As many are probably already aware, there’s been a heated debate in the media about Second Life over the past few months. It all started back before Christmas when Clay Shirky posted a blog entry questioning the residents number that display on the login page of Second Life (now over 3 million). I myself have to chuckle when seeing the “residents” number, as it’s so out of whack with the number of people online at any given time (currently hovering around 30,000).
So many of the media stories last year quoted the residents number in their articles, and never dug deeper on the LL website to see the rest of the numbers. I’ve noticed that finally, in the past month, many are now quoting both the “resident” and average “logged in now” numbers. Linden Lab really needs to make a distinction between the people who have tried Second Life, and those that stay and take up residency. If anything positive comes from this heated debate, it will be a modifying of the user statistics that LL posts about SL, and those that the media reports.
In the wake of this original article, the host of the original blog entry (VallyWag, a self proclaimed Silicon Valley Tabloid) started a full on assault of Linden Lab and Second Life. Nothing was too outrageous, and they covered it all if it was at all negative on SL and LL. This seemed to start a trend in the media, and it was suddenly cool to write negative stories about SL. I posted my “Doubter’s Club” and “Meditating on Second Life” entries back at the start of all of this negative hype.
There was an extremely active thread at Terra Nova a few weeks back, “Second Life Economy Misunderstood Again“. This one was posted by Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds. The debate there raged for days over the internal economy of the Linden Exchange.
The two camps have pretty much gone their separate ways now, and the supporters of SL and virtual worlds have for the most part stopped responding to these outrageous posts at the various blogs. A few of the latest posts on ValleyWag have only resulted in a few (less than 10) comments.
Last week, Terra Nova posted a blog entry about three of the most visible and more recognizable bloggers on either side of these debates. The Terra Nova article: Synchronized Punditry about Second Life is well worth a read (along with the three blog posts referenced in the article). Beth Coleman was slightly out of synch, as her post did not hit for a few days after Clay and Henry’s.
I still don’t agree with Clay Shirkey’s assessment of Second Life. He has now shifted his argument to the repeat usage of people who try out SL, and how SL will. Clay concludes his post with “As a result, games will continue to dominate the list of well-populated environments for the foreseeable future, rendering ineffectual the category of virtual worlds, and, critically, many of the predictions being attached thereunto.”
I believe that there are several reasons why many people don’t stick with SL after trying it. One of the biggest reasons is that the user interface is somewhat intimidating, and the casual user is not going to want to learn how to wade through all the menus of the “official” client software for casual gameplay. This may soon be remedied by other versions of the client software (yet to be developed/released) now that LL has put the client software into the public domain.
I think another reason for the high downloads and low repeat visitors is similar to “The Digg Effect” or “Slash.dot”. People post links to stories on Digg and Slash.dot that are of interest to techies. All too often, this brings a tidal wave of visitors to the site hosting the referenced article, and 9 times out of 10 the site crashes, or is suspended due to exceeding bandwidth. I think with all the press coverage of SL in the mainstream media over the past 8 months, a lot of people will read an article, get mildly interested in seeing what it’s all about (why not, a basic account is free), and then after taking a look around they leave, never to return again. It’s a feedback loop, the more stories (negative or positive) on SL in the media, the more people who go and take a look, only to leave after satisfying their curiosity, which continues to drive the disparity in user numbers leading to more articles about the numbers.
One thing I know for sure is that there are many educators out there that are just starting to look at SL as a platform for teaching. There are several projects that are well underway, and many more that are still on the drawing board. When an educator enters SL, they are likely to bring many students with them. These new residents (I think we will eventually adopt the term “traveler”) have a very high retention rate, at least for the duration of their class. I fully expect to see Education-centric SL clients emerging in the next six months, now that the client is open source. I also think that the real boom will occur when LL puts the server/grid software in the public domain (hopefully by year’s end). This is a critical step for SL to expand as a platform for distributed virtual worlds. There are also a few new kids on the block that will be emerging in the next year, and they might bring some new competition to this virtual space, which will only serve to spur on more innovation.
One of the more interesting quotes out of the Synchronized Punditry articles was from Henry Jenkins. He said: “I care only a little bit about the future of virtual worlds. I care a great deal about the future of participatory culture. And for the moment, the debate about and the hype surrounding SL is keeping alive the idea that we might design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture. That’s something worth defending.”
One of the best things that educators can do with their virtual world project is to get the word out. Start a blog like this one to track the progress of your project. Share your information and experience with others. Join one of the listservs and actually get involved in the discussions. And above all, seek input from your students on what they want to see and how they want to use these virtual worlds. You might find that they can teach you a thing or two. Educators are normally very sharing people. If ever there was a time to share with others about your projects, it’s now.