• 27Jul

    Two Squabbling Reporters

    There’s a fair bit of squabbling going on over Frank Rose’s recent article for Wired Magazine, How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life. New World Notes editor-reporter Hamlet Au took a few jabs at the Wired piece, and Frank Rose fired back in a comment.

    Au tips his hat to Rose’s chutzpah in trying to remove the wool from the corporate eye, but asserts that the article is riddled with the popular media myths and untruths about Second Life. Au suggests that Rose is too inexperienced with SL to know truth from fiction—that he just doesn’t get it. It seems that Frank Rose is just one more of those silly, misinformed media reporters who couldn’t tell an avatar from his own ass.

    In response, Rose takes a scapel to Au’s article, systematically cutting off its supporting evidence and leaving it castrated. Rose points out that the New World Notes piece itself suffers from the hype, half-truths, and blindness that Au accuses Rose’s article of possessing. Perhaps Hamlet Au is not as infallible as he likes to believe.

    Here we have two reporters, swatting and spitting at each other. Which of them is right?

    Both, and neither; both articles get some things right, and some things wrong. All together, though, Frank Rose got much more right than he gets wrong, both in the Wired article and in his counter-rebuttal. Hamlet Au’s verbal thrashing, by contrast, all but missed the mark entirely.

    Myth: There’s nothing to do in SL / There’s plenty to do in SL.

    Frank Rose asserted: Once you put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn’t much to do. That may explain why more than 85 percent of the avatars created have been abandoned.

    Hamlet Au retorted: There’s plenty to do in SL, as evidenced by the extensive guide on things to do in Second Life… that was published in Wired Magazine.

    Second Life has a lot to do, but you have to look for it or make it yourself. If you’re one of the lucky newbies, you’ll find a good mentor who can show you where to find the good stuff. Otherwise, you’re about as likely to stumble upon compelling content by wandering around SL as you would be typing in random letters into your web browser’s address bar. It’s not at all far-fetched to suppose that 85% of people who try SL never see the truly great user-created content, and so log off disappointed.

    Myth: People come to SL hoping for free money and sex.

    Rose wrote: Linden’s in-world traffic tally, which factors in both the number of visitors and time spent, shows that the big draws for those who do return are free money and kinky sex.

    The big draws for transients (the ‘churn’) certainly seems to come from rumors of free money and kinky sex, but I’ve never met an established Resident (someone who has been in SL for more than, say, two months) who logs on to SL primarily in the hopes of scoring free cash or getting laid with no strings attached. For one thing, after about a week or so, you realize that:

    • the free money schemes are fraudulent or pay out only a few U.S. cents per hour.
    • the kinky sex dens are mostly inhabited by deluded and/or desperate transients hoping for a quick score, but lacking even the modicum of social grace necessary to strike up a normal conversation with another person. These avatars are generally not having sex, but rather attempting (and failing) to find someone who will have sex with them.

    Yes, there are established Residents who do have sex (kinky or otherwise), just like in Real Life. These people tend to do so in private quarters with people they have established a rapport with, just like in RL. A relatively small number of Residents might attend “sex orgy parties” to engage in exhibitionism for their own gratification, but they are not the majority.

    Most of the long-term Residents in SL have other reasons for coming back. These reasons are widely varied: they hope to run a successful SL business; they have met good friends in SL; they like dressing up in pretty/expensive/cool/unusual clothing; they can express aspects of themselves they never before realized they had. The list goes on and on.

    Myth: No one’s visiting RL marketing ventures / Some RL marketing ventures attract a lot of traffic.

    Au stated: During that time [the month of June], however, as Tateru documented, … the top ten corporate sites were attracting about 40,000 weekly visits total. 10% the aggregate is hardly insignificant traffic.

    Rose rebutted: I would argue that 10% of 400,000 is insignificant enough, especially when itís spread over X number of corporate builds and doesnít factor out return visitors. But the numbers reported for individual companies are dismal indeed: IBM may have gotten 10,000 visits per week, but less-trafficked islands in the top ten (like Microsoft and Nissan) got fewer than 3,000 each. Other corporate regions not in the top ten were lucky to hit triple digits.

    There are some RL companies which have established successful (in terms of traffic drawn) presences in SL. The majority, however, simply fail to attract very many people. This isn’t particularly surprising: most corporate presences in SL don’t offer any compelling reason for anyone to come. In other words, they’re doing it wrong.

    It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of SL regions in general are empty or nearly empty all the time. Many of these are private homes, abandoned lots (ones not frequented by even their owners), or shoddy and under-advertised businesses. Only regions which offer a compelling reason to visit will receive a significant amount of traffic.

    Myth: The Grid is a bunch of disjointed individual regions / The Grid is a continuous landscape made of many connected parts.

    Rose wrote: Created by an underfunded startup using a physics engine that’s now years out of date, Second Life is made up of thousands of disconnected “regions” (read: processors), most of which remain invisible unless you explicitly search for them by name. Residents can reach these places only by teleporting into the void.

    Au countered: [M]ost regions are visible, when you use the Map function, and they are by definition connected– which is why SL is colloquially known as “the grid”.

    It’s true, as Au says, that all the regions in SL are ostensibly connected, layed out in a 2D grid which permits travel by foot or, if you’re feeling lucky, by vehicle from one region to an adjacent one. However, this is only relevant on the Mainland: the handful of large continents, clumps of thousands of regions sculpted into the appearance of contiguous wholes.

    Most regions—particularly regions paid for by RL corporations—are islands, with no direct connection to these larger bodies of land. You cannot walk, swim, or fly from the Mainland to, for example, Microsoft’s island, you must teleport there, as Rose points out. Trying to locate such islands without the search tool is difficult, unless you already know where they are; the individual islands are so tiny relative to the scope of The Grid as a whole, that they are invisible on the map except at the highest zoom levels.

    Even on the Mainland, the continuity between neighboring regions is iffy. Crossing sim borders can cause a variety of technical glitches, especially if you’re riding in a vehicle. At best, you’ll experience a little skip and some rubber banding. It’s quite possible you’ll fall through the ground and plummet towards negative infinity, or end up with all your attachments stuffed in your own rear end. It’s by no means a seamless transition.

    Myth: Large crowds are technically infeasible in SL / Large groups can gather in one area if you’re clever.

    Rose writes: [E]ven the popular islands are never crowded, because each processor on Linden Lab’s servers can handle a maximum of only 70 avatars at a time; more than that and the service slows to a crawl, some avatars disappear, or the island simply vanishes.

    Au counters: [M]any events are held on the intersection of four servers, precisely to get around this 70 avatar limit, leading to occasions with some 200+ avatars in the same geographic region.

    The exact number of avatars that a sim can handle varies from server to server, but the figure of 70 is not only realistic, but even slightly generous. The limit for the average mainland sim seems to be around 40-50 avatars; however, except for in the most popular clubs, this limit is rarely pushed.

    On private islands, the owner can set the rules-enforced limit—as opposed to the natural limit the hardware can handle—to whatever they wish. The scripted artificial ecosystem of Svarga island, for example, allows no more than about 15 avatars to be in the region at one time; much more than that, and the region would likely crash, disconnecting everyone on the island, and rendering the region inaccessible until it has restarted.

    By contrast, some regions such as the Phat Cat jazz lounge (the Phatland sim) routinely host up to 100 avatars at a time—but not without very noticeable sim slowdown. Each person on that island will only see up to 35 avatars around them, though, because of a coded-in limit in the viewer client; any more than that, and the viewer would almost certainly grind to a halt from the rendering load.

    The solution for cramming a larger number of avatars into one area by hosting the event at the intersection of 4 adjacent regions is an ugly hack, and fraught with technical difficulties due to the sim borders, both in terms of constructing the venue, and attending the event. And even if everything runs perfectly, the figure of 200+ avatars that Au boasts of would barely suffice to fill a medium-sized RL playhouse. Compared to the thousands of screaming fans that can easily fit in a RL stadium for a rock concert, SL’s largest crowds are paltry.

    One Left Standing

    Despite Au’s claims to the contrary, Frank Rose’s article is neither riddled with major factual errors, nor the reflection of a narrow understanding of the reality of Second Life. Far from it: Rose offers a reasonably well-informed and genuinely insightful piece.

    Hamlet Au, however, seems so keen to press his agenda that he has begun to see mainstream media goof-ups where there are none. Perhaps it is time for him to step back and take an honest, sobering look at the broader reality of Second Life as it actually is—not how we merely wish it was.

    Posted by Jacek Antonelli @ 1:07 am

2 Responses

  • Aenea Nori Says:


    Hamlet and Frank’s discussion dovetails well with Gwyn’s recent essay entitled “I’m Bored”.

    There remains a major challenge of getting new residents over that initial hump, of helping them find people and activities which will draw them back and engage them. But as you present them, most of Rose’s comments are valid, if also being issues that you learn to live with (and tend to gloss over, as Hamlet may have done) once you commit to SL.

  • Coyote Says:

    Sounds like a battle between the half-empty and half-full viewpoints. For a rather sunnier, though perhaps a little breathless, view of SL in the mainstream media, see Newsweek online: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19876812/site/newsweek/ .

    * Jacek, your concern that newbies cannot find the best in SL is very true (it sure took *me* a while). I hope it may be somwhat remedied when the Linden experiment comes to fruition, and Welcome Area functions are handed over to well-qualified 3rd parties who actually might care to do a good job of newbie guidance.

    * Free money is a common fantasy, true enough — so many people do seem to enter SL with an idea that they can make real money, or at least live the good SL life without putting any real $ into it. Many do managee the latter, of course, with clever freebie shopping — and there’s that newbie guidance issue again. I sometimes advise people to go work at McDonalds for a few hours, then quit and use their wages to finance the rest of their Second Life. It would beat wasting weeks of realtime on camping chairs!

    * It’s hard to get too excited about lack of traffic in RL vendors’ venues. If “traffic” was actually buying them something, they’d expend the imagination and effort to make their venues worth visiting, and better known. Why would I visit a virtual Gap when I could visit Truth instead?

    * The other Rose complaints are essentially on technical limitations and implementation issues, not social issues. Only more Linden investment money will solve those ;-)