Second Wind for Second Life?

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As many will remember, there was a period when the virtual world Second Life was touted as the Next Big Thing, comparable to the Internet. Somehow the massive changes that implied didn't happen, and there was the inevitable disillusionment and reaction against Second Life and its ideas.

As a result, recognising that a new approach was needed, Second Life's founder Philip Linden stepped aside from the day-to-day running of the company, and brought in Mark Kingdon. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he was naturally upbeat about the future of Second Life, so I was glad to have the opportunity to talk to him this morning about how things are going, and to see whether Second Life really has found its second wind.

First, some numbers. Back in April, there were 640,000 active users; today there are 741,000 Kingdon says, and the system downtime – and vexed issue a year ago - is also much better. Some other figures come from a new press release celebrating some milestones for the service:

In total, users around the world have spent more than one billion hours in Second Life.

That's roughly 115,000 years spent doing everything from meeting and socializing with friends; to attending live concerts; to creating, selling, and shopping for virtual goods; to learning a foreign language; to attending business meetings; and much more. User hours grew 33% year-over-year to an all-time high of 126 million in Q2 2009.

Second Life Residents spend an average of about 100 minutes inworld per visit.

This average session time is significantly greater than those seen with popular social networking websites and reveals the uniquely high level of engagement Residents have with Second Life.

Don't these people have lives – real ones, that is? An average of 100 minutes per visit means some sad souls must be spending hours in “there”.

More positively, they're using that time creatively, to a certain extent:

Residents create more than 250,000 new virtual goods every day – from clothing to vehicles to buildings to automatic language translators, and more.

There are now more than 270 terabytes of content in Second Life, and this is growing by approximately 100% every year.

As Kingdon also emphasised, in-world commerce seems to be flourishing:

The equivalent of more than USD1 billion has been transacted between Residents in Second Life, who purchase virtual goods and services from one another.

The inworld economy grew 94% year-over-year from Q2 2008 to Q2 2009. Now at nearly USD50 million each month in user-to-user transactions, the Second Life economy is on an annual run rate of more than a half billion US dollars, making Second Life the largest virtual economy in the industry.

On the software front, a new version of the Second Life viewer – cunningly code-named “Viewer 2.0” - is in preparation, and due out early next year. The emphasis is on ease of use, and making the main viewer interface more intuitive, not least by drawing on elements of the standard Web browser.

Another significant nod in the direction of the Web is a new media API that will allow Web pages to be displayed on any surface within Second Life, something that should make a big difference in terms of marrying the currently rather disjoint digital worlds of the Internet and Second Life. And last, but not least, “social tools” are being added to Second Life: it's rather ironic that a service based around the creation of communities should only now be adding even basic social networking tools. Judging by the success of Second Life without them – and of other sites like Facebook – this could have big impact on the virtual world's community and their interactions.

Unfortunately, one thing Kingdon was reluctant to talk about is also one of the most interesting:

Yesterday, top Second Life content creators Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Linden Lab, for allegedly allowing and enabling content theft of their material by other Residents. Rather, the avatars' real life owners, Shannon Grei of virtual fashion brand Nomine and Kevin Alderman of adult entertainment empire Eros LLC, respectively, joined the lawsuit on behalf of their businesses. Reached in-world yesterday, Ms. Zaius (right) declined comment, though Serpentine suggested to the Alphaville Herald that the plaintiffs did not expect monetary damages, so much as better protection of user-created content: "This is about a pattern of ambivalence over six years. We want fundamental change in the regard to the very content and creators that made SL what it is today."

This is a fascinating isssue: it goes to the heart of the question to what extent digital content *can* be protected, since digital files by their very nature are copiable. And when you view content in Second Life, you are actually copying it to your computer, so the bits are already there, which makes controllling them hard.

That's already an important issue, but the lawsuit has a further twist:

To follow to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, companies like Linden Lab are required to forward a copyright holder's infringement notice to person on its system who's allegedly violating it. In Second Life, however, the copyright holder is usually known only by their avatar name -- after all, that's why it's called Second Life-- but to file a DMCA notice, the avatar must reveal their real legal name. "Because many content creators in Second Life choose to remain anonymous," the lawsuit alleges, "this aspect of the DMCA has an intimidating and chilling effect on those content creators who do not wish to jeopardize their privacy and anonymity."

This adds in fascinating issues around identity, privacy and anonymity, as well as the relationship between Second Life avatars and their real-world counterparts. It's a pity that Kingdon – for understandable legal reasons – was unable to talk about these since, in many ways, they highlight precisely why Second Life, for all its ups and downs, remains the key company in this field.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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