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December 26, 2006

Linden's Second Life numbers and the press's desire to believe

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Posted by Clay Shirky

“Here at KingsRUs.com, we call our website our Kingdom, and any time our webservers serve up a copy of the home page, we record that as a Loyal Subject. We’re very pleased to announce that in the last two months, we have added over 1 million Loyal Subjects to our Kingdom.”

Put that baldly, you wouldn’t fall for this bit of re-direction, and yet that is exactly what Linden Labs has pulled off with its Residents™ label. By adopting a term that seems like a simple re-branding of “users”, but which is actually unconnected to head count or adoption, they’ve managed to report what the press wants to hear, while providing no actual information.

If you like your magic tricks to stay mysterious, leave now, but if you want to understand how Linden has managed to disable the fact-checking apparatus of much of the US business press, turning them into a zombie army of unpaid flacks, read on. (And, as with the earlier piece on Linden, this piece has also been published on Valleywag.)

The basic trick is to make it hard to remember that Linden’s definition of Resident has nothing to do with the plain meaning of the word resident. My dictionary says a resident is a person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long term basis. Linden’s definition of Residents, however, has nothing to do with users at all — it measures signups for an avatar. (Get it? The avatar, not the user, is the resident of Second Life.)

The obvious costume-party assumption is that there is one avatar per person, but that’s wrong. There can be more than one avatar per account, and more than one account per person, and there’s no public explanation of which of those units Residents measures, and thus no way to tell anything about how many actual people use Second Life. (An embarrassingly First Life concern, I know.)

Confused yet? Wait, there’s less! Linden’s numbers also suggest that the Residents figure includes even failed attempts to use the service. They reported adding their second million Residents between mid-October and December 14th, but they also reported just shy of 810 thousand logins for the same period. One million new Residents but only 810K logins leaves nearly 200K new Residents unaccounted for. Linden may be counting as Residents people who signed up and downloaded the client software, but who never logged in, or there may be some other reason for the mismatched figures, but whatever the case, Residents is remarkably inflated with regards to the published measure of use.

(If there are any actual reporters reading this and doing a big cover story on Linden, you might ask about how many real people use Second Life regularly, as opposed to Residents or signups or avatars. As I write those words, though, I realize I might as well be asking Business Week to send me a pony for my birthday.)

Like a push-up bra, Linden’s trick is as effective as it is because the press really, really wants to believe:

  • “It has a population of a million.” — Richard Siklos, New York Times
  • “In the Internet-based virtual world known as Second Life, for instance, more than 1 million citizens have created representations of themselves known as avatars…” — Michael Yessis, USA TODAY
  • “Since it started about three years ago, the population of Second Life has grown to 1.2 million users.” — Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN
  • “So far, it’s signed up 1.3 million members.” — David Kirkpatrick, Fortune

    Professional journalists wrote those sentences. They work for newspapers and magazines that employ (or used to employ) fact-checkers. Yet here they are, supplementing Linden’s meager PR budget by telling their readers that Residents measures something it actually doesn’t.

    This credulity appears even in the smallest items. I discovered the “Residents vs Logins” gap when I came across a Business 2.0 post by Erick Schonfeld, where he included the mismatched numbers while congratulating Linden on a job well done. When I asked the obvious question in the comments — How come there are fewer logins than new Residents in the same period? — I got a nice email from Mr. Schonfeld, complimenting me on a good catch.

    Now I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about taking credit where it isn’t due, but this bit of praise failed to meet even my debased standards. The post was a hundred words long, and it had only two numbers in it. I didn’t have to use forensic accounting to find the discrepancy, I just used subtraction (an oft-overlooked tool in the journalistic toolkit, but surprisingly effective when dealing with numbers.)

    This is the state of business reporting in an age when even the pros want to roll with the cool blogger kids. Got a paragraph that contains only two numbers, and they don’t match? No problem! Post it anyway, and on to the next thing.

    The prize bit of PReporting so far, though, has to be Elizabeth Corcoran’s piece for Forbes called A Walk on the Virtual Side, where she claimed that Second Life had recently passed “a million unique customers.”

    This is three lies in four words. There isn’t one million of anything human inhabiting Second Life. There is no one-to-one correlation between Residents and users. And whatever Residents does measure, it has nothing to do with paying customers. The number of paid accounts is in the tens of thousands, not the millions (and remember, if you’re playing along at home, there can be more than one account per person. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many logged into St. Ides?)

    Despite the credulity of the Fourth Estate (Classic Edition), there are enough questions being asked in the weblogs covering Second Life that the usefulness is going to drain out of the ‘Resident™ doesn’t mean resident’ trick over the next few months. We’re going to see three things happen as a result.

    The first thing that’s going to happen, or rather not happen, is that the regular press isn’t going go back over this story looking for real figures. As much as they’ve written about the virtual economy and the next net, the press hasn’t really covered Second Life as business story or tech story so much as a trend story. The sine qua non of trend stories is that a trend is fast-growing. The Residents figure was never really part of the story, it just provided permission to write about about how crazy it is that all the kids these days are getting avatars. By the time any given writer was pitching that story to their editors, any skepticism about the basic proposition had already been smothered.

    No journalist wants to have to write “When we told you that Second Life had 1.3 million members, we in no way meant to suggest that figure referred to individual people. Fortune regrets any misunderstanding.” And since no one wants to write that, no one will. They’ll shift their coverage without pointing out the shift to their readers.

    The second thing that is going to happen is an increase in arguments of the form “We mustn’t let Linden’s numbers blind us to the inevitability of the coming metaverse.” That’s the way it is with things we’re asked to take on faith — when A works, it’s evidence of B, but if A isn’t working as well as everyone thought, it’s suddenly unrelated to B.

    Finally, there is going to be a spike in the number of the posts claiming that the two million number was never important anyway, the press’s misreporting was all an innocent mistake, Linden was planning to call those reporters first thing Monday morning and explain everything. Tateru Nino has already kicked off this genre with a post entitled The Value of One. The flow of her argument is hard to synopsize, but you can get a sense of it from this paragraph:

    So, a hundred thousand, one million, two million. Those numbers mean something to us, but not because they have intrinsic, direct meaning. They have meaning because they’re filtered through the media, disseminated out into the world, believed by people, who then act based on that belief, and that is where the meaning lies.

    Expect more, much more, of this kind of thing in 2007.

  • Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


    COMMENTS

    1. Mark on December 26, 2006 12:33 PM writes...

    Estimating the number of users is a problem for *any* piece of freely available software. How many people use Opera regularly? Firefox? IE? Nobody has firm numbers that come from direct observation; all estimates are inferred. Second Life's getting the attention because it's the flavor of the month, but it's just one instance of a much larger problem.

    Permalink to Comment

    2. Taran Rampersad (SL: Nobody Fugazi) on December 26, 2006 3:17 PM writes...

    A good remix of what many of us have been saying (ad infinitum, ad nauseam) in very public ways. It is good to see that the truth come out in Yet Another Remixed Version.

    The beauty of SL is not in numbers, but in potential. As an internet technology, it is as handicapped as the Internet Governance Forum and WSIS have allowed. As a marketing agent, it has been overdone. As a social concept, it has been understated. As a virtual world with virtual property, it is the basis of a framework of new policies in the making.

    For the average person, it either sucks or it doesn't suck. A valuable number to find would be that which counts the number of people who have *tried* SL and believe it doesn't suck.

    One would think that the people who think it sucks would leave - and they sometimes do (!) - but they are never removed as 'residents'.

    All of that said - the merits of a tool or toy should *not* be a measure of how many people use it.

    Permalink to Comment

    3. MattB on December 26, 2006 10:07 PM writes...

    Mark: It is hard to determine the precise number of users, but Clay's point (I think) is that SL could be more accurate (and honest) about it. Instead of advertising the number of downloads, Mozilla could refer to W3C browser statistics when reporting Firefox usage. Likewise, LL could use their bimonthly login count instead of their account roles. This still does not account for the >1-avatar-per-user problem, but it's better.

    That said, Clay:

    I don't think Tateru's post qualifies as an example of your prediction. It's an admission that LL knows what they're doing: they're trying to create media frenzy, and they're doing a pretty good job at it (good enough to piss you off). All new social networks need that, so good for them. It's the journalists' job to call them on it.

    In your article, I sense hostility not only toward business journalists, but toward LL as well. So, is this rant targeted at the former, the latter, or both? Why not take this complaint to the forum in question and write your own take for business readers?

    Permalink to Comment

    4. ben on December 27, 2006 12:35 AM writes...

    I think you've raised a very good point about the lack of "journalistic review" when writing about social networks. As I know very little about how such data can be measured, I was wondering if you could post on or point me to a site/technology/methodology that can provide numbers that better reflect what "resident" means, or what a "user" on MySpace or Facebook is.

    Permalink to Comment

    5. Ron on December 27, 2006 8:58 AM writes...

    The number of residents is in flated. Most people in SL create alternate accounts. I have 5 myself and login all 5 of them all the time. This allows me to log as different people and play different rolls. Keeping my secondlives seperate from each other. SL doesn't stop users from having multiple accounts. So 2 million people really could be about 1/2 a million or even a 1/4 million. I realy think they need to state this when they give these numbers out.

    Permalink to Comment

    6. Erick Schonfeld on December 27, 2006 11:07 AM writes...

    Since Clay is such a stickler for facts, I find it odd to be accused of credulity for a 100-word blog post that includes a) Second Life's reported number of registered users, b) its reported number of recent logins, and c) a link to Clay's original post on Valleywag questioning Second Life's numbers. I'm not sure what other information he requires for a blog post merely noting a reported milestone. It's all there, and readers can draw their own conclusions.

    As for the mismatch, as I noted in comments to that post (in response to a comment by Clay himself), I believe the discrepancy between logins and residents is due to the fact that you can create an account without logging in. Also, many people who do not have powerful enough computers to run the Second Life software find out only after creating an account, and thus never log in. While I agree that the two-million resident milestone is misleading, it is not meaningless since it does indicate how many people have created accounts on Second Life. (If Clay has any actual evidence that the numbers are completely made up, he should share it). Let me repeat what I told Clay in the above-referenced e-mail:

    "I think you are right to point out the problems with the reported number of residents. The numbers are what they are: an indication of interest, not activity. And both journalists and bloggers should be careful to make that distinction. But the fact that a million people have taken the time to register new accounts in two months is not inconsequential. It does tell us something about the potential demand for this service. The fact that the dropoff rate is so high also tells us something interesting: that the company is not doing as good a job as it could be to retain customers. To me, that just makes it a more interesting story."

    That said, I've never actually written an in-depth story about Second Life. Clay conflates blog posts and fact-checked stories as the same thing if they happen to be written by professional journalists (at least in my case).

    I take the facts in my blog posts seriously, and stand behind all the facts in the post which Clay links to above. But blogs are different creatures than fully-reported stories and they are typically not fact-checked as rigorously prior to publication. On the flip side, they are also corrected more quickly after publication and can be done so in a transparent fashion (with strikethroughs showing the original mistake, for example, as is the convention among many bloggers). That is why blogs are sometimes described as conversations. There is an ebb and flow, a give and take.

    Clay, though, seems more interested in attacking the press than in having a conversation with us. Perhaps he is just channeling his inner tabloid journalist.

    Permalink to Comment

    7. ika on December 29, 2006 5:10 PM writes...

    It was about time someone with an audience spoke up.

    As far as i know, their site has always stated the true online count on their frontpage. If my memory serves me right, the "online now" counter was approximately at 5000 users a year ago, now it's about 20'000. A true 2 million user base would surely generate a bit higher numbers.

    Permalink to Comment

    8. Viv on March 7, 2007 12:30 PM writes...

    35.000 logged in at the same time and the LL systems fail completely. 20.000 logged in and it starts to lag towards unplayability..

    Haha.

    Permalink to Comment

    9. Курорты Египта on March 18, 2007 5:07 AM writes...

    Very entertaining issue. I haven't heard of this one. It will be necessary to visit you on a thicket!
    Дайвинг в Египте

    Permalink to Comment

    10. Bob on May 7, 2007 6:21 AM writes...

    furniture wood

    Permalink to Comment

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