Be skeptical of the hype around virtual worlds

Previously, I’ve written posts critical media companies jumping on the Second Life bandwagon and dedicating critical R&D resources to something that is unproven and has obvious flaws. What I haven’t written about is how and why the press — the people covering they hype — hasn’t been more skeptical of Second Life.

For the most part, the media has fallen all over itself to spread the meme that Second Life represents some sort of Utopian future for how we’re all going to interact with each other some day.

Fortunately, the universe of web pundits includes a man as smart as Clay Shirky, who has produced a well constructed analysis of Second Life’s unskeptical hype coverage. As a piece of media criticism, even if you have no interest in Second Life, it’s an important post to read. Professors should assign it to college students.

First, the tech beat is an intake valve for the young. Most reporters don’t remember that anyone has ever wrongly predicted a bright future for immersive worlds or flythrough 3D spaces in the past, so they have no skepticism triggered by the historical failure of things like LambdaMOO or VRML. Instead, they hear of a marvelous thing — A virtual world! Where you have an avatar that travels around! And talks to other avatars! — which they then see with their very own eyes. How cool is that? …

Second, virtual reality is conceptually simple. Unlike ordinary network communications tools, which require a degree of subtlety in thinking about them … As Philip Rosedale explained it to Business Week “[I]nstead of using your mouse to move an arrow or cursor, you could walk your avatar up to an (AMZN) shop, browse the shelves, buy books, and chat with any of the thousands of other people visiting the site at any given time about your favorite author over a virtual cuppa joe.”

Never mind that the cursor is a terrific way to navigate information; never mind that Amazon works precisely because it dispenses with rather than embraces the cyberspace metaphor; never mind that all the “Now you can shop in 3D efforts” like the San Francisco Yellow Pages tanked because 3D is a crappy way to search. …

Third, the press has a congenital weakness for the Content Is King story. Second Life has made it acceptable to root for the DRM provider, because of their enlightened user agreements concerning ownership. This obscures the fact that an enlightened attempt to make digital objects behave like real world objects suffers from exactly the same problems as an unenlightened attempt, a la the RIAA and MPAA. All the good intentions in the world won’t confer atomicity on binary data. Second Life is pushing against the ability to create zero-cost perfect copies, whereas Copybot relied on that most salient of digital capabilities, which is how Copybot was able to cause so much agida with so little effort — it was working with the actual, as opposed to metaphorical, substrate of Second Life.

Finally, the current mania is largely push-driven. Many of the articles concern “The first person/group/organization in Second Life to do X”, where X is something like have a meeting or open a store — it’s the kind of stuff you could read off a press release. Unlike Warcraft, where the story is user adoption, here most of the stories are about provider adoption, as with the Reuters office or the IBM meeting or the resident creative agencies. These are things that can be created unilaterally and top-down, catnip to the press, who are generally in the business of covering the world’s deciders.

The ability of a reporter (or a business person charged with developing new projects) to recognize hype is never a bad thing.

(via Jeff Jarvis)

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10 thoughts on “Be skeptical of the hype around virtual worlds

  1. Interestingly, I had a conversation with one of my students whose mom works in IT at a major university that is now starting to use Second Life for some off-campus learning experiences. One of the things she said was a positive of SL was the removal of barriers for those who have physical handicaps or other barriers to learning.

    Honestly, I had never thought of that before. For a student who is perhaps shy in a classroom setting, or carries a stigma because of a physical deformity, SL or other virtual environments might lower the barrier to entry into the classroom discussion.

    Certainly, that’s not *unique* to a virtual world, but that – coupled with the ability to add visual information to the environment – certainly makes it worth exploring in the educational field.

    (but the hype is overdone)

  2. As you seem to be unaware, the post to which you refer has been extensively debated since its first publication. I’d suggest spending some time over on Terra Nova (widely regarded as the best site for the discussion of these issues) getting to the story inside the story, because as I’m sure you’ll agree simply replacing one source of unquestioned information with another is not something to be teaching college students.

    Here are some links (cut ‘n paste):

  3. The logic of Clay’s argument about the unquestioned adoration an unskeptical press has bestowed on Second Life stands on its own merits. As such, it is quite worthy of reading and discussing in college journalism classes.

  4. Since I’m one of those people who is teaching college students about these things, I thougth I’d chime in. I’ve mentioned second life in numerous classes over the last year. I’ve even walked some students through the experience using my avatar.

    But on the front page of SL’s own home page are indisputable numbers – total residents and residents who have logged in over the last 60 days. The first number is really irrelevant. The second number is much closer to a relevant number. Also, the amount of real money that appears to be changing hands.

    It’s a very interesting phenomenon. But one of many phenomenons that are very small in comparison to the total numbers of people doing interesting things on the internet.

    There’s also the issue of the seedy side of second life that seems to get swept under the rug in these stories.

  5. The logic of Clay’s argument about the unquestioned adoration an unskeptical press has bestowed on Second Life stands on its own merits. As such, it is quite worthy of reading and discussing in college journalism classes.

    I don’t disagree. In fact I was one of those calling out the media hype well before Shirky. So I was happy to see that part of his entry. However, when he makes the same stupid mistakes for which he berates the rest of Media land, then he doesn’t seem to me to be so smart after all. At least not to me.


    …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.

    Terra Nova comment:

    Curious to see if more numbers are available, I used Google and indeed they are — many, many, many numbers. Including how many hours are spent on SL each month, the 30 day visitor number Clay wanted, total transaction volume broken down various ways, etc. Many of these are available down to the day granularity.

    Those numbers are on the mysteriously labeled “Economic Statistics” page of the Second Life website.

    If you were to take the time to read Terra Nova, you’d also find some interesting information about press coverage. That information doesn’t align with the “logic of Clay’s argument” regarding the press.

    So my point is – why are you not more skeptical?

  6. For clarification: I was happy to see him help burst the hype bubble, but the logic behind the reasons it was occurring seems incomplete given:

    a) the history of press coverage
    b) the wealth of stories having nothing to do with the numbers
    c) the reasons given by some members of the press for writing about SL… reasons which seem reasonable considering the history and the frequency.

  7. Bryan, I think the point is — why aren’t reporters more skeptical. Why buy the hype, espeically given the history of virtual worlds?

    That’s a good question. Honestly, this is a weakness of much media coverage of “trends.” Anecdotes and numbers accepted at face value. Not unique to SL or, for that matter, virtual worlds.

  8. Anecdotes and numbers accepted at face value. Not unique to SL or, for that matter, virtual worlds.

    Exactly. And Shirky repeats that mistake:

    Unlike Warcraft, where the story is user adoption…

    Wrong. The World of Warcraft “story” isn’t and hasn’t been about “user adoption” because no one knows what the WoW numbers mean in that context; Blizzard provides much less information than Linden Lab and those numbers do not equate directly to number of users. Consequently, how can the WoW stories be about “user adoption” when there are no reliable user numbers?

    The truth is, WoW’s numbers are given greater credance because the story is about subscriptions and those are tied directly to dollars; they’re easy to understand and important to the industry not because of “adoption” but because of revenue. Shirky doesn’t question any of that because WoW isn’t seen as anything more than a videogame; SL is. And because SL is unique in that way, Shirky decides to pay more attention (“more”, not “sufficient”).

    The failing of Shirky’s piece imo is that he’s not objective. He’s so entrenched in his own personal belief that the “Immanent Shift in the Way We Live®” can’t happen, that he’s gone on some personal mission to debunk SL as even possibly leading to such a shift. In the process, Shirky’s made some pretty egregious mistakes (such as not bothering to look for the numbers that were readily available had he expended even a tiny effort to find them).

    I’d include among those mistakes his saying:

    Most reporters don’t remember that anyone has ever wrongly predicted a bright future for immersive worlds or flythrough 3D spaces in the past, so they have no skepticism triggered by the historical failure of things like LambdaMOO or VRML

    I disagree. Where is his research to back up that assertion? The previous predictions and hype about which he speaks are only around ten years old; considered to have peaked in the mid-90’s shortly after the VRML standard was introduced in 1994. Are we to presume that all the reporters covering this story are in high school? Even those at 25 and fresh out of college would remember, imo.

    Let’s assume these reporters aren’t in high school but are, as he seems to believe, fresh out of college. If they’re only 25 – which, again, I consider a poor assumption – is it unreasonable to believe that the same people covering the tech beat today wouldn’t have noticed the previous hype? Remember that 3D videogames like Doom (1994) and especially Quake (1996) were getting a lot of attention among that crowd. Furthermore, would these same kids not have seen “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995)? Or “Virtuousity” (1995)? or Hackers (1995)? or “Strange Days” (1995)? Were kids that age oblivious to the “Lawnmower Man” movies (1992 and 1996)? I suppose they were watching documentaries and period pieces, and then only much later developed an interest in technology. Does that make any sense? Not to me. If anyone would have been susceptible to the hype and carried with them a healthy skepticism after the fact, it would have been those same young people he now disrespects.

    Since I’ve started, let’s move to his second point regarding the media’s alleged failings which is… what? That mostly ignorant reporters believe that 3D will supplant all the rest? Is he serious? I don’t recall any story where the demise of 2D interfaces has even been suggested; only that they’ve been ignored. And why would 2d disappear? We all live in a three-dimensional world… filled with 2D information. Text on a page is 2D. Coexistence of 2D and 3D in the real world works, why not online? Why not in different ways; mashed up in the kinds of mixed media free-for-all that’s also being widely reported? Who’s saying that’s it Either/Or and nothing in between? I’ve not seen that story. Perhaps some reporter wrote it, but I didn’t read it. The only person I see raising that particular issue is the one person who’s indicated feeling let down when the first hype around virtual reality didn’t pan out.

    This was a sentiment I believed and publicly echoed at the time.

    In other words, he somehow got burned and now he’s gonna be the uber-skeptic. Fine. But he should still get it right.

    Interestingly enough, one of the biggest stories about Second Life was when virtual books were made available inside the 3D space. Go figure. Text on 3D objects just like in the real world. And one of the most anticipated developments is “html on a prim”. That’s right; two dimensional webpages mapped onto the face of a 3D object kinda like the monitor in front of me. A mash up of 2D and 3D.

    Perhaps Shirky wasn’t aware of the virtual book or the “web on a prim” effort since he readily admits to not really knowing much about Second Life. Perhaps he’s also not aware of the 2D webpages that have been interfaced to Second Life so that people don’t have to log into the virtual world to shop? So they can use their cursor because “the cursor is a terrific way to navigate information”. Surprise.

    The only reasonable explanation I can come up with for Shirky’s comment is that in his zeal to debunk Second Life, he took Rosedale’s “you could walk” to mean “you WILL walk”. That looks to me like the mistake of a non-objective individual.

    The third point starts off with a reasonable comment imo, but then presumes that the media is enthusiastic about Second Life partially because they’re rooting for DRM in some selfish fashion. Apparently objectivity can’t be maintained in Shirky’s world (he’s certainly not maintaining much of his own as far as I can tell). What’s worse, he seems to think that reporters – and others – couldn’t be aware of their own non-objective feelings in this regard yet still find Second Life (or any similar 3D interface) interesting for other reasons. Why wouldn’t they? I do. And I create content, both real and virtual. I’m very much at risk. Yet here I am, dealing not just with my virtual content being copied, but my real products being pirated with the emergence of fabbing technologies. But apparently Shirky thinks he has some unique insight to share with us – that his pointing out that Second Life’s DRM won’t protect content any better than what Apple, Microsoft, and all the rest have done (as if Linden Lab could create a DRM better than those companies) is some kind of revelation. Please. Turn off the ego, Clay.

    With regard to his final comment, he is, imo, correct to a degree. When he says “current”, one has to be aware that this is a relatively small window and that Second Life has received an amazing amount of press for other reasons and for much of it’s existence including back when the “population” numbers were cause for amusement. I also took issue with the poor reporting during this period and it’s why I spent time on marketing blogs clarifying the very numbers he disputed. His article, for me, was all about that short period, and that’s why I was happy to see him get the attention bloggers like myself don’t attract. Out of frustration over the sloppy reporting, I was happy to ignore the rest of his piece. But that window has closed and with it my willingness to disregard the mistakes he makes. And he does make mistakes. Especially when he moves beyond that brief frenzied period and extrapolates his own non-objective opinions well beyond their worth.

  9. Be skeptical about the skepticism regarding skeptics.

    *smacks forehead* I love how Shirkey is so oblivious to his hypocrisy. csven explains it better than me. It was sad to see Dan Hunter at Terra Nova completely miss the point as well.

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