden Lab, which runs Second Life. I met him in-world and had an instant-messaging chat with his alter-ego, Pathfinder Linden, about how the media has covered SL over the years. My SL name was Lynx Wickentower:

Lynx: Did media miss the bigger story of Second Life?

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Pathfinder Linden at the educational meeting in SL

Pathfinder: That seems to be a typical pattern for the human species, yes? We did it with all the previous mediums. We’ll do it again in the future. We always misunderstand new mediums, initially treating them like pre-existing ones (e.g., treating the web like print media; treating television like radio). But then we learn new ways of seeing the tools and new ways to leverage them.

About-Face from Wired, Reuters

What’s especially striking is how some previous boosters of Second Life have turned against the virtual world. I was a guest on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” back in 2006 with Reuters’ SL bureau chief Adam Pasick. On the show, Pasick was almost like a representative for Linden, explaining SL to the public in great detail. “Just about every business you can find in the real world is now in Second Life,” he said on the show. The Reuters island still includes basic instructions for moving around SL, and the wire service basically picked a favorite by choosing to have a bureau in SL and not simply having a correspondent covering all virtual worlds.

Now, Pasick told me via email that Second Life will now be covered within the existing technology beat by Reuters.

“We were primarily interested in Second Life as a business/commerce/finance phenomenon, covering it like we would any small but fast-growing economy in the real world,” Pasick said. “The bureau is now closed. Essentially the story we were there to cover has moved on. Second Life continues to be an interesting and popular virtual world, albeit one that is growing much more slowly than during its heyday. Our technology team continues to cover Second Life and Linden Lab, and we still have our island in Second Life, which we may use for corporate functions at the Thomson Reuters level.”

The other Reuters reporter who covered SL, Eric Krangel, had an even stronger change of heart. In February 2008, Krangel participated in a virtual talk show about media companies in-world, and had this to say about SL and Reuters’ participation:

Part of the reason I’m here personally is because I find Second Life absolutely fascinating. And I think no one anticipated, and it’s not just my interest, but also Reuters’ interest, is how complex of a creation Second Life has become…Reuters reaches out to the 1.2 million people who are in Second Life every 60 days. It is a tremendous amount of press that Reuters is getting. A lot of knowledge of people who are understanding what Reuters is, what Reuters does, who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have that. So really, I mean I think they’re extending their brand in a way on a very little expenditure that I think perhaps other organizations might follow suit.

Once Reuters killed its SL bureau, Krangel joined Silicon Alley Insider and was quick to criticize SL’s shortcomings:

It’s hard to say what, if anything, Linden Lab can do to make Second Life appeal to a general audience. The very things that most appeal to Second Life’s hardcore enthusiasts are either boring or creepy for most people: Spending hundreds of hours of effort to make insignificant amounts of money selling virtual clothes, experimenting with changing your gender or species, getting into random conversations with strangers from around the world, or having pseudo-nonymous sex (and let’s not kid ourselves, sex is a huge draw into Second Life). As part of walking my ‘beat,’ I’d get invited by sources to virtual nightclubs, where I’d right-click the dancefloor to send my avatar gyrating as I sat at home at my computer. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.

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Wagner James Au

As for Reuters’ coverage of SL, they did better than most journalists who did drive-by stories with a day or two of research in-world. The bureau lived for more than two years. Still, James Wagner Au, who writes the excellent New World Notes blog about SL said they could have done better.

“Their writers, Adam Pasick and Eric Krangel, are fine journalists, and did some great external business-oriented reports, but at the same time, I don’t think they were ever passionately engaged in the medium or Second Life’s community on an experiential level,” Au told me. “Consequently, their reporting very much had a distanced, ‘outside looking in’ flavor that caused them to often miss the big picture, in my opinion.”

Wired magazine followed a similar pattern, creating an island in SL and running a special travel guide in the magazine that was nominated for a National Magazine Award. But less than two years later, the magazine’s editor, Chris Anderson, said he was giving up on Second Life on his Long Tail blog:

Well, partly it was the whole ‘there’s nobody there’ problem, which is of course just anecdotal. Like everyone else, I had fun exploring the concept and marveling at all the creativity. Then I got bored, and I started marveling at something else: all the empty corporate edifices. By day I’d speak at marketing conferences that usually had someone pitching SL services, complete with staged demonstrations (the ‘inhabitants’ invariably paid employees). By night I’d go back to the same places, which had reverted to ghost towns once the demonstration was over. I couldn’t understand why companies kept throwing money at in-world presences. Were they seeing something I wasn’t?

When I recently contacted Anderson for this story, his response was terse: “I don’t really follow SL so I can’t comment…I thought SL was fascinating and was glad to have participated, not least for the learning.” One SL resident, going by the name of Bettina Tizzy, was non-plussed by Wired’s efforts in Second Life, and explained on her blog how Wired’s pullout from the world had a domino effect for businesses:

Therein lies the problem that not only Wired magazine, but pretty much every single Real Life corporation that I know of (except Pocky!) has experienced to date as they fiddle around with their Titans-in-pixelated-cubicles (and we’ll give you a free baseball cap and T-shirt, too!) approach. Not surprisingly, nine months after their launch in Second Life, Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief, and his minions were slamming the metaverse, and jumping ship. And like a house of cards, Real World corporations began to flee, one after another.

What Went Right

While Reuters thinks that the story has moved on from Second Life, CNN and many others beg to differ. The broadcaster now has an even larger presence in SL. Rather than send in a reporter as a corresponent in-world, CNN relies on SL residents to report their own news as citizen journalists for its iReport site.

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CNN.com senior producer Lila King said that Second Life iReporters have posted 376 stories since it launched a year ago, but that relatively small number did lead to a number of stories on written by CNN.com producers (including this one about relationships in-world). King said that SL has been more than just a story-generating tool for CNN’s iReport team; it’s also helped them learn to nurture an online community.

“We’ve started to see a new benefit of being in Second Life: it gives us a place to polish our skills in community building,” King said. “Newsrooms everywhere, ours included, are trying to learn how to foster meaningful, two-way conversations with their audiences. When we hold our virtual news meetings every Tuesday afternoon (2 pm Second Life Time/5 pm ET) with the Second Life iReport community, that’s exactly what we’re doing: listening and interacting in real-time, offering feedback and courting new ideas along the way.”

Au points out that the media still is covering Second Life, and that there have been “more than several dozen articles on it this year,” including less sensationalistic stories that look at the important cultural happenings in-world.

“Prominent media reports still happen, though…they’re generally less hyperbolic, less about one-off marketing campaigns, and much less ‘OMFG this is the next generation of the Internet!’” he said. “Instead there’s more focus on the world’s creative ecology that’s happening right now.”

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A tip jar greets you at the WGBH hub in SL

Public media outlet WGBH in Boston produced a live classical concert in Second Life last May, with pianist Jeremy Denk performing in the real-world radio studios, which went on-air and also was attended in a virtual space online. Mike Janssen, who writes for the classical radio blog, Scanning the Dial, said that WGBH got a good reaction from the 70 people who attended the event in-world, but wasn’t sure how to quantify the success of the experiment.

“I’m trying to make the argument that it’s really the quality of the experience that, in the long run, is maybe more beneficial than the fact that 100,000 people saw a program,” WGBH producer Gary Mott told Janssen. “The usual metrics that we measure audience by didn’t seem to apply here.”

Perhaps not, but WGBH received a $12,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to try out the live in-world performance. Mott told me in a recent email exchange that WGBH’s SL experiment was in limbo at the moment, and that they didn’t receive more funding from the CPB though they are hoping to find a partner in Linden or an educational institution in Boston. One great product of the experiment is a report Mott wrote (PDF file) about his lessons learned in SL

Janssen, for one, thinks that it might be a tough sell in public broadcasting.

“I think it makes sense for broadcasters to be experimenting on all platforms to some extent,” he told me. “But realistically, and with money as tight as it is these days, they have to make serious choices and should avoid spreading themselves too thin. SL has a ‘wow’ factor to it, but at the moment probably isn’t a top priority.”

One thing that has survived the hype is the virtual economy of Second Life and other online worlds and gaming environments, where people sell virtual goods with game-based money that can be converted to real money. BusinessWeek’s Hof believes that’s a story that has staying power.

“The notion of virtual economies is already becoming a solid business model for many game companies, and even social networks like Facebook — by some accounts up to $2 billion in revenues — so that seems like a trend that has some legs, and it’s one you can credit Second Life with proving as much as anyone,” Hof said. “And of course, the idea of user-generated content is huge today on a number of fronts, though Second Life is just one example of that.”

Education and Collaboration

While the effusive media coverage might be long-gone, Second Life is evolving into a practical platform for some educational and business purposes. Joe Essid writes the SL Beat blog for the Richmond Time-Dispatch, and he also is director of the University of Richmond’s Writing Center. Essid told me that now that Second Life has matured (it was first launched in 2003), it has found some practical uses but they aren’t as sensational as virtual sex and nude avatars.

“SL and other virtual worlds are making gradual progress toward regular usage by higher education and business customers,” Essid said via email. “Stability and the quality of ‘life’ in SL have improved, though not without a great deal of controversy over fees and policies from Linden Lab. But day-to-day use of the Internet is not ‘sexy’ stuff: it’s just how we do work. And to me that’s fine, since SL is another tool for teaching, albeit one that inspires some amazing creativity and can be a lot of fun to use.”

Essid tipped me off to an in-world meeting of librarians and educators who were sharing tips for using SL in education. I could see how such a discussion — this one was just people texting as in a live chat forum — could be productive, as I made connections through private instant messaging to particular participants as the discussion continued. I could view people’s profiles and see who they were in the real world.

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Lawrence Mullen

Lawrence Mullen, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is taking his students into Second Life so they can experiment in-world.

“There are a number of virtual magazines in SL — they come and go — but there are many new projects always starting,” he told me. “And maybe it’s good that the large media corporations aren’t getting into SL — thus giving others a chance to redefine what journalism is or should be. I designed a course that explores the virtual world more from a sociological/anthropological perspective than a journalistic way. Students design their avatars, learn how to use them, them I give them missions to explore aspects of the media used in the virtual world, but also religion, various communities, building, relationships, advertising, and more.”

In the current economic recession, with businesses rethinking the way they spend money marketing online, including in virtual worlds, Linden hopes that Second Life can be seen as a place businesses can save money with virtual teleconferences.

“Virtual worlds are particularly poised to save a lot of money [for businesses] around new modes of collaboration and meetings,” Linden’s Lester told me. “Nobody has budgets to fly around in planes and stay in hotels anymore. I think businesses, given the current economic climate, are eagerly seeking better ways to collaborate at a distance and manage a global presence in a more cost effective way. SL is more than a teleconferencing medium. It has synchronous collaboration opportunities. Lots more emotional bandwidth, too.”

What do you think? Did media companies turn their backs too soon on Second Life? Are there still important stories happening there? Where do you go for media coverage of SL? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Second Life hype cycle image by MUVEDesign’s Gary Hayes via Flickr.