The tech reporters who flack for Second Life

The tech reporters who flack for Second Life

CLAY SHIRKY — "Here at KingsRUs.com, we call our website our Kingdom, and any time our webservers serve up a copy of the home page, we record that as a Loyal Subject. We're very pleased to announce that in the last two months, we have added over 1 million Loyal Subjects to our Kingdom."

Put that baldly, you wouldn't fall for this bit of re-direction, and yet that is exactly what Linden Labs, a much-promoted maker of virtual worlds backed by Benchmark Capital, has pulled off with its Residents™ label. By adopting a term that seems like a simple re-branding of "users", but which is actually unconnected to head count or adoption, they've managed to report what the press wants to hear, while providing no actual information.

If you like your magic tricks to stay mysterious, leave now, but if you want to understand how Linden has managed to disable the fact-checking apparatus of much of the US business press, turning them into a zombie army of unpaid flacks for Second Life, Linden's virtual world, read on. [Valleywag's entire coverage of the hype around virtual worlds, including two earlier essays by Clay Shirky, frog bands and penis throwing, is at http://valleywag.com/tech/second%20....]

The basic trick is to make it hard to remember that Linden's definition of Resident has nothing to do with the plain meaning of the word resident. My dictionary says a resident is a person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long term basis. Linden's definition of Residents, however, has nothing to do with users at all — it measures signups for an avatar. (Get it? The avatar, not the user, is the resident of Second Life.)

The obvious costume-party assumption is that there is one avatar per person, but that's wrong. There can be more than one avatar per account, and more than one account per person, and there's no public explanation of which of those units Residents measures, and thus no way to tell anything about how many actual people use Second Life. (An embarrassingly First Life concern, I know.)

Confused yet? Wait, there's less! Linden's numbers also suggest that the Residents figure includes even failed attempts to use the service. They reported adding their second million Residents between mid-October and December 14th, but they also reported just shy of 810,000 logins for the same period. One million new Residents but only 810,000 logins leaves nearly 200,000 new Residents unaccounted for. Linden may be counting as Residents people who signed up and downloaded the client software, but who never logged in, or there may be some other reason for the mismatched figures, but whatever the case, Residents is remarkably inflated with regards to the published measure of use.

(If there are any actual reporters reading this and doing a big cover story on Linden, you might ask about how many real people use Second Life regularly, as opposed to Residents or signups or avatars. As I write those words, though, I realize I might as well be asking Business Week to send me a pony for my birthday.)

Like a push-up bra, Linden's trick is as effective as it is because the press really, really wants to believe:

Professional journalists wrote those sentences. They work for newspapers and magazines that employ (or used to employ) fact-checkers. Yet here they are, supplementing Linden's meager PR budget by telling their readers that Residents measures something it actually doesn't.

This credulity appears even in the smallest items. I discovered the "Residents vs Logins" gap when I came across a Business 2.0 post by Erick Schonfeld, where he included the mismatched numbers while congratulating Linden on a job well done. When I asked the obvious question in the comments — How come there are fewer logins than new Residents in the same period? — I got a nice email from Mr. Schonfeld, complimenting me on a good catch.

Now I'm generally pretty enthusiastic about taking credit where it isn't due, but this bit of praise failed to meet even my debased standards. The post was a hundred words long, and it had only two numbers in it. I didn't have to use forensic accounting to find the discrepancy, I just used subtraction (an oft-overlooked tool in the journalistic toolkit, but surprisingly effective when dealing with numbers.)

This is the state of business reporting in an age when even the pros want to roll with the cool blogger kids. Got a paragraph that contains only two numbers, and they don't match? No problem! Post it anyway, and on to the next thing.

The prize bit of PReporting so far, though, has to be Elizabeth Corcoran's piece for Forbes called A Walk on the Virtual Side, where she claimed that Second Life had recently passed "a million unique customers."

This is three lies in four words. There isn't one million of anything human inhabiting Second Life. There is no one-to-one correlation between Residents and users. And whatever Residents does measure, it has nothing to do with paying customers. The number of paid accounts is in the tens of thousands, not the millions (and remember, if you're playing along at home, there can be more than one account per person. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many logged into St. Ides?)

Despite the credulity of the Fourth Estate (Classic Edition), there are enough questions being asked in the weblogs covering Second Life that the usefulness is going to drain out of the 'Resident™ doesn't mean resident' trick over the next few months. We're going to see three things happen as a result.

The first thing that's going to happen, or rather not happen, is that the regular press isn't going go back over this story looking for real figures. As much as they've written about the virtual economy and the next net, the press hasn't really covered Second Life as business story or tech story so much as a trend story. The sine qua non of trend stories is that a trend is fast-growing. The Residents figure was never really part of the story, it just provided permission to write about about how crazy it is that all the kids these days are getting avatars. By the time any given writer was pitching that story to their editors, any skepticism about the basic proposition had already been smothered.

No journalist wants to have to write "When we told you that Second Life had 1.3 million members, we in no way meant to suggest that figure referred to individual people. Fortune regrets any misunderstanding." And since no one wants to write that, no one will. They'll shift their coverage without pointing out the shift to their readers.

The second thing that is going to happen is an increase in arguments of the form "We mustn't let Linden's numbers blind us to the inevitability of the coming metaverse." That's the way it is with things we're asked to take on faith — when A works, it's evidence of B, but if A isn't working as well as everyone thought, it's suddenly unrelated to B.

Finally, there is going to be a spike in the number of the posts claiming that the two million number was never important anyway, the press's misreporting was all an innocent mistake, Linden was planning to call those reporters first thing Monday morning and explain everything. Tateru Nino has already kicked off this genre with a post entitled The Value of One. The flow of her argument is hard to synopsize, but you can get a sense of it from this paragraph:

"So, a hundred thousand, one million, two million. Those numbers mean something to us, but not because they have intrinsic, direct meaning. They have meaning because they're filtered through the media, disseminated out into the world, believed by people, who then act based on that belief, and that is where the meaning lies."

Expect more, much more, of this kind of thing in 2007.