Is Second Life today's hottest emerging media fad or the future of online communities and experience?
I've been asked this question a lot over the past year as Second Life increasingly graces the covers of mainstream magazines and conference room whiteboards of communication agencies. While multiuser, networked platforms have a long, deep history, Second Life has become the poster child of multiuser, Internet-enabled environments because of its no-cost entry, universal access, nonlinear user experience, and multiplatform availability.
Sounds a bit like how people talked about the Web in 1995, doesn't it?
One thing's for sure. Second Life is going strong, with a community of over 4.8 million citizens and growing. Although there's been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about actual (or repeat) users versus registered users, Second Life provides us with a glimpse into the future of networked communities.
Kids Are Getting Into the Act
The booming success of Club Penguin is a sure indicator metaverses (define) have appeal beyond early adopters. But don't go to ClubPenguin.com by yourself. Go with an 8-year-old power user and watch carefully. Social networking is a natural experience for kids as they learn to network, play games, earn coins, and budget their spending. And the recent launch of Nicktropolis only emphasizes that they're very comfortable with multiuser environment platforms.
Social Networks Affect the Web As We Know It
Though I can't predict the future, I can make a few educated guesses about what really works in Second Life and what's likely to influence the future of online communities from content and navigation perspectives. In addition, I'll provide an example of new platforms that might have been influenced by Second Life's success.
What really works and what might have influenced it:
More environments are going UCG. Second Life environments aren't predefined, story-driven, or liner experiences. In fact, the environment isn't driven by a single aesthetic or direction. It's a collage of different cultures, designs, and artistic expressions. Places look different because in the real world, things are different. Other than properties developed by Linden Labs or Second Life development agencies, most properties are another form of user-generated content (UGC).
The media like to talk about UGC in the form of YouTube videos and blog postings and comments, but UGC is the least talked about (but most important) part of Second Life. Users don't create a piece of content to stick in a public system and hope they're viewed, rated, or commented on. These users are working with complicated tools to create environments, experiences, avatars, artifacts, clothing, vehicles, terrain, and more. This behavior, often considered a form of Second Life entertainment itself, provides a glimpse into the future of UGC.
Sony recently announced its "Home" service for the PlayStation 3. To link members of its online network, PlayStation is taking a metaverse approach and building a multiuser environment users can explore and meet up with friends and other players. Additionally, the Home service will allow users to customize their own home that stores game rewards and artifacts collected across the network.
Navigation is increasingly a journey. Second Life residents do more than just point and click to get from A to B. They walk, fly, teleport, and ride objects. This physical metaphor brings a more varied navigation experience and transforms travel from clickstreams to journeys. When users embark on journeys, they'll find both well-traveled and secret paths. Club Penguin uses travel as an important part of the gaming experience. Players can choose to participate in episodic games that encourage players to explore the Club Penguin universe. Through these travel initiatives, kids are encouraged to look for secret places and methods to travel there.
Limitless customization will be required. Social networks are great platforms for users to define a persona, but the avatar design and customization system of Second Life offers limitless creativity options to every citizen. Although the system is clunky, its benefits certainly outweigh the process flaws. Anyone who's spent time with the Nintendo Wii will tell you how much fun it is to create a Mii (an in-game representation of the player). The process for designing a Mii is fun and painless and encourages you to keep going back to modify your appearance. In addition, WeeWorld's WeeMee (interesting choice of name, don't you think?) provides a simple character design process to build an avatar for use in WeeWorld and that can link to your AIM account.
If you can imagine it, you can be it. One primary reason Second Life (and most metaverses) is so interesting is it allows people to reinvent themselves. While observations by Linden Labs and other Second Life developers suggest people start off with a complete reinvention of themselves only to eventually pull back and create near-representations of their real appearance, the reinvention process applies to everyone, even brands. Imagine you're an automotive marketing executive and you're sitting in a room with several strategy consultants. They ask you, "What would your brand be if you didn't sell cars?" That's what metaverses offer you the opportunity to do. If people can be different, so can brands.
What Do These Things Mean for You?
It means if you plan on participating in Second Life or other metaverses, you should keep these ideas in mind. Ask yourself the following:
Does your initiative allow users to participate in and contribute to your efforts?
Do you provide tools to help them do this?
What does your brand journey look like to a metaverse citizen?
Are you taking advantage of the opportunity to reinvent your brand or maybe bend it to become more acceptable or interesting to the metaverse community?
Look for confident brands to take full advantage of these trends. Give them some thought, and let's keep the dialogue going.
Chad Stoller is the executive director of emerging platforms at Organic Inc., a leading digital communications agency with clients such as DaimlerChrysler, Sprint, and Bank of America. In this role, Chad leads Organic's strategy on client communication platforms and Organic's Experience Lab. Prior to Organic, he spent 13 years at Arnell Group in various roles, including director of communications solutions, and was responsible for branded entertainment, new media, branded gaming, and marketing alliances. He has developed a series of award-winning programs, including the Cannes Lion winner, "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker," for Reebok and Jeep Evo 4 x 4 for DaimlerChrysler. Chad is also a regular contributor to Organic's blog, ThreeMinds.