A company's reaction to its critics can tell us a lot, and in that regard, the owners of the virtual world Second Life told us plenty last week.
Created and run by Linden Lab, Second Life is an anomaly among immersive online sites: It's often as scorned as it is popular.
Its growth since its public launch in 2003 has been phenomenal, claiming more than 1 million "residents," and those numbers are all the more impressive considering that Second Life is not a game by traditional standards. There are no objectives, missions or goals to accomplish. Rather, Second Life members are encouraged to live their second lives much as they would their real lives by forging relationships, seeking out entertainment, purchasing "property" and providing goods and services for others to buy and enjoy - all within the framework of an animated 3-D virtual world.
A key to Second Life's success is the potential for profits. Virtual dollars earned online can be exchanged for actual dollars, a point underscored when one member announced that she had acquired more than $1 million worth of virtual-world assets.
But success has come at a cost. The rush of new members has led to slowdowns - known as "server lag" among the residents - and critics have latched on to a variety of issues: Second Life is aimless, they say. Its graphics are bad. There is too much adolescent humor and unsavory themes (gambling and porn are never far away). And perhaps the largest criticism of all: Members are wasting time in a virtual world while the real world passes them by.
Feeding off of the backlash, a parody Web site called Get a First Life has spread among bloggers. Appropriating Second Life fonts, design and logos, Get a First Life claimed to be "a 3D analog world where server lag does not exist." Poking fun at the obsessive lengths that Second Lifers will go to in creating their virtual world "avatars," First Life proclaims: "Access your closet to build your First Life look." And in a jab at the proliferation of virtual sex, First Life says one of its features is that you can "fornicate using your actual genitals."
Many figured it was just a matter of time before Second Life forced the parody offline with the all-too-familiar "cease and desist" threat, and the parody's creator, Darren Barefoot, even publicly invited such a response.
But where other companies have gone on the attack, Linden Lab chose to embrace its critic.
In a letter on Barefoot's blog, a Second Life spokesman wrote: "We do not believe that reasonable people would argue as to whether the website located at http:--www.getafirstlife.com/ constitutes parody - it clearly is. ... We know parody when we see it. Moreover, Linden Lab objects to any implication that it would employ lawyers incapable of distinguishing such obvious parody. Indeed, any competent attorney is well aware that the outcome of sending a cease-and-desist letter regarding a parody is only to draw more attention to such parody, and to invite public scorn and ridicule of the humor-impaired legal counsel. Linden Lab is well-known for having strict hiring standards, including a requirement for having a sense of humor, from which our lawyers receive no exception."
So the parody site remains online, and Second Life's owners proved a point: They already have a First Life, and it includes a healthy sense of humor.
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