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January 7, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Also: Dog May Have Bitten Man

I love the recent revelations in both gaming and mainstream press that Second Life might not actually have more than two million people in its "population." I practically quiver with glee for three reasons:

  1. Because uber-Libertarian symbol Linden Lab claimed to have this many "residents," and people just bought it, pardon my phrase. There's no more evidence of how powerful the myth of the Linden economy is, or how much technology commentators want to believe it, that people just took the company at its word. It didn't seem important to ask if maybe they had anything to gain from inflated numbers, did it?
  2. Because seriously: people are only now starting to ask--of a largely-unrestricted, multi-user virtual environment, and despite many years that these kinds of environments have actually existed, I might add--whether or not individuals in the real world might actually have more than one virtual persona? Or, how many of those people actually logged on repeatedly in the last few months? How many people are actual paying customers with active accounts? Come on, people--what happened to "trust, but verify?" Didn't that seem fishy to anyone?
  3. And finally, let's pretend that you're a tech reporter worth your salt, and you have to do a piece on Second Life. I would hope that you'd log in before actually writing it, since investigation and curiosity are important parts of being a journalist and not a corporate shill or useless overpaid commentator (before I attract nasty comments, let me add that I am a useless underpaid commentator). So you download the client, you create a persona, and you start looking around. There's a lot of empty space, isn't there? I mean, even a fraction of a couple million people, you'd think it would be really full in Second Life. Linden currently states that the size of the land is more than 65,000 acres, or around 100 square miles. That sounds like a lot--but with two million residents that's a population density of 20,000 people per square mile, which (if it were a real country) would rank just above Singapore (3rd most densely populated nation, with 18,645 people per square mile). Even if we give Second Life the benefit of a 200% inflation rate with one million "residents," they'd still squeak in at number six on the worldwide list. You tell me: did it seem like bustling Singapore when you logged in? Or more like Nowheresville, Kansas? I was watching carefully for the Children of the Corn, myself.

Now on that last one, technically I'm picking nits. After all, a population density is nothing more than a vague measurement spread out across all available land, whereas real people congregate. But I'll tell you something: I've seen a fair amount of photos of events in Second Life, like the U2 concert that was held there, or the town hall meeting on copybot, and frankly I've had more people in my apartment.

The simple fact is that for a long time, the population numbers from Linden Lab went unchallenged because reporters and commentators were caught up in the buzz about its markets. They were dazzled by the idea of a bold new Metaverse where smart people make money hand over fist by the mighty power of their frontal lobes. It was the worst kind of capitalist free-market spin-doctoring, and almost without exception they fell for it.

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