Second Life's death knellGoogle has shut down Lively, a service where people log on to chat and explore 3D virtual spaces, after a few short months. The MBAs of Silicon Valley have a pat phrase for the arrival of a competitor on the scene: They say it "validates their space." What does it say, then, that Lively is gone? It means that Second Life, the best known of these unreal universes, is doomed, too.The notion of a metaverse has long fascinated geeks. The idea of "avatars" — three-dimensional representations of the self rendered in pixels, often fantastical or surreal in nature — wandering through a computer-generated environment has been explored in the science-fiction novels of Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, among others. The Matrix trilogy introduced the idea at multiplexes from coast to coast. And yet unreal worlds have never taken off in actual reality. Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, once showed me screens at the headquarters of his company, Linden Lab, which monitored in real time the number of people logging in. They peaked at 50,000, the maximum simultaneous capacity of its servers. That's not a virtual world; that's a midsized town. Anecdotally, many of Second Life's users are there for virtual sex. (The company has banned gambling, so there's little other reason to go there.) The PG-rated Lively, censored by Google, did not even have that; its only draw was innocuous chat, with the occasional subversive attempt by users at raciness. No wonder that news organizations, drawn by the visual appeal of the service's 3D graphics, aren't writing stories about Second Life anymore. Reuters, at the height of the frenzy, opened up a bureau; its Second Life correspondent stopped filing copy since September, having left to write for a blog, and the wire service has not replaced him. The most recent noise to come out of Second Life has been an uproar over price hikes. Second Life users periodically hold colorful protests in the virtual world — probably the most entertaining thing that ever happens there — over this new rule or that new rule. They are likely to become more frequent, as Linden Lab, to survive, focuses on squeezing more revenue out of its existing customers, who pay the company "taxes" on their virtual real estate and convert real money into the company's imaginary currency, Linden dollars. Online 3D environments are not a fad; millions inhabit them for hours, sometimes days at a time. But they do so in networked videogames like World of Warcraft, where there's a clear purpose to being there — even if it's just having fun and wasting time. Second Life, Lively, and virtual worlds like them amount to glorified chat rooms, and while chatting is a fundamental human activity, it's hard for anyoen to make money on it.