Second Life Backlash: A Story Too Good To Check

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Jan 14 peak concurrency in SLBut come on, Second Life has got to be over-hyped, isn’t it? The open source announcement notwithstanding, nor recent news of IBM/Sears or CBS/Star Trek creating sites in-world, how can there possibly be so much enthusiasm for a service which has, at best, about 260,000 active users?

Despite all these announcements, the blogosphere backlash against Second Life continues to roar, unleashed in the main by Clay Shirky via Valleywag, and abetted by others.

But here’s something odd I’ve noticed, reading numerous hype-deflating essays by well-known members of the technorati, and it’s so consistent, it’s almost axiomatic:

The more someone pronounces Second Life over-hyped, the less first-hand experience they tend to have in the world.

Bear in mind I say this as someone (comes now the full disclosure) who’s got bias for SL up to my eyeballs, with a reservoir of personal and professional interest in Second Life. And the program’s frustrating user-interface remains the world’s own worst enemy, making a full and fair appraisal difficult, even for the most patient. But it’s a striking pattern nonetheless— and an important one to consider, if you still don’t know what to make of the user-created 3D world. After the break, a brief rundown.

This trend didn’t even begin with Shirky’s first Valleywag broadside, which was derived (as he later told me) from very little personal usage. Of all places, it seems to have started with PBS.org in October, when Mediashift host Mark Glaser offered a “Reality Check for SL“, which ironically begins: “While I haven’t checked out Second Life first-hand yet…”

More recently, Lenovo Marketing VP David C. Churbuck asked rhetorically “Who thinks Second Life is a smart move for marketers?” (Not him.) Unlike Glaser, Churbuck did actually have some personal experience with Second Life, and while some of his reasons for rejection were fair and well-taken, many seemed off, so I contacted him. Regarding proficiency with Second Life, he e-mailed back, “Mark me with an F. Make that an F minus.” He estimates his total visitations as ten hours or under, in which he more or less randomly explored a world the geographic size of an entire state, to form his assessment.

His declaration that the most interesting activity in Second Life is sex, for instance, was based on a single visit to a single sex shop, and a glance at the global map, which seemed to indicate that the sex-oriented clubs were popular. (Adult clubs are not exclusively sexual, it’s worth noting, and often more socially complex than the category suggests: one leading nightclub is run according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; at another, a top stripper is apt to talk with you about Ray Kurzweil and transhumanism as she rips off her halter top.) Neither was Churbuck familiar with the asynchronous communication tools for SL groups (which is regrettable, since groups are an essential part of the community experience), and though he lamented its lack of interoperability, told me he hadn’t seen any of the many user-created applications (as here, here, or here) which do offer some interoperability between Web and world.

None of this, I should say, is meant as a slam at David, as I’ll come to down the way. Nor do I criticize Danah Boyd (social network expert supreme, and someone I admire a lot), who pronounced herself “very irritated” with questions about Second Life. “In an environment where anyone could socialize with anyone, they don’t,” she announced, suggesting that this rule undercut the appeal of avatar-based community. But when one of her readers asked after Danah’s personal experience in SL (scroll down to the entry’s comments), she said that her carpal tunnel prevented her from participating. Which is a loss both ways, for I suspect an extended visit would enrich both her and the world. After all, pace Danah, SL-based socialization seems to foster and improve international relations, even in the worst of times; and there’s a popular mash-up of SL avatars and MySpace she’d surely find fascinating.

At the forefront of the Second Life backlash, of course, is Nick Denton’s Valleywag. After reading the endless flurry of adulatory press coverage, the rakish blogging mogul decided the place was “begging for a takedown.” And so he has wittily attempted.

I’ve asked Nick three separate times if he’s ever tried Second Life himself, but an answer has not been forthcoming; given the vagueness of his descriptions, and the choice of negative stories he selects (see below), I’m provisionally assuming there is in fact no seasoned Denton-spawned avatar to be found.

Instead, he assigned Valleywag correspondent Megan McCarthy to be his Second Life reporter—but here again, genuine reportage is scarce. Nick was kind enough to put me in touch with Megan, who was kind enough to tell me her in-world experience was mostly limited to the initial orientation (or more accurately, disorientation.) Her report on NBC’s Second Life event, as it turns out, was actually based on watching the Web-based telecast.

Instead, Denton marshals experts: “[B]orn gamers have enough confidence in their own taste to call Second Life what it is,” he linked approvingly, “Boring. Read the fabulous Helen Cheng.”

Helen of Seriosity is a committed gamer who found that aspect of SL lacking: “Give me laser guns”, went her plea. “Give me pretty blonde elves that twirl in cute circles and sophisticated incentive systems…”

But this was strange, for laser guns and the like are rife in SL. There’s a truly impressive real-time strategy game, for example, a beautiful sword-based melee game with numerous clans, and a popular mini-MMORPG originally created by a professional game developer which has been running in Second Life for over three years. So I e-mailed Helen to ask if she’d played any of these; she said she hadn’t.

But Helen estimates 60-80 hours of total experience in Second Life for professional reasons (just scant on gaming). Unsurprisingly, her actual opinion of SL is far more nuanced then Denton’s post implied:

“What I personally believe about Second Life as a whole is that it’s a fantastic sandbox for exploration and creativity,” she e-mailed me. “Sure, you could be the teacher that has never picked up a video game in your life or made a webpage, but there is something intrinsically cooler about a 3D environment, where the things you make MATTER… So yes, I do think that environments like Second Life are the future, but with a very important distinction.” For her, that distinction is in the difficulty of the interface. “In the short run, I think SL would get a rapid leg up on retaining users if they redid their UI and toolset.”

And here we agree; it’s why none of the above should be taken as a criticism of those whose surveys of the metaverse were wafer-thin. For anyone who is not a committed techie, early adopter, hardcore gamer, someone with very specific goals, or entering with an experienced guide, the current Second Life interface is intimidating and obscure, and almost perverse in its learning curve, easily two hours at minimum; much, much more for any real proficiency.

“I went in with an open mind,” Valleywag’s Megan McCarthy insisted to me. “I went in expecting to be able to view the world — not expecting to be hampered by the interface.”

And I believe her. With the existing interface, it is remarkably easy for the unitiated user to go stumbling helpless through the world and quickly assume it’s simply a chat room peopled only by gamblers and prostitutes. And me describing the larger promise of Second Life is like telling someone from Eastern Europe about the United States, and the variety of opportunities awaiting them there—but when they finally arrive, they end up trapped in Las Vegas International where the TSA insists on giving them a four hour body cavity search before they’re let through. The challenge for Linden Lab now is to create an interface that the average mass market user can enjoyably navigate, and easily find all the worthwhile content besides casinos and nightclubs; if they don’t do that soon, the constantly growing sign-up rate will finally begin to plateau. The company’s short-term gamble is that open sourcing their client will lead to a wealth of user-created fixes and widgets they can implement quickly. The trouble is, while open source is a marvelous way to run servers, its potential in game development or user-friendly UI is still unproven.

Still, the world does keep growing, with no signs of plateau. In mid-December, when Clay Shirky launched his first Valleywag jeremiad, peak concurrency was about 18,000; four weeks later (see screenshot above) it’s over 26,000. Recently a developer crunched Second Life’s financial numbers, and determined that users were on average spending an astounding $50-60 a week each within the internal economy.

So if you’re still wondering what to make of this odd Web 2.0 phenomenon which everyone seems to keep talking about (though relatively few visit on a regular basis), who should you rely on? Not me, for God’s sake, I helped write one SL-related book, and have another on the way. All I will point out is that the spectrum of debate is now dominated on side by those who’ve been immersed in this metaverse thing for years— and on the other, by those whose toes, as it turns out, have barely touched the water.

21 Comments

Vincent

Ah yes, analogy, one of the most effective tools of persuasion, yet one of the most ineffective tools when it comes to reason. I dislike it when either pro-SL or anti-SL people use it.

The reason, of course, that analogy is ineffective logically is because the connection is spurious. In fact, the one you deploy in this particular instance could be used perfectly in reverse. You certainly do have to drive a racecar down a track at 150 mph to understand the thrill of a driver. You do have forage into the jungles of Indonesia or ascend the Eiffel Tower to know and critique and reason with the joys of traveling. You do have to climb a steep, snow-capped mountain to understand, personally, why a tiny minority of the human population for some reason likes to risk their very lives thrills.

The reasons these counter-analogies are better than the ones you provided are because they are about experience, and Second Life is, as a social networking medium, about personal experience as well. And, as Au has eloquently pointed out, the value of experiential phenomenon can hardly be judged by pure numbers; after all, very few people race and climb mountains, and very few Americans travel internationally.

Moreover, the reason why one would have to take they unhealthy nature of McDonalds food and global warming -on faith- is because these are phenomenon that we DON’T directly experience (and hence are not comparable to Second Life). Eating McDonalds food has a slow effect on population groups; the whole point of “Supersize Me” was to eat a concentrated amount of McDonald’s food to make its effect visible to an audience that would otherwise have a hard time noticing it or making the correlation. The reason “An Inconvenient Truth” is shocking is because global warming is a subtle, nuanced phenomenon that cannot be experienced directly – thus, Al Gore’s movie is all about bringing it directly to our senses. As for Britney Spears – the hype IS real… for the 14 year old demographic Spears caters to. SL has a much broader clientele, again, another point that Au illustrates in his many articles.

As SL advocate Tateru Nino once said in reference to another inaccurate critique of SL, “comparing Buicks and Boysenberries.” SL is an experiential platform. It should be compared to travel or mountain climbing, not phenomenon inaccessible to immediate experience like global warming and unhealthy eating. If we have to compare anything at all.

Steve

You argue a distinction without a difference: I do not have to be an expert, or even a casual user, of Britney Spears product to be able to argue that the hype machine is in overdrive. I do not have to live the life of the guy in the movie Supersize Me to know that McDonald’s food is junk food. I assume you are against global warming? Good, you should be. But I wager you have spent very little time immersed in the actual scientific data (90 minutes watching Al Gore does not count.)

Second Life may or may not be a good product and may or may not have a broad appeal. But the hype is pathetic and obnoxious and it is clear that certain folks with certain vested interests are playing extremely fast and loose with facts — and that can not be good for the broader web and tech community, as we learned when the last crash wasn’t just a crash, it was a *C*R*A*S*H*.

Wagner James Au

Did you actually try the SL sandboxes? I recommend those first to gamers, they’re like playing MMO Legos on acid. Gamers won’t get much out of the clubs, usually.

Again, I recommend going in with someone who’s already proficient who can walk you through the main interface stuff– ideally run Skype in the background.

Groovymarlin

I have spent maybe 15 hours in SL myself. I keep TRYING to enjoy it. While I am a gamer who plays WoW and Guild Wars, I’m also a sandbox type person. I love the Sims, and I love being able to have a pretty avatar and dress her up in cute outfits with cute makeup and just socialize. Unfortunately I’ve been frustrated to no end by SL. If they made the interface more intuitive and easy to use, it would go a long way towards making the whole world seem more welcoming. As it is, I always log off in frustration because I can’t seem to accomplish even the most basic things, and the people hanging out in the clubs I’ve visited are all cliquish furries who want nothing to do with me.

Gilbert Frederick

This story reminds me of my father,an otherwise seasoned businessman when i was working full time as a web developer back in 1998.

At that time, after trying to convince him of the value of having a website for its company, he flatly replied that “we already have printed brochures…”

That along with a fax machine, a telephone and a computer were dimmed sufficient to pursue business back then… Today, he has a website and do searches like a pro. Case closed.

Then, during the holidays, i went inworld with him. Same story again :”Nobody is its right mind would conduct business in here… SL is just a game.”

History is repeating itself. Simply opening up the eyes and mind is hard. Understanding and catching on is even harder.

Keep writing, James.
I will keep reading.

tc

Sensible Person

I stopped reading after this…

[…] Bear in mind I say this as someone (comes now the full disclosure) who’s got bias for SL up to my eyeballs, with a reservoir of personal and professional interest in Second Life. […]

I mean – come on!

Hiro Pendragon

Hamlet/Wagner, I think this analysis of the analyzers is very important, and this article clearly shows you’ve done a bunch of digging. A good read!

Jon R.

About as infectious as AIDS.

And we all know what Web 2.0 is. It’s people with no life spending way too much time and money on some really sad shit, then writing about it on a blog under the desperate notion that it’s somehow fascinating instead of insular and pathetic.

I’m not kidding. You know why there’s such spectrum? It’s because the people absorbing themselves in SL keep puffing out smoke that it’s an amazing environment, which piques the interest of those on the outside. Then, in the most rudimentary of investigations, we find out that it really, really isn’t.

P.S. I’ve just signed up. Hope i don’t need L$ to punch your avatar in the dick.

Galbraith

(I’m not talking of you Hamlet, obviously, but…)
Sadly, I’d say this is typical journalist behavior. At least in my country, when someone writes an article about something, apparently they don’t inform about it, but listen their neighbor’s gossip about it, or take a look at weakly-related reference material from afar. The result is, if you read and already know something about what they’re writing about, you see they have no idea what they’re talking about (like the article about Google Maps that suggested gilfriends could use it to verify thee loyalty of their boys. Sure, cause their photos AREN’T some years old sometimes… we all know Google has its own satellite to spy the world at users’ will)
Online journalists or opinionists don’t seem to be an expcetion to this rule. How sad.

Cargo

THANK you. Lately every time I read Valleywag I get this image of J. Jonah Jameson pounding his big desk yelling “Spiderman! Curse that web-slinging menace!”

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