Whatever happened to Second Life?

I’ve clearly landed in the French quarter. With my spoken French generously falling somewhere between “pidgin” and “’Allo ’Allo”, I decide not to barge into the conversation and head elsewhere. But despite another ten minutes of searching, I can’t find anyone who can parlez vous the old Anglais.

Declining numbers

Has Second Life become a digital ghost town? Not according to its makers, Linden Labs. “In total, users around the world have spent more than one billion hours in Second Life,” the company claimed in September.

And it isn’t just using that big figure to distract attention from a slowing interest in the online world: “user hours grew 33% year-on-year to an all-time high of 126 million in Q2 2009,” Linden insists.

Yet, that doesn’t correlate with what I’m seeing. I return a couple of days later, determined to find out whether I’d simply arrived on a slow day or whether Second Life really is on the wane. Again, I check out the so-called tourist spots, but there’s barely a soul to be found. Shopping malls, ski slopes, even the in-game information centre, are all but deserted. It’s starting to get eerie.

I search the event listings once more, and stumble across a discussion called “Has Second Life taken over your life?”, which is due to start in two minutes. I teleport across: if users spend an average of an hour and 40 minutes in-world per visit, as Linden’s stats claims, there should be a fair few turning up for cyber rich tea and sympathy. By the time the meeting starts, however, there are only four.
“It seems a lot quieter in here than it used to be,” I remark to the hostess, who looks like she’s just fallen out of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video. I’m sure I hear a little sigh before she replies: “That’s probably because everyone’s off on a hunt”. “What’s a hunt?” I ask, but before the 1980s pop queen has time to reply, one of the other members of the discussion has sent me an invite to join her hunt.

Although I feel bad about hijacking a discussion and then cutting its attendance in half, I decide to follow the hunter, but my efforts to teleport out of there are thwarted by a warning message: “Adult content: verify age before proceeding”.

That’s odd. The last time I was in Second Life, there was certainly no walled fence for adult content. In fact, it was all too easy to find pornography or groups of avatars performing acts that would make even Formula One bosses blush. So what’s changed?

The adult continent

A little research soon reveals why Second Life seems a lot quieter than the numbers suggest. In June, the company opened Zindra – Second Life’s “adult continent”, a huge plot of the virtual universe dedicated to content rated as “mature”, “adult” or even “PG”.

Given that sex and gambling accounted for the majority of the “most popular places” when I first visited, it was suddenly apparent why I was as lonely as a cloud in the parts of the Second Life universe that wouldn’t upset the clergy.

So why did Linden establish its very own red-light district? It seems the company decided it was time to clean up its act. In 2008, a management shake-up saw founder and CEO Philip Rosedale move into the role of chairman; his replacement was Mark Kingdon, a man who spent 12 years as a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers – about as far from Linden’s “anything goes” culture as you could possibly get.

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