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.