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Let’s Stop Gaming The Size Of The Social Media and MMO/Virtual World Universe

January 2nd, 2010 4 comments

I often see calculations showing the total number of people involved with social media, MMOs and virtual worlds. These calculations have been making me more uncomfortable of late, as the statistics seem only partially valid to me. I think it’s time to stop gaming the size of the universe. What does this mean, anyway? It means playing with statistics to overstate the number of people involved in social media, MMOs and virtual worlds.

Here is the standard playbook for gaming the size of the universe:

1) Make a list of companies and systems in the space of interest (Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, MySpace etc for social media, World Of Warcraft, Lord Of the Rings Online, Second Life, Blue Mars, IMVU etc for massively multiplayer games and virtual worlds)

2) Compile a list of the number of users on each system

3) Add up the numbers from each system to create a total

4) Proclaim that the total people involved is the total number of users of that category of system

The number sounds nice. Unfortunately the result is likely to be significantly overstated.

Why is this not a legitimate way to calculate the size of the social media or MMO/virtual world universe? In a word, duplication.

In my experience, people who are active in social media, MMO’s and virtual worlds tend to be involved in many systems. As far as I can tell, a significant percent of people who are active in social media, MMOs and virtual worlds will create an account on multiple (in some cases all known) new systems to check them out.

I do not have access to the information that it would take to de-duplicate the lists, and there is essentially no incentive nor ability given privacy and competitive concerns for these disparate companies to share their user lists. I think it would, however be interesting to see a fully de-duplicated count — a count de-duplicated both within each system (person who operates multiple accounts would then count as “1”) and across systems (person who has accounts on multiple systems counts as “1”).

The other little hitch is the definition of a “user.” How do you define user to count active users, and to disregard accounts that may have been created and abandoned? Do the various companies involved have any consistent definition for this statistic?

Until we somehow see that result, can we all see our way to not claiming that the universe is Twitter + Facebook + LinkedIn + … or World of Warcraft + Lord of the Rings Online + Second Life + Blue Mars + IMVU…  ?

My hunch is that it’s much closer to the size of the largest of the systems, rather than a sum of the separate ones, but that remains to be proven somehow, someday, once there is a universal common login (now I’m completely dreaming!)

Thanks for reading… all comments welcomed!

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