The News From Second Life: An Interview With Peter Ludlow (Part Two)

Yesterday, I introduced readers to Peter Ludlow -- philosophy professor, editor of the Second Life's town newspaper, someone who thinks deeply about what civic engagement means in the context of a virtual world. Today, I continue that interview with some of Ludlow's thoughts about the recent debate sparked by Clay Shirkey's critiques of Second Life and continuing into some of his insights about the challenges of governing online communities. I am hoping this interview whets your interest in the book he is writing with Mark Wallace. Wallace and Ludlow are lively writers and provocative thinkers who are raising questions we need to consider if we are indeed moving towards the era of Web 3.0. An Aside

Okay, let's get back to this matter of Web 3.0. Of all of the things I said about Second Life in the exchanges with Shirkey and Coleman, I've taken the most heat for my dismissal of the concept that virtual worlds might represent Web 3.0. (Well, maybe my historical analogies but I will get back to those in another post.) Ludlow comes back to this matter here and takes a few whacks at me himself and perhaps justly so. But let me at least explain what I was responding to. I was talking about some of the hype and misrepresentations that have emerged from journalistic coverage of Second Life. I suggested that this reframing of virtual worlds as Web 3.0 might not be the most helpful way of understanding what is going on. There does seem to be a lot of confusion out there about what exactly is meant by the phrase, Web 3.0 -- whether it describes what comes after web 2.0 or whether it describes the enhancement and augmentation of the existing communications system. I suspect very few thoughtful people who are really engaged in online worlds imagine that they will displace the existing web altogether, though I have talked to some journalists who seem to imagine this is some kind of a realistic possibility.


Many of the popular representations of the evolution of the web offer a sloppy way of modeling the transition from one state of the web to the next. Consider this widely circulated image. It shows some moments of overlap between web 1.0 and web 2.0 but also seems to depict a moment where web 2.0 replaces Web 1.0 altogether and the same seems to be occuring here as web 2.0 gives way to web 3.0. I don't see any other way of reading what is being depicted on this particular chart.

But as I suggest in Convergence Culture, there are no dead media (though there may be some dead delivery technologies). Old media do not go away; they become part of a much more complex layering of different communications options within the media landscape. The web doesn't replace television or newspapers; virtual worlds won't displace social networks; they all will be available as possible ways to communicate. The emergence of a new medium may create a crisis for the old medium, requiring standard practices to shift, forcing us to rethink its social status or functions, redirecting patterns of production and consumption, but in the end, the old medium will survive in some form. This is what Ludlow says below. It's also what I was trying to say about the affordances of virtual worlds. Tell me that virtual worlds will be more central to our culture in the future and I won't argue with you. Tell me as some journalists -- and as the above chart seems to suggest -- that web 3.0 will displace earlier models of the online world and I am going to be skeptical.

OK, enough self justification. Now onto the interview...

I wanted to give you a chance to respond to Clay Shirky's recent critique of the hype surrounding SL. Do you agree or disagree with his concerns about how the mainstream media has been 'duped' about the population of SL? What has the response to this story been like within SL?

The exchange between Clay and the community hasn'’t been very productive. Clay came along with some true, but very obvious and not so interesting observations about the “Second Life residents” number, and then people on Terra Nova started genuflecting and saying what a genius Clay was. This was infuriating for a lot of us, because we have been calling out those numbers as bogus for over a year. For example, in the Herald we called a foul on the residency stats when they crossed 100 thousand, but more than that, we also pointed out that the “US Dollars Spent” numbers were bogus.

Clay took us to be saying that if insiders knew about the bogus number, then it was enough – the major media didn’t need to know. But of course that wasn’'t our point at all – it was more frustration with the mainstream business media and the eggheads on Terra Nova for only reading a very narrow bandwidth of sources (of which Clay is one). Apart from pointing out the obvious meaninglessness of the “residents” number, Clay's contribution was weak, for reasons that you pointed out: The interest of Second Life has nothing to do with the number of eyeballs it is delivering, and everything to do with the quality of the people that are in world and the kinds of activities they are engaged in, how those are going to influence future iterations of the web, and the long tail their activities are going to have.

IÂ’'ve seen lots of virtual communities, ranging from the WELL, to Mindvox, to the Italian PeaceLink network of the 90s. The WELL was not important because of how many people were there, but who was there and what they were doing. I made so many amazing contacts there, ranging from people like Mike Godwin and John Perry Barlow, to Josh Quitner, Howard Rheingold, Bruce Sterling, Jon Lebkowsky, R.U. Sirius, and the list could go on and on. The contacts IÂ’'m making and the things I am learning in Second Life are even more amazing, perhaps by an order of magnitude.

There was something retro about Clay’'s critique, and that something is this: it assumes the value and success of Second Life is tied to the number of eyeballs that are converging there. That is, the critique is assuming a push media model of value. But push media is in trouble, and that is the reason that SL is crawling with marketing and PR people -- they are trying to come to grips with “life after the 30 Second Spot” (to steal a line from the title of a book by Second Life resident Joseph Jaffe. Second Life isn’'t about counting eyeballs, it is about establishing relationships with quality technical, social, and artistic contacts that have a high impact and will continue to do so, learn from them, and then try to engage them in your own projects.

I also have a bone to pick with you regarding something you said in your response to Clay. It is certainly true that Second Life is being hailed as an example of Web 3.0, but no one is claiming that Web 3.0 replaces or even dominates the future of the internet. If you think of Web 1.0 as the commerce web and Web 2.0 as the social web, no one would argue that 2.0 replaces 1.0. This is a point that Giff Constable of the Electric Sheep Company made in response to you and Clay. No one thinks Web 3.0 is going to replace asynchronous communication. It is just something else that is being added to the mix, and it is going to contribute to the commercial and social aspects of the web, but it will also be its own weird thing. The interest of Web 3.0 at the moment is that the people who are there are younger early adopters and social trend setters (IÂ’'m thinking of my 11 year old daughter and her friends as a case in point.) Asynchronous communication is useful, but real time in-world meetings are very effective for some social and commercial applications.

In your forthcoming book, you and your co-author write that SL is a great world but a poor country. Explain. What issues do you have with the governance of SL?

The problem with governance in Second Life is basically this: the governance model is one where the Lindens are Greek gods up on Mount Olympus. They don'Â’t have the time and inclination to deal with the problems of us mortals, but they will dabble from time to time depending upon the whim of the particular god, the kind of day he or she is having, and whether they favor the mortal that petitions them or is involved in some sort of interplayer dispute. That model of governance makes for wonderful Greek tragedies (and comedies!) but itÂ’'s no way to run a country.

Some people argue that if a company produces a game, they should be able to set the rules that govern it. You have drawn an analogy to the way U.S. courts have historically addressed the problem of company towns to show that there may still be some constraints on the regulations they impose on their users. What rights do you think users should have in virtual worlds?

People often reason as follows: The company owns it, so they can do whatever they want with it. The problem is that there are many things that you can own and not be entitled to damage. If you buy a horse, you are not entitled to torture it, and if you buy an historic home you are not entitled to damage or deface it. Sometimes ownership entails responsibility and stewardship. Typically this is the case when the property or thing owned is important to the broader community. Platforms like Second Life have owners, but the existence of the communities that grow up in those spaces mean the platform owners have responsibilities to care for those communities and see that they are not harmed.

In Second Life, the responsibility is more acute because their advertising campaign has been beating the drum that you can make money in Second Life and that you own the property and assets and intellectual property you acquire and produce there. Given that, there is at a minimum a responsibility to make good on that promise, even if you have fine print in your terms of service agreement that says you donÂ’t really mean it.

In your book, you offer a number of examples of where companies under-respond or over-respond to "crimes" or transgressions within game worlds. Why do you think companies have had such difficult finding a balanced approach to online conduct?

The companies have a difficult time because the people they place in charge of policing the spaces are typically either people with an engineering background or unpaid volunteers with little to no formal training. Dispute resolution is hard, and dealing with troubled adolescents and troubled adults is hard. It can be done, but the people that game companies throw at these social problems rarely if ever have any training in the area. The net result is that game moderators seldom act in a unified and impartial way, and when they do act they often end up throwing gasoline on the fire.

In a way we can understand this. Social problems are very labor intensive. On the other hand, if you are running a MMORPG you are in the business of providing a product that is fundamentally social. It isn't a game in a box where all the parameters are fixed. There are thousands of content contributors making for a very dynamic and unpredictable social environment. Electronic Arts never did figure this out. Linden Lab seems to understand the problem, but for some reason has been unable or unwilling to act to solve the problem.