Second Life and Why Berlin Should Forget the Hype

By David Knight |

Leider Stepanov. Stupid name really, but it’s what went in the byline under my articles for nearly two years.

I’d been struggling for inspiration today before that name popped into my head. Winter feels like it has finally settled its chilly tentacles onto Berlin, the skies outside the window are grey and miserable, and my new iPhone still hasn’t arrived. So with a little inspiration from Mike Butcher’s look at the European tech media scene, I decided to allow my brain to just throw what it wanted onto the page, so to speak.

I began by considering what Mike said about the changing media coverage of the European tech scene. Berlin in particular is currently a trendy article topic for non-tech journos, and the buzz around here at the moment had me thinking about the future. What will Berlin be like in a few months, or a year?

I’ve been working on Silicon Allee for more than six months now, and my perspective on it and on the things we write about has changed, or rather developed. As a journalist looking at the tech scene rather than, say, a founder entering the world of journalism, the learning curve has been steep – as well as thoroughly enjoyable. And it’s not been a massive surprise to me that Berlin’s meteoric rise to fame has caused ripples in the ‘real life’ media. Spiegel Online are running a series of articles on the startup scene here, the New York Times has covered it and I’ve had plenty of enquiries from major publications both here in Germany and abroad.

This attention is easy to explain – writing about tech is cool. It has a certain freshness to it; it represents the future. And Berlin is sexy, no doubt about it. Inevitably, of course, this media attention won’t last. They’ll find something else to go and write about. The question is what happens after that. Strangely enough, I’ve experienced a very similar situation during my time in Berlin.

Remember Second Life? You know, that virtual world that was the Next Big Thing a few years ago? It was going to knock Facebook off its perch, a new and improved, 3D social network. No? Ah well. Anyway, it was the big tech story in 2007, the one picked up on by the media at large. Then it just… disappeared.

I first moved to Berlin at the very end of 2006 in order to work on a unique publication. Called The AvaStar, it was a weekly newspaper in and for Second Life and its residents. It was a project run by, the online version of Germany’s highest selling newspaper, and we wrote it in English (later translating it each week into German). That was because, when we launched it in December of 2006, virtually everything in SL was in English. We had timed it perfectly – the huge rise of SL took place in the first half of 2007, when countries started opening virtual embassies and major corporations set up virtual shops.

And German interest was also piqued, partly by the very fact that one of the country’s biggest media organisations had taken the Second Life plunge. We had at least a dozen camera crews come to our office, from local and national news stations as well as documentary makers. I had to stand around pretending to have a news conference, trying to make out as if I understood German. Fun times. We were also running about in-world, trying to get our heads around this bizarre new way of reporting. We felt almost like pioneers. That name I mentioned at the beginning? That was my avatar name, the one I used in The AvaStar. Good old Leider.

Within six months, the percentage of SL users who were German-speaking had soared. Our German language edition was proving more popular than the English version. Everybody wanted a piece of Second Life – Reuters even sent a journalist, Adam Pasick, in-world on a full time basis. His avatar was imaginatively known as Adam Reuters. The likes of American Apparel and IBM had big, expensive presences in-world, while Sweden was among the countries with a virtual embassy.

And then it all seemed to come to a grinding halt. Major firms realised that SL wasn’t worth the time or the money. The buzz died away; journalists began to move on to other subjects. We continued to publish and develop The AvaStar, eventually moving from a weekly pdf format to an orthodox blog-type website. We even started reporting from other virtual worlds, like Kaneva.

But interest in SL at Bild also died down, perhaps understandably so. It had been a fascinating project which garnered useful experience, as well as plenty of publicity, but by the end of 2008, the English-speaking enclave at Bild Online was working on something new, an English language version of the main, ‘real world’ Bild website. Second Life faded into the memory – I hardly ever went back in-world myself, even though I knew a lot of people there.

So what became of Second Life? Just like that, websites around the world stopped talking about it, whereas just months or even weeks before they had either been hailing it as the eighth wonder of the world or dismissing it as useless (or sometimes both). But it carried on regardless, still developing, both technologically and as a business. It’s still going (reasonably) strong now, claiming a million regular users. It never quite became the Next Big Thing which the headlines claimed it was, and I remain to be convinced of its ultimate purpose, but it is still there.

Obviously, if you try to compare Second Life in 2007 to the Berlin startup scene now, there are more differences than similarities, and the hype currently surrounding the German capital is nothing like the boom-or-bust frenzy which enveloped Second Life and its creator, Linden Lab. But just like with SL, journalists will find something else to focus on in six months, or a year, or whenever.  We’ll still all be here, though, as I’m sure will many others who migrate in this direction hoping to be a part of what is happening.

If there was one thing that could (and can) be said about the residents of Second Life, it was that they were creative. That creativity was and is at the heart of what Linden Lab is trying to do. And that creativity is also at the centre of what makes Berlin such a success.

Hype and buzz are all well and good, but they’re nothing without substance. Perhaps Second Life never quite had it what it takes; I think my second German tech adventure, on the other hand, most definitely has the legs. So Berlin’s tech scene should enjoy the media attention while it can, but not forget what has made it so interesting to outsiders in the first place.

Now, to write a nasty email to T-Mobile about that iPhone…