Should you pursue a “Second Life”?

2ndlife_horiz_2color_2We recently discovered a legitimate business reason to sign up to Second Life. It’s something we have been meaning to explore for some time, but never managed to find the time.

For those of you not familiar with "SL", it is described by its creators, Linden Research Inc, as "an immersive, 3-dimensional social interaction environment. Second Life is not a game. There are no set rules that cause action to happen; there is no goal; and there is no set actions that will change your status or result in a challenge. There are no quests." … so what is the point?

Linden provide the infrastructure, platforms, e-commerce tools etc, but the world itself, is largely "created by its residents" (of which there are currently just under 10,000,000). Think of SL as a 3D version of the Internet. Instead of the traditional web page and URL, you are immersed into a 3D landscape, which you navigate using your avatar.

These postcards from SL, should give you a flavour of the environment…

Sl_pictures_001_5… browsing for goods in a shopping mall. Need a new shirt? Maybe that tattoo you always wanted? Something for Real Life (RL)? Sony Ericsson have a virtual representation of their CeBit 2007 stand here, giving away free Walkman W880’s. The stand is still there, but deserted, except for a sad and lonely "survey bot", they forgot and left behind. Even now it’s, still doing research on the Sony Ericsson brand.

Radiostation_001_compressed_2… at a beach front disco. Apparently some residence come here to dance in the evenings. Although this looks like a nice (but deserted) beach front disco, its actually a group of radio stations, streamed live audio from RL. Unsurprisingly, they are mostly "disco" rather than "talk" radio stations.

Just like the RL Internet, there is much that is creative and novel in SL. There is still more that is distasteful, weird and to be honest, pornographic.

As the day/night zones traverse the globe, the dominant resident nationalities shift from South East Asians, Europeans and then through to Americans, giving some areas a very cosmopolitan feel. In our brief tenure, we met people from many different countries, America, China, France, Philippines, Japan and Slovenia, to name but a few. Which brings us to the social networking side of SL. Friends come to chat in the open or via IM, with presence being used to show your friends on-line status. We spent some time chatting to a husband and wife, who for much of the time, lived in different time zones. As well as texting or IMing, they would met together in SL, to dance, play games or just to sit on the beach. Some people do however take advantage of the 3D graphics engine, to (publicly!) practise advanced social networking theory, in groups of two, three and occasionally more!

But wait a second…

It is obvious from the time we spent in SL, that it is a cosmopolitan and sometimes vibrant environment, that could be exploited to market brands, deliver novel services, generate new revenue streams and even collaborate on projects. However before everybody rushes out, signs up and starts developing, there are some important differences to the traditional Internet that need to be considered.

  • Population Density: Although Linden claim just under 10,000,000 residents, we never saw more than 50,000 on line at the same time (Linden did claim 440,000 users dropped in, during the seven days prior to 1st October 2007). However given the shear size of SL, this actually represents a very low population density. We found most areas desolate, more reminiscent of a ghost-town. Combine this with the wide RL geographic spread of the residents, the odds of reaching your audience are slim to say the least. For example, we were chatting to an avatar from the Philippines, who had been in a year and never met anybody from the same country.
  • Search Engine: The thing we found constantly frustrating, was our inability to search for anything useful. There is no equivalent to "Google" in SL, thus undertaking any "topic" based search almost impossible. The closest analogy we have is, imagine trying to find a Jimmy Choos shop in Kamnik, Slovenia, when all you have is a street map and you don’t know any local residents.
  • Brand Appropriateness: Some brands may not sit comfortably in such an environment, given the adult nature of some areas of the world. In the RL Internet, Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign website, may sit on the same server as Playboy Magazine, and go unnoticed. In SL, there would be nothing to stop Playboy setting up a store next to Hillary’s for all to see!
  • Economics: Due to the way the economy is structured and exchange rates between Linden $ and US$, nobody is going to get rich selling services in-world and transferring money out. The main economic benefit, could come through starting the transaction process in SL, then complete the payment externally, thus avoiding the need to use Linden $.

Organisations should not be fooled by the hype surrounding Second Life, this is no marketers Utopia. With its current population and inadequate search facilities, the opportunities to incorporate SL into a traditional marketing campaign are limited. Some interesting possibilities do exist and will be explored further, however until such a time as these short comings are resolved, opportunities will be restricted to the largest global brands or to niche applications.

In deference to the residents, we can see the appeal (some of us being former D&D fans), however to truly take the next step, there are some issues that Linden need to be addressed.

  • Mobility: The great strides taken by other social networking sites, have to a large extent been underpinned by fully embracing mobility. Second Life is currently locked into a tethered experience, which for some will be a step backwards, regardless of the benefits the 3D engine delivers.
  • Stability: In our time in SL, there we two "rolling system restarts" to implement bug fixes. The first did not go well and caused outrage on some of the unofficial SL blogs. According to many residents this is not an unusual phenomena and there is much dissatisfaction.

In all, we are glad we found the time to explore SL (even though it soaks up time more efficiently than a black-hole), but we were disappointed to find that the commercial opportunities are currently more limited than we had hoped. We did however, met some truly interesting people with fascinating stores to tell. We wish them all the best in their Second Life, what ever it is they hope to find.

Next time your in SL, remember to say "Hi!" to a stranger. It might just be one of us!

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