Second Life and other virtual worlds like it have received a tremendous amount of attention across different disciplines including education. Some have labeled them the future of the Internet while others regard them as yet another fad that will come and go. So how do we judge this technology? If it is truly a disruptive technology, then any analysis of this type must begin by examining what it seeks to replace, as well as its success in doing so.
Philip Rosedale delivered a TEDtalk in 2008 in which he discussed his vision and ideas in developing Second Life. He described how he hoped a virtual world would allow individuals to create and explore ideas unfettered by the constraints of the real world. More interesting, Rosedale proposed that virtual worlds such as Second Life challenge conventional assumptions about the web and how information is produced and consumed. He pointed out that for much of the history of the Internet, content mimicked older traditions such as books or documents. Textual representation in the form of words dominated the way in which information was presented and consumed. Second Life, according to Rosedale, seeks to return proximity to discussion and information creation & consumption by placing individuals in a representational space. In doing so, direct experience (or a simulation of it) replaces abstract representation, thus reintroducing interaction both individual-to-individual and individual-to-object. Rosedale went as far as to suggest that this creation and consumption process in innately social, and where the Internet represented a model for consumption, virtual worlds offer a more collaborative, interactive space.
A second important question that an analysis of this type must ask is whether or not the technology is truly disruptive in the sense that it 1) establishes an alternative paradigm that appeals to non-consumers of the existing technology and 2) incites some level of change in the mainstream technology. In terms of offering an alternative paradigm, I would not classify Second Life as purely disruptive. Without deeply researching the characteristics of Second Life users, I would guess that they continue to use the Internet. Certainly Second Life offers a different paradigm, but the users attracted to it are not necessarily non-consumers of conventional Internet applications. In fact, many Second Life users rely on conventional Internet applications such as text-based web pages and blogs to narrate their adventures, provide information, and direct others to e-commerce offerings within Second Life. Thus, on this principle at least, I would not classify Second Life as disruptive.
In the second criteria, inciting some level of change in mainstream technology, Second Life might be considered more successful. The transition from so-called web 1.0 technology to web 2.0 technology represented the emergence of far more interactive, collaborative applications and designs. Spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia interject social interaction into how information is created and digested, one of the fundamental principles Rosedale cited as core to virtual worlds. Can one attribute the transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 to Second Life? I would argue that Second Life along with a wide variety of other technologies certainly influenced and informed those developments, although I would be careful not to overestimate the importance of any one innovation.
Yet, the three-dimensional representation of space does not appear to have diffused across the web. Perhaps typical consumers perceived it to be a little too similar to a video game or perhaps the prospect of learning to navigate in a three-dimensional space was simply too much a departure for the current generation. Many disruptive innovations first appear well before the point at which general society is ready for them. Sometimes the radical departure from the norm they represent takes time to diffuse and gain acceptance. It is at least possible that Second Life or another application like it will be far more popular and accepted in 5, 10, or 20 years, assuming that another technology does not emerge in its place.
So, how do we evaluate Second Life? Is it a disruptive technology and if so, how successful has it been? If we define a disruptive technology tightly, then it does not appear to meet the two criteria outlined. However, if we are more liberal with our interpretation, we can say that Second Life has had an effect on the status quo and forced mainstream web technology to evolve and adapt. While Second Life itself may not persist into the next decade, its emergence does represent a significant step in the redefinition of the web.