Do Second Life's numbers matter?
In case you missed it, the Second Life backlash is in full swing, with no less formidable a figure than NYU professor Clay Shirky attacking the mainstream media for accepting Linden Labs' figures for how many people have signed up with the virtual world. Clay argues that the business press has become "a zombie army of unpaid flacks" by simply parroting the claims that Second Life now has about 2 million registered users. He specifically singles out BusinessWeek, the New York Times, USA Today, and these pieces by The Browser's colleagues at Fortune and CNNMoney. Clay has also mixed it up with Business 2.0's Erick Schonfeld here.

Clay's fundamental argument is that the press has done a grave disservice by failing to distinguish between SL's registered users, and the number of people who are actually active residents, which is clearly much lower. Moreover, he attacks the fact-checking process for failing to pick up on this discrepancy, and predicts that the press will either ignore his critique, or shift their coverage without ever pointing out their own shortcoming. He challenges the media to inquire about actual users, and then says "I realize I might as well be asking Business Week to send me a pony for my birthday."

Before The Browser responds, one quick correction to Clay's post: the vast majority of publications he refers to do not, as it happens, employ fact-checkers. Fortune does not, CNNMoney does not, and no daily newspaper we are aware of does or ever has. Whether they should or not is a matter for another day.

But look: basically, Clay's right. You cannot write a comprehensive article on SL without pointing out this discrepancy. It's hardly unique to SL; back in the days when The New York Times was first ramping up its Web site, for which you had to register, I used to have a joke: the Times claims to have 8 million registered users, and I'm seven of them. I'd simply forgotten my password often enough that I'd just signed up with a different log-in, and no one at the Times ever asked me to get rid of the older log-ins.

In the case of SL, anyone who's tried to sign up can tell you in a second why lots of people clearly don't come back. The registration process is intimidating, and the site simply will not work if you are, like us, behind a corporate firewall.

Do the numbers really matter? That is, isn't the SL phenomenon valid even if the real number is 500,000 active users or even 100,000? Clay set a trap on this point, predicting a wave of stories that would try to argue that the numbers are immaterial. So we'll sidestep that, and ask what you think.
Posted by Jim Ledbetter 11:21 AM 10 Comments comment | Add a Comment

One could probably argue that this discrepancy is probably being overlooked with regards to many membership-dependant sites. I have three MySpace accounts, four hotmail accounts, two Gmail, three YahooMail, two MsbBand, four MSN...shall I continue? As someone who needs to know who is REALLY my audience, can anyone tell me how many of their registered users actually use the websites and how frequently?
Posted By Josh, Madison, WI : 1:14 PM  

Currently, Second Life reports the number of 'residents' who have logged in over the past 60 days. This number is 834k as of 12/17. With 2.2M total stated residents, that means a 38% activation rate. They also tell you how many people are 'online now' -- 18k or 2% of the actives and 1% of the total base. These numbers are not overly impressive. But they are also not hidden-- they are on the Second Life homepage for all to see. No need for a "fact checker" here... you only need to go to their homepage to see the user funnel.
Posted By Eric, New York, NY : 4:12 PM  

thanks for ur honesty in admitting u dun hire fact checkers. but if u consider 2million as a really important part of the story, i think any sensible reader will assume the journalist did some real work in finding out the credibility of that figure. just a thought...
Posted By Bjorn Lee, Singapore : 12:25 PM  

In my opinion, the numbers SL stated aren't too far off. According to comScore, SL attracted over 400K users in November with an average daily users of 23K. The monthly numbers are within the reporting errors as other websites.
Posted By Dem Santos, San Francisco, CA : 10:57 PM  

I agree 110%, the world at large have become zombies to the one-sided opinions misrepresented by the media. DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!
God gave us all a brain with which to think and see and learn. If we the people can't learn to see "the forest for the trees", we are doomed to our own ignorance led by the media. Don't believe everything you read, the mass media is a business, their job is, first and foremost TO GET YOUR MONEY. The "truth" is secondary. We must learn to see beyond the eye catching headlines, the controversial topics and the "who done it" mysteries to find the real evidence and, ahh the real truth.
I recently registered with Second Life, looking to try online gaming, when I was propmted to give my credit card number in order to get my "free" credits, I canceled, and haven't been back since. So I guess I only count as one.
Posted By Claire, San Diego, Ca : 11:40 AM  

"I have three MySpace accounts, four hotmail accounts, two Gmail, three YahooMail, two MsbBand, four MSN...shall I continue?"

No, Josh, the real question is...why??
Posted By Joe Sixpack, Albany, NY : 4:29 AM  

User numbers in SL does not matter, what matters is a better starting guide that does not take anything for granted, and intertaining and usefull kontent. Better "yellow pages" and perhaps speciazlized islands so that it is easy to walk around and brouse.
Posted By s.h.basse, bornholm denmark : 5:34 AM  

I think Clay is correct. I've checked out Second Life a few times. Really cool concept. Similar to one I promoted (on the PR side) in 1999. My take away: Who in the heck wants to hang out there? I've got lots of better things to do. Having said that, I think that Second Life will grow and its niche will evolve. But the numbers should be investigated.
Posted By Neil Vineberg, Westhampton NY : 8:53 AM  

Re Joe Sixpack's comment on the "why", you must be either smoking or you're completely new to the web. EVERYONE, practically everyone does this on ALL kinds of website. It's like, my 8 gmail accounts (only 1 is active), 4 yahoo mail accounts (none is active), 2 excite mail accounts (long dead), 7 paypal accounts (accounts got screwed up by dubious buyers), and so on. If you think everyone will use one and only account for every website that they visit, I bet you're born before 1950s.
Posted By tiddle, nyc, ny : 9:03 PM  

Concurrent users tends to be a better benchmark and I seem to recall a figure some time ago that suggested you could take peak number of users online at a given moment and multiply by ten.

So if Second Life is reporting 20,000 concurrent users, then the number of active users could be around 200,000.
Posted By Harry, London, UK : 4:22 AM  

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