Blog Post

Second Life Is Big — But It ‘s Not As Big As Some Would Have It

You’d think by this late date, we’d have figured out how to count. Yesterday we reported here on the discrepancy between Forrester’s findings about iTunes sales and how those findings have been reported and extrapolated. Now we may have questionable numbers regarding a phenomenon that’s often discussed with iTunes-level excitement: Second Life. Maybe after so much near-hyperbolic press, the virtual world is finding itself on the wrong end of a press smackdown (we’ve noted some recent in-game attacks). It started when Clay Shirky, on the Many 2 Many joint blog (and, later, reprinted on Valleywag), questioned widely reported member numbers. Bloggers of various stripes have jumped on Shirky’s report, often with the tone of Claude Rains being “shocked” that Humphrey Bogart was permitting gambling in Casablanca.
Shirky has followed Second Life since the beginning (he has a 2003 post on Many-to-Many announcing the launch), so let’s do him the favor of addressing his findings based on evidence, rather than blogohype. What’s most provocative and telling in Shirky’s essay is how he places Second Life in the context of other Net phenomena: “I suspect Second Life is largely a ‘Try Me’ virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use.” He identifies the late, unlamented Pointcast as a similar “Try Me” program, which makes sense for the many thousands of people who stopped using it days after installing it, but he also likens Second Life to the virtual world LambdaMOO, which is not as clean a comparison. The commercial component of Second Life makes it much different from LambdaMOO, as does Linden Lab’s role as benevolent dictator in Second Life. Most important is the time: LambdaMOO, for all its press coverage at its peak, was never anywhere near a mainstream phenomenon. We can argue whether Second Life deserved its Business Week cover, but there’s no question that Second Life is far closer to the mainstream.
But I don’t want to suggest that because I disagree with one example in Shirky’s piece that it is anything but thoughtful and reasoned. It has smart things to say about Second Life’s potential future(s). And the key part of Shirky’s analysis — that any claims that the number of “total residents” listed in Second Life, currently just over 1.98 million, reflects how many people play there on a regular basis, are wildly overblown — is inarguable. Anyone who has ever entered the virtual world knows that the number of “residents” who log in to the game within the past 60 days hovers around one-third of the total membership. Attention: Trend stories can be great. But unless you get the numbers to back them up, they’re just hype.

One Response to “Second Life Is Big — But It ‘s Not As Big As Some Would Have It”

  1. Anytime I've logged into 2nd Life there have been maybe 20 people and most of them are young kids who love playing the 4-letter audio files so that everyone can hear them. It has not been a very pleasant, interactive experience… and what's with this "buying Linden Bucks" thing? Everytime you want to do something you have to pay for it. That would send off most would-be users almost immediately. I admit, I paid $4 for 1000 Linden bucks (and discovered there's an exchange rate and different markets you could purchase your "money" at) but I'm really wishing I hadn't done that. I could've bought a chocolate milkshake at Steak'n'Shake and had a better experience.