Lies, d**n lies, and statistics

Clay Shirky‘s blog on ValleyWag, “A story too good to check“, has raised a lot of discussion about the nature of the “hype” surrounding Second Life. Shirky’s sceptic approach to it, however, has some severe flaws — not the type that one would expect from a top Internet Celebrity.

Obviously, scepticism is naturally a good and encouraging attitude to have, and should naturally be welcomed. When I was first pointed to this article, I thought I should figure out for myself, after reading it, what Mr Shirky’s issues are and how exactly they’re addressed, since one could probably get valuable information from the way they are addressed.

So it’s the old paranoia about hype which lead to the Internet Bubble, and warning the media about the excess of hype. That seems like a good sign; having been through that, and having been “burned” by the process (surprisingly because of the way my banks invested my money in “careful, low-risk investments”), I’d naturally welcome any “warnings” on the potential abuse on “hype”. For instance, in 2005, it was a bit tiring to read about the sex and casinos on Second Life; even if they’re impossible to ignore, after reading the same old story half a million times, I was rather frustrated. This year of 2006, just finished, was more interesting, since what was mostly covered was business and growth.

Mr Shirky is now claiming that the numbers are dubious and that there is no revolution going on; that SL’s churn rate is so high that the number of regular customers is practically non-existent; that the number of “return users” is unpublished; that Second Life is not more than a glorified MUD… whew. Then somehow the issue is about what attracts the media’s attention — and how about companies are investing millions of US$ in SL and they shouldn’t and… wait. I’m now utterly confused! What’s this all about?

So, one step at the time. It appears that one of the sources of hype is about “Numbers”. Ok, so Linden Lab reports as “residents” the “number of accounts on the database”. Why do they so so? From a purely technical point of view, only two things matter: how huge is the database and how many users are hitting it immediately. Linden Lab never hided the fact they’re a “techie” company, so their numbers are “techie” numbers. Sure, we’d prefer that they’d said how much money they’re actually making. But — surprise, surprise! — you can almost figure it out for yourself. All you need is an account, look at the internal economy numbers, and get a calculator — it takes an untrained person a few hours to get a rough estimate on how much money LL is actually making, and a bit of research will give you a working idea on how big their costs are.

So from an economic point of view it would be nicer to have the number of paying customers per month (on average), the churn rate, and how much a customer pays on average. I agree. That would be lovely. Guess what? You can also figure out a rough estimate for all of the above by looking at the (internal) economy page for Second Life. But, I agree, for a journalist in a hurry, this is not obvious. Neither, apparently, for someone who is doing some serious and honest research on “numbers” and not posting claims of “I guess that there is only 15% of returning users” (Philip Rosedale even quotes a lower number, actually — he’s not afraid of being publicly dragged in the mud for saying that).

Working again from guesses and assumptions, we now have the statement: ‘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’. Actually, Linden Lab publishes all those numbers (and further non-industry-standardised numbers. Statistics for the last day of 2006, available to any of the 2,281,440 accounts on their database:

Residents Logged-In During Last 7 Days 225,954
Residents Logged-In During Last 14 Days 333,506
Residents Logged-In During Last 30 Days 534,738
Residents Logged-In During Last 60 Days 844,310

Agreed, if one would like to criticise that these numbers are not published on their front page and that one requires a login to view them, that’s fair game. Still, creating a login just to view that data takes about the same time as creating a new WordPress account. Definitely far less than one in MySpace.

Now comes the issue of evaluating how many of these 534,738 who logged in the last 30 days are “regular, active users”. Definitions, definitions. Google Analytics apparently assumes that it’s someone that in the past 30 days has at least looked up my blog once per week and spent “a few minutes” reading the latest article. YouTube is happy to assume that it’s someone that uploaded 3 videos (total, not per month) and views “a few hours of videos per month”. Certain commercial services are much nicer: they don’t care if people log in at all, so long as they pay their monthly (or yearly) bills. What is the “industry standard” then?

For someone that has been using Second Life for a few months, one would expect that a “regular, active user” is someone who logs in, say, at least 2 hours per session, every day. Is that an average for SL? I don’t know. How many people do that? Perhaps half a million. Is that much or not?

Compared to — what?

How many hours does a “regular, active user” spend in MySpace per day? On a recent show at fora.tv, the “regular activity” is usually measured in “minutes per day” — 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there, then getting a message, and logging in for some more minutes. Then having a new picture to upload, and then, yes, spending an hour or so re-arranging the space. How often does that happen? Are those statistics published every day?

Users of MySpace? 100 million. Apparently about as many as Yahoo (and PayPal), and slightly less than eBay or Amazon. Where are the statistics published? Definitely not on their home page (except for PayPal)! Search for them under Google; you’ll see here and there scattered articles from the press and excerpts from interviews claiming those numbers. Ah, but these are not “hyped”, since MySpace, Yahoo, PayPal are apparently “serious” companies that would never “lie” in public (or “reinvent the industry standard”).

FaceBook? 3 billion page/views per month. YouTube has now 17 billion and was bought for 1.65 Billion US$. How many users? I couldn’t find that information, but I could see that YouTube and MySpace claim to get around 35,000-50,000 new videos per day. Is that a lot? Second Life gets 70,000 new objects created per day. What does that mean? I don’t know. Is that relevant?

One would say that from those 70,000 new objects, most of them are just a single prim, and only a few are actually “content” worth seeing. That’s natural — Sturgeon’s Law applies here as well, “90% of everything is crud” — meaning that probably only 7,000 objects are worth considering as “creative content” and the rest is worthless. But — the same applies to YouTube surely? One in thousand is worth viewing. And what about blogs? How many have more than a hundred readers per day? Or a hundred thousand? (Second Life’s blog is, according to Alexa, one of the top 1500 more traffic-intense sites on the Web — Yahoo, Google, YouTube, and MySpace are all on the top 10. PayPal, with the same 100 million users, is #650 or so)

Then comes the issue of “how much money are these people making?”. One would think that the reason for asking that is to encourage companies to advertise on where the money is. Do we have any idea? Well, all that are public companies have their accounting publicly listed, of course. The others are anyone’s guess. In Second Life, people transact around one million US$ per day (it’s publicly available information from just glancing at the homepage). I don’t know, but anything that might have over a billion US$ of internal transactions between users by the end of 2007 is worth noticing; it’s not “just hype”, but a rather interesting marketplace. How much is transacted in eBay? 2 to 24 billion per year (depends on who writes the article, and when). In PayPal? Amazon? I’m not sure, but I know that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a major investor in Linden Lab. What is the difference between these companies? It took me one click to http://secondlife.com to know exactly how much money is being exchanged between its users; half an hour to find on Google an entry for eBay; and after another half hour, I gave up looking for figures for PayPal and Amazon.

Basically, what this article claims on its beginning paragraphs is the age-old motto of “there are lies, d**n lies, and statistics”. The difference between Linden Lab’s approach is that they make their own statistics — and explain how they came up with the numbers — publicly available. You can check them up for yourself. If LL claims that there are 20,000 users online — you can log in and count them, one by one (if you dared!). You can even ask each of them “are you there?”. You can see how large SL is overall — and confirm, location by location, that the places are there. For the others, you have to believe in what you read — press releases, articles on the media, reports from auditors. At least you can rely on the financial information for the public companies.

But you cannot rely upon the “intangibles”. What is an “active user” will always be the fruit of speculation. Some people claim to have a million friends on FaceBook. How many are so successful? And is really important how many friends you have on Facebook to be classified as an “active user”? In things like Second Life, you might not have a single friend but profit a few thousand US$ per month from it (at least 7,000 people make a comfortable living out of Second Life every month). Others might have hundreds of thousands of users and not make a single cent. Which is the “more active user”?

Then we have to analyse the business model. How many people make, say, US$2,000 per month from being “active users” of YouTube? One might say that “YouTube was not created for making money.” Ok, that’s also fair. So, how many people make a comfortable living out of eBay? A few quotes from some Google searches: “thousands have even reached PowerSeller status by maintaining at least $1,000 per month in sales for three consecutive months”; “Last year the site says there were 971 million listings for sale. Total value of items sold – $24 billion. That’s with an estimated 430,000 claiming to earn a living through eBay”; “More than 1.3 million people worldwide are earning their primary or secondary income on eBay, according to ACNielsen International Research.”; “According to the New York Times, more than 500000 people make a full- or part-time living on eBay. 4 million items for sale” So it goes from “thousands” to “millions”. How does that compare to Second Life? 2 million accounts, a hundred million items for sale, a few thousands making a living out of it, one billion US$ transacted in a year. Not bad for 3 years, I would say, even compared to eBay today (founded in 1995 by Pierre Omidyar, who is also a major investor in Linden Lab).

Clearly the whole point here is that one has to take a look at things with a pinch of salt, but should also make a serious attempt at separating hype from fact. Sure, it’s nice to see how many people are in eBay and how much it is worth today — both from its shareholders’ point of view and its users. But Second Life is only three years old. We can project how big Second Life might be in a few years — when it becomes as mature as Yahoo, eBay, or Amazon — and then see if the “metaverse” is the “next big thing”. Right now? All we can say is that the type of growth that Second Life shows is equivalent to what the Big Names have experienced in their infancy. And pushing it a little bit we could even say that the growth is both faster and giving quicker returns.

Another example: how long did it take to get the first company making money by providing services to people wanting to have their shop on eBay? (I could not find the reference). There are probably “thousands” these days. In Second Life, there are “dozens” — but there are, as well, at least a hundred thousand “regular” content producers in Second Life, who are able to sell their products there. A small percentage — 7%? — are even able to make a living out of it. Again, not bad for something that just opened its doors to the public three years ago. How does it compare to eBay?

So, why the comparison with MUDs and similar “community” thingies of the past? It looks to me as a deliberate attempt to point people in the wrong direction — sometime Shirky emphasises the technological aspects, sometimes the social ones, rather rarely the economic ones. How many MUDs, after three years, generated a billion US$ of transactions between its users? Can you name one? I’m sure that Richard Bartle will be able to come up with a few examples of people “making money out of MUDs” but very likely this will be flagged as “irrelevant, since MUDs were/are community things and not money-making operations”. Again, this is sidestepping the issue. The Web was not created by people like Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen to “let users of the Web make money”. But it’s irrefutable that it does allow people to make money out of it, and these days, this point is not even worth mentioning. In 1995, however, with the eBays and Amazons and Yahoos on their first steps, most people would think it to be “insane” that the Web would generate a considerable amount of money, in percentage of the world’s overall GNP. Sure, the Web is still a “community thingy” — or else YouTube and MySpace would not exist — but one cannot separate both these days. The appeal of Second Life is that it enables both to coexist — community and business — and both flourish, the first by an ever-increasing number of (social) users, the second by an also-ever-increasing number of in-world transactions and more and more people making a living out of it.

Is this still “hype”?

We come to the point of Shirky’s analysis of why he thinks the media is covering SL at all: “So what accounts for the current press interest in Second Life? I have a few ideas, though none is concrete enough to call an answer yet.”

Well, I’m not sure how many of those ideas were actually discussed with journalists at all, but let’s see what these ideas are and what Shirky’s assumptions are.

Idea #1: Technology is wonderful. When claiming that “LambdaMOO” was a failure and giving it as a reason for people not understanding how Second Life is “doomed to go the same way”, Shirky is totally limiting himself to a specific aspect — the attraction to “LambdaMOO” was never because of the technology, but because of its social and creative aspects. VRML is a different story — a technology untied to a service. A common misconception coming from anyone in the technological area is that just because a technology is wonderful and fantastic, without having a purpose, it will never be a success. No, intelligent journalists will understand instead that SL’s technology is “not so fantastic” (in the sense that there are, indeed, far better technologies for deploying synthetic worlds), but it is the only one — so far! — that has successfully attracted 2 million people to register for it, to transact over a billion US$ between users in three years, and to have 7,000 people making a living out of it — while at the same time (currently) being the “technology” that has found the most different uses — from e-Learning to conferences and seminars, to presentations, to life music shows, to launching books, movies, and CDs, and whatever will be shown next in SL. It’s unarguable that there were many previous technologies that could have provided the same, and perhaps even better and with glichier graphics. The point is — they did not. If Shirky is unable to understand that, I’m not sure if he has any competence at all to explain to journalists why the technological aspect of SL should ever be mentioned — it’s not because “it’s something new”, but because “it’s something done right“.

Idea #2: Synthetic worlds are simple to use. This requires a far longer text to explain each and every detail, but let it suffice to point out that some things are way easier in a 3D environment, while others are way easier in a 2D one. A good example was even given by Shirky: searching for information. A 2D environment is more efficient for that. But what about the other examples? Following a conference, seeing an art exhibit, watching a movie together with friends, looking how clothes fit your body, testing the performance of a car, looking how furniture will fit in your home, the virtual classroom, the virtual conference centre… all these are far easier to do in a 3D environment. One can claim that all the above can be done on a 2D environment as well. Of course they can — but not in the same way. You have to “pretend” that you’re in a “classroom” with a “teacher” when opening up a PDF with your class material, or that you’re not watching pretty pictures on a catalogue but truly “walking the gallery” of a museum. In Second Life, you are in a classroom or in a museum. That’s a world of difference (pun intended). So, journalists understanding that for some applications a 3D environment is better and easier that a 2D environment, are not talking about “hype”, but understanding what’s all about. It’s silly to say “Amazon and Google will never be easier in SL and so this argument is stupid” when these are exactly the two types of things that don’t benefit from a 3D environment (oops, I just forgot — Amazon has, indeed, a shop in SL…).

Idea #3: “Content is King”, and I was sure that someone would raise the issue of CopyBot yet again. On my Mac, I press a button on iTunes, and I can rip CDs to MP3. Great. So what was the point again? Journalists are reporting that “here is an amazing technology that allows people to deploy their own content”. Ok, is that so terrible? Why is “the Content Is King story” such a “congenital weakness”? I can’t figure out the issue that Shirky has about this. Coming from someone that has about a million entries on Google, I would imagine that Shirky would, indeed, be a believer of “Content is King” — being able to post on blogs, forums, etc. is exactly the kind of thing that gave Shirky such a proeminence as an Internet Celebrity. I find it rather hypocritical to be criticising the “Content is King” approach of journalists, coming from someone that is undeniable one of the (many) “Kings of Content” on the Internet. So, I can’t understand the argument, and how the issue of CopyBot ties with it. I’m pretty sure there is a missing link somewhere. Or just a very poor argument that failed to elucidate, but just to render this “idea #3” obscure.

Idea #4: Press releases. ‘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.’ Oh my. They are press releases! More than that, I find it soooo naive that Shirky has not understood that all these stories come exactly from press releases, and that millions of US$ are being poured in by several corporations just because of the press release? Effectively, what these corporations are doing is buying good press releases!

Now, when a PR specialist has to advise their customers on what might interest the media, what should they do? Advise, say, IBM to make a 10-minute movie for a million US$ and upload it to YouTube? (Many of the readers will know that several companies have actually done exactly that; the recent PSP “viral marketing” scandal on YouTube is the latest of many) Or would it make more sense to show that IBM is still at the fore-front of technology, and is now the first multi-billion corporation that has offered consulting services to bring their customers to Second Life? Either Shirky does not have a clue what press releases are — and I’m not naive enough to claim that! — or he has some very weird concepts of what type of information the media should produce. The world media does not only publish philosophical treaties on the origins of statistics 🙂 Instead, they rely on press releases to publish what they think their audience might be willing to read/watch — and capture some advertising in the process. I’m sure this doesn’t need to be explained to Shirky — he should know very much how the media world works.

So, when he claims: ‘The question about American Apparel, say, is not “Did they spend money to set up stores in Second Life?” Of course they did. The question is “Did it pay off?” We don’t know.’, Shirky is playing with the naiveté of the audience. Of course it did pay off. It was a marketing stunt and it paid off as a marketing stunt. And worth every cent in earned pressed releases and press coverage. Again, it’s insulting to the audience pretending otherwise. I’m pretty sure that American Apparel — and so many others! — are not yet at the stage where they’ll measure how many customers they got in their RL stores from the visitors of their SL stores. Far from that; all they measure is “how many of our press releases about our SL presence made it to the media?” Does that need any explanation? Should we send Mr Shirky a book on corporate marketing, or just kindly ask him to refrain from assuming his audience is ignorant?

The next issue comes from a discussion with Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM “a few weeks ago”. It might have been on the in-world event when C|NET interviewed Irving — we can only speculate — but the conclusion that Shirky comes to is that “SL is not for everybody” (ie. it has a limited scope). This, taken out of context, is definitely a true statement: SL definitely isn’t for “everybody”. However, the issue here is mostly to try to define the scope of what might be important for the likes of IBM, and for the “common user” (however that might be defined). While a few (as Shirky mentions) might be interested in the “techie” applications of Second Life — and these, indeed, might be limited — the 67-year-old grandma that comes to SL regularly every day to tweak the furniture on her virtual home is simply interested in SL as a social environment that allows self-expression and contact with others. And how many 67-year-old grandmas are in SL? You might be surprised to know that the number is astonishingly high — or else, the average age of SL residents wouldn’t be 32 years, but the more “usual” 18-25 range.

So what IBM is saying is that they have evaluated a lot of platforms for doing things inside synthetic 3D worlds, and SL was the only one that actually captured the interest of around a thousand employees and managed to provide a small revenue stream when pushing the concept of 3D content creation for their customers as their virtual presence. Again, this is not a claim that SL is “for everybody”, but that, compared with other ways of setting up virtual presences on the Internet, IBM is pushing for another way of doing it: setting them up on Second Life, as an alternative to the 2D web. What is so wrong with this picture? We’re not talking about high-brow esoteric technological applications of SL, that, granted, will only appeal to a handful of techies. We’re talking about the perception that SL can effectively be used to promote virtual presences inside a synthetic world — today, with available technology, in a successful environment. Not “wishfully thinking” that we have already developed the software that runs the Matrix and deployed it to an audience of 100 million users 🙂

I agree that Shirky’s perception of the “limited use” comes from a total lack of profiling studies on SL. A few books are being prepared with these studies, as well as several papers and thesis; but these are not easily available. What Shirky will be surprised to know is that the actual number of people in SL — even today! — that are using it for the more esoteric “techie” uses is surprisingly small. Most people — by far the largest number! — is in SL for the social elements or simply for the creative aspects. At the very lowest use of SL — tweaking your avatar, buying a house, furnishing it, inviting a few friends over — these are far easier to do than, say, opening up a MySpace account. They provide longer-lasting entertainment value than keeping a profile on MySpace — and they are also more attractive to 67-year-old grandmas, as well as testoterone-frenzied 18-year-old rookies at college. But I’ve definitely just skimmed the very surface of the iceberg of possibilities that exist in SL. We simply don’t know what everybody is doing in SL — just because few profiling studies have been published.

So SL is of limited interest to techies? Yes, very likely. What about a wider, non-techie audience? The answer is totally different. And Irving has probably a much better insight on that audience than Shirky; at least that’s the impression he gave on the C|Net in-world interview. IBM will obviously focus on the techie aspects of SL, because IBM is a techie company; but they have their own tools and environments. Why did they put so much money, effort, and human resources in SL, then? Very likely because they found out a technology that has lots of non-technological uses, and this came as a (positive) surprise of them. If 67-year-old grandmas can attend classes to learn how to make clothes and furniture in SL, then IBM employees will be able to attend conferences and do their e-Learning there. That was my feeling from hearing Irving talking about SL. Shirky, apparently, did hear the same words than I did, but he seemed to understand only 1% of what Irving was saying.

Then we get back to numbers: ‘If we think of a user as someone who has returned to a site after trying it once, I doubt that the number of simultaneous Second Life users breaks 10,000 regularly. If we raise the bar to people who come back for a second month, I wonder if the site breaks 10,000 simultaneous return visitors outside highly promoted events.’. Now this comes from another flawed assumption. First, when YouTube talks about “billions of page views per month”, are these from logged-in users, or just visitors? Anyone will claim it’s from “visitors” — we can see the statistics on Alexa, for example — although a large part of those will obviously be registered users. But how large? We have no idea.

However, in Second Life, we do have a good rough idea. There are no “anonymous viewers” but only registered users in SL (in the sense that anyone using SL has an account on the database). We also know that these 15-20k simultaneous users correspond roughly to 70-80k unique users visiting SL every day. And from these, 10-15k are new users. So, when one sees 15,000 users logged in, very likely just a thousand or so are brand new users. But we can extrapolate what the others are, since we also know how many have logged in in the past 7, 14, 30, or 60 days. The mapping is not one-to-one, but from elucidated and well-versed people like Tateru Nino, we can have a rather good idea of what these numbers actually mean.

Now obviously these analysis don’t suit Shirky’s claims at all. So he goes the route of “thinking”, “doubting”, and “wondering” — without bothering with the math. All this is a classic trick for influencing the audience by throwing in his reputation as an Internet Celebrity. “If Shirky thinks the number is less than 10,000, then he is probably right.” Actually, he’s at least honest enough to open his claims and statements to sceptical questioning — I don’t saw in his article any mentioning on how he has arrived at the conclusion. All we can say is that the information pointing to the contrary is, indeed, freely available and easily searched for, and it has been interpreted by several people. It is also correct that Linden Lab does not offer their own interpretation, but just raw data — Shirky’s point is well taken there — and that from “raw data” one can claim whatever they wish. Shirky has, indeed, forfeited the raw data altogether, and instead of interpreting what those numbers might mean, he prefers to disregard them entirely and simply provide his own numbers. By doing so, he’s proposing that we abandon reasoning and interpretation based on fact (ie. looking at the numbers and trying to provide a rational explanation of what they might mean), but a new analysis based on faith that Shirky is right and everybody else isn’t. Hardly a good approach for a sceptic.

And secondly, a “highly promoted event”, as Hamlet Au so well put it, can only hold 120-140 people in it due to SL’s limitations. So he can have all the doubts he wants, but if he were seriously studying his beloved statistics, I’m sure he wouldn’t make such an erroneous statement like that one!

At least, Shirky’s final two paragraphs are honest enough. Would Second Life be differently promoted if Linden Lab just announced the number of people logged in in the last 7 days? The answer is a most definite “yes” (200,000 users do not impress a journalist these days). However, there is a time scale in this answer. The answer is a “yes” in 2006; it would be a “no” at the end of 2007, with an expected number of 10 million accounts, and at least 1 million of them having logged in in the last 7 days (and around 2.5 millions in the last 30 days). So I’m afraid that while Shirky’s comments on these two last paragraphs can make sense today, they will be hopelessly outdated in 12 months.

In two years, Shirky will be gnawing at his fingers. In five years, he’ll have a consultancy agency for explaining to the 150 million users of Second Life how they should write articles for media agencies wishing to talk about Second Life. Sadly, however, his agency will not be the first one around — because he doesn’t really “believe” in Second Life. He will be forced not to ignore it in five years, but he can safely ignore it now. However, the likes of IBM are being much more intelligent — they see what they can do now with Second Life, and adapt to change later on. IBM might be all wrong in 2006/7; but in 2015, whatever form SL takes then, they’ll be able to say: “oh, we might have been over-eager back in 2006, but at least we were there to see what we could do about SL, and we found rather good things to do about it.” Shirky, however, will need to go the route of people who wrote against things like PointCast’s push technology in 1999 but now reluctantly agree that RSS and Atom feeds are here to stay, and that they are crucial for building the social web. It was a technology that came in too early and an excess of scepticism tried to stamp it out before it had a chance to show what it could be used for. The same will apply to Second Life, in spite of the discussion about the “hyped numbers” — in five years, people will easily forget this discussion about if we have 2 million or 200,000 users in Second Life. What will only matter is that 2006 was the year when some people — definitely not all, since we need to include Shirky et al as part of the second group — understood what they could do with Second Life. The “numbers” discussion will be as useless as the discussion of Amazon’s profitability during their first years of operation — we all know now, looking back, that it was obvious that Amazon would succeed. 🙂 But much blood was drawn about the numbers back then. Jeff can only smile and tap Philip Rosedale on his shoulder and say: “not to worry, I went through the same back then in 1996”.
In conclusion, I’ll take Shirky’s comment on his own blog entry: “I got a pre-launch demo of Second Life, straight from Mitch and the Second Life team, several years ago at PC Forum, so I’m well aware of Mitch’s bullishness on the subject.” So his opinions on what Second Life is about are as valid as someone writing about Microsoft Vista while having a pre-release of Windows 95, during the days that Bill Gates thought he would be able to ignore the Internet and create his own version of the Internet instead. I wonder what Shirky was writing back in 1995. Probably that “the Internet is overhyped and I’m glad that Bill Gates is not listening to the hype in the media”. Guess what, 6 months after Windows 95 was launched, Bill made a 180º degree turn and converted Microsoft into the “Internet Company of the Future”, proving, once again, how clever he is.

And, naturally, these days, Microsoft has their own private island in Second Life. It’s good to see that the leading minds in the IT industry know where they’re betting their money, and can read beyond the “hype” and take statistics for what they are: a good way to do successful PR.

Disclaimer: All information on this article is drawn from several sources, all of them rather easily available by googling for the relevant data. As an exercise for the user, I have not given those sources. Rest assured that you will find links to all the claims, by spending around half an hour searching the Web for each — you’ll see that in many cases I did not mention any data, since I wanted to make sure that everything I found was easily available. There might be several further references down the Google pipe, which I have missed. The point here is that by doing just a bit of research, spending not several days but just an hour or two, you’ll be able to find all the references for yourself. Enjoy the exercise, and feel free to add some comments on what further data you have found out by yourself — you will probably be able to get more interesting tidbits about the nature of the users from the top 10 more visited sites, and draw a comparison with Second Life of how they grew during a similar period, adjusted, of course, for dealing with a major difference: to use any of the services of the ten top sites, all you need is a Web browser and require a few minutes to deal with the interface, while Second Life creates a totally new user experience, requires its own 3D viewer, and an hour or so learning the new interface. This naturally makes Second Life a product that is harder to adopt, and the growing curve will be much shallower than the one for, say, Google.

CC BY 4.0 Lies, d**n lies, and statistics by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

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  • Here’s what I meant to post a few days ago… ! =D

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    As I see it, what I’ve long admired about you Gwyn, is can look at the big picture, AND the tiny details inside. Both the forest and the trees. That’s shockingly rare: how many other intelligently-written blogs have a photo of their writer winking playfully at you? I dare say, yours is the only one I’ve come across thus far (and I’ve been looking hard!). While such a detail may seem trivial to some, for the truely observant, it’s part of a larger canvas, one aspect being the living-on of nimated GIFs despite their crash-and-burn during the web-design hype of the mid-to-late-90s. ‘Course, in some respects, it was succeeded by Flash (which is effectively nigh ubiquitous). Both of these technologies have been through sound thrashings, only to find not just devotees, but widespread adoption on the other side.

    I realize some of that parallel is tenuous as compared to Second Life, but what instantly comes to mind is a term you used on Tateru Nino’s blog when commenting: “clever visionaries”. For ah, it’s not just enough to have a lucid eye on the future: one must also be smart, progressive, evolutionary about change. Bold stalwarts of one particular generation have been rendered obsolete or looked like “old codgers” in the next. We also know even the soundest of geniuses make embarassing flops: Leonardo da Vinci and his proposed medicinal usage of beaver testicles, for example.

    There are a couple books I think you’d be soundly fascinated in reading, Gwyn, if you haven’t already. They are:

    * The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell – describes Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen who have a signifcant role in influencing widescale social epidemics. It also has some connections to retention.

    * Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin + Heidi Toffler – intriguing prognostications on the rise of a knowledge-based economy. Among relevant terms like “prosumer” (CONTENT IS KING!) and “obsoledge” (obsolete knowledge), it charts forth not a utopian, but a very hopeful and exciting view of the future.

    Both these tomes wrestle heavily with the power of context: that is, something which is right today, may not be tomorrow, and circumstances, as well as social behavior, very much dictate a “perception is reality” line of dominos falling, not unlike mass hysteria where the actual causes are nowhere to be found. A popular example: yawning is contagious. A skeptic friend of mine joked, “Well then, so’s stupidity!” And I shot back: “Then, shouldn’t intelligence be, too?”

    So, back to the “clever visionaries” — more people should use this as a meme. Perhaps it could be a fun game unto its own. Or when you write your book, include that as a chapter heading. Please?

    When I first heard of Philip Rosedale, I thought of old skool-CEOs sniffling and getting up and arms because he didn’t wear a formal suit. Nor did he drive a classy car — he tends to find them wasteful (SOURCE: http://money.cnn.com/popups/2006/biz2/giftguide/index.html ) — but rather, a motorcycle. It’s no wonder he’s often described as a rockstar! At the same time, when thinking of rock music, I consider how what was “hip” in the 50s, as fashion is cyclical, has come back several times, now to be looked at as a curiosity by today’s youth. Kinda like the 56K Modem Emulator: http://www.lazylaces.com/56Kmodem/

    I can only hope that when predictions are made which turn out to be foolish down the line, they’re looked at with mirthful laughter (e.g., those “Surfing the World Wide Web” videos of the 90s), not scorn. It’s the great folly of humanity to equate improbable with impossible.

    All this, really, is reminiscent of the many, many times a great many “pundits” proclaimed Apple Computer was dead. Over and over again. How Macs would continue to shrink in marketshare and eventually evaporate like, say, Amiga or Atari personal computers. They didn’t. There was no guarantee they wouldn’t, but history continues on. Today, it’s unthinkable anyone would buy Microsoft or Google. But who knows? A few decades from now, some juggernaut, perhaps a Chinese megacorp not unlike those cast forth in vivacious cyberpunk novels, would do the trick. (I’m being intentionally ludicrous here, to work the imagination muscles.)

    I don’t think many really knew that Apple would become such a force in the music industry with its iPod. The clues weren’t obscure; they were there all along. We have a trail of history, reading back through Steve Jobs’ interview and his long love of music. Obvious advances like how he wanted the Mac to have superior sound. These insights were perhaps lateral, but available for the taking, the interpreting, for just about anyone who paid close observation.

    In much the same way with Second Life, when there are articles about this online world, when there are conversations with Lindens (disclaimer: I work for Linden Lab and I’m happy), the same clues are present.

    Never forget the power of a childhood dream. 🙂

    Refreshing read.

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