Immersion or Isolation?

Business is about providing closed environments?

A thousand companies currently in SL see the Web as a tool allowing three things: marketing/brand awareness; providing information with a very low cost of distribution; and an enabler of business (even if it’s just getting customer contact forms to allow a further channel of communication). These days, no company questions the “need” to be on the Web, although it’s delegated to the same status as, say, business cards. You just have to have a Web presence in the 21st century.

Capitalising on it to generate income — or diminish costs — is, however, a different thing. Many companies are certainly aware of the potential (they read Bill Gates’ books!), but only some are willing to spend enough on that.

It’s not surprising, thus, that the first generation of companies entering Second Life were more interested in the marketing and brand awareness aspects of this brave new world, and they had deep pockets to experiment. That’s something comfortably familiar — spending money without the need to worry about a return is always nice!

However, this phase of “SL as a media splash generator” is now over for about a year. Companies that are in SL are perfectly aware that the media doesn’t care about them any more, so they focus their virtual presences in completely different areas. Microsoft, as seen, uses it to attract developers to events for a much lower cost; Xerox does internal briefings, meetings, and training, avoiding flights or videoconferencing; Kelly focuses on recruiting human resources. Universities use it to create virtual classrooms (the best don’t look like “classrooms” at all; they’re educational tools that would be impossible — or insanely expensive — to build in real life). All these are putting SL as a tool to engage businesses in order either to cut costs or to extend their core businesses through new, less costly channels.

And all of them take good advantage of what Second Life can do: in a word, it’s a contiguous virtual world with millions of inhabitants, fully changeable by the residents, who create their own content, bounded only by imagination.

So how can we understand the Electric Sheep Company’s new product, a totally locked and closed virtual room embeddable on a web page? The Sheep, once acclaimed as Second Life’s biggest accomplishers in terms of vision, highly detailed environments designed by the top content creators, and massive engagement of the community (CSI:NY in SL didn’t attract “millions” of users but certainly several hundreds of thousands!), seem to have totally backpedalled on their original ideas and vision and reduced themselves to the opposite field: absolute control of the closed environment, tailor-made for a single client at a time, without any possibility of interconnecting to other areas.

Why the change?

The Sheep are not the only ones who complained about their relationship with Linden Lab. Unlike, say, Multiverse, who understands very well that they have to closely work with their partners and developers in order to succeed, Linden Lab, in the pre-M Linden era, couldn’t care less about their developers. They refused to deliver “closed” areas under absolute control (which forced the Sheep to develop MTV’s “Virtual Laguna” mostly on And by contrast, the developers claimed that companies were too Puritan to live in the middle of all the sexual content and just want to stay away from it, and limit themselves to places where there are no griefers, no sexual deviants and perverts, and no kids. Linden Lab couldn’t care, and more important than that, there was no way to hammer some good sense in anyone at LL who might have made a difference back then. So some developers simply shunned Linden Lab, disgusted with their lack of vision and inability to address corporate customer’s needs.

Perhaps these developers forgot that those “clean” places have no users, either, as we can see now from Google Lively’s rooms — the “business rooms” are forever empty.

Ashcroft Burnham, who sadly hasn’t written yet on the subject, discussed with me the other way the different levels at which Second Life will succeed. On one hand, we need to have a community of engaged users, who are here just because they have fun and entertainment. These are the core users of SL — they have a careless, carefree approach to SL, and will be only around this virtual world if they find entertaining things to do. Since there are no restrictions in the kind of entertainment that can be provided — anyone can produce content and entertainment! — groups of individuals are eager to fill that niche of the market. But they require land to place their offerings (be it a live music club or a Gorean dungeon); thus, real estate agents are happy to intermediate between Linden Lab (from whom they buy sims wholesale) and the end customer, for a fee. Providing entertainment requires content, so content designers are also happy to design for SL. This in turn attracts more people who require more land and more entertainment and more content to provide that entertainment — and so on. It’s an ever-growing spiral, and although it’s (currently) not exponential, Linden Lab’s metrics shows that it continues to grow healthily.

So any company that wants to tap this market of residents eager to log in to the place “where everything happens” will quickly understand how to fit in (or die in the attempt). However, they’ll be here because this is the place “where everything happens”. It’s too early to say, but in the future this will also be the place where new residents will come because “this is where the companies are”; right now, we see that happening in the academic and research world to an extent. New researchers interested in developing their thesis about virtual worlds, 3D environments, digital art, new teaching techniques, or psycho-social simulations, turn to Second Life, because it’s where all of this is happening right now. Previous attempts had to create a virtual world first and hope to get a decent number of testers (recruited from among the students…) to make valid research; nowadays, they can just use SL for that.

Ashcroft shows that both are sides of the same coin. If the residents, their society and economy, simply leave and go somewhere else, why should the companies stay? There would be nobody around in this contiguous world. No, they’re here because the residents are here. Anything that makes residents stay longer, or more happily, or encourage new residents to come, will benefit — directly! — all companies and research institutes that have settled in SL. But similarly, their very presence also encourages others to come. Between having a choice to go to a closed room on a webpage where you see displays of products from a company that doesn’t interest you, or visit an interactive, ecological educational sim (by Grundfos) or learn how to trade on the real world currency exchanges (thanks to Saxo Bank’s Currency Trading Game), what would your choice be? If Microsoft launches a big party with live music on their sim, with the pretext of announcing a new line of products, people will join for the music, and to talk with their friends, attend the boring presentations for a bit, and then leave to roam the grid in search of more entertainment. There is always something to be found on the 18,000 or so public islands.

By contrast, the “closed room” model doesn’t allow that. Lively encourages people to quit a busy room (you’re there because your friends are!) and create your own, by yourself, and have fun that way. But then you have to invite your friends to join you (you’ll need to email them or, well, use GTalk… Lively is not contiguous, although you can see if your “contacts” are online). On the Sheep’s WebFlock, how will you know what others are doing? Put into other words, where is the “green dot effect” that Hamlet Au talks about?

“Closing off” the virtual world experience is basically expecting that companies will have showrooms that only attract exactly the kind of people they’re interested in: their direct customers. But even for them, what’s the point of entering a closed environment? The only obvious “selling argument” is that it’ll be a sex-free environment, suitable for “business” and not for “pleasure” (one wonders if American CEOs think that the human species grows in cloning vats…), and where the unruly crowd can be quickly shut off. WebFlock is also appropriate for corporate intranets, specially on the huge, multi-site corporations: Second Life does not offer an equivalent product (except for having private islands closed from the mainland; but employees will certainly be able to create alts and log in to different areas of SL…), although you can set one up with OpenSim, of course. But the wide audience will not really be impressed by a cute (or cool) chatroom on a website. The novelty will quickly wear off, specially if you have to register and log in to yet another site, with yet another download (even if it’s a tiny plugin).

(It’s only fair to say that at the current pricing shown on the Sheep’s site, all they need is a dozen or two customers per year to make WebFlock worthwhile; so they’re not worried of having “hundreds” of customers with “millions” of users — a handful is enough to make their stakeholders happy. And they’re good at selling ideas!)

So, according to Ashcroft’s logic, and extrapolating, companies will invest only where they can see a lot of people; and people will only go to where there are companies providing services and entertainment (or, if the companies are lacking, individuals providing them). The era of “closed rooms” is completely out of sync with the “mashup era” of this decade, where “more people interconnecting” is seen as a Good Thing™.

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