Virtual Worlds & the Cognitive Surplus

How much work went into producing all the (language) versions of Wikipedia? The answer: much less than the total number of hours Americans spent watching TV over the last year. Listening to Clay Shirky estimate the amount of untapped cognitive cycles in his Web 2.0 keynote, reminded me of a similar calculation we did early last year. Amidst the flurry of media stories about Second Life, my immediate reaction to the hype surrounding Second Life was to compare it to the benchmark that Clay cited in his talk: hours of TV viewing per capita.


Nevertheless, the media stories combined with signals from a few of our technical indicators (online job postings, book sales, message lists, …) encouraged us to dig deeper into Virtual Worlds. We spent time in the latter part of 2007 understanding Virtual Worlds and earlier this year we released a Business Guide. This Sunday (10 a.m. PDT), I will be speaking in Second Life as part of the Virtual Business Expo and I plan to briefly discuss some of our most recent findings. The organizers are encouraging people to register in advance and you can do so here. Hope to see you in-world this Sunday.

  • Clay Shirky

    Ben, you may be able to answer this question: how does Second Life count hours? Do they count hours they way my phone company counts minutes? which is to say do they count an hour as “an hour or fraction thereof?”, of do they count it as 60 minutes?

    Put another way, are 6 people using 2L for sessions of 10 minutes each counted as 1 hour, or 6?


  • I think this cognitive sink idea is really clever and great at giving a sense of scale to activities like building wikipedia in comparison to something we can all understand. However, I think it is a bit misleading to suggest that all of that passive tv time would be replaced by active cognitive activities if tv went away. We’d probably just all go to bed earlier and have more kids. Hmmm… maybe those tv show cognitive sinks are also population controlling carbon sinks.

  • “Cognitive sink” is a nice phrase to capture the age old idea that if we just got off our backsides and actually did something…

    While I absolutely agree tv is a huge time sink, when it is removed, there are many activities that people will do that is either passive, e.g. read, or active but not mentally productive, e.g. play a ball game, go out for a drink, walk the dog, go online and tart up your social website page, email etc.

    People who want to do stuff will probably make that choice and do it anyway, irregardless of the addictive attraction of tv or other consumptive activities.

    What is key is getting a fraction of the passive consumers to become active producers. As Clay points out, the potential mental resource base is huge.

  • to answer your question, Linden Lab does count actual minutes as a reflection of resident time spent inworld per month. Using Clay’s example, if 6 residents spend 10 minutes each in Second Life, it’s counted as 60 minutes, not rounded up. In March 2008, for instance, residents spent 30,743,370 hours inworld.

    Those stats and more are updated monthly here: Click on the Google Docs link under Key Metrics for all the stats Linden Lab publishes regularly.

  • Oops, to see the stats, take off that period at the end of the url posted above.

    Sorry about that!

  • Ben Lorica

    Clay: Catherine, who works for Linden, kindly responded to your question (see preceding comments). It looks like Linden does not round up to the nearest hour.
    Cheers, Ben

  • Thank you, Catherine.

  • “Cat and Girl” weighs in on TV: