Shirky, Jenkins, Coleman {Update}

Posted on Saturday 17 February 2007

A few weeks back on Terra Nova (Link) I first learned of a virtual worlds/Second Life-centric blog-based discussion that emerged from the recent debates surrounding Second Life. The “synchronized punditry”, as Terra Novan Liz Lawley dubbed it, included Beth Coleman, Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky. Having gone a few rounds with Shirky over on Terra Nova, I opted out of chiming in on this conversation. Instead I decided to wait and then summarize the three primary positions and add my own thoughts.

Having read the various entries several times, all I can say is that I can’t justify the time. I did start and spent quite a few hours on such an entry, but there are far too many things with which I take issue; most of them Shirky’s. And besides, I don’t think anything I have to say will make a difference. It hasn’t yet.

As proof of the fruitlessness in trying, here’s one issue in particular I’ve tried to sort out: When is Shirky going to perform due diligence in regard to World of Warcraft, a game he frequently uses for comparative purposes? Though it’s been pointed out that WoW’s “adoption” numbers are similarly suspect (Link to Terra Nova; Link to Valleywag comment), he’s apparently ignored that fact and continued with his apples-to-oranges comparisons. Recall that it was “adoption” that was of significant concern in this matter, and that Shirky has implied that “millions” of people have “adopted” WoW, and it is this assertion which acts as the foundation on which much of his argument is based; nevermind that MMOG’s have traversed a different developmental arc and are unlike Second Life in many other ways.

When asked again about WoW’s “adoption” statistics in the comments of his own recent entry, he continues to ignore the issue. It couldn’t be more obvious to me that he doesn’t want to be caught with his foot in his mouth yet again.

Furthermore, when an effort is undertaken to find some way to perform an apples-to-apples comparison, he puts in a token effort and then bows out; content to rehash his previous observations and conclusions elsewhere. What happened to intellectual rigor? What happened to the fundamentals? Apparently those things aren’t as important anymore.

Consequently, it seems to me that for Shirky this is no longer an issue of getting at the truth but instead of defending a position using conclusions based on the same kinds of misinformation that started all this.

{Update: Having spent all that time I mentioned it’s difficult to turn it off. While I’ve not posted more here, I have posted on another blog – howardowens.com (Link), a “media” blog – that is, imo, giving Shirky a bit too much credit and not exercising the kind of skepticism for his words that they’re now praising him for having in regards to the press’ coverage of Second Life. My comments there are fairly long, so I thought it worth pointing them out here.}

  1.  
    2/18/2007 | 12:03 am
     

    I don’t think there is anywhere near the controversy over WoW’s figures as there are over SL’s…

    “World of Warcraft subscribers include individuals who have paid a subscription fee or have an active prepaid card to play World of Warcraft, as well as those who have purchased the game and are within their free month of access. Internet Game Room players who have accessed the game over the last thirty days are also counted as subscribers. The above definition excludes all players under free promotional subscriptions, expired or cancelled subscriptions, and expired prepaid cards. Subscribers in licensees’ territories are defined along the same rules.”

    So, people who have paid for this month, people who are in the free month on a new box, people who are currently paying for this month on a card, and people who have played in the last month via an Internet Game Room (which charge people). No promos or ex-players. Pretty clear-cut, and definitely not a total of registrations or “adoption.”

    So what exactly is the comparison here? Serious question… I don’t get the point you are making. What part of WoW’s figures seem suspect?

  2.  
    2/18/2007 | 1:44 am
     

    Of course not. There’s no controversy because a) people aren’t suggesting WoW is a stepping stone to the 3D internet, b) there’s not much MSM coverage of WoW other than the subscription numbers, c) there’s no well-known person making it his personal mission to make all the religious fanatics… oh wait… let’s look at who those people might be. From Shirky’s first post in this 3×3:

    Before the uselessness of Linden’s population numbers was widely understood, the illusion of a large and rapidly growing community was touted as evidence of Second Life’s success. When both the absolute numbers and growth turned out to be more modest, population was downgraded and other metrics have been introduced as predictive of Second Life’s inevitable success.
    -
    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 a core tenet of the faithful seems to be that claims about Second Life are buttressed by the certain and proximate arrival of virtual worlds generally.

    Exactly who was doing any of the above {specifically: touting the “resident” numbers as evidence of Second Life’s success)? I’m one of the people who writes with some regularity about SL. So much so that Bruce Sterling (who probably almost never surfs through here) goes and labels me some “Second Life guy”… even though the post to which he was referring wasn’t even about SL. Yet I’ve not done the things Shirky is saying happened in that quote above. Nor have any of the bloggers I read who cover SL far more than I. Between Walsh and Ludlow and Wallace and Prok and a number of others, you won’t find any “religious assertions” coming from people who’ve been watching SL for any credible length of time. We’ve all pretty much agreed that SL is important and that LL’s got a number of issues, but none of us think of it as the Second Coming. Those of us who do support it are among the most critical of it. And if there’s one thing we’ve done, it’s question the population numbers.

    So how on earth does Shirky make the above statement and have it make any sense? Was it people on Terra Nova making those claims? Doubtful. As I’m sure you’re aware they’re less likely to support SL than I or the others previously mentioned. So who does that leave? Whose writing, if not ours, has captured the attention of someone who barely knows anything about the SL community? The hardcore gamers? People at Kotaku? You?

    No. It leaves the people who were hyping it in the first place: MSM. Hardly the “core tenet of the faithful”. Most of them had hardly spent any time in SL… just like Shirky. As Eric Rice suggested, Shirky is part of the problem he claims to be fixing. And he complicates matters by spouting crap like the above.

    That said, this isn’t about subscribers or “people who have paid for this month” or any of that because those aren’t good enough; not if you use the same standard Shirky’s applying to SL. This is, as he’s made clear, about “adoption”.

    Consequently, the issue I have is in his using the kinds of metrics you’re citing for MMOG’s, then using something different for SL, and then somehow lumping them in together and drawing far-reaching conclusions from that concoction. How about we get the metrics figured out first? Fat chance of that happening. Go check Terra Nova to see where the thread on standardizing metrics – this one encouraged by Shirky – has gotten. No where.

    The problem imo is that Shirky is looking at this entire issue through investor eyes. That’s why it’s so easy for him pose the question: “will Second Life become a platform for a significant online population?” and then without batting an eyelash swap “significance” for “popularity” and make it clear he’s all about the numbers. Shirky is subjecting SL to an accountant’s scrutiny and drawing conclusions about users. Meanwhile he’s happy to blindly accept WoW’s subscription numbers but not ask if those translate into an equal number of people and whether they use the application frequently enough to meet his qualification for “adoption”.

    He’ll concede that SL’s users are passionate, but then discounts that as meaningless. I’ve thought about how passion plays a role in developing new products and markets, and from where I sit, if the world was full of Shirky’s, there’d be no innovation. Because everything would be a technology that never materializes.

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