Facebook integration

All right, all right, the other post was obviously an April Fool’s post… nevertheless, two things are half-serious, and worth thinking a bit.

The first one was not really a joke. Tipodean did release its Unity3D, Web-based Second Life viewer as an open beta (previously, it was being tested as closed beta). You can really jump over to the BuiltBuy.me webpage, fill in the details, and run SL-on-Unity3D-on-the-Web — really. It works. It’s not perfect, but it works. It feels kind of strange seeing all those avatars and prims that you’re so used to seeing inside the SL renderer,  now being displayed by a completely different rendering engine 🙂

The implications, as soon as Tipodean fixes the many annoying bugs and details, are staggering. LL’s own Web-based “experiment” is, well, simply the wrong approach — run SL on a remote server and stream a video over. The problem here is just the insane costs of such a solution: each resident will need a remote server that is powerful enough to run SL. Sure, from a purely technological point of view, it works; from an economical one, it simply doesn’t make much sense long-term — no matter if this is the current trend in high-end computer games. The difference is that people are used to pay monthly fees to play on those games, but one expects to be “free”.

No, SL-on-the-Web has to be quite a different experience altogether: prims and avatars have to be rendered locally, inside a plugin. Henrik Bennetsen, of Augmentation vs. Immersion fame, is proposing a SL-inspired clone that runs under WebGL, the upcoming 3D standard to be implemented on all Web browsers (except you-know-which). WebGL is definitely cool and will bring 3D gaming to the Web without crashy plugins or licensing nightmares from Adobe. Still, it’s not universally available.

Unity3D is. It works on the Web and as a native application in pretty much everything these days: PC, Mac, iPhone/iTouch/iPad, Andoid, Wii, Xbox. And, of course, on the Web. One engine, almost all platforms. Developers love the technology, and although it’s an engine for creating 3D games and virtual worlds — not a standalone virtual world — a lot of academics and companies have preferred it to Second Life, mostly because it runs on way more platforms than SL, is generally faster, has a marginally better renderer, and, of course, it works wonderfully on the Web. I guess it was jujst a question of time until someone configured the engine to display Second Life/OpenSimulator content, and that’s exactly what Tipodean has done — something I’ve been predicting for quite a long while, ever since I evaluated Unity3D for the first time. The Blue Mars guys did it all wrong; instead of betting on their “own” virtual world and develop a single-platform, impossible-to-port engine from scratch, they should have stuck with Unity3D and using OpenSim to store content — then they could have really created a “competitor” to SL which would have flown.

Tipodean, by contrast, is not “competing”: they’re just opening a door for more users to easily log in to SL (or, well, OpenSim), by removing the requirement of running a stand-alone application, but to use a mere Web browser instead. Sure, it’s still at the proof-of-concept stage, but it’s still uncanny to see all those prims and textures being rendered by a completely different engine that has nothing to do with LL’s code — something I have been waiting to happen for 4 years (yes, yes, I know I could have downloaded, say, Radegast which can display some 3D content via the Looking Glass plugin — if I had a PC or patience to port the code to the Mac! — and there have been several similar attempts in the past). Better still, Tipodean finally released a working viewer that runs both on the Web and uses the Unity3D engine. For my professional and academic uses, these are immensely powerful arguments — since a typical refusal to have anything to do with SL is the need to download a viewer, and/or requests for doing content in Unity3D. Well, now we can have both 🙂

No, contrary to what my April Fool’s article mentioned, it doesn’t run inside Facebook 🙂 Not yet, at least…

Facebooking Second Life

The other issue mentioned on the article was, well, Facebook integration. Bloggers grid-wide have been mostly condemning any of LL’s attempts to integrate SL with Facebook, and complaining about the Facebook icons on the my.secondlife.com profile. People have been fearing RL/SL integration exposed through Facebook and arguing a lot about the pitfalls of allowing Facebook access to your SL profile (and vice-versa), or, worse, constant Wall messages letting your FB friends know where you are. But, to be honest, that’s really just a very minor aspect of possible integration: I propose a way deeper and fuller kind of integration 🙂

Well, first let me just present a disclaimer here. I’m not fond of Facebook, period. Zuckerberg is a very dangerous sociopath: if he weren’t the most famous recent CEO in the world, he’d be shut down at an asylum and force-fed drugs to keep him down. He doesn’t even attempt to disguise how he has created Facebook just to meet girls and sleep with them; his biography is full of his gloating about how he stole pictures of females by hacking his university’s servers, or how he was actually hired to develop a “social media website” by some other students, but thought that the idea was so good that he preferred to steal it and claim it as his own. But that’s not the worst; every millionaire has some skeletons in their closets. No, the worse thing is how Facebook is actually controlled by Digital Sky Technologies. Which in turn used to run Mail.ru, one of the leading mail services in the world — and the one from where most spam in the world originated. DST’s involvement in “legitimate spamming” and “automatic data profiling” has always been incredibly dubious to me — but when they moved to buy Zynga (of Farmville fame) and then Facebook, it was clear to me what they had in mind: legitimately putting in their pocket profiling data for 600 million world-wide users and profiting from ads through this new channel — thus distancing themselves from the shady past of illegal spamming, and becoming a “respectful” company.

So a sociopath hacker becomes a legitimate CEO of a company sold to a conglomerate of spammers and world-class hackers that also became legitimate over the years… by partnering with Zuckerberg. Right. The Italian Camorra (a Mafia-style organisation based in Naples) also runs a legitimate garbage business, but that doesn’t make the Camorra anything less than a criminal organisation. Nobody would trust their private data to the Mafia, even if they ran a perfectly legitimate social networking site (perhaps they already do…), but 600 million people have no problems with Zuckerberg, DST, and their associates.

And of course this all might just be a conspiracy to discredit Facebook and prepare the launch of Google’s +1 project, a Facebook “Like” clone which is integrated into Google’s search engine(s). I don’t know. I suggest people to investigate the biographies of Zuckerberg, of DST’s and Mail.ru’s founders, and of the Russian cybercriminals and reach their own conclusions…

Nevertheless, Facebook is unavoidable. So how could it be better integrated with SL?

Ubiquitous login

It’s clear that the first step in joining SL should be by giving the option to log in with a Facebook account. SL is possibly the last social networking environment that doesn’t have a Facebook login, but requires a separate registration. The Facebook login should be optional, of course, but it should be an option.

As soon as the Facebook login is accepted, profile data would be exchanged in both directions. With checkboxes you would be allowed to see what Facebook will know about your SL avatar, and, reversely, what SL will show from your Facebook profile. The advantage? SL profiles wouldn’t start empty, but already with a lot of information, even RL pictures, which are a “must have” feature for a large part (not all!) of new residents.

Find friends on Facebook — and move them to SL

All Facebook applications work the same way: add the application, then go through your list of friends that already have added the same application and add them as “neighbours”, “clique members”, or whatever the application calls them; and, while you’re at it, invite a few more over 🙂

So what LL ought to do is to create a FB application just to “integrate” with SL. When joining for the first time, and using a Facebook login, this SL-to-FB “bridging” application would retrieve your friends from FB, and see if they’ve also got the SL-to-FB application installed (and have given the proper security clearance to retrieve their data too, of course). If so, you’d get an option to add all your existing friends to your SL friends list — and also invite more FB friends to download SL and join it, of course.

The advantage? One of the reasons so many Facebook games are successful is that you so often find at least a few of your friends already playing them. And finding friends in Facebook is easy. In SL, by contrast, unless you know your friends’ avatar names, it’s impossible to locate them. Facebook integration would bridge this huge gap and remove the handicap of having an empty friend list — one of the typical reasons for newbies to leave very soon (as they have no clue where their friends are).

Photo integration

SL does indeed have a place to show snapshots you’ve taken in-world, and the ability to send snapshots by email. It’s only obvious that this needs to be expanded to allow bi-directional photo exchange with Facebook: your SL profile should show the latest pictures from Facebook, and when taking a snapshot, if you have a Facebook login connected to your avatar, you should have a “Save to Facebook” option. This is so obvious that I hardly understand why it hasn’t been done; the ever-resourceful Katharine Berry has added a “Export to Flickr” option for the SL 2.X viewer, and I’m sure that something similar could — should! — be done for Facebook as well.

Profile-to-Fan Page

What about automatically turning your SL profile into a Facebook fan page? That way, there wouldn’t be any worries about showing your “real data” so easily — only the information on the fan page would be sync’ed with SL. This should be do-able, and probably useful, since many residents I know don’t bother to get a full FB account for their avatars, but just a fan page…

Also, this is the place to export your pick list (with images!) and your SL groups as well. Why is this important? Well, new residents might find their friends via the SL-to-Facebook integration tools — but the next step is seeing what your friends are doing in SL at all. Facebook allows groups (and games you’ve joined!) to be displayed for that reason: it’s reasonable to assume that your friends share similar tastes to you (after all, there is a reason why they are your friends, right??), so they might enjoy similar group chats and similar places to visit.

So instead of relying on a Destination Guide, assembled semi-randomly to a vast audience, each new resident would get their private, individual “destination guide”, created dynamically from everything that your friends are willing to share. Needless to say, new residents would love this feature — nothing is more frustrating than joining something new on the Internet, and having no clue on what to do — and, more importantly, not understanding why it is so appealing to your friends!

Like, like, like

Here is where I think that the most important SL-Facebook integration should be happening: Like buttons everywhere. This is not very different from Babbage ex-Linden’s old idea of an “augmented reality for SL” (SLateIT — not available any longer, but you can watch an old video to understand how it worked): basically, a simple mechanism to “rate” items and avatars you find in SL.

The twist here is to push the “Likes” to Facebook (SLateIT used an independent website managed by Babbage and some volunteers), so they’ll show up on Walls, with a SLurl directly linked to the location where it can be found, as well as an (optional) thumbnail picture of the parcel. This would be dramatic! Aye, I know that “Likes” are really very very easy to game, but that’s not the point — the point is to spam Facebook with the cool things people are finding and doing in SL, and let Facebook’s profiling engines have a go at all that data.

Profiles, landmarks, avatars — all of those should be “Like”-able. Let’s flood Facebook with what we consider fun and enjoyable in SL 🙂

Chat integration

Allegedly, Linden Lab is already using XMPP (the Jabber protocol) for Group Chats, and my friend SignpostMarv Martiun reports some success in connecting to SL’s XMPP service with a third-party, external XMPP client (there are tons… even iChat can do it). Well, for over a year, Facebook supports XMPP chatting too. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that the effort in linking both is not overly hard. What that means is that you could log in to Facebook and chat with your SL friends and vice-versa; what could be cooler than that? 🙂

Of course, inventory transfers would be harder to do 🙂 but I can imagine that at least landmarks should be very easy; images (textures) are simple to implement as an URL to LL’s cloud servers (if the texture is full perm); and perhaps even notecards could somehow be “transferred” as well. The advantages to all that are so obvious that it’s a crime that it doesn’t work yet like that 🙂

Also imagine the power of creating Facebook-based “announcement groups” that would regularly keep residents informed of new fashion releases, upcoming events, and so forth — so that when they log in to SL, they would get all those messages like regular group announcements.

Event announcements

Remember Eventful? They were one of the first websites implementing “Second Life” as a “country”, and SL events are pushed to Eventful regularly, which can be a bliss for anyone tired of wasting time searching in-world for something interesting to happen.

But Eventful is, well, pre-Facebook. These days, people manage events — even SL events! — on Facebook. So what would be more natural to bridge across both platforms? Create an event in SL, and it will be posted to Facebook; click on the “Yes” button for attending the event, and it will automatically notify you in SL when the event is due and give you a SLURL to teleport. Again, it’s so obvious…

SL Marketplace Likes

So, why do we have “likes” on the my.secondlife.com profiles, on the Destination Guide, but not on SL Marketplace?? A “Like” button is insanely easy to implement on a website! Someone must have missed that…

Cross-advertising

… and while we’re talking about merchants and commerce, it only makes sense that classifieds become Facebook ads and vice-versa. Well. Mostly… I’m sure that this would require some chats between Zuckerberg and Rod Humble. In any case, LL has roughly 3.3% of the Facebook userbase — not much, but certainly it’s not “nothing” and far more than many other platforms — so they might be able to strike a deal.

This would naturally interest merchants — one thing is to advertise on a crippled in-world search engine, the other is to advertise on a targeted, profiler-rich environment 🙂 So I’m sure that a lot of merchants would be quite happy to do cross-advertising… providing that Facebook’s managers lift the restriction of using “fake” profiles, of course. But I’m sure that if they’re “persuaded” that those, uh, “fake” profiles are actually buyers of digital content worth US$0.6 billion annually, and quite eager to buy ads for selling that content, Facebook’s management would want a slice of that market, too.

Still, I see this as far harder to implement, mostly because of the required talks between the two managements…

But perhaps it’s easy enough to create a gateway converting Facebook credits into L$ and vice-versa. There is a lot of potential in that!

… and easy Wall posting

Of course, sometimes you just wish to send a Wall update to your friends, and not bother launching up a Web browser. Although a lot of HUDs provide that kind of service, this should be conveniently be as easy as using the text chat box at the bottom and just check a box saying “Post to Facebook”. Optionally, you could drag a texture and/or landmark/SLURL to the chat box as well — and these would immediately get posted to your Wall with the text message. Definitely not a hard thing to implement!

Security

Well, you might not be yet convinced that it’s really the Russian Cybermafia running Facebook — except for myself, I don’t know of anyone else believing that, either — but it’s clear that the most vocal residents don’t want any kind of Facebook integration. Others want some things but not all. But at least Facebook’s API allows the detail of management to be set by the user; by default, nothing might get exchanged between Facebook and SL, but you might have the SL-to-FB “bridging” application have a lot of options (all initially set to false) selectively allowing information to be shared — and, conversely, the SL viewer should have the complementing options settable as well. By default, of course, no association would exist between Facebook and SL, and gradually you could check a few things. Being able to “Like” items on a shop might be popular for some; others might feel comfortable with attending events, but not allow friends to chat with them via Facebook. This should all be individual choices that could be turned on and off at the user’s convenience.

Why stop at Facebook, though?

Many have commented that Plurk is more useful than Facebook to keep in touch with their SL friends; others prefer Twitter. Although few social websites allow as much integration as Facebook, some do — MySpace, Netlog, Tagged, Orkut, even Multiply, are good examples: they all support timelines or at least “status”; they allow pictures to be uploaded; and at least MySpace, Netlog and Orkut allow OpenSocial applets (similar to Facebook ones, but differently implemented), but LinkedIn or Plaxo are also possible candidates. Together, they might have as many users as Facebook, even though individually they have less. In any case, once this “integration development” starts popping up on the viewer, adding support for additional social networking websites should be relatively easy. Facebook is the hottest site on the Web right now, but it might not be the only one (and, well, one day people will understand what it means to give all your private data to the Russian Mafia… did I mention them before?… and go back to safer websites 🙂 ).

Conclusion

What I’ve been reading about “Facebook integration” seems so… limiting! SL/Facebook integration can become huge, and I’m sure that the above ideas are not hard to implement at all — Facebook has APIs for pretty much everything, and a lot of the SL 2.X Viewer already relies on HTTP requests for several of its functions. I’m not suggesting “tracking someone through SL” — as so many fear — but far more useful features. Useful, of course, if you’re a Facebook junkie. But since so many people are, why neglect them?

It’s true that Facebook might not take good care of one’s private information. Rod Humble seems to believe that the “lack of privacy” is just a temporary fad that will soon become obsolete as the novelty wears off — and too many people suffer from the extreme exposure “demanded” by Facebook. SL’s management, by contrast, is still a firm believer in Internet privacy, and this policy shouldn’t change.

Nevertheless, launching a few bridges between SL and Facebook, for the ones willing to do so, is a good thing. It allows Facebook to be swamped with information and data from SL residents, and make SL more visible that way. It will allow new residents, who are just familiar with the way Facebook facilitates interconnection among users, to see similar techniques employed by Second Life.

Imagine the following new resident experience. While browsing on Facebook, you suddenly visit a friend’s page, and see that they have installed the “Second Life Gateway Application” with an indication that “20 million others have installed this”. Curious, you click on that application and install it — and promptly get to download the SL Viewer. While you wait for the download, you’ll be redirected to a (Facebook-embedded) page to pick an avatar name, a starting avatar, and optionally to notify your friends that you’ve joined SL, too (if some of them are currently logged to SL, they’ll immediately get a Friend invite!).

A lot gets prepared on the background, but the first thing that happens is getting all shared locations from your friends’ pick list added to the SL login page — you can start right now on a location that captured the attention of your friends. When logged in, you’ll get a partially-filled friends list — showing all outgoing invites to your friends. The ones accepting your friendship request will now have their avatar name shown as linked to Facebook; if they’re on FB but not in SL, you can immediately chat with them: “Hey, I’ve installed this SL thingy, and went to the DJ Party you recommend, but I’m a bit lost — where are you?” In SL or from Facebook, your friend can immediately answer, possibly logging in as well and helping you out. In the mean time, while you wait, you have now a selection of groups to join which have your friends as members — and tune in to the group chat to see what people are doing right now in SL. With a personalised pick list, it’s highly likely you’ll find something that attracts you, specially because you know it’s something appealing to your own friends as well.

You start taking your first clumsy pictures — and immediately share them on Facebook for everyone to see. Posting on your Wall, you alert your FB friends: “I’ve downloaded this Second Life thingy and am a bit lost; it looks like fun, though”. You start clicking “Like” on fun things you discover — perhaps a shop, where some items have been “Liked” by thousands of happy buyers. It’s a great way to start!

Later that day, you find that your Facebook page lists a handful of intriguing events, and you might even click “Yes” to show you’re attending them. When logging back to SL, you’ll get a notification when the event is due. So easy! A quick message to your FB wall, with an added snapshot, will tell everybody how fun events in SL are — but an image will be better than a thousand words. And on the following day, all pictures of the event will be shared on the Facebook group page, and you’ll be tagged on them as well 🙂

This is definitely appealing. And the beauty of it is that it’s very, very easy to implement: so easy, in fact, that if Linden Lab doesn’t do it, it could be a wearable HUD and a few backend services on an external webserver to implement most of that functionality…

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