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Shirky (and boyd) on problems of reality in Second Life

Typical – the day I go on internet-free holidays is the day Clay Shirky posts on Second Life.

Shirky’s examination of Second Life bores through the hype generated by ever increasing media coverage (yes, even in Australia) of Second Life. He asks, pertinently, what is the churn rate of users – that is, how many people try and then never log back on? Comparing churn rates is the secret metric that is never discussed enough by those on the outside of social sites like Second Life (or MySpace or or whatever). Those on the inside, that is the investors and business owners work hard to talk about users, sign ups and those sort of ever-increasing figures, whilst churn lies buried and undiscussed.

Someone who tries a social service once and bails isn’t really a user any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream and walks out is a customer.

So here’s my question — how many return users are there? We know from the startup screen that the advertised churn of Second Life is over 60% (as I write this, it’s 690,800 recent users to 1,901,173 signups, or 63%.) That’s not stellar but it’s not terrible either. However, their definition of “recently logged in” includes everyone in the last 60 days, even though the industry standard for reporting unique users is 30 days, so we don’t actually know what the apples to apples churn rate is.

At a guess, Second Life churn measured in the ordinary way is in excess of 85%, with a surge of new users being driven in by the amount of press the service is getting. The wider the Recently Logged In reporting window is, the bigger the bulge of recently-arrived-but-never-to-return users that gets counted in the overall numbers.

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. Pointcast was a Try Me virus, as was LambdaMOO, the experiment that Second Life most closely resembles.

He also problematises the whole idea of 3D environments which danah boyd picks up in inimtable fashion (meatspace! so 90s!).

I have to admit that i get really annoyed when techno-futurists fetishize Stephenson-esque visions of virtuality. Why is it that every 5 years or so we re-instate this fantasy as the utopian end-all be-all of technology? (Remember VRML? That was fun.)

There is no doubt that immersive games are on the rise and i don’t think that trend is going to stop. I think that WoW is a strong indicator of one kind of play that will become part of the cultural landscape. But there’s a huge difference between enjoying WoW and wanting to live virtually. There ARE people who want to go virtual and i wouldn’t be surprised if there are many opportunities for sustainable virtual environments. People who feel socially ostracized in meatspace are good candidates for wanting to go virtual. But again, that’s not everyone.

If you look at the rise of social tech amongst young people, it’s not about divorcing the physical to live digitally. MySpace has more to do with offline structures of sociality than it has to do with virtuality. People are modeling their offline social network; the digital is complementing (and complicating) the physical. In an environment where anyone _could_ socialize with anyone, they don’t. They socialize with the people who validate them in meatspace. The mobile is another example of this. People don’t call up anyone in the world (like is fantasized by some wrt Skype); they call up the people that they are closest with. The mobile supports pre-existing social networks, not purely virtual ones.

Quite a few very experienced people have made a strong case for museums in Second Life and with a flythrough demo it is easy to get seduced. But I do wonder about the churn factor that Shirky focuses on, and I agree with boyd about the actual use of social technologies.

My team here at the Powerhouse Museum has been toying with the idea of a Second Life trial too – we’ve had quite a bit of experience with 3D environments and reconstructions in the past. But a museum is unlikely to have the resources of a Dell or IBM to do a media friendly product launch type event quickly enough in SL to make a significant splash – these things in the museum sector take months (if not years) to develop properly and by the time they are done (maybe) the hype will have moved on.

3 replies on “Shirky (and boyd) on problems of reality in Second Life”


I am a Second Life convert, not in action but in concept. About 20 months ago, my boyfriend started the Electric Sheep Company, which is now the largest RL professional services company working in virtual worlds (with a focus on Second Life). In the early stage, I derided and argued with him about the value of something that, to me, seemed Try Me at best and fringe at worst. But I’ve changed my mind, and not because of the hype (which I think still is too interested in the wow! elements and not the deeper capabilities). Here’s what changed my mind:
–I now believe that SL is a new platform, not a game or application. People are using SL as a 3D version of the web to do all kinds of things. As long as the search is poor, we’re still in a wild west of miscellaneous, low-quality content in an unstructured environment. But the opportunity to improve exists, and Linden Lab is working as fast as they can to keep the path to the future unobstructed.
–SL will be used the way social sites are used, and much more. It is not a pleasure experience or even necessarily a virtual experience. It (or something like it) will soon be the best way to buy items online, view/listen to concerts online, meet up with people you already know (through work, family, friends) all over the world. This is the way I will use it-not as an addition that is not currently part of my life, but as replacement for less efficient online and real life actions I’m now taking as part of my work and life.

I’ve been grappling with, and helping Electric Sheep think about, ways to bring museums into SL. Frankly, I think it’s a little too early in SL to create a useful museum space. Most of the clients Electric Sheep is working with are huge media and ad companies that want to get in on the ground floor of a new technology–and while they want interactive, interesting content, their greatest interest is in staking out a piece of the pie. Sheep spend most of their time trying to convince media companies that they need to create sticky, long-term strategies if they want something more than a hype shot, and they spend a lot of time on their own trying to improve the SL experience so that new users won’t burn out on the “what the heck am I doing here?” question. I think museums could lead the way, if we want to put in the work, to doing much more interesting full immersion pieces, but they would have to have the financial comfort to be okay exploring in a new space without a clear profit stream.

Clearly, I’m biased due to my proximity to the Sheep, but I started as an aggressive naysayer who has now realized that, like using a cellphone or google or any other technology, SL is just a better option (or will be) for a variety of kinds of social transactions.

Anyway, I’d love to discuss this more, and probably will try to do some Sheep interviews on my Museum 2.0 blog. What kinds of concerns are in your mind about going into SL as a museum?

Thanks for this post! I first learned and was curious about SL from the “museums in SL” movement and signed up. I want to like it so bad, and am not done trying…but there is some strange disconnect for me. I would certainly call myself a “try me” right now. I know some in the edublogger community are also interested in exploring and utilizing the upsides here. Your post and highlights of Shirky’s ideas really gave me more to chew on as I consider the SL trend and the implications for museums and education.

I also think the point about social technology replicating, enhancing and fostering face to face interactions is huge. People are looking for ways to synthesize their digital and real worlds and the apps/tools that do that are the most successful. In the book Bowling Alone the author predicted that the web could cut both ways in fixing our social capital/community downward trend. He hoped for exactly what is happening in that the social web is strengthening non digital social connections. Is SL part of the problem or the solution in digitally dividing us? Its a fascinating debate.

Any interested people in the Museums/libraries in SL movement check out the blog for more info.

You’re on Internet-free holiday, I was busy working on our M&W session on A Second Life for Your Museum. This conversation has come along at just the right time.

I am looking for museums who are actively building or exploring in Second Life, so do let me know if the Powerhouse or other Aussie musuems take the plunge.

We have started a Museums in Second Life Group that is meeting somewhat regularly now (see to explore what SL residents are already doing on their own.

I’d second (life?) Nina’s comments that we need to think of SL as a social space as much as we think of it a new techology or a new platform.

Another approach that museums may need to look at is not doing this alone as individual institutions. The New Media Consortium is creating a shared campus for educational institutions, and a collective of librarians has created Information Island (I & II). But who from the museum world is willing to play in a shared sandbox?

More to come…

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