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The Complete Rebuttal For Second Life Skeptics

Second Life expert Wagner James Au provides the final rebuttal to skeptics who think that the virtual world is just a fad, or are baffled why it's getting so much attention.

Second Life expert Wagner James Au provides the final rebuttal to skeptics who think that the virtual world is just a fad, or are baffled why it's getting so much attention.

Au, a journalist who specialize in gaming and Second Life, is the subject of an interview by Henry Jenkins of MIT Media Lab at the blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Au was the first "embedded journalist" in Second Life, back in 2003, working for SL developers Linden Lab. He stopped working for them, but continued providing SL coverage on his blog, New World Notes. He just finished writing a book of the same title.

Au says there are two "conversations" going on about Second Life. The one that gets all the hype and backlash is about real-world companies moving in to Second Life, with articles that are introductory and focus on money-making opportunities.

This coverage isn't the real story of SL, he says. The real story, he says:

involves all the grassroots user-created content which is merging the world with the broader web, creating a more robust world in a roleplaying sense, while also evolving it into a platform for real world applications. That's the main story, in my opinion, the one I try to tell on New Worlds Notes, and the one which accounts for Second Life's consistent, steady growth. It's not a function of media and corporate interest.

Is there a tension between the corporate colonization of Second Life and the "gift economy" which underlies a vision of the space as a new kind of participatory culture?

For the most part, there is no tension, because the native participatory culture hardly knows the corporations are even there, or care all that much that they are. Residents have scant or limited interest in their "colonization", which is a strong word for what's really going on: big name brands on dozens of private islands that few visit for any extended period of time. Consistently, grassroots, user-created events and sites are far more popular.

Things get really interesting in part two, where Au projects the growth rate for SL. In particular, pay attention to the graph.

Au says:

At the current velocity, the number of active SL Residents will easily be over a million by the end of 2007. ("Active" defined as a unique user who logs into the world at least once a week, 3 months after account creation.)...

Even assuming that Second Life growth somehow stalls toward the end of 2007, it will still wind up a moderately successful niche MMO of some one million active users.

Given the world's current activity, the number of companies and institutions investing in it, growth of EU users (who now outstrip Americans), imminent localization to the the Asian markets, continued expansion of broadband, this outcome is actually the least plausible scenario. However, it's worth contemplating for awhile, at least for the sake of skeptics who insist Second Life is not a phenomenon worthy of heightened attention. For even then, we will still be talking about an online world that has been fostered and sustained entirely through user-created content, comprised of a million regular participants from around the world, existing in a diverse ecology of commerce, art, entertainment, technological, educational and scientific pursuits, most of them homegrown, some of them financed by corporate and non-profit concerns from around the globe. I fail to see how this would not be a unique and important Internet phenomenon, and how it would not remain an important contributor to Net culture.

More likely, growth will continue at current rates through 2008, Au says.

The blog Valleywag has made a mission of slagging Second Life, claiming that it's all hot air, hype, and a downright scam, and that it'll all collapse any moment now. As far as I can see, they started on this mission December 1, although they were already turning skeptical in November.. And yet, here we are, four and a half months later, and growth is accelerating -- the lines are heading straight up.

If Second Life were going to collapse, it would have happened already. Overhyped, completely empty technologies take a few months to collapse. They're not still inflating four and a half months after they've been pricked. I look forward to Valleywag's sheepish, red-faced admission that it was wrong.

Read both parts of the Au interview for more discussion, including why Second Life is more important than World of Warcraft even if WoW is vastly larger, and actress Julia Roberts's secret vice.

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