This infusion of journalists was just one of the migrations altering the Second Life landscape. Businesses were coming, too. Pontiac and BMW bought land and opened virtual shops. Major League Baseball built a stadium where you can sit and watch the All-Star game home-run derby on a giant in-world screen. Sundance Channel built a movie theater that shows the occasional film free. Last summer, I flew into Second Life to sneak through an American Apparel store that was a day away from its grand opening but already well publicized by the clothing company’s PR folks, who were eager to promote this new way of buying virtual versions of the company’s clothing as well as the real-life inspirations.
The spill of real-life brands into Second Life became a major technology/pop culture story of 2006. The New York Times, USA Today, Time, and more than a dozen other major news outlets, including MTV News, found it worthy of coverage. But to Wagner James Au and the other resident journalists in Second Life, this incursion of real-life commercialism and the attendant media attention were a distortion of what is significant in the world. In December 2006, the tech blogger Clay Shirky gave voice to this backlash, first in a post titled “A story too good to check,” and a follow-up called “Naming names: the tech reporters who flack for Second Life.” In the latter, he charged journalists from CNN, Fortune, The New York Times, and USA Today with a willful or sloppy tendency to misread the population count of residents posted on SecondLife.com (then topping one million) as a measure of the number of people actually using the world. In the interest of selling editors or readers on the relevance of something—anything—happening in Second Life, he wrote, these reporters failed to mention that the number of residents was arrived at by counting avatars, not the people who have avatars. So Ute Hicks and Marvel Ousley were being counted as two residents, for example, even though both are controlled by Susie Davis. Second Life wasn’t quite as popular as the multimillion statistic suggested.
Shirky had a right to be skeptical. Log on to Second Life today, when the official resident number exceeds five million, and the population of people actually in the world at any given time is only about 20,000 to 30,000. Rosedale estimates that there are about 180,000 unique users of Second Life each day, and says that of the five-million-plus people who log on at some point, only about 10 percent return after one month.
Reporting about this world for MTV News, I wasn’t susceptible to the numbers hype. Our young TV audience and Web readership don’t need dazzling statistics to sell them on the relevance of online worlds. But what I was susceptible to was corporate-driven novelty. For every homegrown Second Life tribute band that I discovered, I was pitched pieces on banks or brands coming to the virtual world. But after doing stories on American Apparel and Universal Music’s exhibition space, I decided that was enough. Some of this corporate innovation/invasion had no more novelty than the dairy industry’s creation in the late 1990s of an official Web site for milk.
I’m not the only one for whom 2006 was the year to get both excited and jaded about media attention to the influx of companies coming to Second Life. Listen to Philip Rosedale: “Is it totally irrelevant that big brands are in Second Life? No. It’s a sea change. They weren’t around a year ago and now they’re here. That tells us something. It especially tells us something because I didn’t do those deals. We don’t do any deals. We didn’t ask them to come. Personally, I wish people would write more about education [several universities offer classes in Second Life]. I really wish that people would write more about the life-changing stuff going on, write more about that oppression support group that meets on this island every couple of days and sits on prayer cushions and talks about themselves. That’s a big deal. Do I wish people would just write about that? Sure. But I also wish everybody would read every night.”