Second Life, America Online, Walled Garden

walled garden

There’s a persistent meme about Second Life that goes something like this:

The “3D Web” of today is like the Web was in 1994. Back then, America Online was a “walled garden” of content that was separate from the open, interoperable, federated World Wide Web. America Online died and the World Wide Web won. Second Life is a walled garden like America Online was in 1994. Therefore Second Life will die and the open, interoperable, federated “3D Web” (sometimes called the Metaverse or the Hypergrid) will win.

(The same meme exists for Facebook. Just replace America Online with Facebook and replace the World Wide Web with DIASPORA* or onesocialweb. Likewise for Twitter and

Here are the facts (America Online is now AOL Inc.):

  • According to, gets over 50 million unique visitors per month, making it one of the most popular websites.
  • AOL Mail is one of the biggest email providers.
  • AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is one of the most popular IM services.
  • Some of the most popular blogs are AOL properties, including Engadget, TUAW, and Joystiq. Even Tateru Nino’s blog about SL (on Massively) is an AOL property. (The Weblogs, Inc. Network is a subsidiary of AOL.)
  • As of December, 2009, AOL Inc. had about 6,700 employees.

AOL Inc. is one of those companies that has constantly changed with the times. They didn’t remain a walled garden and die. They are still very much a going concern.

Like America Online, Linden Lab doesn’t have to make Second Life open, interoperable, or federated any sooner than they are forced to do so by competitive pressures. At that point, they can adapt and continue existing as one of many service providers.

I’m not saying this is a good situation. I’m just saying how it is. Hackers and academics can moralize and complain all they like; it won’t matter. What will matter is actual, serious competition.

Photo Credits: Garden gate by Neosnaps on Flickr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Only 2.0 License.

A friendly human.

4 thoughts on “Second Life, America Online, Walled Garden

  1. I tend to agree but it doesn’t help academics write grants if they can’t at least sensibly backup content (and I know there are strategies there too). Interesting to see whether LL’s objective is to make SL pervasive via embeds or to move towards "curated computing" or, indeed, both. Both are compatible with what academics do at present; they can choose to use or ignore the new web-based viewer.


  2. I agree with your observations about AOL. They have in the last 15 years slowly moved out of the walled garden approach and done so quite well. I do think however that LL has been showing some of the qualities of the bad old days of AOL – the period when it’s "get online" cdroms were the butt of jokes. AOL fought long and hard to move away from the tightly curated early days to remain relevant as the internet grew around it.The difference is that LL built Second Life walled. That worked for AOL because they _did_ curate their material. User generated content was monitored in public forums, and AOL was busy on the content generation side. Second Life however relies completely on user generated content with minimal curation. (Sure there’s showcase but my guess is folks get more links from blogs.)LL has been slow to find ways of getting other internet content in, or linking to it efficiently. This makes SL a difficult dead end in any equation. You can meet about work in SL but the tools to share work are minimal. Same for education. SL doesn’t easily bridge into other online communities – it may be the perfect solution for your interest group to get some face-time together, but doesn’t link easily to the web resources that drew you together. Perhaps most annoying to me (dealing with education) there’s no way to allow adults and under 18s in the same place for all ages activity. I throw yoyos (tricks etc) and chat on boards where kids of 14 trade tricks with folk in their thirties. It’s all innocent good fun, and impossible in SL. Second Life may yet move away from similarities with what AOL _was_ like and grow like the AOL of today, but it will do so by finding ways to integrate better with the internet as a whole. AOL fought for relevance at one time, and buried hundreds of thousands of their coasters in landfill. They remained relevant by becoming better internet citizens. Darlings Facebook and Twitter too (social media hype asside) got where they are by weaving easily into the internet as a whole. How LL will open up SL remains to be seen.


  3. But you seem to forget, AOL isn’t AOL anymore. On its last breath it was scooped up by Time Warner and slowly but surely homogenized into yet another web portal the likes of Yahoo, MSN, or Google. All of these may be walled gardens to an extent, but they all use a common and standard technology. The result of which is that content can be easily and freely interchanged between them. When comparing Second Life to AOL, they’re not speaking of AOL as in the AOL.COM web portal, but of its prior incarnation as a proprietary application based dialup service – in essence comparing an old BBS to to the internet.


  4. I didn’t say AOL is what it used to be. It changed with the times, just like Linden Lab can change Second Life with the times. However, Linden Lab won’t be making Second Life connect to a wider "hypergrid" until competitive pressures force them to do so. There’s no advantage for them to do it sooner.AOL wasn’t "scooped up" by Time Warner "on its last breath." Here’s what really happened:In the 1990s, AOL became one of the main Internet Service Providers, with over 30 million subscribers around the world. In early 2000, AOL and Time Warner announced plans to merge, with AOL shareholders owning 55% of the shares of the new company (AOL Time Warner). That’s right, AOL was bigger than Time Warner back then (in terms of market cap)!Then the dot com bubble burst. AOL went into decline and was spun off as a separate company in 2009. Nevertheless, AOL is still a major player on the Internet. See the bullet points in my original blog post above.As for Second Life using only non-standard protocols and filetypes, that’s just baloney. You can upload standard image formats like JPEG, PNG, and Targa. You can take snapshots and save them as PNG files. SL text is standard Unicode, so you can copy and paste between other applications easily. You can send standard email to and from SL scripts. You can communicate between web servers and SL scripts via HTTP (an international standard). SL can play standard MP3 streams, plus whatever Quicktime can play – and Viewer 2 even supports Flash. You can upload standard WAV files. Soon, you’ll be able to upload mesh objects as COLLADA (.dae) files. Even the Second Life protocol (how SL clients talk to SL servers) is out there and known – it was the starting point of the OpenSim protocol.In summary, AOL is still big and relevant, Second Life already uses a lot of international standards, and Linden Lab currently has no motivation to make Second Life a part of a larger hypergrid, so don’t hold your breath.


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