Friday, January 05, 2007

Second Life backlash: Clay Shirky blows up the spot

As the virtual world chronicles of the early naughts will be written, Clay Shirky’s “A story too good to check” will go down as the shot heard round the world that started the Second Life backlash. I guess “backlash” is not quite as romantic as revolution or even counter-revolution, but part of Shirky’s point is that the hyperventilation language around the Second Life virtual world platform needs to pause for reflection. Shirky, an influential media theorist and blogger, lit the flame, but it was inevitable. The rinse cycle on much things web 2.0 has been the early stories of 2007 from NYTs to Wired. But to the plot…

2 million virtual residents was the problem. Or more pointedly, how Linden Lab, the creator and host of the virtual world Second Life, accounted for that number. And even worse, how the business and technology press, in the opinion of Shirky, had failed to maintain journalistic standards in covering this story. In effect, Second Life has been too sexy. In the business of virtual play, cyberdildonics definitely captures the popular press imagination. The other hot button of course is $$$$$. If the accounting in terms of actual users is chimerical, then what else is smoke and mirrors about this?

Shirky claimed in the mid-December Valleywag post that Linden Lab, if not directly lying about the number of users of its platform, at the very least turned a blind eye to the press reporting of numbers that could not be verified. Or could not be verified in a meaningful way. The tricky bit of business between Linden Lab, the press, and the growing number of critics is the grey zone between one-time visitors and regular users that the company gangs into one larger number under one category, residents.

As Shirky writes, “Someone who tries a social service once and bails isn't really a user any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream and walks out is a customer.”

He delivers a sensible and precise a cautionary tale about previous hype around virtual world platformsand the second coming the 3d interface, even citing the beloved Howard Reingold reporting live from a computer-server city from a decade ago.

Many of the individuals involved in reporting on, developing in, or utilizing Second Life, which might also mean playing Second Life, have weighed in on this.
Electric Sheep, terranova, CNN, danah boyd, GSD&M;’s Joel Greenburg. Believe me the list goes on. It’s hit a sore spot:

The problem is not really the numbers, although reliable metrics for emerging platforms is absolutely a concern for those doing business in these spaces.

The critical question is what kind of a model is SL?

Shirky writes, “[V]irtual reality is conceptually simple. Unlike ordinary network communications tools, which require a degree of subtlety in thinking about them…Second Life's metaphor is simplicity itself: you are a person, in a space. It's like real life.”

Second Life may turn out to be the Friendster of the “metaverse”––the first to disseminate the signal strongly but also fast to disappear once the My Space of this format appears. Last winter there were 200,000 who visited SL. Today there are somewhere around 2 million who have at least stepped in to use the interface, to see for themselves what this is all about. WoW has already demonstrated a mass scale of technical application and popular interest for MMORPG. SL, Multiverse, and the growing numbers of virtual world platforms beg the question of future network use. It’s not like real life. Not by a long shot. One is animating a proxy through multilayered terrains of information. Some of them might take the shape of cliché singles bars, but the procession toward ever more complex simulation in computing is there. Not every user can code, but certainly more users will learn to script (or edit video or stream media) as Flilckr and Youtube have made clear. It also seems incorrect not to recognize exponential user growth in regard to 3d virtual worlds. Let’s not look at the U.S. for a moment but Asia, specifically the Korean Cyworld that is a 3D world massively used for social-networking in the way that My Space functions for American youth. The all-encompassing metaverse that Philip Rosedale promises Second Life will become may be a fiction of the CEO’s own virtual world fantasy. The potential of 3D search engines do not trump text-based and 2D formulations. But it seems short-sited to says that 3D imaging and spatial representation do not open doors for emergent use of communications networks. At the very least, the qualities of 2D social networks are mutated, amplified, and animated by these real-time moving image worlds. VW platforms, including SL, can claim the following qualities:

1. Community building of social networks that reach on and offline
2. Communal projects that span systems designs to educational, business, and activist organization
3. Avatar proxies are not minor. Yahoo avatar, Wii’s Miis, Facebook….every place where users are able to created multi-media profiles they do. The puppet show of virtual worlds speaks very strongly to a collective desire to play in this way.

We are still in the beta stage on this, a continuing beta from the 1990s I suppose, but the tipping point from niche to popular use seems to have arrived. In 1990 how many people outside of computer scientists working in universities had email accounts? By 1990 how radically changed was the email demographic look? Does anyone remember squinting through CUSeeMe 2600-baud camera feeds in the mid-‘90s waving at each other from across town? There is a little sLonelygirl15 embedded in that scratchy black and white feed. There are particular problems with the individual VW platforms that are glaringly apparent. But in a larger sense, there is no “final form” to the VW platform. As My Space fades other adaptations will grow to take its place, so with the virtual world.

I entirely agree with Shirky’s point that the press media’s coverage of SL has been about “provider adoption” (residents and creative industries making virtual money and staging marketing events) as opposed to “user adoption.” Some of this is opportunistic and some of it is the difficulty of figuring out what to write about if it’s not the recognizable, top-down stories that dominant standard press coverage. Writers
Julian Dibbell and James Au have set an excellent precedent on embedded journalism in the unreal. Nonetheless, to trash the whole set-up on account of media hype misses the basic message of the medium. I think it’s a real one.

4 Comments:

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July 21, 2008 11:40 AM  

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