The Permanent Virtual Corporate Carnival


Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky are having an interesting "debate" on their blogs about Second Life, arguably the best-known online virtual world. I put the word debate in quotation marks because there isn't actually a lot of disagreement here. Shirky makes a compelling argument that journalists and other boosters have overhyped the size and significance of Second Life, then concedes that "there are many interesting things going on in Second Life….My concerns are demographic." Jenkins, in turn, passes quickly through the demographic questions ("personally, I have never believed that SL is going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term") before explaining that "Second Life interests me as a particular model of participatory culture." The two don't concur on everything—and a third participant in the discussion, Beth Coleman, has yet to weigh in—but their essays complement more than contradict each other. Both are worth reading.

Since I was blogging about medieval carnivals last month, I'll throw in this quote from Jenkins' piece:

Some have dismissed SL as a costume party—I see it more as carnival in the medieval sense of the term—as a time and place within which normal rules of interactions are suspended, roles can be swapped or transformed, hierarchies can be reordered, and we can step out of normal reality into a "magic circle" or "green world" which can be highly generative for the imagination. The difference is that in the old days, carnival was something that existed for a very short period of time and people planned for it all year. Now, in the era of SL, carnival exists all the day and people have to decide how much time they want to spend there. In the old days, the power structures that led to carnival were religious and the church had to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. Today, the power structures that lead to SL are corporate and companies have to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. That corporate America seems to be experimenting with the alternative reality that constitutes SL is news—even if many of these experiments fail and even if many of these companies have no clue what to do with their islands and even if most of them go back into their cloisters in another year or two.

NEXT: Pot Clubs in Peril

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  1. I think the carnival analogy is a good one…you get [try] to be something you are not in real life…in SL you have to be good, but not great, at pretending you are what you want to be…but not as good as in real life…not everyone wants to be an actor…not everyone wishes they were someone else…not everyone wants to explore what it’s like to be the opposite sex, etc…so there is a limited appeal.

    Having typed that, it’s only a slightly more robust way of creating a persona than commenting on blogs.

  2. Except for the fact that people are making real money in SL. Granted you can debate whether its daft that people are actually making money (in some cases a living) from selling stuff in SL but it occurs.

    Not everyone is a teenager who wants to experience life as a girl. There are some interesting other things going on SL.

    Yes its being overhyped by some in the media but that does not mean its full of only complete losers with no lives.

  3. the reason second life is consistently reported on by the media is because linden expends far more effort on public relations than they do on making an interesting or worthwhile product/world. the user base of second life is microscopic compared to world of warcraft or even its closest competitors (which WoW dwarfs in terms of active players). people install second life because they hear a news story about it, quickly get frustrated with the shitty user experience, and abandon it. over 1/3rd of their userbase has signed up in the past 3 months, but they aren’t growing at that rate, its just a huge amount of churn.

  4. Ron appears to be correct. Linden Labs counts everyone who ever tried it as part of Second Life’s user-base, while I hear almost nothing from people who actually stay with Second Life except for complaints about lag and downtime.

  5. Heck, I just checked out SL’s web site, and it’s slow as hell. Wouldn’t seem to bode well for the user experience if they can’t even maintain a good web server.

    I confess that I haven’t tried it out, but to me SL seems little more than a tricked-out version of The Sims Online, which was a huge failure. The problem with Sims Online (and SL, to my mind) is that it was largely pointless other than as a chat-room-with-avatars. Yeah, you can buy stuff and look at stuff in SL, but what are you buying and selling, other than graphics and such to make your SL experience more colorful? I don’t get it.

  6. people install second life because they hear a news story about it, quickly get frustrated with the shitty user experience, and abandon it.

    That sure rings a bell. I tried it almost a year ago. Yawn.

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