Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Clay Shirky: “evidence of unpopularity”

This post is 2 of 2 in the 3x3 discussion on Second Life and virtual worlds between Clay Shirky, Henry Jenkins, and myself. Click here if you want to go to the top of the responses or here for Shirky’s full-text post. I have also included a response to Prokofy Neva’s hilarious and insightful reply to my post below.

Clay Shirky: A hypothesis which is strengthened by evidence of popularity, but not weakened by evidence of unpopularity, isn’t really a hypothesis, it’s a religious assertion. And a core tenet of the faithful seems to be that claims about Second Life are buttressed by the certain and proximate arrival of virtual worlds generally.

Beth Coleman: I guess this is a question of what you’ve signed up for. I was not interested in Second Life because it was reported to have 2 million some residents. When I heard those numbers I was impressed but also glad to have you and others question directly how those numbers were generated. I think we all agree on that. That does not mean that it is phantasm or a “religious assertion” recognize the interest in virtual worlds that exists at the moment. The breakthrough numbers and international popularity of World of Warcraft was based on precedent of other Massively Multiplayer Online games. Whether of not Second Life survives its “85% abandonment rate after five years of development” will be up to the choices the company makes now that they have our collective attention.

CS: Many people writing about Second Life make little distinction between ‘Second Life as a particular platform’ and ‘Second Life as an exemplar of the coming metaverse’. I would like to buck this trend, by explicitly noting the difference between those two conversations. I am basing my prediction of continued niche status for Second Life on the current evidence that most people who try it don’t like it. My beliefs about virtual worlds, on the other hand, are more conjectural. Everything below should be read with this caveat in mind.”

BC: I agree, Second Life, the platform, has been made to stand in for virtual worlds as a whole, and I will post on other platforms such as Multiverse and Croquet. They present very different scenarios. The high points and the failures of Second Life are specific to the Linden Lab platform. I try to keep the specific of Second Life and the general of “virtual world” separate. That said, looking at the 300,000 + regular users of Second Life and it’s short-term drop-ins is the primary test drive for how virtual worlds will last and grow or fizzle. The Second Life buzz has brought to the attention of non-gamer demographics the prospects for avatar socializing, the accompanying bells and whistles of a real-time spatial interface, and a nascent v-commerce. Shirky writes, “[M]ulti-player games provide an existence proof of millions-strong virtual worlds, and the only remaining question is simply when we arrive at wider adoption of more general-purpose versions.” It seems naïve to suggest that a simple build-out of “general-purpose” virtual world based upon game world precedents is the magic bullet. The design and use and intention of an open-ended virtual world are not necessarily quest oriented in a direct fashion, as one would find in a game world: what is the “quest” for you’re Myspace page or Flickr account?

CS: Jaron Lanier is the Charles Babbage of Our Generation

This is funny and great if it means that virtual reality, as it was conceived in the 1990s and Lanier being the pathfinder, was primarily concept as opposed to execution (as were Babbage’s analytical engines, which Shirky notes). Virtual worlds as currently existing have very little to do with the body-armored, primarily individual, and expensive procedures of historical virtual reality. Virtual reality of the ‘90s was rather anti-social because of all the hardware.

The goal for a virtual world is not perfection of simulation but an augmenting our channels of communication.

Second Life (SL) and World of Warcraft (WoW) are both very social because of the software AND the cultural shift of expanded user participation (Web 2.0). Yes, SL & WoW are social in different ways. Venture capitalist and Creative Commons bon vivant, Joi Ito has been cheerleading for WoW as a training tool for entrepreneurs with very little push back. Why? It is ordained a force of nature because there are “8 million users.” WoW has been held up in the debate about virtual worlds as the exemplar of success. Shirky writes, “games will continue to dominate the list of well-populated environments for the foreseeable future, rendering ineffectual the category of virtual worlds.” As a Second Life user, Ito has made the point that the two kinds of worlds work in tandem not in competition.

The stakes are not the same for emerging virtual world design and use and game worlds. The industrial uses of a virtual world fly through in flight simulation or architecture are already well used and well advanced. The “immersion” of this kind of platform for other users is not reliant on a perfect simulation of presence, but rather the funny, dorky, hubba hubba real-time exchanges that currently exist. Even
Neal Stephenson did not describe the metaverse as a substitution for reality. That was William Gibson whose space cowboys lived exclusively on the nets.

Limits of connectivity

Prokofy Neva, an early Second Life landlord and activist, wrote in response to my previous post, “There's a limit to how much connectivity people really want…. People will want Worlds for Windows, only if they are safe, immersive, discreet, and hold the value of their user-made content. That's why there are 8 million in WoW.” (see Neva’s full comment

BC: I agree that one of the big adjustments from the early years of Web 2.0 will be moving from “my 4,000 friends” to greater filters. Yes, this will also include better-filtered porn. But if “better filtered porn” remains the dominant content for a platform then that world will remain niche, like an XXX shop. The model for greater use, which industry and individuals alike are experimenting with, is still largely fan based, whether it is the L Word, fairies, libertarians, or furries. They represent different but very devoted “users.” Peer-to-peer networks based on enclaves or “invitation only” do not necessarily preclude large use. We are seeing the emergence of Neal Stephenson like “franchelettes” or many this is just part of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail. Your WoW example above or danah boyd’s analysis of Myspace as p2p network used primarily by small clusters of friends makes that point. Open source in the case of Second Life might mean more private worlds.