It's considered to be a vast expanse of digital territory whose growth far outpaces the number of people actually using it. Huge tracts of it are completely abandoned wastelands, failed venues and disused stores. Parts of it are struggling venues trying to attract visitors. A few places are consistently busy, but they also bring the risk of abusive and disruptive people, who get their jollies from messing things up for others.
Advertising -- often quite intrusive -- is everywhere. At any moment you could be confronted by imagery of penises or of distasteful sexual practices. Committed users are freaks, and successful ones are geeks and enough people tend to choose anonymity that you're never really sure who you're talking to.
Sure there's businesses using it, commerce being done, and plenty of educational institutions who can no longer live without it, but that all seems just a small part of it compared to the time-wasting, boring, and sexual aspects doesn't it?
You all know the place we're talking about, right?
No, it isn't Second Life or any other virtual world. We're talking about the World Wide Web.
In most criticisms of virtual worlds, you can just replace "Virtual World" or "Second Life" with "World Wide Web" and the text is just as applicable. Actually, you can still see many of the same criticisms leveled at the Web as you do at virtual worlds.
But for the most part, we brush them off and carry on. These criticisms don't make us think that we should suddenly stop using it. Why?
Because we know the Web is a successful tool. You might like the Web and you might loathe it, but the odds are you have to use it virtually every day. Most industries these days use the Web in some business capacity for most of their jobs on a daily basis. Whether you want to use the Web or not, it probably isn't your choice.
You're tracking parcels, looking up company credit ratings, booking flights, finding contact information, checking out products and services, filling in status and progress reports for your boss, making complaints, getting customer service and more. The Web has become an integral part of 21st century business, and of the lives of many of us.
And it only took about 13 years for that to happen.
The current generation of virtual environments is quite a bit younger than that, and the jury is still out on their utility. Those same tired old criticisms of them are going to keep going long after they kick into the same sort of mainstream usage that the Web has.
You'll know it's happened when the buzz and the unwarranted hype (both positive and negative) starts to die down, and we start ignoring those criticisms, rather than letting them rankle us. All those criticisms about the Web are still going around and are generally still true. We just don't let it bother us much anymore. As users, we don't think much about the Web anymore, we just get on and use it when we need to.
One day, virtual environments will be the same. We'll not let the hype make our decisions for us, and instead we'll just get on with things.