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I recently attended a Second Life demonstration at the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas, which by the way is as an ironic place as you get for hosting such an event. Information Architecture in Vegas? Well it may exist, but lets just say if it does, its been designed with the purpose to be awful. That’s not to say it doesn’t serve their goal — to get you lost, and by so doing increase your chances of spending money. Maybe there is a place for bad IA, after all.

To those who don’t know what Second Life is, I’ll quote the Wikipedia,

“Second Life (abbreviated to SL) is an Internet-based virtual world which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007.[4][5] Developed by Linden Lab, a downloadable client programResidents“, to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another. enables its users, called ”

Second Life is one of several virtual worlds that have been inspired by the cyberpunk literary movement, and particularly by Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash. The stated goal of Linden Lab is to create a world like the Metaverse described by Stephenson, a user-defined world of general use in which people can interact, play, do business, and otherwise communicate.[6] Second Life’s virtual currency is the Linden Dollar (Linden, or L$) and is exchangeable for US Dollars in a marketplace consisting of residents, Linden Lab and real life companies.

While Second Life is sometimes referred to as a game, it does not have points, scores, winners or losers, levels, an end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of games. In all, almost five million accounts have been registered, though many are not active, and some Residents have multiple accounts. Despite its prominence, Second Life has notable competitors, including Active Worlds, There, and newcomers such as Entropia Universe, Dotsoul Cyberpark, Red Light Center, and Kaneva.”

In such an exploratory and organic environment, is there a need for structure and information architecture? This is obviously a very relevant question as more and more people are immersing themselves in this world. The few people I have spoken to find it difficult to get started, and wonder what they should be doing, looking for, etc. Three are no inherent / provided goals to be achieved, and while this provides freedom it also removes boundaries in every sense of the word.

Regardless of how obvious or hidden, Information Architecture is in Second life — it has to exist. Whether users are aware of its organization, might be irrelevant. As long as users are finding what they want, when they want, where they want, in an efficient and pleasing manner

Historically speaking, freedom is often fought for, at the expense of structure, and vice versa. Freedom however is a fuzzy notion, or perhaps a mere perception. No matter how free you feel you are, the real universe is still governed by physical laws which include properties such as matter, time, energy and space. Yet with all these properties and laws around us, interacting with us – in fact governing us and our environment – we can still feel free. Our entire existence from a galactic scale down to a cellular level is comprised of hierarchical organization, no matter how organic it might be.

And since Second Life is attempting to mirror real life, there needs to be a similar approach to organization. At this point, I have some key questions:

  • How real do people expect Second Life to be?
  • How does real life culture transcend into virtual worlds?
  • Do we expect to interact with the virtual environment?
  • Do buildings offer similar purposes, such as privacy and shelter. Do we even need buildings?
  • What is the “mother of invention” in a virtual world. Is it “necessity”, as in the real world?
  • How do people choose avatars. Do they need to be human? Do they need a physical body?
  • While emphasis is placed on “creating”, “building” etc, will these creations and buildings require maintenance as they age? In other words, will the property of “time” affect virtual elements?
  • How will virtual worlds affect real life culture and behavior?

All these questions really can be summarized by the age-old question, “Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?”

I will be doing an in-depth User Experience analysis of Second Life, and will be following up this post with findings. If there are any Second Life residents out there, please share your experiences (good and bad) with us.

Bradley Hebdon

Bradley Hebdon

Founder & Editor at UXbyDesign
Bradley is a User Experience Leader with over 15 years of interactive experience. He is currently employed as Director of UX at Slalom Consulting's Southern California office.
Bradley Hebdon

@bradleyhebdon

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Bradley Hebdon
Bradley Hebdon

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