Google Lively

This screenshot from the video that Google created to promote Lively promised a new level of social interaction with the Web.

Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Google Lively is one of the most interesting examples of "right idea, wrong implementation" precisely because nobody has ever heard of it (it lasted for six months in 2008) [source: Schonfeld]. And while "Second Life" and similar non-game virtual environments are currently languishing, the social-networking aspects of Lively come across, in retrospect, like a particularly loving exploration of what "online life" could mean.

Users created avatars to interact in a three-dimensional environment that combined recognizable chat dynamics with "Minecraft"-style architecture and creation of spaces. While the experience itself was reportedly frustrating due to server glitches and lags, the idea was fairly solid. Chat rooms have been around since the beginning of the Internet, as a way to communicate with real-life friends as well as meeting and connecting with strangers, and vogues in their use tend to shift pretty often: ChatRoulette was trendy for a second, for example, while recent advances in webcam and video-chat have only begun moving real time video interaction into the realm of the video-phones we were always promised.

Which could be the problem. Chat-rooms and bulletin boards, once the standard for online friendliness, have given way to the social Web. When we meet strangers now, it's often through established connections: Facebook, Twitter and similar online social giants all operate on the idea of shared experiences we've already had. While in the dawn of the Internet, real-life analogues to night clubs or coffee shops such as Lively, made sense, we've moved past the idea that the Internet is a "place" that you "visit," obviating the need for such measures. Now, the Internet lies atop the world we already live in, so mixing things up with people we don't know is no longer the goal: It's a feature. A consequence of living in the world, rather than part of our escape from it.