(A longer version of this piece with more Second Life back story and gossip is here.)
I was surprised to see Mark Wallace write a piece, Facebook Killed the Virtual World on Wired. Not because a former virtual world gonzo journo and Silicon Valley start-upper wouldn't have this already-widespread opinion in his circles.
No, it's because it's only a geek-keyhole view of the problem -- in fact, Facebook killed television; Facebook killed a lot of expensively-developed MMORPgs; Facebook killed lots of other things.
CNN has hit a 20-year low in ratings and has lost half of its audience -- but it isn't that it lost it to Fox News, which has only 2 million viewers. I bet the real reason they both are losing viewers is due to Facebook -- and not even Facebook, but the mobile-phone-as-virtual-world.
The virtual world you can hold in your hand!
And did Facebook actually kill virtual worlds, or only virtual worlds, or are there much larger phenomena going on, and in fact SL's persistence and usage by a million or so people regularly a surprising statistic despite these larger phenomena?
In fact, if CNN has only 399,000 viewers at prime-time, that's hilarious, because Second Life has at least that many regular users -- it has about a million monthly unique viewers. They don't show the concurrency numbers any more, but they were around 70,000, and even if dropped to 50,000, that's still amazing, given that it is a very niche activity with a highly-demanding graphics set up and user learning curve (by contrast to just pointing your remote and watching CNN passively).
Even so, we realize that that there was a Virtual World Winter -- again -- and the caravan moved on as the dog barked.
Why weren't immersive virtual worlds online, whether downloadable or in the browser, as compelling as their makers and most enthusiastic users thought they would be?
Short answer: because the user -- while given many affordances, like being able to fly or rez out blocks of wood and build in defiance of gravity -- could not sufficiently control his environment. There were too many insurmountable problems or recurring annoyances -- graphic card demands or crashing browsers and servers, or people who built ugly shit in the view of your expensive land or crowd up your server making it unusable.
By contrast, Facebook, and especially the mobile version of Facebook and other apps, is completely in the user's control, despite everything that a certain category of tech journos and geeks keep hyping as a huge privacy problem (it is, but it is one that there are enough solutions to, including the one of simply not sharing what you don't want to be public, that it is an over-hyped issue.)
I'm not going to crank up the loyalist arguments that Second Life isn't dead, that Mark just doesn't get it -- he did in fact live very thoroughly in SL -- he had a land parcel for a time, he built things like a cool bathysphere (which unfortunately got lost out of inventory, although I still have the docking station), and he even got SL-married -- to a TV bot named Destroy TV which was a kind of stalking webcam experiment of the Sheep for a time.
But here's the problem with his thesis -- it isn't virtual worlds that Facebook killed, it's TV and much else in mainstream media and MMORPGs, too. And actually, it isn't Facebook that killed it, it's the mobile phone.
The mobile phone is the new virtual world.
What does McCluhan mean by reduction? In the 1960s, the TV would take the Vietnam war, an ad for cigarettes or perfume, and an Ozzie and Harriet type sit-com and put them all at the same level on the small "blue screen" for Joe Six-Pack to consume. A war, a product, a show --they were all in a mid-sized box. The world was put into that box and virtualized.
So media became a minimizer and a virtualizer of the real, but then, there were competing trends for people to become producers and not only consumers of the minimized and virtualized -- the Polaroid camera, the portable movie camera, the tape recorder. So in the 1970s and early 1980s, TV was displaced a bit by people making and sharing their own amateur media products. You still had to invite people over to your house to see your photograph album or to make instant photos during a party, or to hear your tape, or watch your home movie. I wonder if you could call this maximizing reality rather than minimizing it, however -- that is, the individual takes a picture of his kid or his cat, he tapes himself and his friends singing "Happy Birthday" or tapes a Grateful Dead concert; he makes a home movie of a football game. In this media use, reality, which in a previous era would have remained private and small and diminished in a million small stories becomes elevated and maximized -- although not really for long as soon there are a million more people doing the same thing. Perhaps more of what it does is extend time -- what used to be lived and experienced and then only written about, perhaps, now had an instant picture to prolong it forever.
Then with the advent of the Internet, the trends for minimizing and maximing met -- and competed in some respects. And one manifestation of this was the MMORPG and the virtual world. So now instead of taking reality and putting it into the blue TV box, or taking reality and exaggerating its importance beyond the immediate family or RL social circle to wider circles and the immortality of the ages, now the individual was *putting himself* into the virtuality. He was the last thing to be virtualized, but it came readily because he had already virtualized even entire wars, and minimized their significance, and then maximized his kids, who only stayed 3 years old for a fleeting time, into immortal gods, along with their pets. So now the self was the next thing to be minimized/maximized.
So in the 1990s and early 2000s, first nerds avidly played the text game of Dungeon and Dragons, and then geeks avidly played World of Warcraft and other massive multi-player games online, and then their moms came and their neighbours. Even WoW began to peak, however, and today, with numerous lay-offs in the video game industry, and the collossal failure of some like this Rhode Island debacle described by Lum Lumley, games that you have to enter -- that play you -- seem in decline.
Why is this? Because we are already in the next cycle of enabling the immortal god-individual to minimize reality again and put it in the palm of his hand.
Why go into a virtual world -- a download, a log-on, rules, constrictions -- when you can now port around your own custom virtual world right in your hand?
It does all the minimizing and maximizing you could possibly want. Absolutely any scene you encounter can not only be Polaroidized, it can be Instagramized to look like Ansel Adams or Walker Evans themselves took it. You can video anything and edit it. You can have real-time Facetime on your iphone or Skype with video and put all the people in your friend list into an ongoing real-time video drama with constant chatter and media sharing.
Facebook is only part of the story of the minimalizing of reality into the palm of your hand. It's only a platform that facilitates the mobile phone. (That's why Facebook needs to make or buy their own phone device). Facebook is perhaps the best or easiest thing on your phone, because it's where you can add friends easily, take and share photos and videos, and share anything else that they circulate around -- it's a big pool. And log on to many sites to comment.
Once you add into this virtuality the greater sophistication of apps, you have even more of a customized, delightful virtual world. In this virtual world, the user can feel as if he is on a great exercise plan just by downloading a Walking GPS app. He can fancy himself a connoisseur of fine dining and wines by downloading those types of apps. He can Storify everything.
Oh, and then there's the games. Angry Birds and tons of other easy, hand-held, riveting games. Those games on the smart phones are what took away the customers from WoW and other worlds-that-play-you.
Of course, that's something hard-core gamer geeks could never, ever admit. They pride themselves on never playing something as light-weight and pointless as Angry Birds. Except...lots and lots of people play Angry Birds, and they play it instead of other things. Instead of being played by the exigencies of the war and quest games.
Mobile phones once seemed like they only filled in the interstices between the times you were on your desktop or laptop at work or home, stationery. That's because new media, as noted, often gets played by the rules of the media before it. It seemed like the mobile phone was just the extension, the tethering, to the main show which was on the desktop or laptop.
But with the portability and all the huge selection of customization and apps -- and new addictive activities like checking in on Four Square or getting Groupon deals -- people would stop and stand on the street and play their mobile virtual world game; they would sit down on a park bench to play their mobile virtual world game -- park benches that sat idle, or were dictated by city building codes and never used by real people -- are suddenly getting a work out all over the place.
Now, people don't seem to mind if they have to sit in a meeting at work or go to a boring talk or training session -- that's because they can keep thumbing their VW i-phone while they are there. The meta-meeting they have on their i-phone in their new virtual world has in fact displaced the real meeting which is merely an old frame.
Some people just never avatarize well. The thing we all discovered with why Second Life in particular didn't take off for the masses is because a lot of people just don't like "investing their consciousness in a toy" as Will Wright brilliantly put it long ago in describing how the Sims and the Sims Online in particular worked. Some people easily said "I" or "me" about the constricted, dancing, 2-D figure on the screen that only had set routines in the Sims -- they didn't so much invest their consciousness as reduce their consciousness, but yet in doing so, still flowered out with a maximizing of their consciousness in self expression. Because even though their were hard-coded limitations in that world, people pushed them out to the max, making many creative residences and stores and games. Second Life of course took this to another level, although with its own set of restrictions. Yet just as some people can't curl their tongues or become hypnotized, for reasons of nature or nurture, some people just don't like bothering with an avatar and either can't get the puppetry down or just feel stupid.
A mobile phone never makes you feel stupid because you control the experience, minimize reality and maximize what you chose -- you're Harold with the Purple Crayon, drawing your world as you go along.
People hate feeling stupid; they hate getting killed in the first frame of the story, which is why especially women won't go for the war MMORPGs or the Second Life welcome area, and they also hate feeling like they look stupid, in ugly newbie clothes or suddenly made naked by some glitch or their own wrong click. SL has come a long way to get rid of the second problem, with ready-made outfits, but still hasn't licked the first problem of getting killed or heckled to death in the first frame of your story.
As I've always been saying, Second Life is always prototyping the future and adapting the human to that future. That is its well-kept secret. In Second Life, you became completely adapted to right-clicking and looking at the object description of many things in the world, either to find out the creator and go shop at their store, or to see how many prims it had and find out if it would fit in your house, or to see more about what it was made of. You also got used to right-clicking on every other being in that world to find out the short social-media type description they had about themselves -- their groups, their preferences, their likes, their dislikes, perhaps even their RL information (Second Life did this long before Facebook or Twitter were in massive use or even in existence).
In the same way, as you walk around in the highly-virtualizable real world now with your mobile phone in hand, you can wave your phone over a QR Code with NeoReader or some other app and get the information about that thing. Some people have already starting putting QR codes on their business cards -- both Russian and Chinese developers I met at TechCrunch had QR codes which, when read, took you to the page to download their app in the app store. The other day I walked by an apartment building that had a large QR Code sign out in front with "latest listings" in that building. My avatar hand stretches out in this new virtual (virtualized) world, and I click and see the information.
In the same way there are apps now like the afore-mentioned sonar.me but tons of others that give you that reductive social media car about the other avatars you now encounter in this new virtual world that is both controlled by you in the palm of your hand, the way you like worlds to be, but also interactive with the real world -- which is the aspect that Mark Wallace has fastened on.
The other thing discovered about Second Life -- in addition to people not liking to be avatarized -- is that many -- not all, but many people don't like being anonymous and don't like meeting anonymous strangers in experiences over which they have no control.
What Facebook does is give them an interface that lets them talk to known people in their lives -- and the friends of friends -- without being overwhelmed by them and have them interfere in their real personal lives. That old boyfriend from college, that distant boss from a former job, that relative you haven't seen in 20 years -- these people could all be potential nuisances if they showed up on your real-life doorstep or called you in person on your real phone.
But in the fantastic virtual world of Facebook, they are virtualized and minimized. Whatever could make you uncomfortable about them is whisked away. Only their stories -- the stream of news and photos -- which you can tune into selectively as you wish -- remain. You can chat in real time or asynchronously, but a lot of people use FB without ever using the real-time chat. You can consume and minimize or create and maximize, as you wish, with whom you wish.
There is only so much time in the day -- you might be willing to lose sleep over social media or virtual worlds, and many do, but even so, there isn't THAT much more time. So displacement occurs.
Long ago, after I started Second Life and my children had various MMORPGs or video games they played whether WoW or Neopets, and after the Internet began producing short TV news segments accessible directly from the news outlet's own website, or on portals like Yahoo, we ditched the TV. Who needs a TV with lame sit-coms and movies you could watch online if you really needed to see them again (and I didn't). Few shows or movies that were new were of interest. The news itself was an insipid entertainment -- weather extended into a vaudeville act, a sensationalized fire in New Jersey, a kidnapped baby, a celebrity scandal, and little or no foreign news. Real foreign news was on Twitter with a link to Youtube.
For someone like me with poor vision and a slightly crippled hand, the virtual world of the mobile phone will not be as interesting and captivating as a virtual world. You could say I avatarize, but I don't virtualize reality as successfully as others.
But most people now have a fascinating, riveting, addictive massive multiple-player online role-play game now in the palm of their hand, and they will not be logging off -- ever.