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Is Second Life Building the Metaverse?

By now, I think most of the bloggers on the planet have covered the BusinessWeek cover story on Second Life:

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The avatar named Anshe Chung may be a computerized chimera, but the company she represents is far from imaginary. Second Life participants pay "Linden dollars," the game's currency, to rent or buy virtual homesteads from Chung so they have a place to build and show off their creations. But players can convert that play money into U.S. dollars, at about 300 to the real dollar, by using their credit card at online currency exchanges. Chung's firm now has virtual land and currency holdings worth about $250,000 in real U.S. greenbacks.

Oh yes, this is seriously weird. Even Chung sometimes thinks she tumbled down the rabbit hole. But by the time I visited her simulated abode in late February, I already knew that something a lot stranger than fiction was unfolding, some unholy offspring of the movie The Matrix, the social networking site MySpace.com, and the online marketplace eBay. And it was growing like crazy, from 20,000 people a year ago to 170,000 today.

This past week, I decided it was time for me to stop talking about Second Life and actually experience it for myself.

It's hard for me to write about Second Life without sounding like a Luddite. It's not that I don't get it -- I do. I've been turning on people to Snow Crash and its concept of the metaverse ever since it came out. But Second Life has a long way to go. Given the current state of Second Life's world, if I want to chat with someone, I'll chat using Trillian, not go to the trouble of launching an immersive program. If I want to watch a movie, I'll use my HD set, not use my avatar to watch a movie projected on a surface. If I want to play a game, I'll use my Xbox 360. If I want to play a massive multiplayer game, I'll play World of Warcraft.

Again, it's hard to say all this without sounding Luddist, which I'm not. I believe in the power of distributed solutions, and in the superiority of distributed intelligence. But just because Second Life is the first to make a real run at building Snow Crash doesn't mean they're the ones who are actually going to build it and get rich as a result.

It was in 1993 that I saw my first demonstration of the Web -- Mosaic running on a T-1 line that Randy Adams had run out to his garage in Atherton, where he was working on the Internet Shopping Network, which would later become either the first or second company to conduct a secure retail transaction over the Internet. The Web was clearly full of promise, demonstrably growing at an exponential rate, and yet in retrospect, none of the eventual winners had even started at the time. (Randy's competitor for the "first secure retail transaction" crown was NetMarket, which, like Randy's firm, was bought and eventually made irrelevant. Meanwhile, Amazon started in November 1994, Yahoo in January 1995, and Google not until September 1997.)

Second Life hopes and believes it's the Amazon, Yahoo, or Google (pick your metaphorical firm) of the metaverse. Could be. But my hunch is that the Amazon, Yahoo, and Google of the metaverse have yet to get started.

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