There’s Gold In Them There Virtual Hills?

26 10 2006

By Adam Crowe

Sorry. Here’s another post about Second Life. Anyone would think that there’s nothing else going on in the world apart from Second Life. There is something so truly compelling and open ended about Second Life because it’s one of the first web experiences that has opened up a huge chasm of opportunities and no one can see the end game. Not even its creators.
All the hype is creating a virtual land-grab so companies can say they were in Second Life first but I suspect they haven’t thought about the risks or real benefits. They have no aim once in there, there isn’t a plan of how to make use of virtual worlds, it’s just a school playground with the first in saying ‘Bagsy that sim, we were first nah, nah nah-nah, nah’. The amount of businesses that have entered in the last month is sizeable including Sun Microsystems, Intel, MTV and Reuters to name a few.
So how will these real life businesses fair in a virtual world? No one knows. Second Life has a completely different behaviour ecology and no-one’s really figured it out yet. For example, last week I visited the new offices of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) the global ad agency. I thought I may be able to meet some of the staff and see if there was anything interesting happening. When I logged on there was no-one there. It was interesting to note that their offices are very big grand shiny. A reflection of real world aspiration as opposed to blue sky virtual creativity. After hanging around for 20 minutes some people came online who seemed to be employees. The first person I met wasn’t really interested in talking to me and the second made it very clear that she, “didn’t see what the point of all this stuff was”. I was intrigued to know what the management at BBH had told their staff about Second Life or even how to approach it if they had no experience. Unfortunately I couldn’t get an answer out of them.
If you’re a big corporation entering Second Life, how do you control your on-line presence, your image, what your employees do and how people interact with you? There are many considerations to make. As opposed to the real world, Second Life has no consequences. For instance you could go into Second Life, pretend to be a BBH employee, ask everyone you meet for virtual sex and even masturbate in front of John Hegarty himself if you wish. What are the consequences? If companies and brands open virtual spaces in Second Life that other users don’t agree with, what’s to stop residents holding demo’s with placards outside, making a movie of it and posting it up on YouTube? Individuals could be as provocative as they like with no real consequence. Sounds like a lot of fun to me.
Currently the main reason companies seem to be getting into Second Life is because of the column inches it generates. And who can blame them. The way Second Life is usually reported fuels hype and confusion simultaneously due to the absence of an explanation of why this is happening. At their worst, the format of a story about Second Life tends to be quite generic:
1. Announce XYZ Company has moved into Second Life
2. Avoid – at all costs – explaining why and what this is expected to achieve
3. Spurt out the current headcount of Second Life residents and say how much they’re spending in multiples of millions
4. Mention Second Life is an anarchic world where residents can do whatever they please or just buy stuff like good little consumers
5. Refer to the Second Life sex industry and sign off with a knowing wink

Some answers?
Both media and business needs to understand the motivations of individuals within Second Life to glean any useful answers from it. Basically there are two lenses you can examine Second Life through, two viewpoints if you will: as an Immersionist, or as an Augmentationist. So far, mainstream reporting of Second Life has tended to blur the two to great confusion. Let’s explain the two views:
Back in September, Akela Talamasca of the Second Life Insider referenced Lys Ware, of Second Life Creativity wiki page detailing a theory of Augmentation vs Immersion.
The distinction between the two is this (though we are sure to note that these are the extremes and that most people’s experience of Second Life lies in the grey area in between):
The Immersionists want Second Life to be a world in itself that should be a complete escape from ‘Real Life’. Immersionists tend to be enthusiastic roleplayers and avoid disclosing any of their real life information. They also tend to and form groups to help flesh out their Second Life experience.
The Augmentationists view Second Life as just another online interaction tool. Augmentationists see nothing wrong with more interaction and connectivity with real life and are usually the keenest to use other Second Life related web services and established brands to extend their social experience.
These two viewpoints are important to consider when reading (or writing) anything related to Second Life, since they frame the particular bias of the author. For example, there have been numerous blogs and mainstream news articles: Brand Republic, The Observer, The Economist, The New York Times [registration required], The Guardian, BBC relating to Second Life that mix the Immersionist and Augmentationist viewpoints seemingy unaware of the confusion they are creating. Though, that isn’t to say that the two viewpoints can’t co-exist. It’s just that the subtleties of the two viewpoints are not explained to the reader. So is it any wonder some people just don’t GET Second Life?
Thankfully there are some voices of reason…
Here’s an extract from the ‘Does Second Life Have a Shelf Life?’ story found on Brand Republic’s website:

But is it set to be just another adland fad? It’s hard to say, Richard Huntington, [Planning Director at United London] … argues: “In advertising, we always overestimate the short-term impact of new technology, but underestimate the long-term impact. We get very enthusiastic early on, then forget about it until it really is making a difference, and then we’re too late.” In general, he urges caution. “If a business has any doubt about whether to go into this arena, then they shouldn’t do it. The people that actually understand the medium can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Second Life is unique in that individuals who are part of it create content which adds narrative to the world. By building houses, making clothes and setting up communities they are part of the unfolding story of Second Life. Organisations need to understand that to be successful in Second Life, as with real life, they will need to create both the content and the context that adds to the Second Life experience and develops the world for the better. The end game is what we make it.
By Raj Panjwani and Adam Crowe



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