On the future of Second Life

The news about Ebbe's mention of the Lab's next development was just starting to surface as I was heading for bed on Friday night and, having had a fairly busy weekend in RL, I've not had much time to spend really taking it in. It has, however, been sat in the back of my mind, brewing, nagging, not going away. While I have no reason or interest in going into any kind of panic mode, there are what I believe to be understandable concerns.

In an effort to get them straight, and recorded, I'm going to write them here. This won't necessarily be a coherent post; think of it more as a quick jotting to get things down on (virtual) paper.

What follows is based on the following facts that seem to be known:

  • The Lab is working on a new virtual world.
  • The majority of their resources are working on it.
  • It's not complete.
  • It isn't intended to be in any way backward-compatible with Second Life.
  • It won't be Open Source.
While there seems to be a few other bits and bobs known these seem to be the main facts. Here's my thoughts and reactions based on what's happened so far:

The way it was announced: The way it was announced seems fairly curious. I'd have thought that something a little more formal would have been released but, instead, it almost seems to have been let slip in an incidental way. This was either a bit of a mistake (needing a bit of quick fire-fighting) or a genius move to create the maximum rumour mill effect, causing as much panic as possible, thus ensuring that any further news would always be news that seemed better than what was originally "leaked".

That this development is taking place at all: Well dur! It seems fairly obvious that the Lab had to do something to stay competitive (or to have an exit strategy?) now that there seems to be a bit of a second summer of virtual worlds. It seems clear that Facebook are working on something that's bound to be hugely popular, High Fidelity is making a buzz, etc... Nothing about this bit of news comes as a surprise.

Lack of backward-compatibility: This seems sensible and inevitable. I don't know the internals of Second Life very well (well, at all) but I can imagine that there's a lot of very old design (the origins of SL stem from the late 1990s, right?) that has served the grid well but which would hold back anything seeking to be very new. I'm a software developer by trade. I've been an employed developer since the late 1980s. I've created systems that have become legacy systems. I've maintained other people's legacy systems. I've reimplemented the "next generation" of a system more than once (my RL is taken up by doing just such a thing right now), often sacrificing backward-compatibility. This I get.

The lack of Open Source: This is the part that really concerns me. While I've long been a supporter of (and involved in) Open Source and associated movements I don't as a rule believe that everything should and must be Open Source. I wouldn't and don't expect the Lab to make the server side available. I don't even expect the Lab to make the client side available either. But... I can't help but think that the opening of the client side, and the creation of the TPV "market", was and continues to be a huge plus for Second Life.

I do, of course, have a very particular interest in this latter point. While I really enjoy Second Life for the chance to be part of like-minded communities (cf Raven Park dances and The Femdom Hunt), and while the most important parts of my Second Life are people that are very important to me, there's at least one add-on technology that I really enjoy working with: RLV. I have had, and continue to have, so much fun with RLV (and RLVa, of course), both as a programmer who loves making stuff with RLV and as someone who spends time on the receiving end of RLV being used by a wonderfully smart and deliciously twisted woman.

The point here being: how could something like RLV have ever happened without the viewer source been made available?

Moreover, isn't it the case that RLV is just one example of lots of community-created and community-supported enhancements that allow all sorts of cultures and interests to thrive in Second Life? Just the other week I was reading about how text viewers are important to visually-impaired users -- another example.

This part is the big concern I have about any new virtual world from the Lab: that something as clever and as widely-used as RLV won't be possible.

The impact of the announcement: My other big concern is the impact of the announcement. While it's been said that Second Life as we know it will continue for the foreseeable future I'm already seeing mutterings from some people (albeit from the sorts who are always looking for a reason to panic and declare The End Of Second Life) about how there's less reason to spend money in-world, etc. And this does seem like a legitimate concern. While nobody in their right mind would ever have assumed that the grid would exist forever, Friday's "leak" makes the last day of the grid a tangible reality. Given that, it's not completely nuts to imagine that people would start to second-guess what would have normally been a fun impulse purchase.

Personally I'm not stopping enjoying my Second Life any time soon. I'll still build and script. Z&A isn't going anywhere. Raven Park isn't going anywhere either. I'll still spend money on fun toys and clothing and the like.

I enjoy my Second Life and nothing's going to change that any time soon.


Things like Z&A and Raven Park exist on top of a thriving virtual economy, which requires that people share my view, that they want to carry on having a virtual home that they fill with virtual furniture and that they carry on buying what I produce to virtually explore themselves. Friday's "leak" and the way it's been handled since really doesn't seem to me to be the right way to ensure that the Second Life economy stays healthy for a good time to come. Friday's "leak" seemed like the best way to make as many people as possible nervous and defensive.

The next few weeks are going to be very interesting.

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