Sex, Lies, and Reality

proximity-logo.jpgThis is the actual title of a white paper released by Proximity London, a well-known creative marketing agency in the UK. Last September, they have concluded a research on virtual worlds, and the purpose of their lead in-house researcher, John Urpeth, was to dispel the myths spread around by the media about virtual worlds.

I came across John Urpeth’s paper, presented on a conference where Justin Bovington a.k.a. fizik Baskerville, CEO of Rivers Run Red, Britain’s (and probably Europe’s) largest Metaverse Development Company, also was a speaker. Sadly, this conference seemed to have been totally ignored by the media; I just happened across the actual paper presented by Urpeth today, through a marketing & advertising feed that I subscribe (and often ignore!).

Urpeth’s conclusions about a series of interviews (around 4000 or so) are definitely interesting, even if they might not be very surprising for anyone who has been in Second Life for several months. He starts by stating that Web 2.0, and more specifically virtual worlds, will be the next challenge for media agencies, since it’s a new media that they have to become familiar with. And what a new media it is! The CEO of Proximity Portugal claims that most communication will be online (as opposed on paper print, TV, phones, etc.) and thus media agencies cannot fall behind and have to catch up quickly with the newest communication trends.

The buzzwords of this new “place” where we communicate are known by all Second Life veterans: community, collaboration and co-operation. These are the very essence of what millions of users do in Second Life everyday, often without thinking twice about it. The key difference is that “nobody owns the virtual world” (in the sense that industry groups “own” the real life media, and thus a media agency’s approach is quite different there) — it’s a virtual space that is collectively owned since all of us are content providers and consumers. We’re used to the same notions on the Web 2.0 environment, so what’s the difference from that and virtual worlds like Second Life?

The way the article(s) talk about the issue, the difference is not really on the virtual world itself, but how the mainstream perceives the virtual world. Maria João Lima, writing for the online Portuguese magazine “Meios & Publicidade“, expands on this point: the media is still attached to fabricated myths and stereotypes that label and tag virtual worlds as the place where freaks and borderlines spend their time because they’ve got no other thing to do. This image is still very strong and sells newspapers. However, media agencies are here to help brands and their corporations to sell their own services and goods, and they have to follow their customers — and these are communicating inside virtual worlds. It’s time to dispel the myths, look at what really happens in virtual worlds, and exploit this medium for better communication with the customers.

Proximity was thus encouraged to get a snapshot of the reality inside virtual worlds, and quickly most of the media-propagated myths started to crumble to dust — they are nothing but fabricated theories that do not endure the researcher’s scalpel when dissecting the truth. Through all those interviews, and the time spent analysing objectively the population of virtual worlds (the paper only mentions Second Life and World of Warcraft), the first conclusion is that people do behave in virtual worlds mostly like they do in real life, but — and this was the important part! — they’re more inclined to explore. This open-minded approach is fundamental for brands who wish to encourage their potential customers to become faithful to them: unlike the mass media, where awareness can certainly be raised with multiple exposure to ads, inside virtual worlds, people are more open-minded to try new things, to apply these things to their selves (who are indeed also open to exploration), and to discuss and talk about their experiences. For marketeers and advertising agencies, it means targeting the audience with a quite different message.

Myth: Busted!

Urpeth analyses six popular myths and concludes that they are all false:

1. Everybody is a freak or geek

There is a huge difference between the early adopter — who might indeed master technology above average — and the mainstream user. Virtual worlds are way too huge to be “all freaks and geeks” — there are millions upon millions of virtual world users (estimated: around 50 millions in 2008), and it’s impossible to tag them all as “borderliners”. Thus, while at a very early stage of development, virtual worlds (or any new technology) will attract first the “early adopters” (who are familiar with exploring a new technology), when they hit the “millions of users” stage, they have long left the “geekishness” of the environment.

We still see journalists picking on anedoctal cases of the particular “geek” who is a by-product of the environment, and it’s the geek that makes the headlines. Objective research, however, establishes that the proportion of “geeks” vs. “mainstream users” is not significant — they’re too small a group to show up on the control groups. They’re story-sellers, but they’re not the huge majority of users that will be open to advertising. Urpeth does not recommend to target a marketing campaign to the “geeks”, since it’s pretty much pointless in terms of sheer size, but to take a look at the far wider audience of mainstream users.

2. Users don’t know what’s real

Proximity’s researchers found out that there are few or no cases of “alienation”, a very popular myth which is widely covered by the news. The notion that virtual worlds are used as a way of escape, and that users can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, is simply not true — according to established research at least. Like people are aware that they will experience a distortion of reality if they get drunk (or high on drugs!), or that a movie or a book can be entertaining by giving us suspension of disbelief, virtual worlds have the same ability to make us dream. But when logged in, we’re aware we’re dreaming; we know what’s real and what’s not; we’re aware of the difference.

3. People think and act differently on a virtual world

Popular media is always keen to point out that anonymity (or pseudonymity) allows users of virtual worlds to behave in ways that they wouldn’t dare in real life (thus breaking the Golden Rule of Netiquette). This is actually a quite widespread myth, which is not only not propagated by the media, but often by residents of SL as well. How often have we found someone warning us to “take care because people are not what they pretend to be”? Many consider this “fair warning” to newbies as being very helpful.

Actually, it turns out that people do think and act pretty close to what they do in real life — or so the interviews claim (and they are statistically significant to safely conclude that the vast majority of the uncountable millions think and act the same way). The difference is only that users are less inhibited to give feedback on what they think. For corporations doing advertising in virtual world, this means that they will very likely get more honest feedback very quickly on how effective their campaign is — good and bad! Again, compared to the broadcast media (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, outdoor boards, signs etc.), it’s a different experience for media agencies: in Second Life, residents talk back and are often very vocal about their likes and dislikes. It means that a successful campaign has to work with the residents, not push ads in their faces, which won’t work. Agencies will have to understand that a virtual world user might not write a letter to complain about an ad they disliked on TV, but they will do so inside virtual worlds!

4. Virtual worlds are a lawless, anarchic jungle

I was perhaps surprised to see this as a “myth”, since I often return to this topic and don’t really believe in self-regulation myself! The study, however, has found out that self-regulation and ostracism are two important factors in making the world way more controlled than we think. Urpeth concludes that all online communities have their rules, and that people voluntarily submit to them if they want to be part of a specific community. Griefers are borderline behaviour which is rare — note that it doesn’t mean that this behaviour doesn’t exist, or that griefer’s actions are not harmful, it only means that these are exceptions, not the rule. The average virtual world user is a balanced individual that naturally agrees with the community’s rules and abides by them. And the “average user” is part of a huge majority!

Perhaps the reason we believe that “griefers are everywhere”, plaguing our environment, is that individual cases are very disruptive, and, unlike what happens in real life, measures against these cases are not often taken (or are not fast enough). Thus, virtual world users feel “cheated” in their rights. After all, they (and “they” are dozens of millions of people!) are following all the rules, conventions, and social norms — voluntarily and naturally — and expect the same to be done by everybody else. A single “misfit” who refuses to accept these stands out in a crowd and attracts a large audience — and it’s the one that gets all the attention. Still, anedoctal cases are not to be taken as representative of the whole environment — they’re not to be underestimated in their ability to cause harm, but they’re also not the “stereotype” of the “average” virtual world user.

5. It’s all about pornography

A often-quoted-but-little-researched statistic shows that Second Life’s content is about 18% mature; the Web’s percentage is about 20%. Urpeth’s research showed that

[…]60% agreed that they visited online social communities for relaxation.

Obviously, going back to my earlier point, for some porn may be a form of relaxation. But we didn’t find this to be any more a dominant thread than it is in the physical world.

So the important thing to remember, as a marketeer or advertising specialist, is that a large part of the virtual world population uses it as a form of leisure — a competing product to watching TV or movies, playing games on a console, or reading a book/magazine. Virtual worlds are fun, and they’re slowly “taking over” other forms of passive entertainment, by allowing the creation collaborative, social environments — which are very alluring to a majority of people who employ their time this way. A part of those people, of course, view pornography as a form of relaxation, too. In the real world, the average TV viewer is not watching pornography all the time, but pornography is certainly available on cable network channels or on the nearest Blockbusters video rental store. The same obviously applies to magazines. Over-emphasising the role of pornography on virtual worlds is just clouding the reality — again, taking anedoctal evidence as representative for a majority of users. Urpeth doesn’t mention how many people, out of those 60%, are actually actively engaged in pornography (and I didn’t attend the conference and have no transcript of it), but I would bet that only one in five is actually interested in it — just like on the real world.

6. Virtual worlds alienate us and turns the society into something dangerous

The old myth — probably more than a quarter of a century old! — of the sixteen-year-old male geek with thick glasses drooling over his keyboard, sitting several hours per day in front of a computer, and engaging in impossible-to-understand geekish activities, is very hard to dispel. It predates even the Internet; it already comes out of the early days of BBS access with green-on-black CRTs and 2400 bps modems. It has been hugely popular on movies and TV series, and naturally, this image will stick around our urban folklore for several ages — since it’s very compelling, specially when we see movies like “Pirates of Silicon Valley” who have popularised the biographies of Steven Jobs and Bill Gates as “the triumph of the geek”.

Not surprising to Second Life residents, Proximity’s research found out the absolute opposite: people interact socially quite more through virtual worlds, and it’s quite understanding why. Taking into account that 60% of the users just log in for “relaxation”, we can imagine they’re coming home from a hard day of work, and, in usual circumstances, they would avoid human contact (they’re too tired for that), turn on the TV, and stupefy in front of it.

Instead, they’re logging into virtual worlds and talk to their friends — the ones that are physically near (but who are also too tired to go out for shopping together or having a beer at a pub), but also new ones, that might be too far away to visit, or even be on different countries and speak different languages! So, instead of spending a whole week closed at home, isolated from their neighbourhood and relaxing by “shutting out the world”, virtual world users are actively engaging in social relationships during their leisure time. Effectively, they’re more socially active than the neighbour next door who has never heard of Second Life and just spends all his time in the role of “couch potato” in front of the TV.

Surprisingly, the “couch potato” myth — which is quite dominant on most households! — never dispelled the “drooling, thick-glassed teenager geek” myth! I personally believe that the major difference is that the latter is an “exception”, which most people find “alien”, while the former is too close to us, and we emotionally bind ourselves with them. In other words: most of us empathise with the “couch potato” (“hey, I’m tired when I come back from home, I just turn on the TV to relax, there’s nothing wrong with it, I’m not in the mood to go out with my friends”) and understand their mindset. Most of us also don’t have the energy to come back from the labour at the office, and then spend a further 5-6 hours going from party to party, meet new people, talk to them, and have lots of fun together. We might do that occasionally, but not routinely, and mostly during the weekend.

Enter virtual worlds. In here, people do spend hours and hours socialising — every day of the week. In fact, things like Second Life are fully targeted to socialisation — sharing something together and talk about it with friends online. We don’t go to clubs or live music bars just to listen to the music — we can turn on the TV or the stereo if we want that — but because other people are there and we enjoy to be together sharing an experience. Now this is something crucial for virtual worlds — the notion of “being alone and isolated” only appeals to a very small percentage of the population (again, we’re talking about anedoctal cases of the stereotyped geeks that have zero social skills and feel totally alienated by humans in general — but these are not often on virtual worlds anyway!). The vast majority of the Second Life users, if not an overwhelming majority, are actively engaged in activities that require social interaction, and enjoy it very much — so much, in fact, that it is the whole point of logging in to Second Life!

Again, for marketeers and media agencies, the lesson is clear: instead of a semi-stupefied “coach potato”, who will “absorb” ads with little effort (since he or she has no strength to get away from their TV “addiction” and “suffer” the ads hoping for some content afterwards), the virtual world user is dynamic and engaging, they are constantly bonding and interacting with fellow human beings, they do activities together with others, they share and collaborate, and they’re anything but passive. Even the most silent person on a club is far more likely IMing friends in private than just passively watching their avatar dancing on the screen!

Now certainly a society where people are interacting much more is less dangerous than one where everybody is passively absorbing low-rate content from a TV! Nevertheless, 99% of all households do have a TV, and on the vast majority of them, “watching TV for leisure”, often in silence and ignoring the existence of the other family members, is accepted as “normality”; while being logged on a virtual world and interacting socially with hundreds or thousands of people every day, sharing experiences and collaborating on them, collectively producing their own content, is “dangerous for our society”.

In fact, it might be “dangerous” as it could become a spark that lightens up a whole forest of new ideas of our future societies, where social interaction is once more the focus of our leisure time, instead of passively sitting in front of canned entertainment — but the “danger” comes from people interacting and thus exchanging ideas and thoughts, of learning about others’ viewpoints and mindsets, of better understanding how real people live, feel, and also suffer (as opposed to watching “artificial” emotions from fake TV soap operas), and as the number of virtual world users grow that are experiencing an explosion of new social interactions and abandon “canned passive entertainment” forms, well, I very much hope that the lethargy of current western societies is, indeed, changed by that — in a very positive way!

Still, this is not the point made by Proximity’s research — all that they found out was:

60% said online social networking helped them get more out of life.

So in conclusion, I think it’s a force for good. Our research has demonstrated that people are not a different species when they access the world via their computer screen, they have the same personality traits and beliefs, but are now able to explore, experiment, express and validate the hidden complexities of their true selves. Free of the criticism and censure that sometimes depresses people in real life. For many it can also be more meaningful, more personal, more reliable and more fun.

Because of that I don’t think it’s going away, I think it’s healthy, and I think resistance is futile.

Key elements for media agencies to interact in virtual worlds

Sadly, the only reference I found to the seven key recommendations made by Proximity to brand owners is in Portuguese, made by Maria João Lima, so I’m providing them here as a reference again:

1. Usefulness

People in virtual worlds expect that brands give them something tangible that is useful in their (virtual) lives. In a world full of messages, they expect that they can use what brands give them to fulfil their needs or desires.

2. Active citizenship

The Web changes constantly, and so do virtual worlds, so brands need to recognise that change and participate in it — they should become agents of change too.

3. Being interesting is more important than being an authority

People join online communities to have meaningful, interesting conversations. They’re not looking for experts, but for things that entertain and amuse them. A brand’s presence in a virtual world can do both, of course, but nobody will look for a boring presence — they have to be compelling, engaging, refreshing, and interesting.

4. Individualism is not intimacy

A brand’s message should respect and address people individually (and not simply be thrown up in the air expecting that it is absorbed), but creating individual relationships doesn’t mean that you have to make friends with your audience.

5. Collaboration and not co-creation

People hate that someone sets the rules for them, and they will shun any brands that tell visitors of a virtual presence what to do and how to do it. Don’t push messages to them — instead, listen to your audience, learn from them, and participate in their own communities.

6. Brands have to be fluid

This mostly means that brands cannot afford to remain static in a world of so much change. They have to adapt and evolve, and they require constant overseeing to make sure they’re “fitting in” the environment. Don’t adapt old ideas to this brand new world — they will ultimately fail.

7. Use your logo carefully

It’s cheap and easy to spread messages on the Internet, and the temptation to paste your logo everywhere and push it to users is very great, but a bad idea/concept will also spread very, very quickly inside a virtual world. Brands have to be careful and use their logos with moderation, or the whole experience will backfire.

All in all, very good and solid advice from serious researchers that did a great job in dispelling so many myths and provide their audience — RL brands and companies — a real picture of how a virtual world really works.

Not surprisingly, the popular media was not interested in listening to Proximity’s message 😉

Disclaimer: While reporting on Proximity’s findings and conclusions, I’m inevitably adding my own thoughts on the subject; my interpretation of Proximity’s work is my sole responsibility.

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