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October 26, 2006 / conceptbin

My So-called 2nd Life

Tuesday’s My So-Called 2nd Life event was great fun. I owe thanks to Mike Butcher (see his overview on TechCrunch UK) for inviting me to speak on Second Life and e-learning.

The presentations were quite diverse, and I don’t think I can summarize them half as concisely as Roo Reynolds has done on Eightbar. He himself was the star of Adam Reuters’ coverage of the event (from Reuters’ SL bureau) having said that “v-business” could be a strategy for IBM, just as e-business has been.

Despite having fun and learning a great deal, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to enterprise in Second Life and other online environments. The focus was very much on big brands moving in, rather than small businesses coming from inside SL. In that sense, I was disappointed that the consensus seems very much to be that Second Life is just another media platform to be folded into existing corporate marketing strategies, rather than a seedbed for new business models and opportunities.

Michael Smith (of Mind Candy) and Esther McCallum-Stewart raised the larger question of the proliferation of massively multiplayer online environments, and how they articulate with other media platforms. One can speculate a great deal about how different interfaces compete, why certain synthetic worlds like World of Warcraft flourish, and others do not (There.com, for example). And what about big brands that decide to set up their own synthetic worlds instead of doing it in Second Life? Music businesses are already experimenting with projects like MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach (which runs on the There.com engine) and Interscope’s The Lounge (originally built for the Pussycat Dolls). I was surprised that the question of what the competition and challenges are to Linden Labs’ product seemed to raise little interest.

Roo Reynolds posed a serious question related to this proliferation of alternatives: Why would companies and institutions want to conduct sensitive meetings on Linden Labs’ servers, inside Second Life? Roo mentioned that IBMers already follow a code of conduct in their Second Life meetings, sensibly keeping silent about financial and patent-information on Linden servers. Why not set up a secure online environment on the company intranet? There’s obviously a market opening up for such services, and the first provider to step into this gap could make a lot of money providing customized solutions for corporate avatar meeting spaces and hangouts.

Would Second Life have an advantage in that market over other interfaces such as World of Warcraft? Seriously, why should it? WoW has a slick interface. All they’d have to do is ditch the castles and armour, dress the trolls in suits and ties, and offer a user-friendly gameworld package ready to be installed on a corporate server.

Generally participants in My so-called 2nd Life (including myself) tended to avoid the truly difficult questions about Second Life as a political space. The exception was Justin Bovington, of Rivers Run Red, who showed the audience an image of the first black person he met in Second Life. This resonated uncomfortably with my own description of it as an online gated community with restrictions on access (bandwith, computer speed, skillset). Alan Patrick points to the “v-government” potential of such platforms, but these are complicated by the fact that they are controlled, privately-owned online environments governed by End User Licence Agreements (see more on this at Terra Nova). Simply put, Second Life has residents, staff and owners – it does not have citizens.

Ultimately, My So-called 2nd Life was useful for me not because of whatever conclusions we may have reached, but precisely because of the questions it raised. Then again, being an academic I always value a good question far more than the answers.

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