It's comments about the Second Life being "deserted" or "a ghost town" that really throw muddy thinking into sharp relief. Specifically the muddy thinking of the people who tend to use these sorts phrases in connection with Second Life.
On one hand, they tell us that Second Life users are lifeless shut-ins who are wasting their lives online in Linden Lab's virtual environment, and then on the other tell us that the place is a deserted ghost-town that nobody's using. Well, you can't have it both ways. Fact is, neither statement is true, so it really isn't either way.
Let's look at the whole "Second Life is deserted" mistake.
Many things work much the same in Second Life as they do outside of Second Life, because they're things that are about people, not about environments.
A few things work differently, and that's where a lot of people seem to go wrong. They expect the things that must necessarily be different to be the same, and the things that are most likely to be the same to be different.
One of the factors is Drang nach raum – the craving for space. Most people don't live in cities because they enjoy having a common wall with their rather noisy neighbors. They live where they do because it's close to the busses and shops, town water and power.
If you've ever been a parent trying to rent or buy a new home for your family with kids, you almost certainly know what a juggling act it is to try to find a suitable residence. It's worse if your kids are more than a year or so apart in age.
If geographical proximity to services is no longer an issue (and in Second Life it isn't) then it's only natural that we, as people, would naturally gravitate to a lower-population density than is the norm in the offline world. That makes for a lot more space per capita.
Then there's the matter of time-zones. Let's assume, for a moment, that the average Second Life user spends 21 hours each week logged into Second Life. That's three hours per day. [We don't actually have any solid data on how long is actually spent, but the actual figure is probably quite a bit less than that]
Now, let's take a residential sim, packed to the brim with 512sqm parcels, with no wasted space. That's 128 parcels. It's actually an unrealistically large figure, and the actual number is usually much lower. At best, assuming an even distribution of time-zones, only 16 of those people are ever online at once.
So you wouldn't see 128 people in that sim, you'd see 16 – and then, that's assuming that they spent 100% of their online time in their Second Life homes, rather than tending to their businesses, shopping, attending classes, parties, social events, teaching and all the other hurly-burly that goes on in a normal day.
Adjusting for more realistic figures, that residential sim is more likely to have two users on at any time, and the likelihood is that one or both of them are somewhere else in Second Life doing something else.
If you're in the USA and your neighbor is in Sweden, you'll likely never see them at all, except perhaps a brief glimpse on weekends if one of you is an early riser.
Shopping also isn't the busy sort of experience that we're used to offline. Many stores have multiple branches and outlets, each of which is as accessible as any other. If you know what it is that you want to buy, you can teleport to a shop, make your purchase, and return to where you were in as little as 60 seconds.
By choosing outlets with lower-traffic figures you can avoid laggy crowds – something many wish they could do offline, and something that people offline are often willing to travel extra distances and time for.
So, no – Second Life is by no means "deserted" or "a ghost town" and the folks who say so have fundamentally mistaken necessities of distance, time and physics for the proclivities of human nature – a ghastly sort of mistake to make for any media commentator, but an all-too-common error when it comes to virtual environments.
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