Second Life (Round Three) -- 'Nuff Said

By now, you know the drill. Clay Shirkey, Beth Coleman, and I are going around and around about Second Life. Round One Henry Beth Clay

Round Two Henry Beth on Clay Beth on Henry Clay on Henry Clay on Beth

Round Three Henry Beth Clay

For some other smart and thoughtful responses to the debate, check out:

Irving Wladawsky-Berger,

Grant McCracken,

Sam Ford,

Ron Burnett,

Mark Wallace,

Jesse Walker,


All of this is going to make much more sense if you've already read the earlier rounds of the conversation.

Mapping the Debate

Clay began his most recent post with the following:

We agree about many of the basic facts, and that most of our variance is about their relative importance. So as to prevent the softness of false consensus from settling over some sharp but interesting disagreements, let me start with a list of assertions I think we could both agree with. If I succeed, we can concentrate on our smaller but more interesting set of differences.

I think you and I agree that:

1. Linden has embraced participatory culture, including, inter alia, providing user tools, using CC licenses, and open sourcing the client.

2. Users of Second Life have created interesting effects by taking advantage of those opportunities.

and also

3. Most people who try Second Life do not like it. As a result, SL is is not going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term, to use your phrase.

4. Reporters and marketers ought not discuss Second Life using phony numbers.

The core difference between our respective views of the current situation is that you place more emphasis on the first two items on that list, and I on the second two.

Yes, that about sums it up except that for me, there's another issue on the table here: whether purely quantitative measures are adequate to the task of meaningfully evaluating an emerging media experience.

Let's suppose all of Clay's numerical claims were true, then would they negate the cultural importance or likely influence of the cultural experiment we are calling Second Life? I have been trying across my posts to suggest other levels on which Second Life is culturally meaningful and influential other than those which depend entirely on its head count.

Clearly, there is a need for reliable data points about the scale, composition, and levels of engagement witnessed by various online environments. I share Beth's call for further refinements of such tools. I am simply rejecting the idea that this issue can be reduced to a single data point and I am certainly rejecting the idea -- widespread in the business community -- that the only thing that counts is what can be counted.

Relying purely on quantitative data is especially dangerous at a time when things are in flux and when we do not yet have an adequate framework in place to interpret the data that we are collecting. These numbers may answer some of the questions we want to answer but only if we understand how to read them meaningfully.

"Approximately Insane"

Clay writes:

You compare Second Life with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This is approximately insane, and your disclaimer that Second Life may not reach this rarefied plateau doesn't do much to make it less insane.

It says something about how vested Clay is about quantitative language that even insanity requires an approximation. (Yes, I know he was joking -- so am I).

So, let me first of all concede that the metaphor in this case has gotten in the way of the point I was trying to make. It would be excessive to draw comparisons between Second Life as a specific platform and something as epoch-changing as the Renaissance. I withdraw the analogy. I don't know if it is insane but it was dumb.

All I was saying is that quantitative measurements would not be adequate to evaluate the importance of the Renaissance. Imagine what a small, small, small percentage of the people living in Europe, let alone living in the world, during that period were in any direct way participating in the events we now call the Renaissance. By any purely numerical standard, the Renaissance involved earlier adapters and adopters of several then emerging technologies -- the most important of which was movable type. Any numerical count of who participated in the Renaissance would be "approximately insane" if it was applied without an understanding of the cultural contexts within which the Renaissance occurred, including things like the class structure and literacy rate of the period, or if it was to use the limited take up of Renaissance ideas and experiences at the time as a means of dismissing their long-term cultural impact.

Clay writes:

Participatory culture is one of the essential movements of our age. It creates many different kinds of artifacts, however, and it is possible to be skeptical about Second Life as an artifact without being skeptical of participatory culture generally. Let me re-write the sentiment you reacted to, to make that distinction clear: Second Life, a piece of software developed by Linden Labs, is unlikely to become widely adopted in the future, because it is not now and has never been widely adopted, measured either in retention of new users or in the number of current return users.

On this point, we do agree, though again, my argument has never rested on whether SL or even multiverses are "widely adopted," only that they are now sites where important experiments and innovations occur and that they are likely to play even more central roles in the not too distant future.

Mulching Kittens?

Clay writes:

Giving a pass to laudatory Second Life stories that use false numbers, simply because they are "keeping alive" an idea you like, risks bootstrapping Second Life's failure to retain users into unwarranted skepticism about peer production generally. More importantly, though, lowering your scrutiny of people using bogus Linden numbers, just because they are on your team, is a bad idea.

Clay misreads what I was saying here. I was not saying that we should ignore distortions of the data just because they come from people who share my position. That would be the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty. I have said it before and I will say it again: Clay does us a service by asking hard questions about the numbers here.

So, suppose for the sake of argument, Clay's critique of the numbers turns out to be essentially correct, then what do we do about it? Clay seems to be adopting a "gotcha" posture, trying to use the data to debunk Second Life, to damage the credibility of Linden Labs, and to dismiss the viability of "virtual worlds" altogether. For Clay, everyone involved is either "a schlemiel or a schuyster" and that his role in all of this is that of the one truly honest man rooting out "corruption." Hmm, from where I sit, that is "approximately insane," assuming that egomaniacal paranoia (the idea that everyone around you is either stupider than you are or simply out to get you) constitutes a form of insanity in Brooklyn.

By contrast, we might use that same data set to try to identify more precisely what factors might be resulting in a dissatisfaction or defection of potential members and offer some advice on how we might improve Second Life, seeing it as a worthy experiment in creating a more participatory cultural community. This is precisely the difference between constructive criticism and criticism intended to inflict damage.

To play upon one of Clay's metaphors, it matters to me that Linden Labs isn't trying to mulch kittens but rather they are trying to figure out how to construct a space whose residents get to design and build their own world, that they have invested a fair amount of effort into community building and educational outreach, that they have reasonably enlightened views about intellectual property and so forth. Given that, I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they want to improve user experience and customer satisfaction, and roll up our sleeves and figure out how to fix the problems you have identified. That's what I meant when I said Second Life was worth fighting for.

Are They Coming or Going?

One of the problems with purely quantitative analysis of cultural phenomenon is that sooner or later, the numbers fail you and you end making a leap of faith. (And this is almost always where the underlying biases and assumptions behind the research emerge.) In Clay's case, he seems to want to move from the data point that there is a low retention rate for SL visitors to a conclusion about why people are leaving. He has a pet theory that he thinks explains why people leave Second Life and remain in World of Warcraft. It is a reasonable hypothesis but his number play gives it the aura of scientific veracity which it hasn't earned. Readers here have already suggested a range of other hypothesis to account for this same data, having to do more with technical difficulties in the specific applications associated with SL than with a rejection of the idea of a multiverse altogether. If, as Clay suggests, Second Life is simply a single product/platform/service, then why would it follow that not liking SL demonstrates that they were not going to like other 3d immersive environments in the future?

What if we turned this around and consider the opposite question: if people are only interested in game worlds, why are they trying out Second Life in the first place? Are they simply confused about what they are getting themselves into or are they seeking something like a multiverse and being frustrated that this particular one doesn't live up to their expectations?

Before I can evaluate whether Clay is right or wrong about why people are leaving Second Life, I would need to know what they were expecting when they got there, what role they hoped it would play in their lives, and in what ways they were disappointed in the gap between the motivating fantasy and whatever they experienced after they got there. To my mind, this is an ethnographic question and not purely a quantitative one.

So, let me invite those who read this blog to post their own answers to the following questions:

If you visited Second Life but chose not to remain involved, what turned you off?

If you visited Second Life and chose to remain actively engaged, what captured your imagination?

In either case, what drew you to Second Life in the first place?

And if you have heard about SL and haven't tried it, is there a reason you haven't been motivated to explore it yet?

(That should cover pretty much all of our bases there.)

Bad for Business?

Both Beth and Clay at various points imply that it would be bad for business -- (or to use Beth's terms, bad for "shopping") if it were demonstrated that SL's population were significantly smaller than the numbers currently being claimed in the most inflated news stories. Maybe but keep in mind that companies are embracing Second Life for a range of reasons, some of them good, some bad, and only some of them rest on the issue of how many members are drawn to Second Life. We might consider some of the other functions:

Many companies are using Second Life as a site of corporate training, allowing their own members to congregate together across multiple geographic locations, to hear a speaker, engage in discussion, or simply get to know each other better. Such activities take advantages of the affordances of 3d worlds to create a kind of shared presence.

Many companies are using their elaborately constructed and beautifully designed worlds as a kind of prestige showcase -- a place they go to show clients and demonstrate their own mastery of the emerging language of geek chic. Indeed, this function might be served just as well if there was something exclusive about Second Life than if it was a mass phenomenon.

Some companies are using Second Life as a site of niche marketing to reach the very kinds of early adapters and adopters who are coming and staying. In that sense, Second Life functions the way PBS or Sunday Morning News Shows function for certain corporate advertisers -- because it reaches a very specific niche of consumers whose tastes and experiences set them off from the general population.

Some companies, as Ilya Vedrashko has noted, use Second Life to test market new products or campaigns, recognizing that they can do so with limited exposure and low risk in Second Life compared to what it would take to launch a full scale national broadcast campaign. In this case, the value of Second Life depends on whether they recognize the specific quality of its population or confuse it for a cross-section of the population at large.

Some companies are using Second Life to encourage employees to break with their normal ways of doing business, to explore an alternative realm which is more fluid and flexible, and thus to encourage thought experiments and to create a climate which supports innovation.

And yes, some of them imagine that Second Life will allow them to reach hard to reach consumers -- the teenaged males who are defecting from television. Frankly, if that's their goal, they would do better trying to target WOW!

Niches Vs. Elites

A reader, Nick, wrote into the comments section:

If, as you say "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" Second Life represents the historical continuation of something we are seeking to avoid in an era of networks and relative freedom. Let me put that into less conceptual terms: it sounds as if Second Life is being lauded for having rather elitist principals - if you're not a programmer then there is little there for you, bar what other people choose to give or sell. When I first heard about it I imagined Second Life to be rather like the 'Lego' of software - simple tools made available to all that could be used to build whatever users' imaginations were capable of.

The reader's comment mixes together two sets of claims I was trying to make about why SL might matter beyond the population figures:

1. Second Life represents an important testbed for ideas about participatory culture. We have a company here which has adopted a collaborative attitude towards its consumers, empowering them to actively participate in the design of their own world.

2, Second Life is attracting a growing number of powerful institutions (corporate, governmental, educational, nonprofit) who are using it as a site to experiment with how they might adopt a more collaborative and participatory relationship with their consumers/constituents/students/what-have-you.

Given the kinds of people currently using SL, these two claims are certainly related but they are not the same.

Is SL a niche or an elite? Is it a specific demographic, a self-selecting community of those who share a common interest in the experience of building and inhabiting a multiverse, a particular constellation of early adapters and adopters -- i.e. a Niche? Or is it a group defined around the exclusion of other potential participants -- i.e. an elite?

I will continue to ponder this one.

A Betting Man?

Clay begins and ends his post by asking whether I am a betting man. I think he is trying to call me out. Leave it to Clay to find one of the few statements in my argument which would seem to rest on a quantitative claim (never mind that it comes as an aside) and try to push me to quantify it even further. It's a pretty good rhetorical tactic because if I agree to a bet, then I have ceded that in the end, it all does boil down to the numbers and if I refuse the bet, then he can claim that I am unwilling to get more specific about what I am claiming will be the future of virtual worlds.

I have been struggling all week to figure out how to respond - not because I am opposed to betting but because I do not think, as I have said throughout, that the quantitative issues are the most interesting ones to be thinking about vis-à-vis SL and the other multiverses which will follow in its footsteps.

Here's the statement he wants me to put my money behind:

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.

So, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on how you define "us." For starters, most people on the planet have not ever made a telephone call, let alone used a computer, let alone gone on the web, let alone visited an immersive 3d environment. I suppose at the time I made the statement, I was imagining something like most of the people who are currently online regularly.

Then, we would have to specify what we mean by "use." I suppose what I had in mind was something like the following: given how many companies are using SL (and are likely to use other such sites) for corporate training and community building and given how many educational institutions are beginning to experiment with SL (and other such sites) as a form of distance learning, a significant portion of people are apt to have had at least some exposure to these worlds. (Indeed, it would be interesting to know what percentage of people who visit SL and don't return came for a special event of this kind. They were, in effect, tourists rather than settlers.)

As Beth notes, the text based world of e-mail is already being augmented by a range of other forms of audiovisual communications (including Flickr, Skype, YouTube, and Google Maps to cite only a few) which are being adapted to a range of different uses. It is not a big stretch of the imagination to assume that there will be occasions when our communication needs are best served by interfaces which allow participants interacting over distances to have a more embodied experience of telepresence or that there may be times and places when 3d modeling is more effective to communicate an idea or to collaborate in the production of a project than either text or audiovideo. So, I do think these kinds of environments -- whatever we want to call them -- will become more pervasive in our society over time. But we may no more inhabit such worlds than we inhabit Google Maps. We may simply consult or deploy them as needed to serve specific tasks. It may be more of a resource than a lifestyle.

Our current experience of membership or affiliation with a multiverse may reflect the particular needs of early adapters and may or may not be a model which will carry over to subsequent generations of users. We might compare it to the difference between belonging to a discussion group online and using e-mail. Lots of us belong to discussion groups and mailing lists, to be sure, but much of the time we are simply using e-mail to connect to people we know from our face to face interactions in the real world. We use it because it has certain affordances we need. Few of us would self identify as "people who use e-mail."

Let's pause a moment to think about terminology: I share Clay's conclusion that it is not productive to lump together WOW and SL into the same conceptual category. So rather than talking about virtual worlds, let's adopt Stephenson's term, multiverse, to refer to 3d environments which are not games and which facilitate social interactions. I am certainly not unique in using the word in this manner.

In the short run, I think Shirkey is right that games will prove more attractive to more people than multiverses will. Yet, we use play to acquire skills that we later deploy to more serious purposes. I think our play experiences with game worlds may accustom us to navigating through digital space and occupying avatars and interacting socially with people we may never meet face to face and all of these constitute the building blocks necessary to pave the way for broader use of multiverses as tools for social interactions and research collaborations. And in that sense, I think Beth is right that SL may turn out to have been an important early prototype for subsequent forms of social interactions online -- even if the numbers never come together there as its promoters might have hoped.

I am not sure how we are going to be able to quantify that and I have no idea how long it is going to take for this prediction to come true. I simply don't think any of us know enough yet about how these worlds work, about what people are seeking when they visit SL and the other multiverses, about which of these applications will reap rewards and which ones will fail.

So, in that sense, I am not a betting man. I am not willing to reduce this prediction to the kinds of data points that could meaningfully serve as the basis for a bet. Clay argues:

I do not believe the portmanteau category of virtual worlds will reach anything like half of internet users (or even half of broadband users) in any predictable time.

The key word here is predictable and I can't bet Clay because I don't think the rate of growth, given our current body of knowledge, is meaningfully predictable. And for me, that's part of the fun. I don't think there's anything inevitable about technological development. The future of the web is what we collectively make of it.

But if I were to make a prediction now, based on current conditions, I would bet that some significant portion of the people who are currently using the web will have used some form of 3d environment for purposes other than playing games within the next decade.

In any case, I don't really think Clay needs me to buy him dinner. And I'm eating pretty well myself these days, thank you. So, instead, let me suggest that in the short run, we invest some of the energy and resources that we are currently deploying to talk about virtual real estate to help those who lack a roof over their heads in the real world. I am happy to send a check for the price of a meal in a decent Boston restaurant to the homeless shelter of Clay's choice in Brooklyn.