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February 6, 2007

Second Life: A response to Henry Jenkins

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Introduction: Last week, Henry Jenkins, Beth Coleman and I all published pieces on Second Life and virtual worlds. (Those pieces are here: Henry, Beth, Clay.)

We also agreed we would each post reaction pieces this week. Henry’s second week post is here, Beth’s is here. (I have not read either yet, so the reactions to those pieces will come next week.) My reaction to Henry’s first piece is below; my reaction to Beth’s first piece will appear later in the week.


I hope you’re a betting man, because at the end of this post, I’m going to propose a bet (or rather, as befits a conversation between academics, a framework for a bet.)

Before I do, though, I want to react to your earlier post on Second Life. Reading it, it struck me that 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.

With that having been said (and assuming you roughly agree with that analysis), I’ll respond to three points in your post that I either don’t understand or do understand but disagree with. First, I want to push back on one of your historical comparisons. Next, I want to try to convince you that giving bad actors a pass when they embrace participatory culture is short-sighted. Finally, and most importantly, I want to propose a bet on the future utility or inutility of virtual worlds.

One: Second Life != The Renaissance

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. Using the Renaissance as a reference point links the two in the reader’s mind, even in the face of subsequent denial. (We are all Lakoffians now.)

I disagree with this comparison, not because I think its wrong, but because I think it’s a category error. Your example assumes I was writing about Second Life as shorthand for broader cultural change. I wasn’t. I was writing about Second Life as a client/server program that creates a visual rendering of 3-dimensional space. Not only is it not the Renaissance, it isn’t even the same kind of thing as the Renaissance. Your comparison elides the differences between general movements and particular tools.

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.

If you believe, separate from the fortunes of Linden Lab’s current offering, that virtual worlds will someday become popular, we have a different, and far more interesting disagreement, one I’ll write about in the last section below.

Two: Participatoriness Should Not Be A ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card

You say:
I care only a little bit about the future of virtual worlds. I care a great deal about the future of participatory culture. And for the moment, the debate about and the hype surrounding SL is keeping alive the idea that we might design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture. That’s something worth defending.

Reading this, I get the feeling that if I opened Clay’s Kitten Mulching Hut™, so long as it involved participatory kitten mulching, it would get the Jenkins seal of approval.

Of everything you wrote, I think this is likeliest to turn out to be a tactical mistake, for two reasons. First, for every Second Life user, there are at least 5 former users who quickly bailed. (And that’s in the short term; more have bailed the long term. We don’t know how many current return users there are, except that the number is smaller than any published figure.) 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. To put this in Brooklynese, everyone touting the popularity of Second Life is either a schlemiel or a schuyster. The schlemiels are simply people who were fooled by Linden. The schuysters, though, are people who know the numbers are junk but use them anyway; making participatory culture a Get Out of Jail Free card for that kind of deceit is an invitation to corruption.

And I mean corruption in the most literal sense of the word:

- “As I write this, there are just over 1.4 million residents in Second Life, with over $704,000 spent in the last 24 hours.” Ian Shafer, at Clikz Experts

- “…one million users and growing by hundreds of thousands of users each month, that may well care about that virtual fashion crisis. They’re members of the virtual world Second Life, and when you consider all the places you need to reach consumers, this is by far one of the strangest.”David Berkowitz of 360i.

- “A new market emerging from virtual reality into the real-world global economy is growing by leaps and bounds […] such as the hugely popular Second Life - where the lines between online and offline commerce are rapidly blurring. Rodney Nelsestuen of TowerGroup.

- “At the rate Second Life is growing — from 100,000 registered users a year ago to one million in October, and now all the way up to two million — it may be over thirty million a year from now. At thirty million users Second Life is no longer a sideshow, but is something everyone has heard of and many people are experiencing for themselves.” Catherine Winters at SocialSignal

Shafer, Berkowitz, Nelsestuen and Winters all know that the figures they are touting are inaccurate, if inaccurate is a strong enough word for claims that would make a stock spammer blush. (30 million users at the end of 2007? Please. Linden will be lucky to have a million return users in any month of this year.)

And why are these people saying these things? Because they are selling their services, and they are likelier to get clients if people wrongly believe that Second Life is hugely popular, or that millions of people currently use it, or that that tens of millions will use it in a year. If, on the other hand, those potential clients were to understand that both the size and growth of the active population was considerably more modest than the Hamburger Helper figures Linden publishes, well that wouldn’t be as good for business.

Perhaps, so long as it is about user-generated experiences, this sort of lying doesn’t bug you. It bugs me. More to the point, I think it should bug you, if only for reasons of self-interest; accepting Second Life hyperbole now, on the grounds that people will later remember the participatory nature but not the falsified popularity, is whistling past a pretty big graveyard.

Three: ‘Virtual Worlds’ is a failed composite

Aside from historical comparisons and concerns about abuse of population numbers, there is one area where I think we understand one another, and come to opposite conclusions. Even after we’ve agreed that Second Life will not become a mass movement, and that 3D worlds will not replace existing forms of communication, there’s still this:

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.

(When you say ‘most of us will find uses for virtual worlds…one of these days’, I assume you mean that something like ‘half of users will use virtual worlds at some future date amenable to prediction’, something like half a dozen years, say.)

We both seem to have written off any short-term realization of a Snow Crash-ish general purpose, visually immersive social world (though probably for different reasons.) Here’s my read of your theory of virtual worlds — you tell me where I’m wrong:

1. The case of immersive 3D representation creates enough similarity among various platforms that they can be reasonably analyzed as a group.
2. Though we’re not headed to a wholesale replacement of current tools, or a general purpose “we live there” cyberspace, the number of special cases for virtual worlds will continue to grow, until most of us will use them someday.

If I have this right, or right enough, then our disagreement seems potentially crisp enough to make a bet on. Let me lay out where I think we disagree most clearly:

First, I think the label ‘virtual worlds’ makes no sense as a category. (I’ve already covered why elsewhere, so I won’t repeat that here.)

Second, I think that 3D game worlds will keep going gangbusters, and 3D non-game worlds will keep not. (An argument covered in the same place.)

Third, even with games driving almost all uses of 3D immersive worlds, 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.

#1 is just a thesis statement, but #2 and #3 are potential bets. So, if you’d care to make a prediction about either the percentage of game to non-game uses of virtual worlds, or overall population figures in virtual worlds, expressed either as an absolute number or as a percentage, I think we could take opposite side of a bet for, say, dinner anyplace in either New York or Boston, set for the year of your prediction. (If the date is too far out, we can also pro-rate it via compound average growth, to make the term of the bet shorter.)

Game? Lemme know.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. Prokofy Neva on February 6, 2007 11:44 PM writes...

Why are people who bail deceived? Maybe they just don't have the right graphics card *shrugs*.

A lot of them come back later when they do get the right set-up, I see it all the time.

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2. Kevin Werbach on February 7, 2007 7:50 AM writes...

You've probably seen this, but Cory Ondrejka of Linden Lab and Dmitri Williams of UIUC bet a quarter last March on whether Second Life or World of Warcraft would have more users in two years:

Not exactly the wager you propose with Henry, but close.

Keep up the good debunking work. Those of us excited about peer production and virtual worlds need to separate reality from hype, and specific implementations from general concepts. Otherwise, we're ultimately hurting rather than helping what we seek to promote.

I'm sure we'll talk more about this at Supernova!

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3. Eric Rice on February 7, 2007 3:28 PM writes...

I have a lot of respect for people who write for many2many, but the bean counting and silo-gazing that you guys have been doing on SL has made me wonder if you are even talking about the same SL I deal with-- because your issues and mine are waaaaay different.

Get OFF the numbers already. Get into the social slant, the peripheral industries being altered, the Long Tail mutations, the subtexts of bigger companies' investments and all that OTHER stuff.

The most important things about Second Life *are not* about Second Life at all.

I would expect THIS blog above ALL to see those unseen things a million miles away, but nada, nil.


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4. Andrew Linden on February 7, 2007 5:23 PM writes...

Many game worlds already have a significant portion of non-game activity going on; I recall an article I read that claimed that WoW player spent about 20% of their time socializing. I would expect the game worlds of the future to make it even easier for the players to do more socializing and user-created content. Meanwhile, I expect the non-game worlds to make it easier to build large scale games within. Hence, I think statement #1 to only get truer, and statement #2 to become more meaningless.

My recommendation to Henry would be to pass on #2 since it will be a draw, but to take Clay up on #3. Perhaps it needs a timeline? 'Never' seems like such a long time.

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5. David Berkowitz on February 7, 2007 5:56 PM writes...

Clay, there is also such thing, when quoting Lidnen's numbers, as an honest mistake. I'm not making a dime off selling Second Life's services or inflating their numbers. If the post was on my blog rather than the blog of the publication I contribute to, I'd have posted a retraction, but it's easier when you control the media.

Mea culpa. And even if most of the time you're right about folks, you don't always need to assume the worst.

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6. Clay Shirky on February 7, 2007 7:43 PM writes...

Prok, that's obviously not true, or the absolute numbers would be higher than they are. Remember, even if people come back, they are counted again, so there's no way that return traffic turns the current numbers into good news for Linden.

Eric, all the "other stuff" is being drowned out by the hyperbole right now. On the list of things to write about with interesting second-order effects, Second Life would be far down my list, behind things like Gaia Online and HowardForums, things that have a tenth the coverage and ten times the user base. I'm writing about SL precisely because we're being asked to believe we're witnessing a groundswell, and we're not.

If the numbers bug you, don't read posts about the numbers. Last thing I posted on SL was about my general views of virtual worlds, so you may just have to pick and choose your posts for a while.

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7. Prokofy Neva on February 8, 2007 1:58 AM writes...

Clay, you simply don't have the numbers yourself. You don't have accurate exit polls that explain why people really do leave; I at least have field data, and I ask these questions, get answers to them, and write about them (and posted a long account of this to Beth's blog entry).

People coming back often make alts. Or they even have trouble accessing that first account they made, due to the 9/6/06 password reset. So they may not be these "counted twice" people you are dismissing.

Again, I don't think you have numbers such as to make the absolutists statements that you are making, that 90 percent of people who *try* SL leave *because they don't like it*. Yes, they leave. Yes, some don't like it. But you aren't explaining the bridge from those facts we agree on to your interpolation to "they don't like it" and then "therefore there is no metaverse".

When you can stand in a Welcome Area or Infohub for even 3 days, and try to do even some basic journalistic reporting about why people come and go, then we'll talk.

The hyperbole, in case you weren't looking, has subsidized. I haven't seen any "gee-whiz" articles about the fake numbers in some time. So perhaps your work here is done? The stories I see in Google reader right this minute about SL are all about universities, distance learning, journalists covering SL as a beat, interviews with Philip Rosedale, and a new Mazda. That is, they're stories about people doing stuff with SL, not about the superficiality of how many are in it.

They aren't OMGZORZZ there are 3.5 million people. We all know there aren't any 3.5 million people. We always knew that, long before you came along.

Just because you have succeeded in provoking irritation doesn't mean you've hit on a winning combination for debunking SL. I'm all for the critical approach to SL. So I hope you will work more in the direction of explaining why there is no Metaverse, even though, of course, there's significant numbers of people interacting in something that is like an organism of sorts, as this MIT guy says:

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8. Eric Rice on February 8, 2007 3:58 PM writes...

Ever think you might be part of the hyperbole problem?

"Last thing I posted on SL was about my general views of virtual worlds, so you may just have to pick and choose your posts for a while."

And when folks read your bio and have been reading your articles for a few years, they see this:

" an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology -- how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. His current course, Social Weather, examines the cues we use to understand group dynamics in online spaces and the possible ways of improving user interaction by redesigning our social software to better reflect the emergent properties of groups..."

I would expect that you'd NOT be part of the hyperbole (yes you do talk economics, fine, a good deal of people aren't exactly dwelling on it, especially with the millions of real world cash being spent in the real world economy that happens to involve an emerging piece of social software that could affect a $15 billion dollar industry. There's so much social to be studied and scrutinized, it's not even funny.

No instead, we have to read more dissertations on godforsaken VALLEYWAG, and the navel gazing tech-blogosphere falls over themselves and continues to migrate to a more mass-media, top down garden ecosystem. Some of those clues btw, come from behaviours of various micro-ecosystems in SL.

That's not what I'm reading from you and it's disappointing. And not really for me, someone who holds citizenships in most of these spaces, but for the people who don't know any better.

They just see 'smart NYU professor' and 'lots of link love mentioning Shirky' and well hm this must be true. I've seen an amazing amount of ignorance flowing about that shows what happens when the hive mind (like blogging) turns against us (ever see a thousand people in one place railing on open source, even though they don't get what it means? Dude, it ain't pretty, and there are tiny voices who try try try to set the record straight).

Everyday people are starting to sound like the RIAA in tone, the social twists are staggering. The flipping of genders, the issues of attention, identity (identity 2.0? Crikey, it's 3.5 at this point)... the list goes on and on. The gobs of money, the populations of IBM up to what, 1500-1700 now?

I want to read dissertations on that, from YOU, and to be able to trust that you come fully informed.

Or is this just not how the game is played anymore, and I'm naive, and I'm writing a voiceless letter to the editor?

Am I furious? That would be an understatement. And I'm so, so, so far from done fighting this battle.

Permalink to Comment

9. Crissa on February 8, 2007 4:31 PM writes...

But is it far to poke Second Life for numbers, when other companies are far less open about it?

We know what are in LL's numbers.

We do not know what's in anyone else's numbers. Are there really seven million paid subscriptions to World of Warcraft?

Permalink to Comment

10. Clay Shirky on February 9, 2007 12:10 PM writes...

Crissa, we don't in fact know what are in LL numbers. All we know is that the numbers they do report, especially Residents, includes hundreds of thousands of people who have never tried the software, and that the remaining number includes the majority of people who have bailed. The fact that they publish a lot of numbers seems to make them transparent, but it actually makes them camouflaged -- opaque, but not obviously so. It would be better if Linden published no numbers, for the point of view of accurate assessment, than if they published the evocative but uninformative ones they put out today.

Eric, if you don't like reading this stuff on Valleywag, read it here. I can't do anything about the URLs in your RSS feed, but you can. And as for your fury and fighting and all, merely complaining that you wish I cared about something different than I do is having a rhetorical effect that is somewhat (how to put this most politely?) sub-optimal.

The core point of this post is that Second Life is not popular, and people reasoning about it as if it were have either been duped, or are duping someone else. The way you'd fight that is to show that I am wrong, and that it is popular. (Good luck on that; let me know how it goes.)

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11. Frank Lantz on February 9, 2007 12:11 PM writes...

Virtual worlds are the CD-ROMs of the 2000's. Remember when people thought that CD-ROM was not just a storage medium but a useful category of software? People thought that the Voyager Guide to Wine and Bad Day at the Midway somehow belonged together on the same shelf, as a new cultural category, called "multimedia". People were wrong.

World of Warcraft is a game. It knows the experience it's trying to provide and uses a persistent, shared, 3D space, along with a lot of other things, to provide it. Second Life is a virtual world, and doesn't seem to know exactly what it's trying to provide, apart from its main ingredient: a persistent, shared, 3D space.

One day, my bank might have a persistent, shared, 3D space, because, you know, 3D is such an awesome interface for adding and subtracting. But that won't make it like WoW or Second Life any more than playing Fleetwood Mac makes a grocery store into a radio station.

You know what? By themselves, persistent, shared, 3D spaces, just aren't all that interesting.

Permalink to Comment

12. Corante on February 9, 2007 12:41 PM writes...


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13. Al on February 9, 2007 1:56 PM writes...

They give concurrency figures at any given moment. What's opaque about that?

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14. Eric Rice on February 9, 2007 2:02 PM writes...

That is probably some of the most condescending trolling I've ever seen. Thanks for that, Clay. You are right, and we are wrong. I'm not fighting this topic, I'm fighting the lack of where we'd expect experts to show up.

I asked directly about a variety of things that would probably be of interest to you and your crowd, but instead, you call me some sub-optimal rhetoric.

We, the little people, will go back to just shutting up.

Permalink to Comment

15. Mitch Wagner on February 9, 2007 8:50 PM writes...

Frank Lantz - But CD-ROMs were not a failure. They were a step on the way to Web sites. They're Neanderthals to the Web's homo sapiens, the lessons learned from doing CD-ROMs were applied to the new medium.

I think Clay is wrong here. I think virtual worlds are going to be big, and Second Life is looking like the leader. But even if I'm wrong, I'm sure that computing and the Web are going to go three-dimensional somehow. Even if the result isn't Second Life, or Second Life-like, SL will be a recognizable ancestor, the way gopher, veronica, and CompuServe are recognizable ancestors of the Web.

Permalink to Comment

16. egOcheck on February 12, 2007 1:19 PM writes...

interesting discussion ... but no need to take things so personally, eh?

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17. Dom on February 13, 2007 2:19 PM writes...

IBM has a presence in Second Life, and a stake in the popularity of virtual worlds, because they sell the infrastructure: servers and software.

Large companies fall for hucksters who claim that millions of consumers will see their Second Life marketing. The money spent on this advertising is wasted.

Individual users (sociologists and design hobbyists excepted) are drawn to Second Life by its anonymity and its alternative currency. Linden Labs built a way to gamble and pay for cyber pleasuring without the IRS or the wife finding out... so far.

Permalink to Comment

18. Michael on February 14, 2007 1:41 AM writes...

What's truly amazing about the Second Life fanatics is that they believe that they are in some sort of new paradigm. Some of us from the earliest graphical MMORPGs find it hilarious that Second Lifers act as if they are the first to experience things in persistent worlds.

OMG, virtual economies. OMG, grief players. OMG, player self-organization.

Heck, I blogged about events in UO in the late 90s, well before Wagner James Au, got his 'revolutionary' job as a paid hack in the Linden Spin Factory.

Areas where Second Life has truly made achievements, in the realms of rigged gambling and cybersex, are understated. I mean really, there is no better place to see naked avatars and cyber with middle-age men running hot chick avatars. Hooray for digital boobs, because porn is so hard to find on the internets.

Clay is right to give the Linden Labs hype machine a hard time. What amazes me is that the lead in most Second Life stories isn't "Second Life keeps less than 5% of the people that try it."

Permalink to Comment

19. Roo Reynolds on February 19, 2007 6:31 AM writes...

Michael, never mind UO, what about MUDs? It's all the same deal. I used to spod on talkers (Mars Base Alpha 4, how fodly I remember you). In terms of an immersive, social, persistent online experience Second Life is probably the closest I've ever come to those happy ASCII days.

I spend much of my life now helping people understand why I (and my company) cares about virtual worlds, and battling though the current hype of Second Life to understand that there is some real value there is a big part of that.

Yes, not eveyone will stay, especially in this first wave of a relatively popular but still immature and proprietary world. Not everyone sticks with blogging either. Is anyone claiming blogging isn't a powerful and important theme on the internets because the numbers are inflated?

Permalink to Comment

20. Maddy on June 4, 2007 11:03 AM writes...

Hey it's me again..
what do we even do on this ssite its so like retardid!!
and i ment to spell retardid like that!
all u do is read?
no wonder none of my friends like this game!!

Permalink to Comment

21. Maddy on June 4, 2007 11:03 AM writes...

Hey it's me again.....
what do we even do on this ssite its so like retardid!!
and i ment to spell retardid like that!
all u do is read?
no wonder none of my friends like this game!!

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