More Second Thoughts on Second Life

A week ago, Clay Shirkey, Beth Coleman, and I launched a three-way conversation across our blogs which was designed to spark a greater public conversation about the value of Second Life. We have been extremely pleased by the range of other responses to our posts which have cropped up on other blogs. By agreement, we are each returning today to respond to each other's posts and offer some concluding thoughts on the issues which have emerged through the conversations so far. Beth's post can be found here. Clay's post can be found here.

As some readers have noted, the disagreements here may be more apparent than real. Clay, Beth and I agree that Second Life is probably being over hyped if our criteria of significance is defined statistically but that it may still be an important site of cultural innovation and deeply meaningful to the people who spend their time there if we adopt more qualitative measures.

The "debate", if you can call it that, circles around competing criteria by which we might measure the importance of Second Life. Shirkey's original post sparked such heated response in part because it seemed to be pushing statistical and commercial criteria forward at the expense of other ways of evaluating the importance of what is going on there.

Shirkey says as much:

Concerning popularity, I predict that Second Life will remain a niche application, which is to say an application that will be of considerable interest to a small percentage of the people who try it. Such niches can be profitable (an argument I made in the Meganiche article), but they won't, by definition, appeal to a broad cross-section of users.

Beth believes that Second Life may well push well beyond niche status by providing a compelling model for how we might live in a virtual world that captures the public imagination and paves the way for subsequent developments in the design and deployment of virtual worlds. Second Life, she suggests, represents one step further along a century long evolution of human communications capacity:

What virtual worlds promise is an augmentation of human-to-human communication. We seem to yearn for synchronous connectivity and virtual worlds promise to deliver exactly that. Looking at the 150-year build out of telecommunications capabilities, what we find with many of the current platforms from text message to instant messaging to virtual worlds are designs for simultaneous connectivity. Putting a human face to things is a lot of what this is about, even if that human face is a codebot. These platforms are not simply to facilitate shopping but to develop further (or perhaps more massively) the ways in which virtual and "portable" spaces can be inhabited as a home.

Shirkey, by contrast, believes that "virtual worlds" is not a meaningful category:

Put another way, I believe that the group of things lumped together as virtual worlds have such variable implementations and user adoption rates that they are not well described as a single conceptual group...Pointcast's management claimed that email, the Web, and Pointcast all were about delivering content, and that the future looked bright for content delivery platforms. And indeed it did, except for Pointcast. The successes of email and of the Web were better explained by their particular utilities than by their membership in a broad class of "content delivery." Pointcast tried to shift attention from those particularities to a generic label in order to create a club in which it would automatically be included.

I believe a similar thing happens whenever Second Life is lumped with Everquest, World of Warcraft, et al., into a category called virtual worlds. If we accept the validity of this category, then multi-player games provide an existence proof of millions-strong virtual worlds, and the only remaining question is simply when we arrive at wider adoption of more general-purpose versions

Ironically, of course, many bloggers have responded to Shirkey by arguing that he is comparing apples and oranges by lumping Second Life together with these other gaming platforms. Second Life, they argue, is not a game. And in doing so, they are making his point for him: Second Life, he argues, can not be meaningfully lumped in with these other forms of virtual worlds because it is not a game and read on its own terms, it does not demonstrate there is a robust or widespread public demand for this kind of online experience. Again, though, this is to revert back to a set of statistical criteria for evaluating the cultural significance of Second Life.

Let me repeat for the third time the statement which may best sum up my own position: "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."

Here, we can imagine a range of other ways of evaluating the importance of what happens in Second Life:

1. on the basis of which groups or institutions are conducting business there. As I have suggested, Second Life embodies a mixed media ecology in which business, government, educational, civic, nonprofit, and amateur media makers co-exist, each using Second Life as a test bed for innovation. It has always been the case that the playgrounds of the rich and the powerful take on a cultural significance that far outstrips the realm of our own everyday lives.

2. on the basis of the quality of civic engagement which emerges there. In a forthcoming book, Peter Ludlow, the editor of the Second Life Herald and the former editor of the Alphaville Herald (based in The Sims Online), has described what has happened as players move from one "virtual world" to another. Ludlow argues that there are a number of people who were "griefers" in The Sims Online who have begun to make meaningful contributions to the community on Second Life. His implications is that there is something in the mechanisms through which community life is conducted in Second Life which fosters a greater sense of civic engagement and personal responsibility -- in part perhaps because people are constructing their own reality and making their own rules there. (By the way, watch for an interview with Ludlow about Second Life on my blog later this week).

3. On the basis of the specific kinds of outcomes which emerge from our social experimentation in Second Life. We may need to wait longer to evaluate impact on this level but Second Life will matter if it teaches us new things about what it is like to live in a virtual environment or if, for that matter, we take innovations and insights from Second Life back with us to reshape our real world institutions and practices.

4. On the basis of the ways that Second Life incites the public imagination and thus becomes part of the general cultural understanding of what it might mean to inhabit a virtual world. In that sense, Second Life might occupy a space closer to Snow Crash or Diamond Age -- that is, as a fragment of the popular imagination rather than as a real space. In a literal sense, if Second Life didn't exist, we would have to invent it because it plays such a vital role in contemporary discussions of participatory culture, user-generated content, and online worlds. One could argue, in fact, that the public imagination of virtual reality is so far in advance of the current state of the technology that we may never have the patience to actually take the baby steps needed to get from where we are to where as a cultural we want to be. There's a danger that the public imagination of Second Life is so much more vivid than the reality that this contributes to the phenomenon of people trying it out and abandoning it.

Perhaps we can identify many more ways that Second Life might matter culturally without necessarily mattering statistically.

As we look more closely at Shirkey's arguments, he seems to hold onto a very specific set of criteria by which we might evaluate the quality of experience visitors have in Second Life -- criteria which start from the assumption that Second Life is designed to be a "simulacra" of reality, that it is judged according to its fidelity to the real world. Consider this passage from Shirkey's post

Games are not just special, they are special in a way that relieves designers of the pursuit of maximal realism. There is still a premium on good design and playability, but the magic circle, acceptance of arbitrary difficulties, and goal-directed visual filtering give designers ways to contextualize or bury at least some platform limitations. These are not options available to designers of non-game environments; asking users to accept such worlds as even passable simulacra subjects those environments to withering scrutiny.

All of this makes sense if you assume the goal of Second Life is "maximal realism." In my last post, I argued for a different understanding of what it might mean to have a Second Life -- based on the classic notion of carnival. By this criteria, Second Life is a place we go to escape the constraints on our everyday life, to explore new possibilities through our imagination which would be hard to realize in the realm of our First Lives. It doesn't mean everything goes: in fact, much of the literature on carnival implies that it re-enforced existing rules and norms precisely by inviting people to imagine what would happen if they were overturn.

Second Life can be immersive without in any way convincing us that it is a thorough model of the real world. After all, Second Life is a place where people routinely embrace identities -- say, a panda in a ninja costume -- which would have no basis in the realm of our real world experience, where people may casually swap avatars as they move from one space to another, where they may just as readily copy the space ship from Firefly as duplicate the architecture of Tokyo. Hell, it's a world where there are giant flying penises!

None of this has anything to do with "maximal reality" and everything to do with the "consensual fantasy" William Gibson saw as the defining characteristic of cyberspace. I am certain there are people and institutions that strive relentlessly for "maximal realism" but that's only one potential goal people might embrace as they enter this realm. Second Life is what we as participants make of it.

Shirkey himself demonstrates that games, because of their structures, may create immersiveness without achieving anything near "maximal realism" or even "passable simulacras." Who is to say that Second Life may not be generating altogether different mechanisms for achieving immersiveness -- having to do with our own shared participation in the design of the world -- without depending on perfectly mimicking the realm of our everyday experience? The problem is that if the "immersiveness" of Second Life is a product of our own participation then it may not be immediately communicated to the casual visitor who doesn't contribute directly to the production of this consensual fantasy but simply goes there expecting to consume it much as they consume an amusement park or a multiplayer game. This would surely account for the difference in how casual visitors and immersed participants experience the quality of experience created within this world.