Why Second Life Passes The Milkshake Test (But Fails In Other Ways)


Chip and Dan Heath have published a new book, “The Myth of the Garage” (get it for free on Kindle at Amazon.com). In an excerpt of the book published at Slate titled “Why Second Life Failed,” the authors put Second Life to the “milkshake test.”

Adapted from Clay Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Solution,” the milkshake test asks the question, “what job is a product designed to do?” According to the Heath brothers, “Most successful innovations perform a clear duty. When we craved on-the-go access to our music collections, we hired the iPod. When we needed quick and effective searches, we hired Google.”

The authors then conclude that Second Life failed the milkshake test:

“But what ‘job’ did Second Life perform? It was like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé — fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze — but no actual labor skills.”

My Take: Second Life as Multiple Milkshakes

While I agree with the authors when they write, “today, Second Life limps along,” I disagree on the milkshake test result. In this post, I’ll highlight why Second Life passes the milkshake test, but fails in other ways.

Hired for: Escapism

Dictionary.com defines escapism as “the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.” And this is precisely what many users loved about the service. They “hired” Second Life as a perfect way to escape from the real world.

If you’re a middle aged man with a 9-to-5 job in real life, you could be a muscle-bound, highly attractive (and young) ladies’ man in your second life. In a matter of a few hours (or less), your “new you” (an avatar representation, that is) is ready to go explore the “world.”

Downfall: Turns out most of us want the opposite of escaping. We want the real world.

The mainstream has voted with their mouse clicks and tablet swipes. Their preference is rooted more in the real world and the ability to share, connect and stay in touch with friends, family and others. Instead of spending time on 3D islands, they’re logging on to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Hired for: Self-Expression

It’s quite easy to “hire” Second Life for self-expression. Everything you do there can be about self-expression, from the look and appearance of your avatar, to art that you create in-world, to entire islands that you build there.

You can be a virtual DJ and spin tunes in Second Life (e.g. see Doubledown Tandino, @Ravelong on Twitter) or you can create virtual art to sell. So not only can you self-express, you can make income as well.

Downfall: With a complete free reign on self-expression, instances of prostitution, nudity, sex and lewdness drove away any chance of an ongoing presence from mainstream users.

Counter-example: IMVU is a service that allows for self-expression and is doing quite well. Interestingly, their Terms of Service do not permit you to “use explicit/obscene language or solicit/post sexually explicit images.”

Hired for: Simulation and Training

Perhaps its largest success in passing the milkshake test is in simulation and training. Several branches of the Federal Government have used Second Life for military training and combat simulations. Loyalist College in Canada used Second Life in a training program for border crossing patrol agents. And finally, Dr. Peter Yellowless at UC Davis used Second Life to teach about the experience of schizophrenia.

Downfall: Linden Lab didn’t take the necessary steps to formalize products, services and support around this particular use of Second Life.

If they “productized” a simulation and training offering (perhaps on private, self-contained islands), I think we’d be hearing about a lot more compelling case studies. And it might even place Second Life into a different product/service category.


While I agree with the Heath brothers’ characterization that Second Life is limping along, I continue to see potential in the service. Today, Second Life’s milkshakes are like Baskin Robbins (available in 31 flavors). They’d be better off going Neapolitan, with milkshakes available in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry only.

Related Links

  1.  Thoughts from New World Notes on the same Slate article.
  2. Summary of virtual worlds innovators from a Stanford Media X event.


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14 Responses to Why Second Life Passes The Milkshake Test (But Fails In Other Ways)

  1. shutterbugfoto says:

    Your post really hits the mark on keying in on the value Second Life (SL) can bring to many of it’s residents. Having been in SL now for over 4 years and explored and experienced many of it’s attributes and challenges, I find the greatest pleasure in the “self expression” part. All too many times I read negative posts about SL and not so many that focus on the positive aspects. It is important to note that while the platform of Second Life maybe provided by Linden Labs – the entire virtual realm is completly user-created. It is really what one makes of it. Garbage in – garbage out. Beauty in – beauty out. I am one that likes to enjoy the beauty of it!

  2. gavin newman says:

    totally agree with these points

  3. I find this very interesting – Obviously Second Life has passed the MilkShake test for about about a million people who make the most of their Second Lives – I have to point out that if the Heath Brothers did a Milkshake Test on First Life – they might that wanting too -How many people live in poverty – Hired for sustenance – oops a fail! I could list the more negative activities of humans through out many societies, and find First Life lacking in all categories listed above. Again it is where you look.
    For some Second Life is a great platform which surpasses the tests the Heath Brothers failed at. Stiletto Moody’s made over one million USD last year selling virtual shoes. American Apparel couldn’t even pay its tier out of what they sold – why? What failed? Stiletto Moody is a huge success – American Apparel – well they didn’t understand the platform – What failed? Second Life? Or American Apparel?
    The American Cancer Society Relay for Life has raised over $1 Million USD and helped thousands of cancer victims and survivors and caregivers – WHAT fail? Again depends where you look –
    The Heath brothers, like many “think” they have a clue – but they can’t get it from reading someone else’ s reviews – they have to find out themselves – Is Second Life for everyone – no, what is?
    I don’t like cheeseburgers, but don’t spend a lot of time writing about why no one else should eat them-
    If you want to write about a world, spend time there – don’t do a travelogue of another country and just report from the brochures –

    And I quite agree – it is what you do with this Selected Life you are granted. Surely I didn’t ask for my First Life – but I have asked and worked for this – I produce award winning real time animation. I feel on the verge of the most exciting new frontier of live online virtual entertainment. It is your responsibility just like in First life, what you do – IMVU has no interest to me – it failed my Milkshake Test long ago (wow Boring!!!!) – but obviously folks like it – good on them too. I would never dare to assume i could tell someone else what to like, or how to spend their time.
    The Heath Brothers are I believe invested in Square – and in the competition for eyeballs. Whether or not they are – this smacks of Agenda-

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Thanks for the comment, Pooky. Always interested to hear your perspectives on Second Life. Sounds like the mikshakes are tasting quite all right for you.

    • Very good analysis! If companies failed, doesn’t mean they did because of Second Life. Back in the late 90’s, when e-commerce was rampant and stocks with the .com suffix were the new cash cows, there was a Swedish company called boo.com which sold sportswear and was one of the first .coms to fold. Some critics argued that Internet wasn’t a viable business model, considering such a failure, but they forgot to look at the real nature of things, which was the fact that boo.com’s expenses were totally out of control. Its Management used to host parties with expensive food and beverages and they travelled extensively using the Concorde plane. Now, every company, regardless of its nature couldn’t keep this going for too long, it’s under everyone’s eyes.
      Now, for what concerns Second Life, some Companies ventured into it, but they offered poor design, outrageously expensive prices and NO customer support of any sort. Of course this was deemed to fail.
      Now, once we have pinpointed the problem, what could a possible solution be? The answer, in my opinion is quite simple. Companies should outsource to Second Life skilled Creators their designs and allow them to sell on SL using the flagship’s name. The Company could cash a small percentage (say, 25-30%) of all sales, without any risk involved and capable Designers would definitely produce top quality apparel, consistent with the Company’s image and Brand. For instance, Ferrari outsourced to Thrustmaster the design of some great wheels and car panels, equal to the real Ferrari for PC and PS 3 and the result is a great, although rather expensive game peripheral. Hope this will give some new ideas 🙂
      Thanks again and best regards

  4. Monika Düttmann says:

    Pooky, you are so right. Any kind of recreational activity can be seen as some sort of escapism. I guess it’s pure naivity to think one is spending time in the “real world” when going to a movie theater. Plus sitting there for two hours and doing nothing is definitely not any better than being creative in a virtual world. But then again, that may just be the purpose of am article only designed to find out how to make more cash with a more stupid product: a passive consumer paying to be entertained instead of a paying consumer entertaining himself. But the real hidden agenda of this author comes out in his milkshake #2 chapter, when he suspects that if people are really free to express themselves, it all will end in a Sodom and Gomorrah of prostitution, nudity, sex and lewdness. Let’s just ignore his notion, that sex and nudity are per se bad things, but here he clearly states a contradiction between freedom and the mainstream user. Does he think the mainstream user should not be free, as to stay object to exploitation by an entertainment industry filling him up with pre-fabricated cultural digest? Here Dennis clearly fails to understand, how Second Life becomes a tool of emancipation. That would explain to him, why it isn’t all formalized from the beginning, but instead a free flow experiment, that nobody really knows where it is going. My conclusion is, this author has a problem with freedom.

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Monika: on the contrary, I have a deep respect and appreciation for freedom. My point was to say that mainstream adoption of Second Life was impacted by the existence of nudity and sex – NOT to pass judgment on nudity and sex (in Second Life) in general.

      Linden Lab did create an adult area of Second Life called Zindra (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Zindra) – in June 2009. The right decision, though I wish it was done earlier.

  5. Monika Düttmann says:

    You did it again, Dennis! LOL

  6. Monika Düttmann says:

    Let me explain this. You don’t seem to be entirely unnice, because at least you react. Thank you for that!

    Now… the correlation between freedom and sex, i.e. freedom of the individual, freedom of society and sexual freedom, and its implications on a theory of fascism, has been subject to some of the most interesting scientific studies and theories of the last century. Google Freud, google Reich… a.o.. Sexual repression is an instrument to create fear in people and fear is an instrument to control people. Sorry for being unbearably short about this. In that respect the ghettoisation of “sex” in Zindra must be seen as a lost battle rather than a victory to the very idea of Second Life. Which is an idea of emancipation. All strategies of formalization are against this and nothing better than censorship. Lindens decided to go for optional, which is ok, I can live with it, but it’s really a step back. That is to say, even before you haven’t really been *exposed* to images of sex. You still had to go for them, or at least you could easily avoid them. Like in real life. Now there is an additional wall. And we all like walls, don’t we?

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Monika: but how far do you extend this freedom? In the real world, if two consenting adults want to get intimate, they’ll do that in private. You also have certain neighborhoods that are the real world equivalent of Zindra. Are you suggesting that this wide ranging freedom apply to the real world as well?

  7. Dear Mr. Shiao,

    I read your post with great interest and whilst I certainly do agree with your analysis, I would rather say that the conclusions might be different if we consider that Linden Lab didn’t impose any prefab model or conduct. It was the Users who created all different branches of interest and development that now stand on SL: From selling goods to entertainment, to education, to the newest and yet partially explored field, which is machinima. Second Life differs a great deal from Facebook, because its model does not follow a top-down, but rather a bottom-up approach. Therefore, to summarize a possible conclusion, should we say that these milkshake flavours have been created by the Users themselves?
    Best regards and thank you

    • Dennis Shiao says:

      Cesare: thanks for your comment. And yes, to continue the analogy, I think Linden Lab provided the materials and machinery, while the users created the milkshakes (and their corresponding flavors).

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