Writing in The Social Interface last year, I supposed that mainstream media's following of Facebook and Twitter rather than synthetic worlds came down to the numbers involved: the former simply have many more users than any single instance of the latter. A second possible explanation occurred to me after reading Wagner James Au's The Making of Second Life (2008) recently. The book was written at around the time that I heard all those stories of entrepreneurs and companies opening for business in Second Life, and Chapter 10 has a bit to say about their fates.
Au records that Second Life users largely ignored the corporate spaces, preferring to remain in the areas created by traditional non-corporate Second Life users. The owners of these spaces, one might therefore suppose, have little incentive to talk about Second Life in their own spaces. Meanwhile, many corporations have thousands of Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers, so why wouldn't they prefer to talk about those? Could it be that Facebook and Twitter's visibility comes about because they turned out to better homes for major media corporations, or at least because their user community was more welcoming to said corporations than the user community of Second Life?
Off-hand, I can't think of any way to test such an hypothesis — certainly not from the armchair in which I write this. But I did happen across a couple of observations consistent with it.
Firstly, I recalled my own recent observations about very large "communities": as nice as it sounds for everyone to participate with everyone else, it just isn't possible to do it. We therefore conduct our public business through large institutions, even if few people have much affection for them. Facebook provided a home where Second Life did not, so there the intitutions are and so is everyone else but a few corporation-averse hold-outs.
Secondly, The Register's Richard Chirgwin drew readers' attention to some marketers' lament that up to 80% of sharing of links and articles occurs via e-mail and text messaging, which marketers have no means of tracking. So the marketers would certainly prefer it if we were all on Facebook. At least one of the marketers involved seems to be so impressed with Facebook et al. that Business Review Weekly quotes her as saying that "dark social [e-mail] is a very interesting development" even though, as Chirgwin observes, people of sufficient age have been using e-mail and text messaging for at least a decade before anyone had heard of what we now call a "social network".
For many of us, I'm sure that getting away with 80% of our communications unmonitored by marketers is a sign of hope. And we can remind ourselves that we aren't defined solely by our profiles in major media outlets: Second Lives and e-mails aren't failures just because they don't enjoy the media profile of Facebook or Google, any more than my local baker is a failure because he only sells bread to people in my suburb. If Second Life and World of Warcraft entertain millions of people and keep their operators in business, why worry if some other corporation isn't paying much attention to them?
I've just finished reading Edward Castronova's Synthetic Worlds (2006), which is something I probably ought to have done some time ago. Reading it seven years after its publication, however, reminded me that synthetic worlds — notably Second Life — seemed like big news in the computer community at around the time that Castronova was writing. I remember being told that major companies were opening stores in Second Life, luminaries were holding press conferences there, entrepeneurs were making money there, and that anyone who was anyone would shortly be living, at least in part, in a synthetic world. Yet I don't hear much about Second Life or any similar world anymore.
The worlds themselves are still there and, presumably, making a living for the companies that develop them. But neither the media nor the conversations in which I'm involved have much to do with them. Was I, in 2006, hanging around a bunch of starry-eyed gamers unaware that not everyone was interested in their hobby? Is the media still not taking computer games seriously, as Castronova suggests in his introduction to Part II? Has everyone disappeared into a synthetic world, leaving me wandering alone on the outside?
In both the mainstream media and in conversations of which I'm a part, the giants of the computer industry aren't synthetic worlds of the kind that Castronova wrote about, but web-based tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google. And, to go by the numbers, rightly so: according to Statistic Brain, Facebook has over 1100 million accounts, Twitter has over 550 million accounts, and Google responds to over 5000 million searches per day. The largest synthetic world, World of Warcraft, had a comparatively measly 12 million subscribers at its height.
If there are synthetic worlds to which humanity is migrating, as Castronova puts it, they're surely Facebook and Twitter. The home pages of Second Life and World of Warcraft themselves sport those ubiquitous offers to "like" them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.
I can think of several possible explanations. Firstly, Facebook and Twitter are free, where the synthetic worlds studied by Castronova ask for subscriptions. Secondly, the user base of game-like synthetic worlds is fragmented into numerous followers of different worlds, while Facebook and Twitter completely dominate their markets.
Lastly, though, I wonder if synthetic worlds have themselves met the fate of virtual reality identified in the appendix to Castronova's book. As Castronova has it, the researchers behind virtual reality originally supposed that virtual worlds would be created by completely immersing the users' senses in computer-generated stimuli. But it turns out that relatively crude representations of characters and landscapes on an ordinary computer are good enough to keep users' minds in a synthetic world. But maybe most of us don't even need those crude representations, at least not most of the time: our needs are adequately met by augmenting the real world with web profiles and instant messaging. After all, it's the one world from which we cannot migrate.
Andy Ruddock's article on violent computer games on The Conversation last week mentions Henry Jenkins' opinion that "the trouble with most gaming violence ... was that it was boring" following the Columbine Massacre in the US in 1999.
Having myself tired of yet another first-person shooter around the same time, I'm inclined to agree with Jenkins. To judge by the popularity of games like World of Warcraft and the endless stream of blowing-stuff-up that appears in games reviews in APC Magazine and the conversations of my gaming acquaintances, however, millions of gamers disagree.
Reading through said games reviews, and enduring such conversations, it's easy for scholarly types to dismiss computer games as the most repetitive and unimaginitive form of art ever devised. It being cricket season in Australia, however, reminded me that games like cricket, baseball and various forms of football have been played by more or less the same rules for 150 years or so, and yet people (including me) still find them interesting to both play and watch.
So why shouldn't computer games have the same longevity? If playing a constantly-evolving roster of opponents at cricket and football can keep us entertained for 150 years, why not a constantly-evolving roster of computerised space aliens, fantastical creatures, and terrorists?
Some classic computer games may conceivably have this sort of longevity: I still think fondly of games like Pacman, Tetris and Bubble Bobble long after I lost interest in Doom, Quake and all their clones. Jenkins' and my complaints of repetitive violence might just be symptoms of Theodore Sturgeon's classic observation that "ninety percent of everything is crap" — it's not like every film, book or piece of music released is a masterpiece of inspiration and originality, either.
Game enthusiasts of the 1990s and 2000s often seemed to me to be pre-occupied with the quality of sound and graphics, rather like cricketers being pre-occupied with the construction of bats and balls. A visit to the International Cricket Hall of Fame (formerly the Bradman Museum of Cricket) earlier this week, however, reminded me that the rules and equipment used in cricket developed for a century or more before what we now recognise as the first test match in 1877. In a hundred years' time, will we look back on gamers of the 1990s in the same way we look back on those who experimented with the lengths of pitches, the construction of bats, and styles of bowling in the 1800's?