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.
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
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.