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The Second Life of the Amateur – User generated content and Web 2.0

Second life building helipcopterThis is an essay I wrote in 2009 on the Media & Cultural Theory module of MA Creative Technology. I was digging around for it and found it in the Internet Archive Way Back Machine and thought it was worth republishing here. If you have any thoughts on this, drop me a line.

Table of contents

Introduction. 3

  1. User-generated content and web 2.0. 4
  2. Second Life. 5

III. Quality issues with Second Life. 9

  1. User-generated content is killing our culture. 11
  2. RO to RW culture. 13
  3. Social and economic perspectives. 14

Conclusion. 18

Bibliography. 19

Introduction

In his book Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen writes ‘instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys, many with no more talent than our primate cousins are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity’ (Keen, 2007: 2)

Keen’s damning indictment of the user-generated nature of web 2.0 technologies such as Second Life sets the foundation for a war of words. Second Life is a virtual world entirely generated by its users, which makes it an important factor in the user-generated content debate. On the other side of the ring for the debate are authors such as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who passionately supports user-generated content and Second Life.

Various angles are considered to assess the success and impact of a virtual world created by users. The ideas of user-generated content and web 2.0 can be ambiguous, so these concepts are examined. Second Life itself is then considered from its birth to the beginning of 2010. Lawrence Lessig’s appearance in Second Life is covered along with an analysis of Second Life’s popularity and success. Some issues are then raised with Second Life’s dependence on user-generated content, with anthropologist Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of age in Second Life used for one example. Andrew Keen’s theories about the dangers of user-generated content and Second Life are followed by Lessig’s book Remix, which is at the opposite end of the debate. Economic perspectives of consumerist capitalism and Marxist standpoints are discussed finally.

These facts and theories serve to raise arguments for and against user-generated content and Second Life to gauge how successful it is as a business model and if this model is damaging to society or if it is a natural and positive progression for society.

Given the available objective data, it would seem that Second Life is proving to be a financial and popular success, but the angles discussed are intended to look beyond this data to contemplate differing perspectives. Competing epistemologies and objective facts are discussed to question the value, impact and success of allowing users, to generate the virtual world of Second Life. User-generated content is typically created by a wide variety of people, many who can be considered to be amateurs.

  1. User-generated content and web 2.0

The terms ‘user-generated content’ and ‘web 2.0’ have become popular in the last decade. Technologies that allow Internet users to create and share their own videos, text, images and 3D objects had become commonplace by 2005. Greg Lastowska in his essay ‘User-generated content and Virtual Words’ writes that: ‘User-generated content is videos posted to YouTube, photos uploaded to Flickr, book reviews posted to Amazon.com and personal narratives posted to discussion boards.’ (Lastowska, 2008: 2). This could be considered to be a narrow definition, but it is a starting point for the relationship between user-generated content and web 2.0.

The inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners Lee commented in a 2006 IBM developerWorks interview ‘Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means.’ The term web 2.0 first arose at an O’Reilly conference in 2004. One of the core principles of web 2.0 technologies are those that depend very heavily on the users of those technologies to generate the content that other users enjoy. Second Life is a prime example of this type of technology, because the content of this virtual world is entirely generated by its residents. The word content in Second Life’s case could be absolutely anything from a piece of text to a 3D city. The word ‘user’ refers to a person that uses the virtual world. In the case of most web 2.0 technologies, almost anyone can create content. Inevitably, this means that there is a varying level of quality and styles of content. User-generated content is created by amateurs or experts from all walks of life.

  1. Second Life

Second Life was launched in 2003 by Linden Labs. Using a freely downloadable piece of software, a reasonably modern Internet connected computer can be used to connect to this virtual world. User-generated virtual worlds first became popular in the early 1990’s with text based Multi-User Dungeons (MUD’s). Second Life provides a graphical virtual world that is created entirely by its users. Second Life has been particularly successful in encouraging user-generated content. Linden Labs Jim Cocker stated that users were ‘30 times more likely to create something for Second Life than they would be in The Sims.’ (Cocker, 2007: 1) Typically, 5% of users for a web 2.0 website generate content with just 0.1% of users generating content in a first person shooter game. In Second Life, 60% of its users build something using the building tools provided (Cocker, 2007: 1). This makes Second Life particularly important in the debate regarding user-generated content.

Some people consider Second Life to be a game, whilst others refute this idea. On the Linden Labs website, Second Life is not described as a game. Linden Labs response to the question if Second Life is a game is ‘Yes and No’. The Second Life interface is similar to other massively multiplayer online role playing games but one of the major differences is that it gives users the ability to make and do almost anything. Compared to other virtual worlds or massively multiplayer games, Second Life depends on user-generated content to a very large extent. This content could be anything from a pair of shoes to a virtual shopping centre. The Second Life client provides the basic tools required for anyone to create practically anything. It is also possible to create content using existing 3D modelling software and then import the models into Second Life. Users can sign up and use Second Life for free, but in most cases, if users want to build a permanent structure, they must pay for land on which they can build. Legally, a user must be eighteen years old to use Second Life. There is a separate grid called Teen Second Life for thirteen to seventeen year olds.

Users can sell the things that they create and they are granted the intellectual property for anything they create; this was not always the case. Harvard professor and author Lawrence Lessig founded an organisation in 2001 called Creative Commons which actively promoted user-generated content, relaxing of copyright laws and the sharing of content. In January 2006 Lessig held an event in Second Life to promote his book Free Culture and to talk about what he considered to be the government’s counterintuitive approach to copyright and user-generated content.

In an interview after the event, Mia Garlick from Creative Commons commented:

‘In a very real sense, Second Life exists as it does because of Lawrence Lessig. A few years ago, he advised Linden Lab to allow their subscribers to retain IP rights to whatever they built. The result of this has been an explosion of sustained creativity, with many residents making all or some of their real life living by their imagination and efforts in SL.’ (Garlick: 2006: 1)

Users and content in Second Life have grown steadily since 2003. In June 2006, 58,000 users logged on to Second Life. Just one year later in June 2007, 511,000 users logged on. Since this explosion, monthly unique users rose steadily to 750,000 in September 2009.

 

According to data from the Linden Labs website, Second Life is increasing in size and popularity (Linden, T: 2009). In January 2007, there were 350 million square metres of user owned land. By September 2009 this had grown steadily to 1.808 billion square metres.

III. Quality issues with Second Life

There are positive and negative effects of a virtual world entirely composed of user-generated content. The quantity of user-generated content compared to the amount of concurrent users logged on to Second Life is considered by some to be disproportionate. Some commentators consider this to be a major problem. Stan Taverna in his essay ‘Is Second Life Empty?’ comments ‘Outside of events, Second Life is pretty empty almost all of the time everywhere. I’ve been on since the BETA, and it’s always been that way, and I suspect it always will be.’ (Taverna, 2007: 1)

In December 2009 there were 1.808 billion square metres of resident owned land in Second Life. The median amount of concurrently logged on users in December 2009 was 54,000 compared to 61,000 in July 2009. What this means effectively is that the amount of space in Second Life outweighs the amount of users logged on. Outside of certain events and popular locations such as areas where there are free goods, many locations in Second Life are either completely empty or just have a small amount of users in the area. It is always possible to look at the map in Second Life and look for green dots, which represent other users. Some of these users are ‘camping’ or waiting around in certain locations so that they can receive a small amount of Linden dollars. Wandering around Second Life, it can feel as though one is in the plot of a film where the population has been wiped out by a deadly disease or similar.

‘If Linden Lab does not figure this out and quickly (the definition of success), they will take a serious hit to their persistent residents, and someone else will come along and take away their users.’ (Taverna, 2007: 1)

Wired editor Ben Hammersley comments about opening shops in Second Life in a 2009 BBC article entitled ‘Whatever happened to Second Life’ Hammersley states ‘They would have 20 to 30 people there when it opened, and after that no-one would bother going in there again. It just wasn’t worth the spend.’ (Hansen 2009). Part of this problem was related to the sheer quantity of locations and shops compared to the amount of concurrent users in world. One high profile example of this was clothing supplier American Apparel which closed its shop just one year after opening.

Another problem with the user-generated content model of Second Life is highlighted by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life. Boellstorff describes an incident where a shop appeared in a well loved area of Second Life. ‘Zazzys [was] a black building with brightly coloured windows, their neon reds, blues, yellows and greens in a constantly changing pattern. ”I’m sick about this” Samuel said, “This glowing monstrosity was just built on this land.”’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 89) This piece of user-generated content caused a mass protest from users that had built and populated this area. The power for users to shape their world as they see fit can lead to disputes between residents. This case particularly highlights how users disagree about what constitutes an aesthetically pleasing or useful addition to what they consider to be their ‘place’ in the virtual world.

There is little doubt that the Second Life virtual world is large in quantity, but there is a question by some as to the quality and popularity of much of this content. Greg Lastowska states ‘If a virtual world allows each participant to own a space, the end result may seem like a patchwork of uninhabited, uninspired and stylistically clashing lots that sprawl onward forever.’ (Lastowska, 2008: 17). Lastowska continues to say ‘Some of the content generated by users is not merely of poor quality, but is offensive and/or illegal.’ (Lastowska, 2008: 17)

  1. User-generated content is killing our culture

In 2007, Andrew Keen wrote Cult of the Amateur which raises many issues against user-generated content and Second Life. On the cover of the book Keen’s argument commences ‘How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy’. Keen is particularly critical of the quantity and quality of user-generated content of the web 2.0 revolution. ‘Radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.’ (Keen, 2008: 16)

Keen also singles out Second Life for criticism ‘Users create online personas and engage in any and every form of real-life activity from starting a business, to getting married, to buying and decorating a home this is resulting in a dangerous confusion between virtual reality and life.’ (Keen, 2008: 161) Keen continues ‘in true Web 2.0 fashion, Second Life is virtually unregulated and unsupervised, it has become a channel for all kinds of social and ethical vices.’ (Keen, 2008: 162)

Some massively multiplayer games such as ‘World of Warcraft’ have much higher levels of participation than Second Life (11.5 million user subscriptions in December 2008). It could be argued that a virtual world like World of Warcraft constitutes more of a threat to people spending more time away from real life. It may be that Keen singles out Second Life specifically because of its user-generated content model. Keen considers Second Life to be a threat to society because he believes the audience are running the show. This viewpoint ties in with his core argument about the damaging effect of user-generated content. Second Life allows freedom to live a life without constraints or regulations. A large part of this freedom is obtained by the ability to generate or obtain user-generated content such as clothes, houses and other material possessions that may be unobtainable by the person in real life.

While Keen does not doubt the popularity of Second Life – his argument raises questions about the impact of amateur generated content on the quality of content, the economy and morals of society in general. The amateur he argues, is smothering real talent and quality content from flourishing which is damaging for society, our children and our economy. Keen’s arguments are considered to be inaccurate and extreme by authors such as Lawrence Lessig. The Cult of the Amateur was one of the first books to raise arguments against user-generated content and provides a valuable perspective on the debate of the Second Life of the amateur.

  1. RO to RW culture

Lawrence Lessig in his book Remix describes the early days of the World Wide Web as largely Read only (RO). Content was added to the web by a small percentage of people compared to the amount of people reading the content. Tim Berners Lee’s original vision of the web was that it would be Read Write (RW), or in other words, anybody could add content to the web. By 2003 this Read Write culture of user-generated content was in full swing with things like blogs and Second Life. Lessig views this idea as a logical progression and one that has positive connotations ‘These new infernal machines, however, will enable an RW culture again, they could also encourage an enormous growth in economic opportunity for both the professional and the amateur, and for all those who benefit from both forms of creativity’ (Lessig, 2008: 57).

Lessig examines Second Life in Remix and concludes that whilst Linden Labs is a profit driven company, this is a commendable quality. The transparent way in which Linden Labs is operated directly encourages user-generated content. The profit driven nature of the business leads to some debate and criticism of Linden Labs, but this fact means that the company can provide a sharing economy. Aside from the content of the metaverse allowing users to sell their content, in 2007 Linden Labs made the Second Life client ‘open source’. This move was aimed at keeping the company transparent. Philip Rosedale created Second Life and Lessig interviews him in Remix ‘Rosedale’s motivations for this change are two fold. One part is the belief in his company, and the belief that it should grow as fast as possible. ‘Second Life makes people better; Second Life should therefore grow as quickly as possible’ (Lessig, 2008: 253).

Rosedale believes that encouraging the maximum possible amount of users to generate content benefits Linden Labs and that prosperity ultimately benefits the users of Second Life. Rosedale continued ‘Thousands of people who would be willing to contribute development time and that it would therefore be unprincipled of us not to allow those people to do so’ (Lessig, 2008: 244).

Linden Labs have essentially taken part of their assets and given them to the users to allow them to contribute to the development and content generating process. These gifts are aimed at inspiring creativity which will ultimately add richness and value to the platform and profit to Linden Labs. Rosedale describes the transparency of user-generated-content as a win-win situation for both Linden Labs and its participants.

  1. Social and economic perspectives

Tom Boellstorff believes that Second Life is based on a model of ‘creationist capitalism’ and a ‘Californian ideology’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 208). San Francisco in California is the main headquarters of Linden Labs in real life and the Californian ideology is based on a fusion of the bohemian San Francisco with the technology of Silicon Valley. The core principle of this Californian ideology is a business model based on the free spirit of a hippy culture with the business acumen of the yuppy. Second Life’s user-generated but profit driven model fits into the Californian ideology. The idea of creationist capitalism is not limited to California, but may certainly explain Linden Labs approach to user-generated content to some extent. This economic model is related to ‘prosumption’ where people function to produce what they consume; consumption becomes a form of production.

The concept of creationist capitalism is rooted in Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant ethic as outlined in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This ethic is based on the idea that human fate is predestined, but that God’s favour can be won by achieving worldly success. ‘With creationist capitalism, the prosumer has become a kind of minor god’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 208). In traditional cosmology, God is the creator; creationist capitalism shifts this model to the user as the creator. This concept rings true with Second Life where users can create their own virtual universe.

In December 2003, Linden Labs made the Linden dollar convertible with the United States dollar or other real world currencies. This shift took the idea of creationist capitalism to a new level. Banks and the concept of paid labour were now possible to enable a virtual economy. The idea that a real life living could be made using Second Life became a reality for some. ‘Over 2000 residents were making more than US$1200 profit a year; 58 were earning more than US$60,000 a year and one entrepreneur claimed to have Second Life assets worth over 1 million US dollars. Creativity became a form of exchange value’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 212).

‘Paying your tier’ or making enough money to pay for Linden Labs registration and land fees became an important aspect of Second Life for many. Of the many residents that were making money from Second Life however, many were making just a few dollars a month. ‘In a traditional Marxist analysis this would be seen as a form of super exploitation where workers are unable to reproduce their needs for existence.’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 213).

The Pareto distribution model is often used to explain user-generated websites and virtual worlds such as Second Life. Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian sociologist and economist. Pareto distributions are used to describe inequalities in data where most of the distribution is contained in one area of a graph. This theory is over a century old, but serves as a basis for the 80/20 rule of user-generated content. The rule follows the idea that 80 percent of the work is performed by 20 percent of the employees and that 20 percent of the population hold 80 percent of the wealth. Linden Labs is sometimes criticized for making a profit, whilst most users struggle to break even. Andres Guadamuz in his essay ‘If You Build It, They Won’t Come’ writes ‘The end result of the existence of Pareto distributions with regards to earnings, profits and royalties may very well mean that most creators cannot expect to make a living.’ (Guadamuz, 2009: 8)

Marx’s Communist manifesto pre-dates Pareto but in a similar way, these economic theories are often used by today’s authors to explain the phenomenon of user-generated content and web 2.0. Some authors such as Boellstorff compare the users that generate the content to be the exploited proletariat or working classes and Linden Labs to be the bourgeoisie or ruling classes in his comparison of ‘super-exploitation’.

Andrew Keen in his essay ‘web 2.0’ comments on the way owners of web 2.0 technologies sell the idea of creationist capitalism as a way for the proletariat to overcome the bourgeoisie. ‘We are enabling Internet users to author their own content. Think of it as empowering citizen media. We can help smash the elitism of the Hollywood studios and the big record labels.’ (Keen, 2006: 1)

Keen suggests that this radical thinking helps draw people into feeling that their creations are helping the masses to overcome the ruling classes when in fact, they are being duped into giving their labour away for free. Marx famously claimed that religion was the opium of the people because it drew working class attention away from the exploitation of the ruling classes. Keen’s arguments against Second Life mirror this concept – that it draws people away from real life issues and exploitation by a select few of the ruling classes.

Some people are drawn to the idea of user-generated content for more than monetary or political gains, but that of play or the ability to create ‘when I stay up for 2 nights in a row programming my virtual pet, trying to get it to do something new, it sure isn’t for the L$. It’s bringing something into existence.’ (Boellstorff, 2008: 213). These concepts serve to explain the motivations of some users and the political and economic factors in the debate about user-generated content and Second Life.

Conclusion

Second Life is less than a decade old, but given the objective data available so far, it would appear that Linden Labs and Second Life are prospering in financial terms and in popularity. Steady growth in both the user base of Second Life, number of transactions and amount of owned land has occurred almost unswervingly from the creation of Second Life to the present day of the start of 2010.

It would seem that as a business model, transparency and user-generated content works well for Linden Labs. It is debateable however what kind of positive impact this model has on society. It could be argued that users are being exploited to work for free and that the content they create as amateurs is sometimes of a low quality. In addition, virtual worlds like Second Life can draw people away from being productive and living their real lives. On the flip side, this model could be said to empower users and give them the ability to create and live a life without the constraints of real life whilst learning new skills. The debate about user-generated content and Second Life as a force for society is a complex one. Individuals have their own viewpoints and experiences of Second Life. Second Life may be considered by some to be a ‘digital forest of mediocrity’, but ultimately, it continues to flourish financially and in terms of popularity.

Other virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft boast more users than Second Life without depending on user-generated content. Second Life offers a very different virtual world and one that is experienced and created by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. Much of this content is created by amateurs, which can have drawbacks, but also provides an empowering and engaging experience for many people.

Bibliography

  • Boellstorff, T (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press
  • Cocker, G (2007), Jim Purbrick: Second Life and user-generated content, 26 July 2007, [Gamespot article], accessed 08 January 2010, http://uk.gamespot.com/news/6175694.html
  • Garlick, M (2006), CC talks with Second Life, Creative Commons website, 13 February 2006, [CC website article], accessed 05 January 2010, http://creativecommons.org/video/secondlife
  • Guadamuz, A (2009) If You Build It, They Won’t Come, Mashing-Up Culture: The Rise of User-Generated Content Workshop, Uppsala University, Sweden, May 13th-14th, 2009
  • Hansen, L (2009) What happened to Second Life? BBC website magazine, 20 November 2009, [BBC website], accessed 05 January 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8367957.stm
  • Keen, A (2008) The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, Broadway Business
  • Laningham, S (2007), developerWorks Interviews: Tim Berners-Lee, 22 August 2007, [IBM developerWorks interview], accessed 05 January 2010, http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/podcast/dwi/cm-int082206txt.html
  • Lastowska, G (2008), User Generated content and Virtual worlds, The Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law p2-17
  • Lessig, L (2008) Remix, Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Penguin Press HC
  • Linden, T (2009) The Second Life Economy – Third Quarter 2009 in Detail,
    02 November 2009, [Second Life Blogs], accessed 05 January 2010, https://blogs.secondlife.com/community/features/blog/2009/11/02/the-second-life-economy–third-quarter-2009-in-detail
  • Taverna, S (2007), Is Second Life Empty? Second Life Research Blog, 01 August 2007, [Internet blog], accessed 05 January 2010, http://secondliferesearch.blogspot.com/2007/08/is-second-life-empty.html
  • Weber, M (1905) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge Classics

Alex Fenton

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