Second Life Backlash: A Story Too Good To Check

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 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.