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Clay Shirky: Second Life as the “try me” virus

Clay Shirky has a truly badass post regarding Second Life on Valleywag – he covers many of the concerns I have about the hype engine behind the community, and offers a really interesting frame to explain some of the statistics behind Second Life – the “try me” virus.

Second Life has an impressive number of accounts, but a much smaller population of regular users. While roughly two million users have created accounts, only 600,000 have logged on in the past two months. Clay estimates a “churn” rate of closer to 85% looking at users who’ve logged on in the past thirty days, the industry-standard way of measuring churn, which is a very high rate. Clay suggests that this means a lot of people are reading about Second Life, getting intrigued, trying it out but not hanging around. He goes further and suggests that some of the folks who come in and try it out are “immunized” against the virus – they’re not coming back any time soon to see what changes, because they’ve decided this space or way of interaction isn’t for them.

Wagner James Au, who’s done an excellent job of chronicling events within Second Life both in the service of the Lindens and as an independent commentator, offers a comment giving some hard numbers which end up confirming some of Clay’s suspicions. There are usually about 10-20,000 people online in Second Life at any given moment – a much smaller population than the two million implied in the oft-quoted signup figure.

What makes me so happy about Clay’s piece is the fact that he adds some historical context to the discussions about the phenomenon, observing that there’s a lot about Second Life that reminds him of Lambda MOO, a pioneering online space that introduced many of my generation of geeks to multi-user online spaces. Clay notes that, “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 spent a lot of time in 1993 looking at both Usenet and Lambda MOO and he’s got it exactly right. Part of why I’m so skeptical of the promises of Second Life is that I remember the hype surrounding VRML. Clay does too, which makes me feel slightly less old and alone.

The comment thread on the article – just a few hours old, as I’m looking at the article – already has some excellent observations in it. Susan Wu echoes a theme we were bouncing about in the Berkman Center after Charlie’s talk:

Second Life is not offspring of the MUD, it’s offspring of the MOO/MUSH. World of Warcraft is offspring of the MUD, which is why it is so much more successful. People don’t (yet) need a 3D space in which to chat and interact. They have many other far more accessible and far more natural metaphors for this online.

This, to me, is a really helpful observation. MUDs – virtual worlds in which players competed to slay dragons, explore dungeons or bash each other over the virtual head – always had more players than MOOs, which tended to emphasize creating cool objects and spaces and talking with your fellow players. But MUDs never got written about with the same passion and fascination as MOOs – the creativity and generativity of the MOOs seemed to fascinate authors like Howard Rheingold in a way that exploring ASCII dungeons didn’t.

Frankly, creativity is hard. Most folks I know who participated in LambdaMOO walked around for a bit, created an object or two, and left. Folks who stuck around long enough to really contribute to the world, to build new spaces, were quite rare. If you’re participating in an environment for entertainment, you might be looking to kick some orc ass, not to create great works of architecture or creative toys made from code. The number of people logged into World of Warcraft dwarfs the number logged into Second Life, but fewer people have lined up to claim that WOW is a revolutionary online form of interaction as have praised Second Life. (Yes, I know that WOW is the new golf, but no one has tried to save Darfur in it yet, or recreate the university classroom…)

The dream that a group of people around the world can come together and build a new world made of bits is a powerful and oft-repeated one. Oddly enough, it’s frequently a more seductive vision for people who don’t spend a lot of time online than for people who do. In my circle of extremely geeky close friends, I know half a dozen WOW addicts, and no one who spends much time in Second Life – these guys build code for a living, and in their free time, they’d rather wreak havok in a structured, goal-oriented environment than let their creative yayas out.

Which is not to say that I don’t like or respect my friends who are trying to build cool, interactive, expansive online spaces in Second Life. I just think they’re ill-served by the Linden PR machine, which continues to do a brilliant job of overhyping a very interesting and cool – but profoundly immature and still evolving – new technology. Props to Clay for a concise, focused and spot-on critique.

4 thoughts on “Clay Shirky: Second Life as the “try me” virus”

  1. boohoo! still a secondlife basher :-( so i guess there’s not going to be a small segment of gv 2006 at the ihv devoted to having it in secondlife at the berkman sandbox :(

    and there was i waiting in incredible passion (read: built up-passion for the past couple of months), longing to check out your avatar and hug you in second life.

    BTW… second life isn’t a game.. and i know this might not mean much to skeptics.. but:

    second life = real life

    but then we agree to disagree …

    though i have to congratulate Prof. Nesson with taking CyberOne into secondlife :P

  2. I’ve not spent a huge amount of time in SL, but I’m a one-time addict of both WoW and earlier (text-based) MOO systems…

    For the people with the inclination (and technical know-how) to help build the world, MOOs are where it’s at. The world in World of Warcraft is not malleable, unless you’re a Blizzard employee, so if your interest is in content creation, you’re out of luck.

    But the builders are a relatively tiny number of people: most people want to go to the party, not help host it. And that’s where places like WoW have places like SL beat hands down: SL is a party where people go hang out and do… whatever. If it’s going to be anything more than an inconvenient form of chat, you either have to make your own fun, or find someone else who’s built something cool to play with (or an engaging environment, or event, or social group, whatever.) And since everyone’s engaged in different activities, the world tends towards fragmentation: you either wind up with a MOO where nobody ever leaves the lobby, or lots of little separate isolated islands of activity.

    In game-based worlds, there’s already something cool to play with, and everyone you meet is engaged with it. There’s a reason to be in that world. Everyone you meet is in on that same reason. So you need a much smaller number of people overall for the world to feel populated and real. The backstory of the game helps too: when everything feeds into the same mythos it all feels much more solid and real.

    And yet the social, “community” aspects are just as strong in the games as in the more respectable virtual worlds. People still throw parties and stage events; the difference is there’s a defined environment in which they can happen. So really, all that SL offers that the games don’t is the ability to create new objects for the world. But that activity, while fun for those who know how to do it, doesn’t actually happen inside the world. It’s just coding. (And I doubt it’ll be very long until the game worlds pick up that capability as well.)

    In a way, I’m agreeing with ange: second life == real life. But I already have a real life. Personally if I’m going to have a second one online, I’d rather it not reproduce all the aggravating parts of actual real life, such as not knowing why I’m there, or what I’m supposed to do with it, or where the fun party is.

  3. Afraid so, Angelo. SL just hasn’t captured my imagination, and I have real concerns about the intellectual property model of a world run on a single proprietary platform. But my real concern has to do with the hype around the community and the near evangelical zeal a small group of SL people seem to feel about the world. Alas, we may have to wait to see each other in real life.

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