Horizontal and vertical social software

I’ve been having some discussions about Second Life, and firstly wondered why I didn’t get it, then noticed that something of a SL backlash was starting. Clay Shirky has a good piece on why we shouldn’t get too excited about SL, including the suggestion that SL promotes the old content is king idea (thanks to Adam Joinson for pointing me at this).

I am one of those many people who have tried SL and not got beyond the training island. I wonder why this is so, since I’m not a technophobe. Here are some reasons:

  • Time – this is the big one for me, SL like all immersive games just requires a lot of time to get any return on investment. I think I can spend that time more fruitfully.
  • So whatism? Someone suggested the other day that we ‘could have a meeting in second life’. Yes, we could, but why would we do that, rather than just using FlashMeeting, say. It will take longer to learn, and when we do, it’ll be errm, just like real life.
  • Nice shiny surface. I think there is a temptation in SL to concentrate on the surface, ie that you are in SL, rather than the content of the interaction. As with above, had we held our meeting in SL we would have spent the whole meeting talking about why X was a seven foot mauve cat and not whatever it was we were supposed to be talking about. Compare that with the very in-depth discussion you get in blogs or discussion forums.
  • I just haven’t earned it yet, baby (apologies to Smiths fans). It took me several attempts to become a blogger, so maybe I just haven’t given SL enough of a try yet and if I stuck with it, I’d want to spend all my time there.
  • I’m a grown up/snob. Take your pick, part of me does slightly recoil from the whole role-playing, sci-fi, dungeons and dragons whiff that surrounds it.

As was noted in the recent Oxford survey not that many students were using SL (or the even more fantasy World of Warcraft – I have no desire to be a Draenei alchemist, I am struggling to be a human educational technologist) . But I know some people do really like them, so my theory is that there are horizontal and vertical social software. Horizontal ones are those that have a relatively low threshold to engagement – Flickr, 43Things, Wikipedia, LastFM, delicious, etc are all excellent examples of these. Indeed that has been key to their success – they can utilise the benefits of the network without requiring intensive contributions from all individuals. Even browsing adds to the value of the network. That is not to say that some individuals don’t spend a lot of time using them – there are many Flickr addicts out there I’m sure.

And then there are vertical social software, such as SL, WoW, and errrm, some more that I’m sure will come to me. These have a high threshold to participation, and users tend to spend a lot of time engaged with them. The consequence of this is that they need to meet a range of needs, hence SL can be used for work, socialising, shopping, etc. But it means they are unlikely to get the real critical mass required for mass networking seen in the horizontal social software tools. Put simply, I can explain Flickr, YouTube, etc to my dad – he will never get SecondLife.

No surprises for guessing what I think are the more interesting from an educational perspective. I think some very specific uses for SL may be found, in the same way Sim City has been used in some courses, but as a general tool, I’d take most of the horizontal ones any day.

One Comment

  1. Where on the vertical/horizontal axis would you put Facebook? Seems to me it is very “sticky”, addictive even, & to explore & engage with it throroughly you do need to submit to its verticality. But it works for me in a way that Second Life never could, because it allows me to participate without stepping too far outside my non-virtual identity. I don’t have to decide WHO to be, before I can BE there.

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