Preface: I think what Linden Labs has built is amazing... its an interesting social experiment, an amazing business, an PR phenomenon... and I give it kudos for making us all think differently about the way the digital world might move forward. That being said, to anyone that has been involved with Second Life, please don't take this as a knock, but more as a healthy and perhaps, if I'm lucky, conversation provoking dose of skepticism not on the product itself, but on the approach to it by PR folks, marketers, brands, pundits, etc. EDIT: (Based on comment #1... I'm not making any sort of direct comparison between SL and the avatars that Oddcast makes, because SL is an immersive world... Oddcast makes talking avatars that live in the web... they're very different animals used for very different purposes.)
The PR buzz around SecondLife is amazing... (Nice job, Lewis PR...) and I think it's causing a lot of businesses to wonder if they should be participating. Consider the following list the "grain of salt" you might want to take Second Life with:
- Second Life is not, and probably will never be, mobile. From cellphones, to the iPod, portable gaming... the consumer has clearly voted with their wallet that they want to pick up their digital life and take it with them, getting out from behind the PC and the laptop. SL, because it needs to be online and it requires powerful and complex 3-D rendering, will not wind up on your cellphones anytime soon. In a world where I can blog and read blogs, take and send pictures, play games, consume and even download music and videos wherever I am, how appealing is a technology going to be if it forces me to sit home behind my PC?
- There are no microchunks of a virtual world. CDs got broken up into tracks. Movies and TV shows became YouTube clips. Websites make sure everything has a permalink so that URLs can be tagged and passed along easily. This is the viral fuel for a short attention span world... small and bitesized. SecondLife can't easily be consumed in small bits. You can't link to an event that already happened, or tag a place, or share it with someone who doesn't have the software. That also makes it hard to discover things in Second Life when you're not looking for them. You can't stumble upon it through Google or by browsing social networking profiles.
- Second Life is a benevolant dictatorship. If you were doing corporate business development in emerging markets, political stability would be a key factor in measuring the attractiveness of a potential new market. I think, if given the choice, you'd rather invest in a place with a representative government that has proven to support smooth transition of power in the past. To me, the fact that a very small group of people basically dictates what goes and what doesn't in this market... a group of people that is not beholden to the residents by law, is a political risk.
- Second Life is a business. Linden Labs has taken venture capital investment and those firms are going to look for an "exit" at some point over the next four years or so. Maybe Linden Labs will be profitable enough to go public. In that case, the founders could remain at the helm, but they'd still have the pressure to grow revenues which may be at odds with the authenticity of the service. Contrast that with Craigslist, which makes its team enough money to be comfortable and not feel pressure to do anything that it's users might not like... no quarterly numbers to meet and no pressure to grow the business.
- Diminishing returns for brand participation. Darren came up with this one and I thought it was very astute. Right now, you can gain a lot of PR buzz by participating in Second Life... probably enough buzz to justify the investment in development for whatever you build to put in there. But, how long will that last? Will you get any buzz for being the 25th retailer in Second Life? The 50th? Plus, are you gaining buzz with the right crowd? If I'm Major League Baseball and American Apparel, I think I'd be doing more in MySpace and Facebook right now because they represent a broader audience.
- Requires 100% attention. I think we all agree that attention is finite. We just don't have the time to do everything we want to do. With more and more content and services available to us on a regular basis, consumers are looking for things that either coexist well with other things they spend their time on, or save them time. I'm generally short on anything that requires my full attention and a lot of time. You can't casually browse Second Life... you're watching it.. it's full screen on your machine... your character needs to walk around to experience more. It's very different than an IM window you can put away in the background when you're doing other things.
- Lack of context. The idea that you can be anyone you want and do anything is really cool... conceptually... but with no guidence, no schedule... no context, users find themselves lost over overwhelmed. That's what happens with blogging sometimes. A blog with no theme is difficult to keep up with. When you're in a 3-D game, you have a goal... the game has rules. Hardcore SLers might find this constricting, but the more casual mainstream appreciate knowing what to do from the second the game starts.
- Digital world with an analog business model. In Second Life, people make stuff and sell it. Goods are exchanged for digital items, but because of their digital nature, SL has experienced problems lately with users copying digital items that would otherwise be sold. The music and movie industry has been fighting this kind of thing for years and still hasn't stamped it out... and that's with big entertainment money behind them. When you have a world where all of the items are user created, I just can't imagine that the future will offer adequate protection against the free distribution of these items. DRMing of user created digital goods just seems very counter to the nature of user created works anywhere else on the web.
- Reach. No matter how many registered users you have, getting less than 20K simultaneous users online really isn't very much. By comparison, many of the online MMOGs get more users than this on a regular basis, with World of Warcraft peaking at half a million users online at the same time. Yes, it's growing, but interestingly, the number of registration is far outpacing the active usage of the site. A number of sites I found analyizing the usage on the site showed that online/active as a percent of the total is trending down, meaning that more people are coming to check it out, but they're not sticking around.
- Escapism vs. Reality. The promise of social networks is that you've got digital self expression going on in unprecidented volume. That makes them interesting to both users and marketers alike... because of their ability to connect you with real people based on real and authentic things about themselves. Throw blogs in that category, too. Second Life is more of a fantasy. Even the name says it. This is not your life... it's your other life. You cannot be yourself.. .you have to change your name. It's not me and it's not other really other people, either. I thought the blog/Web 2.0/Cluetrain revolution was all about authenticity and living online the way I do in real life... my digital world as a reflection of my real interests and real personality? So far, that seems a lot more compelling for people than fantasy... otherwise, wouldn't most of the profiles on MySpace be roleplaying profiles... fake people created and maintained by real humans behind them? If I'm a business, I want to make sure I'm connecting in a sincere way with real people as well.... not sponsoring a fantasy. That's the way I personally want to live online as well.