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 Last.fm 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.