Those who can't do, teach. Second Life, the most overhyped virtual world, has been abandoned even by its most fervent journalistic promoters, like Reuters and Wired. It's now pitching itself as an online schoolhouse.
How fitting, since Second Life, a piece of software which allows users to move "avatars" representing themselves around in a three-dimensional space and decorate themselves and their virtual land, resembles nothing so much as a failed academic experiment.
Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has raised $19 million in venture capital from a star-studded list of backers, including Benchmark Capital, the backers of eBay; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus; and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. But the last infusion came nearly three years ago. The company charges fees on people and companies who own virtual land in Second Life, and also issues a currency, Linden dollars, used to trade goods in-world. Kapor, the company's chairman, told the Financial Times last year that it was "absolutely in the ballpark of profitability."
Second Life may well be on the verge of profitability. But it is firmly headed into irrelevance. It is impossible to imagine another BusinessWeek cover story like the one it garnered in 2006. Reuters closed its Second Life bureau last year. The former bureau chief, Adam Pasick, told PBS's Mark Glaser that there was no longer a there there:
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. The bureau is now closed. Essentially the story we were there to cover has moved on.
His reporter, Eric Krangel, who now writes for Silicon Alley Insider, was more trenchant:
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.
What's left for Second Life? Community meetings, underattended cultural events, and education. CNN uses its Second Life "island" to hold meetings with volunteer reporters. WGBH threw a virtual concert with a grand total of 70 attendees. And the Modern Language Association, that bastion of English-department wonkery, is pursuing the idea of using it to hold meetings.
Imagine a dry academic conference enlivened with a few space-alien avatars. Deans with mohawks and tight leather pants! Only compared to the life of a university professor might Second Life actually seem exciting. We look forward to the news that Linden Lab has sold itself to an academic consortium. It's where the virtual world belongs.