Get a (Second) Life!

Clay Shirky has been a longtime pundit about digital culture: sometimes he gets it right (or at least, more accurately, sometimes I agree with what he writes) and sometimes he doesn't. For example, he was one of the first journalists to really think hard about the emergence of participatory culture as something different from the same old consumer culture; he also took what I see as the wrong side of the debate with Scott McCloud about micropayments (though the jury is still out on that one.) I always respect what the guy has to say -- even if he tends towards the cynical side and I tend to the more optimistic. He is someone who asks the right questions -- even if he doesn't always come up with the right answers -- and that's all you can ask of anyone who writes regularly and sticks his neck out about emerging trends in a still developing medium. Lots of folks are dismissing Shirky right now without knowing the range of insightful and provocative essays he has posted in the past. Check out his homepage Agree with him, disagree with him -- as I said, I've done both through the years -- Clay Shirky's no idiot.

Right before Christmas, Shirky posted a critique of the media hype around Second Life, which has been stirring up a lot of fuss among my various friends and neighbors. The piece is worth reading as a corrective to some of the more breathless prose which claims that Second Life is "Web 3.0" and will totally change the world as we know it.

Basically, Shirky's arguments boil down to the following:

1.Claims about Second Life's user base have been dramatically overstated because the focus has been on the number of people who try out the multiverse rather than on those who return regularly. As he explains, "Someone who tries a social service once and bails isn't really a user any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream and walks out is a customer."

2. He argues that the hype around Second Life simply repeats earlier waves of enthusiasm about virtual worlds, none of which have turned out to be the "next new thing" claimed for them by their most ardent supporters. He concludes, "If, in 1993, you'd studied mailing lists, or usenet, or irc, you'd have a better grasp of online community today than if you'd spent a lot of time in LambdaMOO or Cyberion City."

3. The hype about Second Life is emerging because tech reporters are young and have no sense of history, because virtual reality is easy to grasp compared to the complexities of social networks, because writing about SL still keeps the focus on content, and because so many powerful groups have a vested interest in sending out press releases about the cool project they are doing in Second Life.

Shirky concludes, "Second Life may be wrought by its more active users into something good, but right now the deck is stacked against it, because the perceptions of great user growth and great value from scarcity are mutually reinforcing but built on sand....There's nothing wrong with a service that appeals to tens of thousands of people, but in a billion-person internet, that population is also a rounding error. If most of the people who try Second Life bail (and they do), we should adopt a considerably more skeptical attitude about proclamations that the oft-delayed Virtual Worlds revolution has now arrived."

This story has already generated some smart responses from people I know and trust. Here, for example, is my MIT colleague Beth Coleman:

Second Life may turn out to be the Friendster of the "metaverse"--the first to disseminate the signal strongly but also fast to disappear once the My Space of this format appears. Last winter there were 200,000 who visited SL. Today there are somewhere around 2 million who have at least stepped in to use the interface, to see for themselves what this is all about. WoW has already demonstrated a mass scale of technical application and popular interest for MMORPG. SL, Multiverse, and the growing numbers of virtual world platforms beg the question of future network use. It's not like real life. Not by a long shot. One is animating a proxy through multilayered terrains of information. Some of them might take the shape of cliché singles bars, but the procession toward ever more complex simulation in computing is there. Not every user can code, but certainly more users will learn to script (or edit video or stream media) as Flilckr and Youtube have made clear. It also seems incorrect not to recognize exponential user growth in regard to 3d virtual worlds. Let's not look at the U.S. for a moment but Asia, specifically the Korean Cyworld that is a 3D world massively used for social-networking in the way that My Space functions for American youth. The all-encompassing metaverse that Philip Rosedale promises Second Life will become may be a fiction of the CEO's own virtual world fantasy. The potential of 3D search engines do not trump text-based and 2D formulations. But it seems short-sited to says that 3D imaging and spatial representation do not open doors for emergent use of communications networks. At the very least, the qualities of 2D social networks are mutated, amplified, and animated by these real-time moving image worlds. VW platforms, including SL, can claim the following qualities:

1. Community building of social networks that reach on and offline

2. Communal projects that span systems designs to educational, business, and activist organization

3. Avatar proxies are not minor. Yahoo avatar, Wii's Miis, Facebook....every place where users are able to created multi-media profiles they do. The puppet show of virtual worlds speaks very strongly to a collective desire to play in this way.

We are still in the beta stage on this, a continuing beta from the 1990s I suppose, but the tipping point from niche to popular use seems to have arrived.

Here's danah boyd:

Lately, i've become very irritated by the immersive virtual questions i've been getting. In particular, "will Web3.0 be all about immersive virtual worlds?" Clay's post on Second Life reminded me of how irritated i am by this. I have to admit that i get really annoyed when techno-futurists fetishize Stephenson-esque visions of virtuality. Why is it that every 5 years or so we re-instate this fantasy as the utopian end-all be-all of technology? (Remember VRML? That was fun.)

Maybe i'm wrong, maybe i'll look back twenty years ago and be embarrassed by my lack of foresight. But honestly, i don't think we're going virtual.

There is no doubt that immersive games are on the rise and i don't think that trend is going to stop. I think that WoW is a strong indicator of one kind of play that will become part of the cultural landscape. But there's a huge difference between enjoying WoW and wanting to live virtually. There ARE people who want to go virtual and i wouldn't be surprised if there are many opportunities for sustainable virtual environments....

If you look at the rise of social tech amongst young people, it's not about divorcing the physical to live digitally. MySpace has more to do with offline structures of sociality than it has to do with virtuality. People are modeling their offline social network; the digital is complementing (and complicating) the physical. In an environment where anyone _could_ socialize with anyone, they don't. They socialize with the people who validate them in meatspace. The mobile is another example of this. People don't call up anyone in the world (like is fantasized by some wrt Skype); they call up the people that they are closest with. The mobile supports pre-existing social networks, not purely virtual ones.

GSD&M thought leader Joel Greenberg spells out what matters to him about Second Life and does some pretty interesting analysis of the same numbers Shirky has been working from:

SL has two interesting charactistics: 1) SL is a community; until you start participating with other people, you haven't really experienced it to its fullest, and 2) Linden Lab does not spend money on traditional advertising, so much of the growth can be attributed to community marketing and PR.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Shirky's column has sparked a long overdue discussion about what Second Life is and why it matters which moves us beyond the first flirtations with virtual life and gets to the heart of the matter. I've written a lot here about Second Life, including describing in some detail my own first steps into this new terrain. There's a lot about Second Life that really fascinates me -- starting with Linden Lab's enlightened views about user-generated content as well as the range of different groups that are using Second Life as a site for running what I have described here in the past as thought experiments.

For me, Second Life is a powerful embodiment of what Yochai Benkler has been talking about in The Wealth of Networks: a place where commercial, educational, nonprofit, governmental, and amateur groups co-exist and interact. It is a playground where we can try on new identities, test new products and practices, explore new ways that core institutions might operate.

Second Life is NOT web 3.0.

Second Life is NOT the future of the web.

We will NOT abandon physical reality for virtual life.

Immersive realities are NOT the primary way we will interact with information environments in the future.

But it IS important as a social experiment -- even if the user numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands as opposed to the millions. This isn't about statistics; it's about cultural innovation and social experimentation. If Second Life didn't exist, we -- those of us who care about grassroots creativity -- would have to invent it because it is a vivid illustration of the trends towards participatory culture which are springing up all over the place.

Second Life isn't interesting to me because of how many people go there; it's interesting because of what they do when they get there.

I got asked the other day to predict which of the current hot new websites will survive a decade from now. The answer is probably none of them will survive in anything remotely like their present form. But, if I had to make a guess, I'd guess that Second Life will outlast YouTube and MySpace even though -- or maybe precisely because -- its user base is smaller.

We have seen rapid churn with social network sites; teens don't want to hang out where their older siblings hung out and they certainly don't want to hang out where their parents hung out. So, as long as MySpace gets defined around its teen user base, it will quickly be, as Clueless put it, "so-so twenty minutes ago." Social networking as a practice will continue and grow but MySpace is toast.

YouTube is going to face an uphill battle to make money for Google on the scale anticipated and almost every choice they make to generate revenue -- from charging subscriptions to incorporating advertising or selling content -- is going to alienate large chunks of its users. Some other site will offer the same services for less money and the amateur media makers whose culture is larger than YouTube will go to whichever media sharing site offers them the best deal.

Most multiplayer games will have a life-span of four or five years: sooner or later, the producers who are generating the content will run out of creative energy, will set the wrong policy, or will simply fail to keep up with their competitors, and they will lose their marketshare to the new game in town.

But Second Life may outlive them all for several reasons: people feel a deeper investment in Second Life as a community because they have built it in their own images, because they have invested time in constructing the physical artifacts and social processes which constitute this multiverse. The core users of Second Life will be there as long as Linden Lab is there and the folks at Linden Lab seem to have a pretty realistic understanding of what it takes to support the diverse kinds of communities who are embracing this technology.

I suspect Second Life's numbers will always be lower than those of World of Warcraft or its descendents: more people want to have master entertainers construct their fantasy lives for them than want to build them from scratch. I have been surprised by how many are trying Second Life -- suggesting that there may be some hunger out there for at least testing the waters with virtual reality -- but I am also surprised how intimidated even my MIT students are of trying to build something in virtual space. So, I don't know that this will represent the tipping point in terms of multiverses -- simply that it will be an important community that has the potential to sustain itself for an extended period of time.

Shirky's column has sparked an important conversation, has caused us all to catch our breath and examine our assumptions. For that, I am personally grateful, even if this is one of those times when I think he's probably more wrong than right.

I can't say the same about some of the company he is keeping. Shirky's article appeared on a site called Valleywag, which bills itself as a "tech gossip rag." Another Valleywag reporter, no doubt inspired by Clay's critique, decided to crash a press conference being held in Second Life and act, frankly, like a wild boar. Here's the reporter's own description of what happened:

The sex is less satisfying, the money meaningless, but in one regard, at least, Second Life has matched the real world. Political events in Linden Lab's overblown virtual environment are carefully controlled, lacking in authenticity, and mind-numbingly tedious. Valleywag sent along a video reporter to the opening session of Congress, or rather an online discussion of the day's momentous events in the virtual world. The event, sponsored by marketing consultancy, Clear Ink, and has-been computer maker, Sun Microsystems, was as sparsely attended as a New Hampshire at-home with a no-hope candidate. Those attendees not from the press were Second Life publicists making sure the participants stayed in their seats. So much like the meatworld. It's uncanny. Valleywag's reporter ran into trouble with the virtual world's flacks after he floated up and spoiled the photo-op by getting into the frame. "They were really freaking out. Dude, I was laughing so hard I was crying when they finally kicked me out." Well, at least someone enjoyed themselves.

Whatever the value of your criticism of Second Life may be, acting like a jerk in a virtual world is no different than acting like a jerk in the real world. This suggests the actions of someone who imagines virtual worlds as simply a playground where individuals can do anything they want and not expect any social consequences. It suggests the actions of someone who has contempt for anyone who takes what's going on in such a space seriously and wants to show his contempt by bearing his rump to the world. Here's hoping that we can debate the issues surround virtual worlds with a bit more civility and maturity in the future.