A page gets turned, and Second Life is now mainstream.
For us residents what this means is that from now on, we're not "early adopters" any more. We just happened to "be around" when SL became mainstream and started hitting regular TV shows as if it were the most common thing on the planet.
Oh sure, we might say that just a tiny fraction of the planet's population has ever joined Second Life. That's ok. Not everybody drives a Rolls Royce or wears an excluive outfit designed by Giorgio Armani. In fact, I seriously suspect that more than 10 million people in the whole world drive Rolls Royce's or wear Armani's exclusively designed dresses and suits — indeed, the point is that a few billion recognise the brands and have heard about it, but they might never in their lives buy a product of those brands. Many hundreds of millions, in fact, will never see them in their lives.
But they've seen them on TV and read about in on magazines and newspapers. They're part of our collective, mainstream culture, even if they're not actually used by everybody — yet.
The distinction is not so subtle. A cellular phone, for instance, was a mainstream product in the late 1980s — but only a few millions could afford it. Today, it's used everywhere in the world, even on very poor countries (in fact, even more so than "regular" phones). Similarly, a personal computer in the early 1980s was "known" and "recognised" by anyone who had a TV, but only a small number of geeks and early adopters had them at their homes. You can add a lot of examples to this list if you wish — from technological gadgets (who doesn't know what an iPod is?... compare its success and acceptance to the Sony Walkman from the last decade), to magazines and newspapers, to products, services, and the whole Internet (itself also an early-adopter-thingy from 1969-1990, but definitely mainstream in 1995) with its myriad services (you expect 2 billion people to recognise an email address).
All these usually go through two stages — becoming mainstream, and then mass-market products. Sometimes simultaneously, but not always at the same time. Most "gadgets" go through the "early adopter stage" (only geeks and nerds use it, and it's a close-knit group that knows about them), following through the mainstream stage (everybody has heard about it, although only a few have ever used it or even seen it), and finally becoming mass market (everybody has one).
Second Life is going through all these stages at a neck-breaking speed. Well, perhaps not as fast as, say, MySpace or Facebook. The "Internet generation" has given us lots of these services that pop up one day, and after a year have a hundred million users. Many are hard to estimate for how long they'll survive. People have predicted the downfall of Yahoo after the emergence of Google as the "search engine leader", but Yahoo is still around, solid as a rock, and leads the way in attracting page hits. Microsoft's lead in the OS market — and several other areas, like Microsoft Live — is frowned upon by millions of nerds who "predict" that their Golden Age — like IBM before them — is soon over. Steve Jobs is regularly the scorn of the industry when he launches something else and critics will come and say: "this time, he's gone too far, and this will be the doom of Apple". Nobody believed that he could pull off the iPod, iTunes, or even Apple TV, but all three are here to stay, and we'll see about the iPhone (which everybody is so keen on scorning with a loud: "hah! I told you so!").
Interestingly, it's not the "high exponential curve" that always leads to high-profile products and services on the technological market. Amazon, eBay, and PayPal are good examples — they took a decade until they became the services we now have, and we all take them for granted. Amazon went from the "ludicrous — nobody will ever buy books over the Web!" stage to the "cute idea, but financially unsound, they'll soon disappear from the market" to the effective leader of e-commerce sales of books, selling way more than many major bookshop retailers and their brick-and-mortar physical shops.
So this is what the CSI:NY episode (and, to an extent, "The Office" episode last week) brought to us: a Second Life that the mainstream cannot ignore. Sure, most people will never use it (at least not in the next years). Many will just see the "underculture" depicted on SL, and say "it's not for me" (interestingly enough, as I have briefly mentioned on my own blog, this underculture does, in fact, exist, and is not so different than what is actually shown, even if we all dismiss it as unimportant or worthy only of anthropological studies), or likely people will try it (as certainly 100 thousand users did in the past 48 hours, as the Second Life Insider reports) but then quickly give up. This will be very likely the case, ie. people will not start to use Second Life more because of the CSI:NY episode. Neither do I expect that the number of regular users (1.5 million or so) will increase exponentially, but very likely follow the same patterns of all residents that have signed up so far (85% leaving SL in less than 2 months). No, I'm not expecting miracles — just a higher registration rate for a while, peaking again when the second episode of CSI:NY is broadcasted in February, and as it rolls out world-wide.
What the world-at-large cannot ignore any more is the simple fact that Second Life is now a mainstream product.