"There's not a compelling reason to stay," said Brian McGuinness, vice president of Aloft, a brand of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. that is closing its Second Life shop and donating its virtual land to the nonprofit social-networking group TakingITGlobal.
But the sites of many of the companies remaining in Second Life are empty. During a recent in-world visit, Best Buy Co.'s Geek Squad Island was devoid of visitors and the virtual staff that was supposed to be online.
The schedule of events on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s site was blank, and the green landscape of Dell Island was deserted. Signs posted on the window of the empty American Apparel store said it had closed up shop.
There are a number of problems, from a pretty small population of actual active users, to a lack of cultural fit between the companies trying to use Second Life as a branding tool and what people really do there:
For some advertisers, the problem is that Second Life is a fantasyland, and the representations of the people who play in it don't have human needs. Food and drink aren't necessary, teleporting is the easiest way to get around and clothing is optional. In fact, the human form itself is optional.
Avatars can play games, build beach huts, dress up like furry animals, flirt with strangers — sometimes all at once.
Their interests seem to tend toward the risque. Ian Schafer, chief executive of online marketing firm Deep Focus, which advises clients about entering virtual worlds, said he recently toured Second Life. He started at the Aloft hotel and found it empty. He moved on to casinos, brothels and strip clubs, and they were packed. Schafer said he found in his research that "one of the most frequently purchased items in Second Life is genitalia."
An overarching problem, I think, is that for most people, Second Life is incredibly cumbersome and kind of dull. You download a piece of software that is, in my experience, a resource hog (on both my G4 iMac and my fairly powerful Windows machine), and then you create an avatar, and have to learn how to manipulate it, and find yourself wondering why the screen keeps redrawing you with no clothes on. I'm pretty good at these sorts of things, and I kept accidentally flying off of cliffs and such. (I'm sure for a 20 year old raised on video games, it's all much simpler.)
And in my brief experiments with it, I found a lot of avatars standing around doing nothing.
Obviously, there are people who find it stimulating, but I think that they're a small group of devotees. Nothing wrong with that, but it hardly makes it appealing for big consumer and tech brands.
Moreover, some of Second Life's residents are very happy about that:
Angry avatars have taken virtual action. Reebok weathered a nuclear bomb attack and customers were shot outside the American Apparel store. Avatars are creating fantasy knockoffs of brand-name products too.
Now that's some customer feedback.
As I've said before, the idea of virtual worlds is an interesting one, and it's not going away. Of course, in many senses, online communities, from chat rooms to social networking sites, have always been virtual worlds - just relatively low tech versions.
So for marketers, this remains something to watch, perhaps to use in some opportunistic ways, but not a world-changer. Or even a virtual world-changer.