Where your patrons are–or are they?

Putting on my asbestos gloves, I write a mildly cautionary post.

If you love Second Life, more power to you. I tried it–had to, for a contest, at some length–and didn’t care for it. I’m one of perhaps four million ghost avatars, always to be counted by Linden but never to return (I have no idea what my password is, for that matter.)

That’s me. I probably wouldn’t care for most virtual worlds (except those in fiction). That’s me.

If you want to spend your spare time building library facilities in Second Life, that may be a great thing. I can see possible good learning outcomes. You may get to chat with lots of other SLibrarians and maybe even some who aren’t.

Just don’t tell me that libraries need to be involved in Second Life, in 2007, because it’s “where our users are.” That’s simply not true, at least not for most real-world communities.

How many people actually use Second Life? It’s definitely not the 4.47 million “Residents” number you’ll see from Linden–that’s everybody who’s ever gotten far enough into the signup to register an avatar, even if they’ve never come back.

Even some pro-Second Life enthusiasts who’ve studied the numbers seem to agree that no more than 10% to 15% of these people stick around–one highly pro-SL source uses “10% at 90 days” as an estimate. That would yield no more than about 440K ongoing users.

You can’t use any of SL’s “visited within X days” as particularly meaningful, because “visited” includes all of those who sign up (or start signing up) and never return–and if you look at the growth rate of total Residents, you see that most of those “visits” are actually initial signups.

Clay Shirky (at Many2Many) and Nick Carr (at Rough Type) have been blogging about this, as have quite a few others.

I’ve seen estimates of as low as tens of thousands of ongoing users (probably far too low, depending on how you define “ongoing”). A 15% retention rate yields about 670,000 avatars, which probably represent considerably fewer people–and that may be too high. If you think about how long SL aficionados tend to spend in SL, and the average concurrent users, somewhere in the low six figures seems most likely. (There are something like 50,000 paid accounts, which may be a baseline. If you assume ten “real users” for every premium account, that’s half a million overall.).

But heck, let’s say 670,000–or, being very optimistic, let’s say a million active users, where I define “active” as “spends some time in SL at least once a month, and has returned at least a month after first signing up.” (If you use “at least once a week”–which seems reasonable for anybody who really cares about SL–then Linden’s own figures give you less than 500,000, and that includes a week’s worth of churn, new signups who will never return.)

Best estimates are that slightly less than half of SL avatars are from within the U.S. So that’s half a million, using the most optimistic numbers, or more likely around 250,000.
Out of a population of over 300 million.

In other words, one-sixth of one percent of your users, using optimistic numbers.

By any reasonable standard, your users are not in Second Life. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be. Just means that “that’s where our patrons are” is a poor excuse to prioritize SL activity over much of anything else. “That’s where our patrons might be eventually, and we’d like to understand it”–that’s a decent reason if you have spare time and no competing priorities.

Postscript: Is it fair to assume that SL will grow to be a true mass phenomenon, where as many as five or ten percent of your patrons might show up there once a month or more? I have no idea. Clay Shirky doesn’t think so; he thinks it will always be a niche. I think he’s wrong on a lot of other things, so I’m not suddenly going to hold him up as The Expert here.

Personally, I doubt it, but that doubt is not based on solid knowledge.

25 Responses to “Where your patrons are–or are they?”

  1. Also, I suggest that the population who are heavy Lifers skews very much to the Internet-makes-libraries-obsolete crowd (sigh, not everyone one, but these are a relatively wealthy and very geeky demographic).

  2. jennimi says:

    Walt, I was accused recently of being an SL “skeptic” when I voiced my feelings of inadequacy with the interface. I am annoyed. Isn’t there room for me to say, “yeeeha, go for it my friends! But as for me, I need a little more HUMAN CONTACT right now!!!” If it is going to take me more than a half hour to learn the basics of a space just for me to get my kicks… I just can’t do it. Gotta move on, for now.

    I definitely see the positives of what this product offers. But I don’t want to live there. I want to live in a physical world. Like I always say to one of my coworkers, “The right technology for the right group/purpose/person! If a chalkboard is right for you, let me find the erasers and extra chalk!!!!” Not everyone is comfortable with or wants to be in this second place, and dernit, that’s ok, isn’t it?

    I really adore that you keep us grounded in the organic, while still being a very techy person. I guess I kinda see meself that way??? Bravo!

  3. I’m with you Walt, even though I co-ordinate a library in SL and have fun hanging out with the other librarians there and doing SL things.

    A mob of over-35, probably mainly white (if you go by the look of the avatars) group of people who can afford the equipment and time are in Second Life. So are a lot of marketers and a lot of people who believe you can make money by having no talent, no product and no effort.

    There is also a lot of creativity and playfulness happening, which is fun to be part of. There is a different way to make social contact online, which is exciting – if I see someone’s “house” or how they present themselves in SL, I’m engaging with an aspect of their personality that I couldn’t do otherwise. (I’m not naively claiming it’s “genuinely” them, however).

    I’ve done a couple of presentations on SL and the thrust has always been ..I know there’s a point for librians to be here..we learn a new type of interface,and get to network and share non-SL library information. But…whether we can serve our users here, whether we should be there now, whether in 18 months time..I can’t tell you, but maybe we can talk about it.

    I’m not in the US so don’t see a lot of presentations, but is anyone actually pushing the “it’s where the users are” line? I find that a bit disturbing.

  4. I’m another on those SL ghosts. Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this kind of virtual environment becomes what the Web is in the not-too-distant future, especially since Linden has released the source code for SL. But right now, as Kathryn points out, there is a big technology and money gap keeping most of the Earth’s population out of SL. Which to me says it’s of very limited use, especially to librarians. But at the same time, that’s no reason not to play around with it. Walt, you’re absolutely right to point out that “because our users are there” is a bad reason to be in SL. (“Because our users may someday be there” is a much, much better reason.) Thank you for pointing this out.

    Kathryn, I swear I have heard “it’s where our users are” said about SL, but for the life of me, I can’t cite anything, so maybe I’m just extrapolating and misremembering in my head.

  5. Great post, Walt. I’m all in favor of experimentation on SL, but it’s a shame that some very talented and creative people from the library world are devoting so much time to it before the interface is ready. I just hope they’re working closely with Linden on interface issues. The best interfaces for personal recreation or corporate marketing, by the way, may not be the best ones for library use. – David

  6. Kate says:

    I first posted most of this at Steven Cohen’s Library Stuff, but thought I would chime in here too, so please forgive duplication =)

    I agree with your assessment (and I hope the asbestos gloves aren’t necessary!) I’m concerned that the current over-hyping of SL will actually be detrimental to its medium-term success — as people log in to see what the fuss is about, frankly, most of them won’t like it. The technology is just not that accessible.

    I’m an old MMORPG’er (most recently spending more of my time than I should in World of Warcraft). SL’s interface is very difficult to use compared to other “virtual worlds” out there, and the Lindens might be well advised to put more effort into creating at least some content for newbies beyond the brief welcome zone — right now a new person who doesn’t have a kind guide would have no idea what to do next.

    I’m one of the many librarians doing various projects in SL as a part of the Second Life Library (http://www.infoisland.org/) project. I’m also a county law librarian in “real life” (www.saclaw.org) who serves a patron base largely made up of a. attorneys and b. people who can’t afford attorneys. These folks may never have heard of SL. Many from category b. don’t have computers that can access it, and a fair percentage from both categories don’t have the computer basics or the time or interest to learn how to navigate SL’s rather difficult interface.

    I’m quite aware that SL isn’t where most (any?) of my patrons are. In my own case, since SL doesn’t fit our very specific and local mission, I don’t spend library time on the project.

    But– there are a number of ways that Second Life (or more likely, one of its cousins or daughters) may become relevant to my library. I can list some off the top of my head (virtual meetings, distance education with live time demos and exercises, interactive patron screening for services, moot court, virtual tours so our pro se patrons can get an idea of what to expect when they step into a courtroom for the first time)– but it’s the ones I can’t list yet that I’m most interested in, and I’m excited to be helping the process along in my small way.

    As a purely personal benefit, I have met many people I might never have met otherwise. As a newer librarian who can’t afford to go to every conference I’d like, this is pretty nice professionally. And since I’m a mild computer geek and long-time game player, it’s also just a fun way to spend my spare time.

    A quick note on the numbers: at any time you can view how many folks are online. As I write this, Linden says there are 28,512 people online; at the times I log in, it’s generally between 20,000 and 40,000. I’m not sure how to translate that to actual usage, but there it is.

  7. Lori Bell says:

    I spend a significant amount of time in Second Life, but I am also working on a number of other projects with our libraries that are NOW type projects. I think it is important for librarians to test all new technologies to evaluate their place in services that can be offered. Second Life may not be the end platform and is not for everyone, but I believe that eventually this is where the web will end up and we need to learn what does and does not work. That does not mean it is for everyone, because there are not enough hours in the day for us to do all we would like to in libraries. It just means it is important to get involved with new technologies and evaluate them in terms of future services.

  8. Ilene Frank says:

    I’d like to echo Lori’s sentiments: Second Life is something to explore. And… right now we have the opportunity to try on a sophisticated virtual 3D world for free! That’s hard to beat. And here at the University of South Florida, we have some compelling reasons to learn how to function in the Second Life environment. Maybe none of your users are there yet – but some of our users will be there soon! We have faculty on our campus gearing up to try class meetings on Second Life. Our School of Library and Information Science has some interested faculty who are asking students to give it a try and hope to have some class sessions on Second Life. There’s a computer science professor who plans to use the building and scripting capabilities of Second Life to provide first and second year engineering students with some introductory programming experiences. There are two faculty who are working on the cultural influences on hispanic addiction treatment programs and they are setting up an island with a building where they will invite students and faculty from Latin American universities to meet with students here at the University of South Florida. There are some other faculty just starting to pay attention to Second Life and are interested in the potential for synchronous meetings in a rich 3D environment. If they all try it and decide that the environment won’t work for them – or if something new comes along to try out… , well… at least a couple of us librarians were in there willing to support their experimental work. I hope that they’ll think about including us in plans for the next experiment! I think having a USF librarian presence is going to pay off for us. In the meantime, it’s paying off for me personally. I’m enjoying working alongside an energetic and creative group of librarians who are busy presenting programs and workshops that have included an MEL workshop on MySpace and R. David Lankes’ provocative presentation on the “library as conversation.” Someone said that it’s like being at a professional conference every time you log on!

  9. walt says:

    Wow. There are advantages to being disconnected much of the time: This whole conversation took place since I logged off (I almost never use those intertube thingies after 6:30 p.m. weekdays or more than twice a day on weekends). And what a conversation–so far, all intelligent, thoughtful, non-combative. Great stuff.

    Quick notes:
    Kate — sorry for the delay; for some reason, maybe because you haven’t posted here before and it’s a fairly long comment, your comment went into moderation. I approved it as soon as I logged in this morning.

    Rochelle–thanks for actualizing the potential strawmen. I was in Joshua’s situation.

    Lori–I’ll disagree with one sentence in your comment: “I think it is important for librarians to test all new technologies to evaluate their place in services that can be offered.” I think it’s important for librarians to be aware of new technologies, and for some librarians to evaluate whether there’s any reasonably near-term potential. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect all librarians to test any new technology (and I don’t think you’re saying that), and I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect librarians to actually test every technology, unless at least a plausible hypothetical case can be made for relevance to the things the community can reasonably expect the library to do. I think you and Ilene both make that hypothetical case for SL, and I’m happy that some dedicated librarians are out there looking at the possibilities.

    Personally, I think it improbable that SL will ever populate the “innovator stage” (2.5% of users) in terms of ongoing usage; I think Shirky’s right that SL is a “try once” technology for most people. But “I think” means zero in terms of what other people should think or do. And, yes, I do believe your group and others will find some useful outcomes even if the SL services themselves never mean anything to your communities. (USF’s a particularly interesting case, and I look forward to hearing about the outcomes.)

    There’s a broader set of issues here, much of it having to do with the 96% rule (that is, about 80% of announced new technologies and devices never make it to the market, and about 80% of what does make it to the market fails within a year or two, which means that about 96% of “innovations” fail) and the enormous range of funding and staff support within libraries. But I won’t address those issues in a comment. I address some of them, slightly, in the book I’ll announce as soon as possible…

  10. Lisa Hinchliffe says:

    I’m actually quite happy to be trying out SecondLife with just a few of my library’s users using it. We couldn’t ramp up fast enough if all 50,000 of our patrons were in there! Every institution may vary but we are in contact with faculty using it for research, teaching/learning, sevice, and community/public engagement activities so we know there are at least some of our patrons in SL.

    Personally though – I’m not betting on SL per se (maybe it will last maybe it won’t) – I’m betting on a future that includes robust virtual environments shaped by participants. And so I’d like to have some sense of what library-in-virtual-environment can/should be like before it becomes common/widely expected and we do need to ramp up. For now, participating in SL is the best opportunity to explore that.

  11. Lori Bell says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful answer to my post. Many library schools are also looking at something like this as a new distance learning platform. Of course, there is a digital divide right now as there are in many new technologies and the web at first. You need a good computer and broadband access. Education is looking at partnering with the distance learning program Moodle. I have both taken and taught a number of distance learning classes. Many of them are on Blackboard and totally asynchronous. I think that Second Life and other programs like it will make distance learning more fun; the ability to engage users and get everyone together in something besides a text chat room. I agree the Linden interface needs a lot of improvement, but we hope by taking part we can have some influence in how these things are developed with will beneift libraries. I agree with your comment many new technologies never take off and are not implemented in the library. Also each new technology needs some early adapters and evaluators which will help others and prevent them from making the same mistakes.

  12. Jason says:

    I did a couple of postings on my own blog after I tested Second Life last month. As I pointed in a few postings prior to that, I was a serious skeptic. I became a little less so after starting an account, as I outline in my postings (the one I linked to is actually the second posting; the first one is immediately below that). I don’t spend much time in Second Life myself, mainly because I haven’t found much to do there… yet. If nothing else, I’m at least ready in case Second Life takes off. Right now, however, it seems to remain a realm for a few who see great potential for online worlds. Besides, I do agree that the number of users (and regular ones at that) is still too low in proportion to the hype.

  13. walt says:

    Lori Bell–in turn, I really appreciate your 10:45 a.m. comment. When/if I write the broader essay on related issues, I’ll take advantage of what you say. (Particularly the last sentence.) Thanks!

    Jason, I’ve read your posts as you go along. Different strokes, which is always a good thing.

  14. Jenny Levine says:

    While I’m not about to argue that library users are already there or that all librarians should be in Second Life, I think you have to be careful when throwing around numbers as justifications for service (or, conversely, for not exploring or offering a service). I agree that Linden’s numbers are over-inflated and that ultimately this hurts them by calling into question their credibility, but one-sixth or less of your users might be the patrons using that really expensive journal you keep subscribing to. Or the number of patrons who use your Braille books. Maybe even more than the number of people using the pathfinders/bibliographies on your website. It’s certainly more than the number of people coming to your book discussion group. And yet none of us are going to argue that we shouldn’t offer those services.

    The value here is the middle ground – folks like Lori, Ilene, and Lisa, who are exploring this for the rest of us, as well as people like Jason who actually try it out and report back with specifics. As with most topics, extreme skepticism and extreme optimism don’t help us move forward.

    My other caveat is the idea of waiting to devote “so much time to it before the interface is ready,” because that would have really hurt us if we’d said that about the web ten-plus years ago. In fact, some might argue that the interface for the web still isn’t ready, and I’m not even going to bring up OPACs…. 😉

  15. walt says:

    While I agree that numbers aren’t the only factor, there’s a big difference between “one/sixth” and one-sixth of one percent. For a library in a community of 6,000 people, that’s ten people. And, as noted, that’s a generous figure: A real figure is probably less than half that. I’d guess most libraries serving communities of 6,000 people do not spend huge amounts of effort on services that draw five people or fewer. (And if I was in a public library stretched for funds, yes, I’d probably argue that a “really expensive journal” used by fewer than ten people out of a community of 6,000 was a reasonable candidate for cancellation. I don’t know about other public libraries, but mine doesn’t seem to subscribe to all that many “really expensive journals.”)

  16. Jenny Levine says:

    I mistyped your statistic, so corrected to be one-sixth of one percent. However, I believe the numbers still stand. I’m more than willing to bet that a library serving a community of 6,000 still does book discussion groups and maybe even has some foreign language books that are used by one-sixth of one percent of their population. And the journal reference was for an academic library, but I’ll be sure to specify that next time. I note that because I hear from librarians all the time they keep some obscure, expensive title because oneprofessor wants it.

    Does one-sixth of one percent of the six billion people in the world use Open WorldCat? Does that mean OCLC shouldn’t put effort into it? Of course not. That’s why I question when someone *only* uses numbers as the basis for their discussion without noting any other potential criteria.

  17. walt says:

    I’m sorry, Jenny, but once again you’re doing whatever the opposite of “charitable reading” is. First there was your “throwing around numbers” line, which I chose to ignore. Now you seem to be suggesting that I’m not allowed to introduce numbers unless I’m doing a complete discussion as to the pluses and minuses of providing a service. That’s a lot of baggage for one blog post.

    “Just don’t tell me that libraries need to be involved in Second Life, in 2007, because it’s “where our users are.” That’s simply not true, at least not for most real-world communities.”

    That’s what I said. I’ll stand by it. Telling librarians that they need to be involved in SL because it’s where your users are is a disservice to librarians who are short of time, energy, money.

    Show me where I said “Libraries should not be involved in Second Life, since the only issue is numbers.” Show me where “only use numbers” turns up except in your comment. Show me where in the post I said “These are all the factors that should be involved in considering Second Life.”

    Maybe it’s worth noting that SL users in your community are typically going to be people with fairly high-end computers, broadband, and plenty of spare time: In other words, your most privileged users. Not quite the same as those who would use Braille or those who would appreciate a few books in their native tongue. Good public libraries should go further out of their way to take care of the most disadvantaged users than the most advantaged users. (I really do hope that there are 6,000-user libraries that will stock foreign-language books for a language that ten community members read–but I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t always the case.)

    I certainly don’t disagree that “As with most topics, extreme skepticism and extreme optimism don’t help us move forward”–but if you’re characterizing my post as “extreme skepticism,” I cry foul. You seem to be jumping in to object to any skepticism–and, oddly enough, I have never once seen you disagree with a blogger who’s being extremely optimistic about some new development.

    I don’t want to nitpick. I’d rather not make it personal at all, but you make it difficult. Still, do you really hear “all the time” from librarians that they’re keeping an obscure, expensive title because one professor wants it? You hear that once a day? Once a week? You’ve been consistently fast to accuse me of strawmen when I don’t cite a specific person for a claim.

    The economics of academic libraries are very different from the economics of public libraries. (The economics of ARL libraries are very different from the economics of community college libraries…) I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a whole lot of academic libraries would have a straightforward answer these days for a $10K journal that one professor wants to keep (and nobody else apparently reads), and that the answer would be No.

  18. Jenny Levine says:

    Sorry, Walt, but I’m not doing the “opposite of charitable reading.” I voiced my opinion and for whatever reason, you’re defensive about it. I never said you had to carry the weight of all pluses and minuses, in part because that’s one of the things comments are for in blogs. That’s what discussion is about. You put out an idea, someone responds. There would be no biblioblogosphere if each blogger had to cover every side of every debate (and would defeat the point).

    “Good public libraries should go further out of their way to take care of the most disadvantaged users than the most advantaged users.”

    Very much agreed, which is why Second Life could be considered a digital divide issue for public libraries and could even bolster the argument that they need to be in-world in order to understand it and help their patrons gain entry (not that I’m making that argument).

    I didn’t object to your skepticism; I just noted another side to using numbers. Had I wanted to call you out on skepticism, I would have done so. And there is absolutely *nowhere* in my comments where I even attribute that skepticism to you, so I’m unclear what you would cry foul about.

    “Throwing around numbers” isn’t in-and-of-itself a negative thing, just like the fact that earlier today I was “throwing around numbers” about today’s NCAA tournament isn’t inherently negative.

    You don’t want to nitpick, but I’ll substitute “often” for “all the time” and still not take it personally (debating something I wrote versus me). I’m not making this personal, and I hope you won’t either.

  19. Jenny, walk away… now. You’re doing good work with SL and these other services. Not all of us have the time/focus/attention for that.

  20. Walt, you said “I’m sorry, Jenny, but once again you’re doing whatever the opposite of “charitable reading” is.” I think you’re misreading Jenny. All she was doing was arguing/debating some of your points. I don’t see ANYTHING in her above words that even remotely smacks of “the opposite of ‘charitable reading.'”

    At the beginning of your post, you stated “Putting on my asbestos gloves, I write a mildly cautionary post.” So you knew your topic might cause some debate. So take it for what it IS – a debate.

    Jenny said this “I voiced my opinion and for whatever reason, you’re defensive about it.” I’d have to agree with her!

    Just sayin’…

  21. walt says:

    David, since I chose not to respond to JL’s second comment (for the same reasons that I shouldn’t have responded to the first), I’m not sure why you feel the need to jump in a week later. If you have something ot add to the SL discussion, feel free. If you feel the need to take sides…why? And I’ll just let it go right there.

  22. John Gehner says:

    When I first started reading about Second Life, it put me in mind of those sci-fi stories in which Earth’s elite seek escape into space. They leave behind dystopia (take your pick) and the miserable masses in the hope (often false) of a better world. I savvy the need for early adopters and pioneers, and I value learning that incorporates play. But there are so many ground-level (community) problems in the flesh-and-blood world that librarians have not resolved. Enthusiasm for Second Life suffers from the same myopia that plagues “Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation” project ALA co-sponsored. You will be hard-pressed to find even passing mention of social exclusion, and it is far from a governing concern. That is to say, there are plenty of citizens who are not (and may never be) part of the conversation in our libraries. In 2006, 85% of Illinois counties experienced an increase in poverty. In the city where I work, only 14% of the population is African American, but they account for something like 40% of local families living under the federal poverty line. I think libraries should be offering these folks a Better Life now, and maybe Second Life later. I, and my avatar, remain perplexed.

  23. Jenny Levine says:

    John, I just wanted to note that ALA does take the issues you noted very seriously and does a lot of *really good* work in these areas. For example, the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, the Office for Research Statistics, and the Washington Office (just for starters) are all on the forefront of fighting to get access to the large number of people who can’t get it. Not just in terms of hardware and software but bandwidth, too.

    I don’t think it has to be either/or. One of the things I really enjoy about working at ALA is that it can work in parallel tracks, and Second Life is a great example of that. I think the same can be true for libraries in general.