Gwyneth Llewelyn has recently written a great and thoughtful blog entry, where she worries that 'mainland' SL will effectively become a landscape dotted with huge colored cubes. She says that all the 'content' of SL will soon be inside those cubes, and that the exteriors will be opaque because the owners of the content will want to be isolated. She points out that P2P teleporting will speed this transition. I think there is an unavoidable truth in this - people will naturally strive to strictly control their surroundings, up to and including the 'Truman Show' of Gwyn's vision, where one even paints the distant horizon line to suit (presumably the inner surfaces of her imagined cubes). Sadly, as has been shown by things like suburban housing developments, humans will do this to their individual loss - for example living too far from one another or building high fences, and then bemoaning the lack of any neighbors to talk to. I don't think that this is a future that we can avoid by imposing telehubs, because this urge is too powerful and SL is too open. For example, devices like ROAM already allow people to easily circumvent any kind of forced local travel by rocketing into the clouds and moving at supersonic speeds to their destinations. Moreover, as SL's code and protocols are increasingly made open, local operators of simulators will likely abolish telehubs in favor of direct transport (as is already done with 'sit teleporting' within land parcels). The 'tragedy of the commons' will prevail: attempts by Linden Lab to impose global rules designed to reinforce community/country will be overridden by personal or local economic interests. So does this mean that the idea of 'country' is lost, and that SL will be like a collection of personal websites, each in it's own cube?
I'm not so sure. I think the future of SL can be summarized as a set of questions about Gwyn's boxes:
How big are they going to be?
How many different people 'live' inside them?
Do they ever overlap each other?
Are there boxes inside of boxes?
I think the answer is found by considering each box to contain not 'content' but instead a community: One or more people drawn together by shared experiences. SL is a place full of community, and this isn't something that is going away. This is because SL allows people to create and have shared experiences in a very very rich way - in some ways richer that real life, and those shared experiences create community. For example, the welcome area has a community (those who are frequently found there) which is based on the shared experience of welcoming new users to Second Life. Although the different things that can happen in the Welcome Area are numerous and extremely varied, they share a comprehensible thread, and a person familiar with the goings-on there is joined to other members of the Welcome Area community by his/her ability to predict roughly what is going to happen next and be a part of it. The most powerful forms of shared experience in Second Life bring together people, content, and experience into a single physical place. Big nightclubs, Luskwood, Abbott's Aerodrome come to mind - these are other examples of places that combined with people create shared experience.
How Big can the communities be? Consider a 'public' forest in SL (they exist today, right?), designed to be enjoyed by a community of users that set aside and own the land, contribute to it's creation, and walk around inside it. The right 'size' for this forest is set by the largest number of simulators beyond which the addition of a new simulator would add no pleasure to the experience of being in the forest. I think that even today this number is (for Forests and many other experiences) quite a bit bigger than a single sim. Clearly what needs to be added are features to better enable groups (especially mainland groups) to share ownership of areas, but I think that as we add those features and also improve things like rendering distance, the upper limit to the box size will become quite large. We crave complexity and scale, meaning that there will always be a motivation for a like minded group of people to establish the largest contiguous space they can equitably inhabit together, rather than shutting off the borders at the edges of their parcels and living in isolation.
The number of inhabitants can also, I think, we quite large. Considering a community like Luskwood - clearly with better tools and the ability to add land area, this will be a pretty big community, with easily hundreds or thousands of members wanting to live collectively and share resources - with their houses being near meeting spaces and stores, for example. So again, while I can imagine island communities of large numbers of people being very common, I doubt that individual 'boxes' which are like small walled parcels will be very popular.
Overlapping is also something that we see happening already. Anshe's island communities, where there are common services/zoning rules and connected lands but distinct internal subcommunities are already examples of overlapping/inside boxes. Again, I think most of the problem with people overlapping and intersecting their communities comes from LL not yet having provided the right features in the code to allow an adequate balance of power, rather than an inherent desire or tendency toward total isolation.
I think that in a few years when we look at the global map of SL, we will see clumps of land corresponding to communities of experience. The 'country' part of SL will have become plural - each large community will be it's own country in a universe that at the highest level is an open technology platform. Taken together there will be thousands of such communities, meaning that, like the real world, global position doesn't mean that much. In a similar way, we don't really need to consult the world map to know what is 'different' about Alaska and Tahiti - we just think of them as being separated by a long plane flight, and we don't really need the details of direction or separation. We just 'teleport' there using United Airlines and step off the tarmac right into the place without having and experience of the intervening distance. But what remains true about the real world globe, and I think will remain true about the SL map, is that as you zoom in to a region of interest, the areas around it will be of interest to you. Specific communities will be embedded in other more general ones. For example, if you are thinking about visiting Tahiti and are browsing a world map, you might discover somewhere like Raratonga (a more obscure but also interesting vacation destination). I suspect that when there are multi-hundred sim communities on the SL map (think of them as continents), you will find that the adjacent communities to those continents have chosen to be there because they may be in some way relevant (or perhaps counterpoint!) to those communities. We need to add the features to allow land use to be balanced between individuals and groups and communities, but I think that we will not need telehubs to see large and complex communities emerge.