Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life

Can Virtual Worlds Save Social Media?

Actually, I’m not sure the question is “can they”, but rather “should they”, but I’d better start at the beginning, because in case you haven’t heard social media is headed past prime, the next new shiny thing is on its way, (we’re not sure what yet, probably has something to do with cell phones and, heaven forbid, spimes) and social media’s bubble has burst. Or it has jumped the shark, anyways, which is what happens when Twitter appears on the cover of Time.

OK, sure, social media isn’t really “dead”, but the hype cycle is petering out maybe, all those Gartner curves come back to haunt us. It seems like there are a few problems lurking in the back channel:

- Everyone talks about how enterprise needs to “get social” but that’s not really that much different than “answer your phones” and “listen to your customers”. Enterprise wants to co-opt social media, but for the most part all it’s managing to do is use it as a giant focus group or news monitor, picking up who’s talking about what and why and trying to make sure that the ugly stuff doesn’t make it into the main stream media where it can really hurt.

- Social media ITSELF hasn’t, for the most part, shown that it can make money. Twitter lives off of the interest of its VC money and sure, some day it will sell to Google or whoever, but as an actual business it, well, isn’t one. MySpace is laying off huge chunks of its staff. And no one is really clear how youTube pays for all those servers. Doesn’t matter, I guess, information wants to be tagged and adworded, Google is making more money than network television on those little “learn to ignore” ads at the side of a Web page, so it will sort itself out.

- Social media can be mis-used. The day after all the Twitter/Iran hooplah was the follow-up - the stuff about fake Twitter accounts and furniture companies using Iran hash tags to sell stuff. The lack of identity verification is an issue, and even when it’s tackled you end up with the Facebook crowd having a fit about connecting commercial data to their identities, so the whole thing is a bit of a mess.

Now look, I love Twitter, I love youTube, I think all this social media is great, and I use it. (I hate Facebook, however - it’s infested with too many widgets, they keep doing things to make identity and data protection a crap shoot, and it took 3 months to disable the account of a friend of mine who DIED in spite repeated faxes of the death certificate, phone calls, and mixed messages about whether the account would be disabled or deleted - turns out the data will always be there, always owned by them, always sitting there on some server that I don’t have access to).

But the social media hype cycle will leave it fending for - well, relevance on its own, relevance outside of the media glare, relevance because it’s actually being used by people who don’t CARE that it’s not cool anymore.

Which reminds me of another hype cycle - the one that supposedly left Second Life “yesterday’s news”. And over on Advertising Age (the home of all those people who feed the hype cycles in the first place, two years ago they were all frothing about Second Life, now they’re all frothing about Twitter, tomorrow it’s games on the iPhone and next year it’s going to be, um, virtual worlds again), they’re arguing that the TWITTER hype cycle is more sustainable than the Second Life hype…the only thing is, Second Life is still here, and who really cares whether a HYPE cycle is sustainable, it’s whether a product is sustainable and can make money and can continually improve that strikes me as more relevant.

In any case, Chris Abraham has a long post on how Twitter’s hype cycle is BETTER than Second Life’s hype cycle and it’s because - well, because it’s light, and cute, and it’s easy to use. Which is fine, except that if I wanted a light, cute, easy to use version of Second Life I’d restrict it to being a platform where all you could do is post 140 character messages and call it a day. I wouldn’t need a client download to accomplish that.

Now, what’s odd about the whole argument is that Chris seems to be saying “don’t compare the two, that’s just wrong” and then, well, compares the two. But doesn’t just compare the two, compares the HYPE. I guess he’s trying to say there’s good hype and bad hype, what’s important is whether the hype will keep on going, which strikes me as odd from an ad man, because he should know that the hype WON’T keep going, once you’ve tried something out and taken it for a test drive you either buy it in and settle in for the long haul (at which point who cares if there’s any hype), you move on to the next thing (in which case someone else’s hype matters) or you need something new to keep your OWN hype, well, hype-y I guess.

Comparing Second Life and Twitter
Chris is worried about the people who are sitting around comparing Twitter to SL.

Now, I’m not sure who these people are. As far as I know, the folks in SL aren’t worried about it. So I can only guess that Chris is worried about the, um, Twitter people. I guess inside Twitter-dom there’s a bunch of people with anxiety about whether the hype is sustainable, and they’re looking around at this ever-enlarging bubble and casting around for comparisons and all they can come up with is Second Life, I guess, I suppose they forgot about Netscape or Geocities or IRC for that matter (although Chris fondly compares Twitter to IRC which is a pretty decent observation because in the end, isn’t that in many ways what Twitter IS? An updated IRC?).

The people I know are talking about how virtual worlds and social media are INTEGRATING, they’re not wasting time over whether Twitter is BETTER than Second Life, or even in the same ball park and they don’t care whether the Twitter hype bubble will burst, it will, these things happen, platforms either make sense and make money or they don’t.

But it’s the giant holes in Chris’ argument that are the flag that social media is being defended on ever-increasing shaky ground. I mean, his argument in a nut shell:

Second Life is amazingly heavy, requiring lots of computer, lots of bandwidth and a commitment to client software. Second Life is a closed system, a walled city, completely invisible to serendipity and coincidence. Second Life is greedy, pushing avarice and commerce. Second Life is ephemeral and anti-textual, meaning that all of the work and energy one spent on Second Life invariably went away the moment people stopped investing time and money into the platform. While there was a programming language, a scripting language and lots of room for creativity, Second Life was not nearly as agnostic and open a platform as it could have been.

On the other hand, Twitter is open and has a fantastically generous API (an open API as opposed to a closed API, which is why so many developers have created such useful applications on top of the service). Twitter is highly textual, highly contagious and very much real time.

Um, OK. I leave it to you to point out:

- SL is hardly ephemeral
- SL is hardly greedy (yes, it has commerce, but it also has a lot more)
- Invisible to serendipity and coincidence? You’re kidding right?
- SL is, um, anti-textual? What does that mean? Anti-textual???? Whatever.

But I suppose my real points are…this compares to Twitter HOW?

- Twitter doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth because, well, because it doesn’t DO anything. Saying it’s a “light” application versus Second Life is like saying that a supercomputer takes a lot more power than a pocket calculator. Well. Yeah.
- Twitter is, regardless, “heavier” than you’d think. Sure, the ability to post 140 characters at a time IS light, and that’s cool. The problem is that Twitter primarily works not because of what happens inside it, it happens because of all the Web sites and youTube videos and blogs and Flickr streams that it links to. Twitter wouldn’t EXIST without the rest of the Web. And the rest of the Web means code, and servers, and infrastructure - basically, a lot of iron to run it all.
- Otherwise, yeah, I’d guess that if you wanted to build a virtual world that ONLY let you post 140 character IMs then you could probably do with a lighter client than SL currently has.
- Twitter is greedy. SL is greedy. Both are greedy to the extent that greedy people use them. That’s the way human nature works. The nice thing, however, is that SL has a way to actually monetize and monitor greed while on Twitter, 90% of the people who try to follow me are spammers, single women, and SEO specialists but you’d never know what they’re selling because Twitter doesn’t have a currency exchange, a marketplace, and it PRETENDS to be free of commerce. HAHAHAHA.
- Anti-textual?
- And as far as serendipity and coincidence - well, sure, that’s true, but most of the serendipity seems to be the kind of “coincidental” retweeting of the same memes as everyone else, and the coincidental follows you get from specialists in SEO and people selling phone sex.

He also claims that Twitter is open whereas Second Life isn’t. Twitter has an API. Hmmm. Well, Second Life has an open source client and hundreds of its own APIs - it’s called scripting, and I see no difference between the two things. What is LSL if it isn’t an API?

Virtual Worlds Saving Social Media
So, here’s the thing - I think it’s great that there’s all this social media. Twitter is cool. I use it to keep track of things, to get a ‘real time’ stream of events.

Facebook does the same kind of thing (plus, sucks up, or at least keeps vague, the ownership of your identity and content) . All those Nings out there. LinkedIn. It’s all great. And hopefully, it will all make bucket loads of money on its own merits (rather than on the merit of selling out to someone else because, well, they NEED social media - I’m wondering how Rupert Murdoch is feeling these days about the gazillions HE invested in social media).

But the magic to me isn’t in whether the social media hype cycle will be more sustainable than the Second Life hype cycle. The magic is in how these things work together.

And, seeing as how ONE of them is actually making money, is growing, is attracting REAL enterprise and education uses while the other is, well, gathering up a lot of links and SEO specialists….maybe it’s not such a bad thing that virtual worlds and social media work so well together.

It sure can’t hurt Twitter that a platform that IS making money, and has a business model, and has commerce, and has schools and businesses and government as customers, and understands governance and identity policy also tends to have a user base that DOES use Twitter. Maybe some of the Second Life magic will rub off?

And in addition to being a platform that’s growing BECAUSE it’s making money (rather than in spite of it), virtual environments offer some things that social media often doesn’t, which argues for the even deeper synergies that can happen when virtual worlds save social media:

Virtual Worlds Have Persistence
Now, Chris calls Second Life ephemeral and, um, anti-textual (????), but in fact one of the virtues of SL (which I’ll use as a stand-in for most virtual environments) is that it’s persistent.

Yesterday’s Twitter stream is - well, yesterday (have you ever tried to back-track and see what you MISSED?). Which is its value, of course, it’s a stream-of-reality thing. But there’s something attractive about the persistent. People go to the same coffee place every morning because it’s what they know, what they expect, even if there’s another shop right across the street.

Virtual worlds are increasingly not just persistent as a 3D space, they’re also persistent as information space. In Immersive Workspaces(TM) we have persistent information objects and landscapes that pull in, yes, Twitter - or, they pull in clinical trial data, or poll results, or team notes, or cell phone text messages. We create 3D maps and overlay infectious disease patterns, in real time, with the ability to reverse or fast-forward the spread of, say, swine flu.

The increasingly rich use of information to create shared data landscapes is one of the most powerful things about virtual worlds - they take that which is often difficult to grasp or track, and create a persistent space that can be annotated, shared and discussed.

What’s lacking in social media - the sense of permanence and persistence, can be aided by the integration into virtual worlds - taking that which is ephemeral and transitory and giving it solidity.

Virtual Worlds Have Culture
Maybe social media contains within it culture. I’ll leave that to the anthropologists. I THINK they’d argue that social media represent TOOLS within culture (those guys are big on tools :P ). It may be a cultural phenomonen, but is not necessarily the site of culture itself.

Virtual worlds, on the other hand, HAVE culture. Their own. And people, well, they like knowing where they are, how they belong, they like understanding the norms of the culture, and how to use those norms to accomplish stuff.

As rich sites of culture, this makes virtual worlds more deeply sustainable.

The world may lose Twitter, but if you lose Second Life you lose a world. This durability is what makes the job of Linden Lab so incredibly difficult - the last thing they want to do is to take away our culture, or our world, because if THAT disappears then if we lose Second Life we would only be losing a platform, and it’s a WORLD that keeps us coming back, and keeps us loyal. Do they always succeed? No. The competing tension between being both platform and world is what must keep them up at night, and the misjudging of that tension is what causes most of the disasters.

Social media are primarily applications, tools, things that support broader social cultures - and that’s great. Anything that can strengthen our sociality and culture is wonderful.

But if social media could attach itself to the platforms where NEW cultures are arising, that’s a powerful incentive for the users to maintain the relevance of those tools, to make them irreplaceable, because then, when another tool comes along it’s not just a matter of switching applications, it’s a matter of switching cultures.

Virtual Worlds Offer Rich Interaction
Look - there’s a lot of fun in poking people and writing on their wall. And it’s great to be re-tweeted. And commenting on blogs is productive and fun (try it! Please!)

But I’m sorry, there’s only so much you can do in a Twitter stream compared to actually SITTING down with people (albeit virtually) and having a conversation, whether in voice or text - or better yet, having MULTIPLE conversations - in voice, and chat, and back chat.

I’m not saying this is better than being there. But social media thrives because it brings people with similar interests together globally. And it’s not always easy to meet in person. It’s not even always easy to boot up a Skype conference call with 20 or 30 people and call it a “community forum”.

Virtual worlds give social media the opportunity to enrich the dialog between people. And to go further than that (I suppose this is the anti-textual bit) - to give us the ability to create conversational artefacts, objects, and outputs.

Virtual Worlds Offer Synchronous and Asynchronous Content

Most social media is asynchronous, or a slightly disjointed synchronous chat - the back-and-forth tweets, or wall posts, or whatever. Virtual worlds offer both.

I can make a statement, or provide resources, and people can come to my environment and see those things, on their own, with no one else there.

I love watching people wander, say, the Metanomics region and take in the stage, or look at the video, or read the signs or whatever. Or visit the Remedy sim and visit Eshi’s flower, or the “My Heart” music immersion display.

I also love watching 40 people sitting at the stage at Metanomics with another couple hundred plugged in from elsewhere, and on the Web, and from other sims.

Virtual worlds provide social media with the opportunity to join their asynchronous content stream with synchronous events.

Virtual Worlds are More Real
And you see - that’s the kicker really.

People don’t always understand that Twitter may be reflective of real world events and conversations, and it can spread memes and links and connections like nobody’s business. And it may be pro-textual. But text isn’t “real”. It can capture the snippets of reality that make the world turn, and churn and change. But reading a text stream isn’t the same as being there.

And until we can teleport in reality, virtual worlds get us as close as you can get to actually being there. And being there means being in a place where we’re social, and have a culture, and share, and explore, and build, and prototype the future.

It’s not a bad place to be, really. Just Tweet me a SLURL sometime, and let’s have a real conversation, and we’ll talk about how all that hype out there doesn’t really matter so much when it comes down to it - we’re present, we’re here, it works, we learn, we connect, we deepen our engagement with each other, and THAT, pretty much, is the hope I have of what social media can provide.


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