Friday, August 31, 2007

Second Life is rubbish

Those who get excited about new stuff are getting excited about Second Life, the virtual world/game/thing. Gartner, Inc have reported that "80% of internet users will have a second life presence by 2011". It's worth looking at this report before running off to invest:

For a start, nowhere in the press release is any further information supplied that might justify the headline. Maybe they guessed. Maybe they asked their friends. Maybe they asked their kids. It is astonishing that this press release has been picked up around the world and quoted as if it were fact. Not that it means quite what it said. But Second Life has benefited, no doubt, as it has from the almost univerally uncritical media coverage it has received over the last year: "Reuters set up virtual news agency", "Big firms invest in Second Life" etc. With any social network tool, hype is vital: being hip and popular is what brings the users. And vital to business models too: behind every application there's a geek hoping to sell out to Google and retire.

The image has, however, become tarnished over the last few months, notably in Valleywag [one of the rare websites whose adverts make it NSFW], and it is worth looking at the figures in detail.

The total population of 9,201,273 sounds quite impressive. It is, in a way, quite impressive. However, since you have to register to visit Second Life, this is also the all-time count of visitors. The number of people online at any time is 20,000-40,000; less impressive. And using the standard metric of 'visitors in the last 30 days', the number of active accounts is only 979,488. There is something rather odd with the figures and their massive level of churn (turnover of old users leaving). The number of registrations has been increasing by about 15% month-on-month in 2007 (it was above 20% in 2006). This means (according to their stats), that of the 979,488 users in the last month, 973,936 of them are new registrations. leaving the core returning users numbering 5,552. All the rest come and see, wander around, and depart, never to return. No wonder businesses who do their sums have written it off, according to Wired.

But not everybody. The library world's Twopointopians have convinced themselves that they have seen the future and it is clumsily-moving avatar shaped.

The logic goes like this:

  • library services are threatened because people are using the Internet instead
  • let's follow them where they've gone to prove our relevance

Which makes sense, as far as it goes. However, this rush into SL is conflated with the more general, and laudable, aim of reach people who never used libraries in the first place. Most of those are on the wrong side of the digital divide; investing resources and real money in developing an SL presence which requires broadband, high-spec computers, and registration for users to reach is hard to justify; as someone has pointed out, putting the equivalent effort into leafleting and outreach talks would do much more good, if reaching the unreachable were the aim. And one might add that those relying on libraries to provide them with Internet access are likely to find that they are blocked from visiting SL anyway.

SL presences can only be considered successes for those with very low aspirations : the InfoIsland events (talks, art shows), reach as many as 50 or 80 people: good grief, more than a coachload! But even in terms of web presence, surely it makes more sense to invest in low-spec, accessible, open resources instead: if only there were some way of making data available over the Internet by, I dunno, putting it in web pages or something.

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