A Second Look at Second Life

A few weeks ago, I posted here about the debate surrounding Second Life which was triggered by a high-profile critique of the popular multiverse by longtime cyber-pundit Clay Shirky. After corresponding with Shirky and with my colleague Beth Coleman, it was decided that we would offer some new statements about this controversy across our three blogs today and respond to each other's posts in about a week's time. We also agreed that we would post links to the other posts through our sites which would help readers navigate between the various positions. So, if you want to read the latest by Clay Shirky, you can find it here and if you want to read the latest by Beth Coleman, you can find it here. (These links will only go live once I know the other material is up on line.) None of us have had a chance so far to review what the others will say so I anticipate that the first round will mostly be a restating of or clarification of our previous positions. Clay's arguments rest on the following claims:

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."

A lot of effort has been put into debunking Clay's analysis of the numbers by writers such as Joel Greenberg

and Prokofy Neva. Frankly, my interest in Second Life has little to nothing to do with the statistical dimensions of this argument. I've never been one who felt that arguments about cultural change could be reduced to counting things.

I certainly agree that we should be concerned if the press's interest in Second Life is fueled by inflated numbers but I also recognize that these numbers give only a partial indication of the level and kinds of investments people make in these worlds, that Second Life may have cultural importance even for people who have never been there because it embodies a particular model of civic participation and cultural production.

The numbers matter if we are asking whether Second Life represents "the future of the web" but personally, I have never believed that SL is going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term. As I stated last time, I do not buy the whole nonsense that immersive worlds represent web 3.0 and will in any way displace the existing information structures that exist in the web, any more than I think audio-visual communications is going to replace written communications anytime soon. If nothing else, the ability to scan through text quickly gives it an efficiency that will not be replaced by more "technically advanced" solutions which are more time consuming to produce and to consume. I am pretty sure that the value of the web/net lies in asynchronous communications and that real time interactions -- whether we are talking 3d or skype -- will always represent a special class of uses which competes not with the web but with other teleconferencing technologies. Most of us will find uses for virtual worlds one of these days; most of us will not "live" there nor will we conduct most of our business there.

I do not even think that Second Life represents the future of multiplayer games -- it represents one end of a spectrum of player experiences which maximizes player generated content and minimizes the prestructured experiences we associate with most computer games. World of Warcraft represents the other end of that spectrum and so far, that model draws more customers. My own ideal lays perhaps some place in the middle. As such, this becomes a debate not about affordances but about the desirability of professional entertainment versus the pleasures of participatory culture. It also becomes an exercise in mapping what some have described as the pyramid of participation in which the harder it is to create content, the higher the percentage of participants who will chose to consume content someone else has produced. What's striking to me is not that so many people still prefer to consume professionally generated content (it has always been thus) but what a growing percent of people are willing to consume amateur content and what a smaller but still significant percentage of people are willing to generate and share content they produced themselves. Second Life interests me as a particular model of participatory culture.

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."

I get the historical analogies Shirky is making here and he's at least partially right about the over-promotion that surrounded some of those earlier MUDs and Moos. My own sense is that Second Life has struck a deeper chord in our culture than those previous MUDS and MOOS did -- in part because of the engagement by other powerful institutions in our culture. To some degree, all of the corporate, academic, nonprofit, and foundation interest in SL is part of the hype which Shirky is dismissing here. There has certainly been a snow ball effect where this group has to be in SL because that group is in second life and so forth. But there is also a way in which SL embodies a new mixed media ecology in which institutions with very different levels of power, wealth, and influence co-exist in a shared virtual space creating more equivalence in terms of their relationship to the media landscape. This is the heart of what Benkler writes about in The Wealth of Networks and there is perhaps no more powerful illustration of this new hybrid media ecology than SL.

Some have dismissed SL as a costume party -- I see it more as carnival in the medieval sense of the term -- as a time and place within which normal rules of interactions are suspended, roles can be swapped or transformed, hierarchies can be reordered, and we can step out of normal reality into a "magic circle" or "green world" which can be highly generative for the imagination. The difference is that in the old days, carnival was something that existed for a very short period of time and people planned for it all year. Now, in the era of SL, carnival exists all the day and people have to decide how much time they want to spend there. In the old days, the power structures that led to carnival were religious and the church had to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. Today, the power structures that lead to SL are corporate and companies have to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. That corporate America seems to be experimenting with the alternative reality that constitutes SL is news -- even if many of these experiments fail and even if many of these companies have no clue what to do with their islands and even if most of them go back into their cloisters in another year or two.

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.

All of these seem valid criticisms of the media coverage of SL which is historically ill-informed, is simplistic, is subject to press releases proclaiming that "this is the first time that x has ever happened in a virtual environment before." That said, I am personally grateful that most of the coverage of SL has generally been supportive of participatory culture compared to the relentlessly negative coverage associated with sexual predation in MySpace or violence in video games. I take my good news where I can find it and for the moment, the coverage of SL, bad though it often is, is helping Americans in general adjust to the idea that there may be something positive to be gained by having an active fantasy life on line. I have always said that the myth of a digital revolution is more empowering, perhaps, than the reality may be because it keeps alive the idea that real world institutions may be subject to change from below and thus encourages us to imagine and push for the possibility of change. It only becomes disempowering when it gets draped in an aura of inevitability which convinces us that things are going to change by themselves and all we have to do is sit back and watch.

I care only a little bit about the future of virtual worlds. I care a great deal about the future of participatory culture. And for the moment, the debate about and the hype surrounding SL is keeping alive the idea that we might design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture. That's something worth defending.

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."

By those criteria, the Renaissance and the Age of Reason were less than rounding errors since the key innovations occurred among a much smaller number of artists and thinkers. This is to subscribe to a quantitative model of history which simply doesn't reflect the reality of how cultural innovation occurs. A small community of people can generate an enormously rich culture and can have a transforming impact on society as a whole. I am not saying SL has achieved this yet -- and indeed, it may never live up to that potential -- but I don't want to lose sight of the fact that the importance of SL has squat to do with such statistical measures -- though what those measures have to say about its market value may be another value.

I respect what Shirky is doing here in questioning the numbers. I just want to push us to ask deeper questions about the criteria we use to measure the value of Second Life.

As I wrote last time, "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."