So the Yankee Group has withdrawn its "Wither Second Life" report which dubiously asserted a slowing growth rate since 2006 and twelve minutes average monthly usage. Last Friday, report co-author Christopher Collins told Joey Seiler of VirtualWorldsNews.com they'll rewrite it, though they're not satisfied with the numbers Linden Lab's are giving them now, saying, "Even based on Linden's own analysis, there are usages that range from an hour a month to 40 hours a month..."
There's something odd about that statement: last week when I e-mailed the Yankee Group authors, asking about the methodology of their original report, Christopher Collins told me, "All of my stats came from my analysis of published Linden Lab data." So if he's not satisfied with Linden's numbers now, why did he claim to entirely rely on them, beforehand? And what unknown Linden data points was he referring to in the first place? Since the report's being re-jiggered, I suppose these will be among the many mysteries remanded to shadow.
What isn't a mystery, however, is how pervasive the original report has already become: last week, the 12 minutes average/slowdown since 2006 figures were cited without even a tincture of skepticism by Wired.com, by Valleywag (of course), by MIT's Adverlab, by Marketing Vox, by David Kushner of IEEE's blog, by stock analyst The Motley Fool, among many, many others. This is the phenomenon that interests me more, because these are influential sites with a lot of credibility in their respective circles. Yet somehow, all of them unquestioningly repeated data that an active SL user would instantly consider strange, were they to look at them closely (for reasons explained here.)
Why? This is what I'm calling the Rimm Effect. And to explain what that means, we need to go back about 13 years.
The early 90s saw the first wave of general interest around this obscure, academic/government system called the Internet. E-mail addresses were gradually becoming commonplace, activity on Usenet groups and dial-up bulletin board systems grew, while some college kid in Chicago was creating something called a "web browser" that was supposed to be the killer app of this hard-to-use medium. Many people started saying this whole Internet thing was the future.
Many more, however, did not. To them, the idea of devoting so much time and resources on a worldwide network of computers seemed threatening, or at least annoying. And their main condemnation will sound familiar to readers of this Second Life blog: the Internet, they announced, while somewhat interesting as a brief fad, was ultimately for anti-social freaks with no real lives who only went online for virtual sex. And as interest in the Net persisted, so did the intensity of this litany.
And then another college kid named Martin Rimm appeared on the scene. What followed next is partly summarized from a chronology by Brock Meeks, available on the EFF's site:
In 1994, Rimm prepares a study purporting to prove that 83.5 percent of images traded on Usenet are pornographic. He begins shopping it to the media. Time Magazine picks it up, and uses the Rimm report as an anchor for a cover story featuring a terrified child staring into the Internet. Given the magazine's imprimatur, the report's findings are echoed across the media. Most of them credulously, unquestioningly repeat a figure that the average Internet user back then would instantly consider strange. But that doesn't matter, because the stories are not written for them, or by them. And soon enough, a Senator is waving the copy of Time Magazine, and repeating that 83.5 percent number into the Congressional Record, as part of his call to censor the Internet.
Let us (especially the Yankee Group's lawyers) be clear: I am not comparing the Rimm report to the "Wither Second Life" report. The comparison is to what followed, after each was published: immediate acceptance and promulgation of an inflammatory claim which comes with no ready methodology, which impugns an entire medium in consequence if not in intent, and which on its face is highly questionable to anyone with substantial experience in the phenomenon it's purporting to describe.
Another comparison comes from motive: in both instances, it's driven at least in part by a desire to dismiss, and a rationale to do so. In an eloquent and thundering jeremiad, Gwyneth Llewelyn ascribes this to a conspiracy of powerful experts and executives desperate to discredit this thing that's threatening their reputation and industries. I think there's a simpler explanation, because it comes down to hope versus understanding.
As SL persists, and more competitors (including Google) announce plans to create a better Second Life, the Rimm Effect will grow. Put-upon people who can't bear spending another moment of their lives having to think about immersive avatars or dynamic content creation or any of that will continue fumbling about for the magic bullet that'll finally kill the whole thing. This is their hope.
Then there's understanding. This comes from people who take the time to personally explore Second Life thoroughly enough to grasp its best potential. (As I've written before, the strongest detractors rarely bother to do this.) Given Second Life's myriad frustrations, many will reasonably come away believing that the idea has promise, but just awaits a better execution. They may very well be right. After all, sometimes they'll be named Raph Koster. Others will bounce off the system for awhile, before punching through, like veteran game developer Scott Jennings, into brilliant enlightenment. At a certain point, the ratio of influential people with understanding will eclipse those still hoping it'll go away, and then the debate will change.
As for the Rimm? Some of the Internet's earliest advocates rallied quickly, and step by step, with painstaking research and collaboration, undermined his study at its roots. (Again, the EFF has their story.) Despite their heroic efforts, however, the 83.5 canard kept getting repeated for a few years longer, but by then, there were too many people with too much personal experience with the Internet to take it seriously. And by the force of their direct understanding, Rimm's report was eventually forgotten.
What do you suppose the shelf life of 12 minutes will be?