The Second Life Doubters Club

Sticking with DOS“Extra, extra, read all about it!”

There seems to be a current trend of people jumping on the “Second Life is not important” bandwagon.  I’ve responded to several of these on the SL Educators listserv.  I have decided to post these responses on this blog for others to reference. 

This first link is to a blog entry by Clay Shirky casting doubt on the much touted memberhip numbers tossed around in the media about Second Life.  The perceived increase in membership in SL seems to have really irked Clay for some reason.  Here is the link to his rant on “the numbers”, the press, and Second Life in general:

Second Life: What are the real numbers? by: Clay Shirky

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Here is my response that was posted to the Second Life Educators Listserv:

There are many people out there that fear change, fear innovation, and despise any attention paid to any new technology that promises to be revolutionary, or even evolutionary.  I’ve watched the development of online gaming and social networks from the late 70’s through to today.  I’ve seen the trends, I’ve seen the promises, and I’ve seen all of the flops.  I wrote about these for 5 years for a major Computer Gaming magazine.  The naysayers and doom and gloomers have always been there slinging their mud and trying to tear down the numbers.

Here are some quotes from other naysayers:

Charles H. Duell, Office of Patents, 1899
“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Lt. Joseph Ives after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861.
“Ours has been the first, and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality.”

Decca executive, 1962, after turning down the Beatles.
“We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.”

Business Week, August 2, 1968
“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the US market.”

Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp. 1977
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Western Union memo, 1876
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urging investment in the radio in the 1920’s.
“No imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”

H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.
“Who wants to hear actors talk?”

Thomas J. Watson, chairman of the board of IBM.
“I think there’s a world market for about five computers.”

Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929
“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

Lee DeForest, inventor
“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”

Bill Gates, 1993
“The Internet? We are not interested in it”

Bill Gates
“Anybody who thinks a little 9,000-line program that’s distributed free and can be cloned by anyone is going to affect anything we do at Microsoft has his head screwed on wrong.”

The Financial Times, 7/11/97:
“Apple no longer plays a leading role in the $200 billion personal computer industry. ‘The idea that they’re going to go back to the past to hit a big home run…is delusional,’ says Dave Winer, a software developer.”

The fact of the matter is that there has been continual advancement in online virtual worlds and the Internet over the past 20 years.  World of Warcraft, the giant gorilla of MMO’s, would not exist today if not for all the MUD’s and failed virtual worlds of the past.  World of Warcraft has over 7 million active paying accounts.  That is no longer a niche market.  Most people wrote SL off several years ago, I know I did.  They (Linden Lab) managed to keep afloat while some of us caught up to them.  With the private islands now available for education, and many very progressive and innovative projects starting up, the demand will only increase for SL as word spreads.  Will SL steal away users from WOW?  Heck no…….no way in the world.  Will it go in another direction, possibly gaining even more users?  Very likely.

I think that Clay Shirky is looking at SL through the eyes of a mass market MMO like WOW. Right now anything that does not have more than a million users is considered a flop.  I really don’t think at this time that SL wants to be a WOW.  The difference between the two are about as stark as between Night  Elves and Taurens (a little WOW humor).  SL will take longer to gel into a cohesive environment that has a purpose and a following than the explosive growth experienced by WOW.  I heard plenty of people say that social networks (and shudder, MySpace) would never amount to anything (I think I even stated that a few times).  Putting aside that I think MySpace is a complete and total waste of time, space and bandwidth, it’s obvious that it appeals to a certain demographic and is now achieving some commercial success.

Here’s one simple vision for a tangent for SL (I always believe if you are going to argue something, you need to provide an alternative): 

Make a client for the personal computer similar to an IM client.  When you have the program running, it phones home to LL and let’s people know via a flag in a directory that it’s online/active.  This mini-grid can contain objects that have been purchased in SL on the main grid.  Objects can be purchased from the main grid to stream content (video, iTunes, MP3, etc.) onto the mini-grids.  Admission to the private mini-grid could be open access, or restricted to a friends list.  If the mini-grid were going to allow for commerce there would be a monthly fee or transaction based charge.  There would need to be a firewall of sorts between the mini-grid and the main grid for data integrity.  This filter would check the inventory of avatars passing between grids with the central LL database.  L$ would be kept centrally on LL servers, as to prevent fraud. 

This would allow for all kinds of unique environments using the SL engine.  LL would be out of the business of providing processors for these mini-grids, while increasing their fee structure.  A simple interface could even be developed for those who had no interest in building anything.  A free mini-grid would lay waste to MySpace and other social networks because of the 3D environment and openness of the creation tools.  Commercially, there could be all kinds of “cool stuff” that the MySpace crowd would want for their “VSpace”.  If you added P2P between these VSpace clients you could really open up some possibilities.  And because this is a pseudo IM client, you could have a variety of devices to alert you when your “friends” came online.  Teleportations could be directly from mini-grid to mini-grid, or from main to mini and back.  Think “teleport button” next to friend name in your IM address book.

Instead of thinking about innovative directions SL might take, the Clay Shirky’s of the world are content with tearing down these new technologies and trying to kill them before they can grow to any maturity of markets. 

There will always be Clay Shirky’s in the world, they are part of the virtual ecosystem.  As long as they do not completely stifle innovation, or the progression of new ideas, they will never amount to much more than fertilizer in our virtual worlds.

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“Stay out of MySpace” 

The next link is to a blog entry by Danah Boyd.  Like Clay, she obviously does not like Second Life.  Danah seems to think that we are all anxious to abandon our physical bodies and move full time into virtual immersive worlds.  From her post, you would think that Virtual Light Goggles were at the top of everyone’s Christmas list this year.  As I say in my listserv post “get real”.  So here is the link to Danah’s blog and her thoughts on SL:

On being virtual by: Danah Boyd

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 Here is my listserve entry in response to Danah’s thoughts on SL:

Add another doubter to the pack, how many people can fit on this bandwagon?

Again, we have someone who has either not spent time in SL, or has had a bad experience and now wants to convince the world that SL has no value and no future.  If Danah is so deeply rooted in social spaces, like MySpace and others, it’s no wonder she does not see SL as a next step.  To me, SL has the potential to replace all of those social networks with personal 3D spaces, all linked via a pseudo-metaverse.  Maybe Danah has been reading too many Stephenson and Gibson novels of late, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a post, blog entry or article in a major publication that suggested we were pushing towards divorcing ourselves from reality and physicality, and moving entirely into these immersive virtual spaces.  Come on, get real already<bwg>.

SL has the potential to add a new level to the existing web technologies.  Being another layer over existing technologies, those who are comfortable with the current models can stay behind while the rest of us move up to the next level.  As always happens, these slow adopters will eventually be dragged kicking and screaming along when they find nobody occupying the space they stayed behind to protect.  I have a large collection of buttons that I’ve gathered at various computer conventions over the past 25 years.  One of my favorites that I display on my office wall is from Word Perfect Corp.  It simply states “I’m sticking with DOS”.  Back when World Perfect was making the move to the new GUI of Windows, a very large number of their longtime users stayed with DOS (actually, the majority of their market share stayed with DOS).  I think you would be very hard pressed today to find anyone still using a DOS version of Word Perfect.  How could serious work ever be done by trading in embedded codes for pull down menus?

This argument repeats itself over and over throughout time as each new technology emerges that has the potential to replace or improve upon an existing technology.  SL is not some new revolutionary model that has never been seen before.  It is a social space, a virtual space that can be used to model things not easily modeled in reality, and it’s a graphical layer that has the potential to link together many of the 2D media that we currently access via the Internet.  It is VERY well suited for connecting people from physically distant spaces for shared learning, communication and group participation.  This is why there is a current increase in educators coming to SL.

Now that Clay’s article has been linked to from all over the web, expect more of these me-too’s to jump in to add their words of criticism to the void.  Don’t worry, they will eventually get it.  We’ll see them again when “the next big thing” comes along that needs someone to take the negative position.

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7 responses to “The Second Life Doubters Club

  1. I think you may have misread my article — I said nothing about what goes on inside Second Life. If people like it, that’s obviously good. My question is how many people like it, as a percentage of people who have tried it?

    And it is certainly not me who is pushing the million users mark — those kinds of comparisons are rampant in the press, and are pushed by LL themselves on their blog. They are deliberately

    By your proposed metric — since there were skeptics who were proven wrong — we can never be productively skeptical of any technology. That seems silly, especially when you consider the difference between, say MySpace and other social networking services and 2L, which is that the people who were skeptical about MySpace hadn’t tried it, and the people who had tried it weren’t skeptical. In 2L’s case, on the other hand, something 90% of the people who _have_ tried it have bailed. That’s a big difference; instead of making analogies to MySpace, which was, after all, popular, a better set of comparisons would be other social services with a 90% bailout rate that never went on to succeed.

    I can’t think of any, but maybe you know of some?

  2. Clay: Since writing this blog entry, I’ve gone back and read your bio. It would appear that the two of us discovered the Internet at about the same time. At that time I had already been prowling CompuServe, Prodigy and other online services for close to 10 years. I remember the hype of Virtual Reality very “fuzzily” (I would say clearly, but that technology has never been clear). I was pretty disappointed when I donned goggles and stepped into a VR simulation at a computer show in the early 90’s. I think I had a headache the rest of that afternoon as a result of my expedition into what amounted to a virtual closet.

    At the ripe age of 43 (I refuse to use the term “old”), I’ve seen 98% of the desktop computer revolution, and 100% of the online revolution. I only missed out on the early “build your own” craze with personal computers. With common experiences, we simply don’t see this latest trend the same way. And the difference may be as simple as I am standing on the inside of SL working on a project I believe in, and you are on the outside having tried it, and decided that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and ultimately doomed to failure.

    Your main argument in your post is about “the numbers”, and how the press is overexagerating the numbers with blind enthusiasm. I agree on that point. When I read the other day that SL had broken the 2 million mark, I shrugged and thought to myself “Yeah right!”. We’ve seen this before, at this moment SL is the darling of the press.

    All too many of the reporters who cover this story create an avatar, jump in and take the 20 minute tour (if that), run off and write a breathless story about how it’s the “next big thing”, never to return again. I personally gave a 20 minute tour to an Australian reporter from a popular morning TV show “down under”. They asked me to be their “friend”, and I have never seen an online message pop from them since.

    So I agree with you that the numbers are not as high as the media portrays. There are also a large number of people who read one of these breathless articles, create an account, stumble around for a bit, and then log out permanently. I think that the statistics pages on LL’s own pages would bear that out. Many of the comments to your post on your page point to these LL statistics. Why these investigative reporters can’t find these same numbers is a mystery to me.

    But you did make more than just a few comments about what goes on inside of SL. It is with those assertions that I take issue with in my post. I also think that you (and Danah) are confused in equating SL to a Virtual Reality.

    The definition of Virtual Reality is “An artificial environment created with computer hardware and software. To “enter” a virtual reality, a user wears special gloves, earphones, goggles and/or full-body wiring. In addition to feeding sensory input to the user, the devices also monitor the user’s actions. The goggles, for example, track how the eyes move and respond accordingly by sending new video input.”

    Virtual Reality is immersive, and sensory based. You turn your head and your view pivots, your visual and auditory senses are bathed in the environment for a “you are there” experience. Second Life is more like a high tech doll house. I would not consider it an immersive experience at all. Yes, it’s 3D, but it’s an “over the shoulder” experience most of the time, and the environment if far from realistic in a VR sense.

    The technology of virtual worlds is still in its early infancy. The unprecedented success of World of Warcraft has only whetted the appetites of the press for the next big thing in online worlds. Second Life is not that next big thing, at least not yet. The learning curve is still too steep, the flash is not there to pull in the same demographics as WOW, and it’s just not targeted at the mass media, yet. If Second Life is to reach those kinds of audiences (and sustained users), it will still take years of development, and more people friendly enhancements (like voice support and a simple interface for those who do not want to create content).

    If we can dispense with the argument over numbers, I think that the two of us will likely agree that Second Life has potential. Take a look at the PacificRimX Island project. This project is about Avatars, and not artifacts. This project is all about communication, collaboration and shared cultures. And this is the revolution I am enthusiastic about. I see more and more educators coming to SL everyday. Projects like Global Kids really highlight what can be done with this new virtual environment of SL.

    Imagine if Linden Lab really engages the K20 Education demographic. This is where most of the innovation is taking place right now in SL. How many high school and college students are there in the United States alone? Now imagine if they actually developed mini-grids, as I proposed in my posting. How many 2D social networkers would move over to their own VSpace? Remember, I work for a school district , and have daily contact with students. I think that number would be huge. Take just those two potential markets and tell me again that SL is doomed to fail.

    We are on opposite sides of the fence on this one Clay. I see potential and where you see certain failure. You’re closing statements in your post reduce Second Life to a rounding error in the markets of the Internet. And therein lies my disagreement with your assertions. I think this technology still needs time to grow into a success, and you want to pronounce it dead today based on the membership numbers misquoted in the press, and the past failures of “like” technologies. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    Let’s agree to look each other up in two years and see where all of this has shaken out.

  3. Excellent analysis, Stan.

    And since we are interested in the educational possibilities of Second Life, we should probably add Clark Aldrich of the Learning Circuits blog to the Second Life Doubters Club for his assessment that Second Life is not a teaching tool.

    On the numbers issue – it seems a bit unfair to me to be judging the success of Second Life based on the number of users who are online at any one time, which is what a lot of critics do.

    I mean, is anyone judging MySpace based on how many users are online at any one time? Surely a better metric would be how many hours on average active users are in world.

    Another criticism that cracks me up is that Second Life is a vast empty wasteland with no-one in most of it. Well of course it is. But if you know where to find people there is plenty of action. I’m sure if you wander around the average suburbia between 9-5 weekdays it would be deserted too. And if you wandered around the average CBD outside of those hours you would encounter a ghost town.

    Sure, there’s a lot of hype, and it’s 2 million accounts, not 2 million residents, but this means that the real number of residents is likely to be a lot less than 2 million, and lot more than the average 10k online at any one time.

    The massive difference in the sign-up and apparent user figures can also be contributed in part – as Beth Kanter’s post alludes to – to the steep learning curve and the poor user experience for the newcomer.

    As you say, many people seem to sign up, wander around, find nothing of interest to them and assume Second Life is nothing more than glorified chat room.

    Hopefully newcomers’ initial experience will be improved soon and this will improve the retention rate.

    Eek! Don’t call Second Life ‘a high tech doll house’! That will only give the naysayers more ammunition! 🙂

  4. Ok, I will put on my educators hat and come up with another term. If “dollhouse” does not work for you, how about “interactive virtual diorama”? It is not yet a fully realized 3D virtual environment. There are far too many 2D objects parading as 3D to qualify it as that. But the objects in SL are functional for their purposes, and truly 3D objects are slowing gaining steam, and will likely become even more readily available as the tools improve for creating them (flexpath was a HUGE help in moving this direction). Nothing beats a good 3D tree or plant. And these virtual objects can be scripted to allow for animations and interactivity, which is vital to the user experience. This is what is drawing educators to this environment.

    And I seem to remember “The Sims”, in all it’s flavors and expansions, has often been referred to as a sort of “vitrual dollhouse” in mainstream media reviews. This series of games by Will Wright has been one of the biggest sellers in the history of all PC Games.

    Everything must evolve or die. I went and tried the Apple II emulator that is online (http://www.virtualapple.org) and loaded up some of my favorite early games. It’s shocking to look at those and think that I spent hours and hours playing these adventure and RPG games back in the day. Where do you think all these online virtual worlds are heading in the next 5 years, 10 years, and beyond? Today’s virtual worlds will be laughable when we look back on them, but they are cutting edge today. And since we are confined to the present, this is what we have to work with today.

  5. Hmm… I could argue that it’s the xyz axes in space and the ability to move through that space that makes it 3D, not whether the objects within the environment are 3D.

    I wouldn’t be wanting to link Second Life to the Sims either, Second Life is already too easily misrepresented as just another video game.

    ‘Diorama’ sounds pretty static to me. It usually refers to miniature worlds and nativity scenes. But more importantly a diorama is viewed by the audience from outside, they are not a part of it… they are not immersed in it.

    As I said over on Danah’s blog:

    “Second Life is commonly referred to as a 3D virtual world or a Multi-User Virtual Environment.”

    “Personally I don’t like using the term ‘virtual’ in conjunction with these environments as it implies that they are somehow less real than other environments or ‘real life’. The experiences I have in Second Life are very real and impact upon me, emotionally and cognitively, in a very real way.”

    “But I accept these terms are likely to stick.”

    I think one of the difference between us ‘techno-futurists’, as Danah put it, and the naysayers is that we can see where it is all going to head and are willing to tolerate the shortcomings of the medium while we get there.

    I’m talking about the the lag and the performance issues and the client crashes and the downtime and the ‘crappy’ graphics here.

    As we see improvements in computing power, broadband bandwidth, graphics cards etc. we will see some of these problems drop away. And as as more programmers and designers enter the market and the software is improved the user experience will be greatly enhanced and simplified.

    The user experience will continue to improve from a more social perspective too, for example with the building of a better welcome area and new user’s experience.

    We haven’t even begun to explore what type of experiences are possible to create in these types of environments.

    Second Life presents us with the first opportunity to relatively easily create a 3D world (ala Web 2.0) and it will only get easier.

    After seeing what’s already been done in Second Life I can’t wait to see what hundreds of thousands of creative minds come up with once they get a hold of this.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time researching all o these technologies and when we look at all the MMORPGs that exist and are being built, projects like MultiVerse, OpenCroquet, Google Earth and a whole lot of work on alternative interfaces, augmented reality etc. and I see a heck of a lot of people working on a heck of a lot of related technologies and projects. When all of this begins to converge I think we are going to see something truly awesome.

    My optimism about Second Life comes from looking beyond the current shortcomings of where the technology is at now and peering into the not too distant future.

  6. ‘Crappy’ graphics and limited features are only one part of the picture here. I’m still at university but am a VR developer and have been following similar worlds to Second Life for a few years now.

    Although so far most people have been trying to separate SL from VR concepts, probably because VR is viewed as a perpetually ‘developing’ field I believe VR interfaces will bridge the gap between the ‘early adapters’ and the general population. Better human interface devices will make the worlds feel more natural, and will reduce the learning curve and increase their ease of use.

    I remember the feeling I got when I first logged onto a similar client to SL a few years ago was loneliness and uneasiness. I showed SL to a friend today and had him log on and set up an account. Interestingly his first words mirrored my initial impression of loneliness and uneasiness. It’s worth noting an orange naked imp-thing ran towards him and started bouncing up and down while firing Spanish chat (abuse?) the moment he logged on, which may have contributed to his sentiment 😉

    A factor that may be contributing to the slightly disturbing SL experience is that in the real world people don’t wander around the city talking to complete strangers as usually happens in the initial experience. Even as a VR enthusiast and thereby an enthusiast of virtual worlds I wish a decent 3D web existed but unfortunately I find SL and other clients like it lacking general entertainment value, and would rather socialize in meatspace for now (less naked imps)…. 😦

    That said I used to play online games mostly shooters (I believe they are becoming extremely good VR platforms) and games from other genres like Diablo 2 and had no ‘creepy factor’ as I was in game amongst friends, therefore I believe I and many others could potentially enjoy the SL experience. Linden Labs should perhaps consider this as I believe the creepy factor is partially responsible for the “90%” turndown rate.

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