What the heck was that?
There’s an episode of The Office in which Dwight, depressed and longing for his ex-girlfriend Angela, joins Second Life. In it, he has the same job, same title and same life, with one subtle difference—he can fly. And that’s Second Life in a nutshell. Since going public in 2003, it allows users to create—literally—second lives, built around avatars of themselves who have jobs, make friends and live in a world they can explore.
As the world inside Second Life has grown, driven largely by its community’s never-ending desire to expand it, new aspects have been integrated, like granting intellectual property rights to Second Life residents and establishing a commerce system to buy and sell goods. And if you want the ability to fly, go right ahead. However, there’s also a side to Second Life far different than that, one that arguably takes the idea of social networking via the Web to its natural conclusion.
“My son and I and my father who [lives] in Germany, we go [in Second Life] to the replica of Munich, Germany—where I’m originally from—and we just hang out there,” says Bernhard Drax, a four-year veteran of Second Life who primarily uses it as a collaboration tool for work. “We lived in Munich for two years and then we moved back to the U.S., so [my son] has fond memories, and as opposed to looking at a postcard, you’re actually in that postcard.”
Second Life, by virtue of its name, can quickly become a massively time-intensive endeavor—in addition to having a job, users can own land, trade an in-game currency (bought with real-world money) and have religious meetings. There are users who make more than $1 million—real-world dollars—through Second Life each year. But these are the very small minority. Unless you spend your days selling paper over-the-phone and run a beet farm, you very well may have a first life too busy to juggle with a second.
“It’s very time-consuming. It’s not like Farmville where you go in and if you’re bored and you want to just have something to do, you can go on Farmville and do something,” says Drax. “In Second Life it takes time to learn how to build or find a group that you’re interested in.”
Drax goes on to postulate that the reason for Second Life’s niche success is a result of the different approach it takes to Web-based society versus Facebook and Twitter. While those services provide an “instant gratification,” something he says people want, Second Life encourages users to “define what [they] want.” Without direction and short-term rewards, many people are left confused.
“It’s like you give people an awesome set of colors and a blank piece of paper and say, ‘Go do something with it,’” he says. “And people go, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’”
Where is it now?
The site saw exponential growth in 2006 and 2007, and some of that carried into 2008. A spokesperson from Linden Lab, the Internet company responsible for Second Life, says the days of that level of expansion are in the rearview, but points to another statistic as proof of its continued success. Using “monthly repeat logins,” the number of returning Second Lifers, shows traffic peaking just a few months ago in March. Today, its Alexa.com ranking is 1,937th in the U.S., 3,105th globally. Traffic probably isn’t the best meter to judge Second Life by, however, because the experience offered by it isn’t as drive-by as others.
“I think Second Life is really unique because it has a sense of place,” Drax says. “People say, ‘I’m on Facebook,’ but you’re essentially just bringing up a Web page. In Second Life, you are in Second Life.”
Second Life’s spokesperson points to concerts as an example of this difference. With Facebook, you’ll post pictures of a concert. On Twitter, you’ll tweet out the best songs. In Second Life, you can go to a concert and experience it with them. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you ask Drax, that’s OK.
“I’m not sure if Second Life will grow beyond a niche market, but I don’t think that is a problem.”
What the heck was that?
In 2003, Friendster was exploding, and MySpace had begun cashing in as well. Google wanted in on this new market, so they enlisted one of their employees (Turkish immigrant Orkut Büyükkökten) to make them their own network. Its basic features were more or less the same as the rest (friending, blogging, commenting, etc.), so it went ignored in the U.S. and European markets.
Without any purposeful marketing there, Orkut almost immediately took off in Brazil, and it never stopped taking off. This is nothing to thumb your nose at—Brazil is the fifth largest nation in the world (just two slots behind the U.S.), and has been recently undergoing “an explosive growth of Internet usage amongst the upper-middle class and middle class,” according to Thompson. Google soon moved all Orkut operations to Brazil and gave up on the other markets. This wasn’t so different from Friendster’s move to Asia, or Bebo’s success in Ireland, except for one thing…
Where is it now?
It still hasn’t given way to Facebook. The only other example of this we’re aware of is the massive Vkontakte.ru social network in Russia. Orkut is the No. 2 site in Brazil, one behind Google, with Facebook (the one or two spot almost everywhere else) sitting quietly at 13. Surfing its Brazilian profiles doesn’t land you at the untouched pages overgrown with spam-ads that you find at Friendster or Bebo. It expresses an energized and active conversation, in Portuguese. “I’ve never really had a good explanation why it went so big in Brazil,” says Thompson, and we can’t find one for why Brazilians stick with it when everyone else went with Facebook. There’s something peculiar in this: Is Brazil’s youth culture not as interested as the rest of the world in communing with (or imitating) the major players of Western culture? Are they somehow resistant to globalization? How does this factor into Michael Wolff’s concept of superior functionality creating critical mass? Perhaps Orkut’s functionality was coincidentally a perfect match for the culture of Brazil, but given Orkut’s similarity to every other site, this seems unlikely. With Vkontakte in Russia there’s some logic—it’s a Russian site made for Russians—but the Orkut/Brazil pairing seems so random. One Orkut user responded to our question of why he uses Orkut with: “because in Brasil everybody use Orkut.” Maybe, though, Brazilians use Orkut because the rest of the world doesn’t. For at least 200,000 people, there may still be more joy had in appropriating a ghost town for their own culture, rather than packing up whatever bits of culture will survive the big move to the global city.
With additional reporting by Samantha Batel, Natalie Crnosija, Alexandria Hein and Amanda Marzullo