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'Second Life' User Numbers Don't Quite Add Up

How many people use "Second Life"? Not as many as you might think.

In December, New York University lecturer Clay Shirky launched a one-man Web crusade against the widespread misrepresentation of "Second Life"'s popularity, claiming most publications — including PC Magazine — were inadvertently overstating the number of users.

When reporters ask how many people are using "Second Life," the folks at Linden Lab typically respond with the number of "residents," and most reporters assume that "resident" means "unique user."

But as Shirky points out, a resident isn't a unique user. A single user can create multiple virtual residents. "Second Life"'s popularity is significantly smaller than the press claims, and though Linden Lab won't tell us how many people are really using the service, Shirky thinks he's finally gotten to the bottom of things.

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Q: Is Linden Labs consciously misrepresenting the user numbers?

A: As far as I can tell, they've never lied. What they seem to have done is use evocative but uninformative numbers to paint a picture. They play around with figures here and percentages there and hope that people line them up in ways that aren't accurate. ...

If you know the work of George Lakoff, the [University of California] Berkeley linguist, they're past masters of what he calls "framing."

They say 3.2 million, and even when I point out they're talking about residents, not users, and I give another figure about how many people actually come back, and you hear all these other figures, that 3.2 million is what you remember.

Q: Is there a way to weed through all of those numbers?

A: With the most recent set of numbers they've published, I think we can determine the number of people who regularly return to the service, a figure that's indicative of actual social value.

They've now given us figures that show the cumulative number of unique users, and if you express these figures as deltas — how many first-time log-ins there were in a given month — and you subtract those deltas from the number of residents who've logged in over the last 30 days, you're looking at the real user base.

About 1.42 million unique users tried "Second Life" in 2006. Calculations based on Linden Lab's latest numbers and the method I've outlined show that only 135,899 came back in January of 2007.

I'd been guessing that the number was in the low hundreds of thousands, and even then I was being optimistic. It doesn't even break 200,000.

Q: What about the "residents versus users" problem?

A: That's still a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The 30-day log-in numbers are for residents and not for actual people.

Linden Lab's new cumulative unique user figures demonstrate — as I suspected and have accused them of — that the figure for residents is about a 50 percent inflation over the actual number of people on the service.

There's still a strong number of accounts with multiple residents attached, which means the 135,899 figure is actually too high.

Q: Is it safe to say "Second Life" is overhyped, then?

A: Basically, people are saying that "Second Life" can give us everything short of a cure for cancer. They're resuscitating Jaron Lanier's 1980s promise that you'll never have to leave your desk again because virtual reality will re-create every aspect of the physical world — right down to virtual offices and virtual file cabinets.

Virtual file cabinets? Now that's a ridiculous metaphor. This sort of talk is like making a sculpture out of dust. It's a gorgeous vision, but if you touch it, the whole thing crumbles.

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