Clay Shirky on Second Hype: A story too good to check

Over at Valleywag, Clay Shirky has a terrific, meaty rant debunking factually sloppy hype in recent press coverage of Second Life.

I suspect Second Life is largely a "Try Me" virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use. Pointcast was a Try Me virus, as was LambdaMOO, the experiment that Second Life most closely resembles.

I have been watching the press reaction to Second Life with increasing confusion. Breathless reports of an Immanent Shift in the Way We Live® do not seem to be accompanied by much skepticism. I may have been made immune to the current mania by ODing on an earlier belief in virtual worlds:

Similar to the way previous media dissolved social boundaries related to time and space, the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity as well. […] I know a respectable computer scientist who spends hours as an imaginary ensign aboard a virtual starship full of other real people around the world who pretend they are characters in a Star Trek adventure. I have three or four personae myself, in different virtual communities around the Net. I know a person who spends hours of his day as a fantasy character who resembles "a cross between Thorin Oakenshield and the Little Prince," and is an architect and educator and bit of a magician aboard an imaginary space colony: By day, David is an energy economist in Boulder, Colorado, father of three; at night, he's Spark of Cyberion City–a place where I'm known only as Pollenator.

This wasn't written about Second Life or any other 3D space, it was Howard Rheingold writing about MUDs in 1993. This was a sentiment I believed and publicly echoed at the time. Per Howard, "MUDs are living laboratories for studying the first-level impacts of virtual communities." Except, of course, they weren't. If, in 1993, you'd studied mailing lists, or usenet, or irc, you'd have a better grasp of online community today than if you'd spent a lot of time in LambdaMOO or Cyberion City. Ou sont les TinyMUCKs d'antan?

You can find similar articles touting 3D spaces shortly after the MUD frenzy. Ready for a blast from the past? "August 1996 may well go down in the annals of the Internet as the turning point when the Web was released from the 2D flatland of HTML pages." Oops.

For what it's worth (my two Lindens): More power to all the geeks out there who dig SL. I think it's kinda fun even though I suck at flying and teleporting, and don't look all that good in goth miniskirts. But what's even more fun is poking holes in lazily reported, hype-heavy tech journalism that reeks of eau de 1999.

Link to item, and there are many previous BoingBoing posts about Second Life here.

Reader comment: Richard Gray says,

I caught your post on Boing Boing quoting some old research about MUDs
and the like. It prompted me to recall my days MUD'ing and the great
folks over at the Realms of Despair.

Amongst the miscellaneous stuff stored in their archive is a reasonable
collection of early research into the social aspects of MUDs. I thought
you'd be interested in seeing the papers, and they are here: FTP link.

In particular I'd point out a rather interesting one regarding rape in
virtual worlds. FTP link.