In busier times ... The Australia Day celebrations on BigPond's Second Life island.

In busier times ... The Australia Day celebrations on BigPond's Second Life island.

Telstra has decided to close its doors on Second Life, evicting the residents of its virtual BigPond Island and revoking their unmetered usage, in a move that has infuriated some subscribers.

BigPond's islands will cease to exist on December 16, signalling an end to its two-year “experiment” with Second Life, and residents of the swanky virtual Pond Estate have been given a month to relocate elsewhere.

Second Life is a virtual world that enables members to build or trade in-world objects and interact through their "avatars". In its early days, new users flocked to the platform and organisations raced to set up a presence there to find new ways of engaging with their public, but the buzz surrounding virtual communities has since waned.

According to a Second Life enthusiast, as many as 1600 users could be affected by BigPond's closure, many of whom are socially isolated or disabled and unable to afford to continue maintaining their presence on the virtual world without unmetered usage.

“They [BigPond] did not stop us from buying their products; they did not deter us from upgrading our plans, from entering into contracts with them; they encouraged us to purchase internet security. Now they are asking us to pay to remove ourselves from our contracts,” she said.

Telstra spokesman Craig Middleton confirmed today that the company was abandoning its presence on Second Life.

He said 100,000 avatars had joined Second Life through its service over the past two years, but only about 2000 of these were regular users.

“We commenced back in 2007 when it was an emerging opportunity. It was largely an experiment – a learning opportunity about engaging with online communities. We have a number of islands that customers could access on an unmetered basis, but now our focus has moved to other social media opportunities,” he said.

Kim MacKenzie, a PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology studying the use of social media in business, said: “I think the hype for businesses really occurred two years ago and those that have entered Second Life since then have struggled to find a real value proposition.

“There is a lot of pressure for organisations to appear innovative and to be seen using the latest web based technology, often adopting it before any real value has been ascertained.”

The Second Life user said many community members had chosen to switch over to BigPond's service so they could enjoy using the platform without excessive internet fees.

“By removing the unmetered usage from Second Life will actually remove the ability of so many to be able to remain in Second Life and to be able to remain in contact with friends. Those that suffer from disabilities, depression, etc will once again become isolated. This is totally discrimination against the housebound, the disabled, the depressed, the gamers,” said the user, who is planning to take the matter to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

Middleton said BigPond's in-world customer service would help members relocating to other areas of Second Life.

“The unmetering was only on BigPond islands themselves, which is only a small part of Second Life world,” he said.

The ABC, which also has a prominent presence Second Life, said its visitor numbers had remained fairly steady since last year.

“It's a small audience, but a very loyal one. The people who spend time on ABC Island will often spend several hours or a week or day, so they have a very passionate engagement,” said Abigail Thomas, head of strategy development at ABC Innovation.

“When we went into it we were thinking it might be another platform for distributing content. What we found is that it is much more community space than a broadcast platform. What people wanted to do was to sit and talk to each other.”

She said there were no current plans to close the ABC island, “but like all experimental projects we do keep them under review”.

MacKenzie said that, although companies such as BigPond were deserting the platform,  this did not spell the end for Second Life as a business tool.

“There is still a terrific amount happening there in education, creative industries and libraries so there is definitely still life in Second Life, but in its early original form some businesses have struggled to capitalise on it,” she said.