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

November 14, 2011

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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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