When is an online fad over?

The Internet thrives on fads that burn hot, then burn out. We've all moved past dancing hamsters, pirates battling ninjas, lonelygirl15, and rickrolling. This year, many assumed we'd seen the end of Second Life. But the lights are still glowing.

In September, Reuters quietly shuttered its virtual bureau in the online world. (No one seemed to realize until a few days ago.) The wire-news service had embedded reporters to cover Second Life since 2006. Now, Reuters joins the growing consensus that staffing an online office isn't worth the effort. They marked yet another evacuation from pixelland. American Apparel and Mercedes-Benz have closed up virtual shop. Sun Microsystems and Starwood have severely pulled back.

Each defecting company seems to take a piece of Second Life's legitimacy with it.

So, is Second Life dying? "No," says Eric Krangel, one of Reuters's Second Life reporters. He argues that Second Life is far from gone – it just looks smaller because most people have sped past it, rolling toward the next fad. But there's still a strong base of fans. More than a million "citizens" signed into Second Life in the past month, according to Linden Lab, the company that runs the online world.

"For all the sound and fury over recent price hikes and layoffs at Linden Lab, Second Life has a community of fanatically loyal users," Mr. Krangel wrote in a column. "Since Linden Lab derives its revenue from user fees, not advertisements, Second Life is much more likely to survive the Web 2.0 shakeout than most other startups."

This membership model has worked wonders for World of Warcraft, another virtual realm. With 11 million subscribers paying up to $15 a month for access to the fantasy world, the game pulls in perhaps $1.9 billion a year. No advertisers required.

Second Life is well behind World of Warcraft. But at least Linden Lab has a clear and functioning business model – something Google couldn't lasso with its free Lively world (on which it will pull the plug at the end of the year) and something the new online darling, Twitter, is struggling to capture.

It will be interesting to see if Linden can hold onto those million users now that it's hit this maturing moment – when Second Life grows out of its fad stage and into either a long-term success or a footnote in Internet history. It seems people in "first life" have already decided whether they love Linden's world or just don't get it. And now that the buzz is gone, few new people are likely to crawl down the rabbit hole.

What do you think, readers? Will Second Life carry on? Feel free to use the comments section for words of support – or obituaries.

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