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The future of social networking? What of Second Life?

The arrival of a new year always brings all sorts of fascinating predictions.

Two commentators on social networking sites who I always have a lot of time for are boyd and Stutzman. Between them they have revealed much about how young people use online social networking services and how young people interact with each other. Their predictions for the future trends in these services are revealing reading.

Stuztman makes a broad range of predictions, most notably that within the US there will be a shakeout of services and that the most established (MySpace, Bebo and Facebook) will be difficult to displace. He reminds us that whilst users might visit lots of different sites, they can only actively keep their own personas on one or two at a time. Protocols such as OpenID will become more necessary to support interoperability across different services – otherwise users will leave. Two other key points he makes are that informational/transactional sites with established communities of users/visitors will attempt to social-ise their user experience and that this will increase the importance of shared experience to the emergence of community.

boyd also introduces new ideas. A few days ago she reminded us that teens do not use these social networking services in the same way that older people do (that is – us). For some, forgetting a password is an experience that is fixed by simply creating a new identity on the site, or moving off to another site. Harking back to the youth studies field, she reminds us that for teenagers and youth, these sites offer a means for identity experimentation, in a way that adults do not often have the time to do with such zeal.

In her thoughts for 2007 boyd sees a fading of enthusiasm amongst teens for the major social networking services. She cites anecdotal evidence that on one hand, new teen users are growing wary of the negative coverage of stranger danger on these sites, and on the other, those who currently use these services are being turned off by the influx of PR and marketing which is getting in the way of the main reason they use these services – to communicate to their friends in their own space. The mass scale intrusion of marketing and more recently spam into some of these services is a growing problem and threatens to make some environments as unfriendly as the ‘mall’ where if you aren’t a potential shopper then you are not welcome.

So, what of Second Life?

Second Life is, as Nina Simon writes is really a social site with the look of a MMORPG. It certainly isn’t a game, as many commentators point out, Linden Labs has set it up with only the most basic of rules. People go to Second Life to, in the words of Simon, “buy items online, view/listen to concerts online, meet up with people you already know (through work, family, friends) all over the world”.

If this user intentionality is correct then I’m very interested in applying Stutzman and boyd’s predictions to Second Life. How will it survive – especially if the churn rates are as high as Shirky believes?

Some questions.

– What of persona interoperability? Using Second Life as a platform does require significant investment from the user which will inevitability take them away from maintenance of their personas on other services. Gary Hayes is positive about this, but also suggest that as open source WordPress equivalents for setting up ‘multi-user virtual environments’ become available, Second Life will have a lot of challengers. His post on MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach is an interesting look at what is likely to fragment that user base of all environments pretty quickly.

– This, then, leads into the next issue – what of the increased presence of real world companies? Will certain user groups be turned off by the presence of the real world in their Second Life alter-reality?

– What of intentionality? A lot of work has gone in from educators using Second Life as a platform for engaging particular niche audiences with learning – using Second Life as a classroom etc. But how many of these Second Life students continue to be users/citizens after class? Does it matter?

One reply on “The future of social networking? What of Second Life?”


Thanks for the shout-out. I recommend you check out some great posts by Giff and Chris from Electric Sheep on SL hype, churn, etc. They’ve done many big RL company builds (NBC, MTV, Major League Baseball) and are doing some good thinking about how these affect different user groups in SL. Frankly, I think back to the web. Where are the lone bulletin board users of the early days now? The entrance of major companies is a necessity if this is going to grow–the question is whether those companies create walled gardens or open areas, and how Linden Labs can scale to become open source as quickly and robustly as possible.

I’m going to interivew Sibley Verbeck, Sheep founder, tomorrow evening about Museums and SL. We’ll definitely touch on the questions you raise about intentionality and education. Any other questions you’d like to throw into the mix?

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