An interesting conversation has been happening all around me on virtual worlds and Second Life featuring C3 Director Henry Jenkins, C3 Principal Investigator Beth Coleman, and Clay Shirky at NYU. The conversation is part of a 3x3 posting in which each of the three wrote an independent piece on their respective blogs the first week with their own thoughts about the current states of Virtual Worlds, and Second Life in particular, followed by a round just completed yesterday that consists of each responding to the points the other two made in the initial rounds of posts.
It may sound confusing, but we've ended up with quite an insightful conversation about virtual worlds. Given C3's dedication to covering virtual worlds and facilitating a discussion about the present and futures of companies like Second Life (see the Not the Real World Anymore panel from our November Futures of Entertainment conference) and the involvement of two C3 members, I wanted to highlight the conversation and direct everyone to this series of posts.
The first round of commentaries features Beth Coleman's piece, Beyond Second Life Toward V-Economy, in which she rights about the need for "a standard of measurement and protocol across platforms" for virtual worlds, the monetization of virtual worlds, and the importance of human connection and connectivity in virtual worlds as a key part of "a virtual world plan for Net domination calls for the merger of the experiental with universal standards--amongst worlds and even across media genre."
Meanwhile, Henry Jenkins' A Second Look at Second Life as a response to some of Clay Shirky's original writing about SL, with Jenkins explaining his lack of interest in debating the numbers for Second Life because "I have never believed that SL is going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term. As I stated last time, I do not buy the whole nonsense that immersive worlds represent web 3.0 and will in any way displace the existing information structures that exist in the web." He concludes, "I respect what Shirky is doing here in questioning the numbers. I just want to push us to ask deeper questions about the criteria we use to measure the value of Second Life. As I wrote last time, 'Second Life isn't interesting to me because of how many people go there; it's interesting because of what they do when they get there.'
Finally, Shirky's first post in this 3x3 series, entitled Second Life, Games, and Virtual Worlds, asks, "Will Second Life become a platform for a significant online population? And, second what can Second Life tell us about the future of virtual worlds generally?" He predicts Second Life will primarily serve a niche population because "most people who try Second Life don't like it." Shirky responds to those who have dismissed his writing about the importance of Second Life's numbers who he feels used the numbers to tout Second Life's success but claimed that, when those numbers were debunked, numbers weren't all that important. "A hypothesis which is strengthened by evidence of popularity, but not weakened by evidence of unpopularity, isn't really a hypothesis, it's a religious assertion." And he especially regulates Second Life to that niche audience and emphasizes his view of Second Life is not his view of virtual worlds as a whole.
Now, a second round of the conversation has just appeared. Shirky has posted his response to Jenkins, with promises that a response to Beth's piece will come later in the week. And it starts with this intriguing personal note to Henry--"I hope you're a betting man, because at the end of this post, I'm going to propose a bet (or rather, as befits a conversation between academics, a framework for a bet). Given that Jenkins has debated many of Clay's assertions, Clay decides to point out the common ground and asserts that he and Henry agree on many of the same principals about Second Life but "most of our variance is about their relative importance." As a preview, here is Clay's intention: "First, I want to push back on one of your historical comparisons. Next, I want to try to convince you that giving bad actors a pass when they embrace participatory culture is short-sighted. Finally, and most importantly I want to propose a bet on the future utility or inutility of virtual worlds." Definitely worth a look, and perhaps we can all take bets on who will win the bet.
Also yesterday, Henry posted More Thoughts on Second Life, Henry also establishes some common ground. "The 'debate,' if you can call it that, circles around competing criteria by which we might measure the importance of Second Life," also agreed that all three believe it is being over hyped statistically but centering on whether it can still be "an important site of cultural innovation and deeply meaningful to the people who spend their time there if we adopt more qualitative measures." Henry proposes an alterate range of ways to evaluate Second Life: "on the basis of which groups or institutions are conducting business there," "on the basis of the quality of civic engagement which emerges there," "on the basis of the specific kinds of outcomes which emerge from our social experimentation in Second Life," and "on the basis of the ways that Second Life incites the public imagination and thus becomes part of the general cultural understanding of what it might mean to inhabit a virtual world." He writes of the disconnect between Second Life users and those who initially try it but are not satisfied as being that "if the 'immersiveness' of Second Life is a product of our own participation then it may not be immediately communicated to the casual visitor who doesn't contribute directly to the production of this consensual fantasy but simply goes there expecting to consume it much as they consume an amusement park or a multiplayer game."
Meanwhile, Coleman has posted an individual response to Shirky and Jenkins. To Shirky she writes about "evidence of unpopularity", pointing out that her interest in Second Life was never the numbers and goes on to emphasize the social connectivity as the endpoint for virtual worlds and not "perfection of simulation." And, for Henry's initial piece, Beth responds regarding Benchmarks of Civic Participation, writing back at Jenkins' assertion that he doesn't believe audio-visual communications will replace written communication anytime soon. "Call me crazy, but there is no reason the continuously evolving system that is the Internet and the people who populate it will stick with a priority of text-based information. We are animals who sign, and emoticons are fun. Jenkins is missing his own message of convergence in under estimating what the graphical-spatial dimensions are of human communications.
And these comments are just scratching the surface. For those interested in contemporary virtual worlds debate, the conversation is well worth following and will be continuing. Since I don't count myself as one of the knowledgeable about this space, I'm much happier to promote and synthesize, but I think there's a lot to learn in this particular debate of colleagues.