Art and Exploration, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Can Second Life Become a Great Brand?

You hit the west coast and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by Starbucks.

Not Starbucks at the major intersections, but Starbucks on every corner, between the corners, above the corners. And even though I’ve been trying to avoid it because I’ve never really LIKED Starbucks, (does anyone actually like Starbucks coffee? Or do they just like knowing the secret code for ordering a no-whip-double-dip-triple-hit-machiato-grande-al-fresco?), but the reality is I’ve become a little over-caffeinated, I’m struggling a little with jet lag, and it’s the only thing open at 5 in the morning.

Besides, I came here and swore I wouldn’t drink the Kool Aid. Or drink the chai. Whatever it is that an aging hippie or a surfer dude serves you before catching a wave while sending tweets from his iPhone. Because whatever that stuff is they drink out here, I hear it has them all believing in the Singularity and the certainty that technology will, hmmm, save us all. Or make us better. Or let us all connect with each other from our air-tight rooms while global warming melts the pavement outside our doors. So, no chai for me, I’ll stick to Starbucks. It’s a brand you at least know.

All of which is by way of an extended excuse for thinking big thoughts about Second Life. I blame it on the coffee.

Sure, SLCC is about to hit, and I owe it to the organizers to be optimistic and Californian about the whole thing, try to be a technolbertarian for a day or two while I pretend that the whole city isn’t at a grave and imminent risk of sinking into the sea.

Turning Left at Duct Tape Drive
OK, so let’s start with Linden Lab, which is on a street named Battery, which I suppose is better than Duct Tape Drive, and perhaps ironically it’s at the corner of Green, so I suppose the idea of virtual worlds being good for the environment was sort of easy messaging to come up with, although they might want to think of selling some of those open source car things out of the loading dock.

I think Williams Sonoma has an office across the street where they probably manage their e-commerce or something, and the big agencies like Sudler & Hennessey and those types are here, probably sitting half-empty while the tech sector and the rest of the economy gets its hype on again.

So the Lab is on a street named Battery, and it’s jammed in between all these agency type places with wood-beamed ceilings and even though there’s hardly anyone walking around, they do so with a forced-casual, hey I’m not in a rush but actually I need to stroll in a casual way back to my desk because I’m on a deadline and my options are below water kind of way.

That kind of place. Every town has one right?

Now, what I want to talk about is the neighbor, but before I do, I just thought I’d share a few things that surprised me:

- There is no little souvenir stand attached to the Lab selling “Gotta Love Lag” t-shirts
- There’s no cardboard cut-out of Phillip that you can take your picture with
- The best I could tell the asset servers do NOT sit out in the back alley protected by a punctured tarp.

In other words, not much to see really, except for a lot of what appear to be focused and quietly productive people, none of whom seems as hyped-up on caffeine as I am, but who do glance at the wall now and then at the great big screen showing a rolling crash and concurrency rate and a bunch of other in-world stat stuff, just like M said on Metanomics.

The Gold Diggers
But what I wanted to talk about wasn’t the Lab but Levi’s.

See, Levi’s is a few doors down. Their world HQ and museum and out-sourcing admin offices or whatever are all jammed in a little campus-looking spread of buildings with these nice little gardens and fountains and stuff meandering outside.

And I felt like popping in on the Levi’s people….I wanted to see if they had a giant screen with the latest customer comment cards scrolling by, or a sales ticker of some kind, little blips whenever someone buys a new pair of jeans in Idaho or Paris or Kyoto.

That’s my feeling of walking around. I’m looking through the windows as if the fact that someone has a pirate flag in their cubicle will really give me some kind of burning insight into what makes the place tick. It doesn’t, and what I end up with is name plates – Sudler & Hennessey, which is a brand that means something to me personally; Williams & Sonoma; that little silver sign that says “Second Life”; and Levi’s. And sure, different brands mean different things to different people, but I couldn’t help thinking about the life cycle of brands, or what makes a great one, or how a great brand, a Levi’s say, can sort of lose its shine a little but still somehow persevere.

I figure that this coast has been home to a lot of great names. Some of them became great brands, some of them got swallowed up by other great brands, and some simply got swallowed up, just sort of fell off into the sea, it’s that kind of place after all.

And I wonder: will Second Life be swallowed up, will it slide off into the sea, or will it, against the odds perhaps, become a great brand, a Levi’s maybe, something that 100 years from now is maybe a little faded and frayed and has perhaps been aggregated or has aggregated others, but is still somehow synonymous with what it means to be a great brand.

Tipping Points
Right – so clearly I’m over-caffeinated and maybe it isn’t Kool Aid or chai I should have been watching out for but Starbucks itself. And just to show you how delusional I’ve become after a day or two on the west coast, I’m going to make the provocative, 100% arguable and naive claim that in 2010 Second Life will reach a new tipping point.

Not the kind of tipping point like last time when the brands came in with all their fancy malls or whatever. But the kind of tipping point that has roots, that has a foundation, that is built on the sort of steady, focused plodding that you see people doing as they do their fake-casual walks with their Starbucks in hand.

SL will be back on the Wall Street Journal/Business Week table of contents (if not necessarily the cover), but not with some Anshe Chung “we’re all gonna get rich selling real estate” way, but more like how the New York Times has been covering SL lately: hey, it’s here, we don’t want to sell you hype, but you need to know what’s going on, just like you need to know what’s happening at IBM, or what Apple has planned for tablets.

So, this tipping point will be marked by serious enterprise use of SL (and Nebraska or whatever it will be called), past the “hey let’s save money on meetings” thing that’s the big rage (and which is going to lower the value of virtual worlds in general if all those Flash-based “virtual conference” things don’t quickly die) and into its use for data visualization, innovation, and deep collaboration.

It will be marked by a steady increase in the user base for SL, heading up into the millions range of monthly users and will top a few hundred thousand concurrency.

That kind of tipping point: the one where things grow, and the clip gets steadier, and you suddenly turn around and you don’t need to explain it to your mother anymore, in fact maybe she’s invited you over to her beach house to show you the chair she made out of prims.

OK….so I’m not going to detail my arguments why I think this is true. We can talk about it at SLCC – hit me up in the hall or whatever.

And I’m not entirely naive either. I mean, Cisco and Microsoft and Google and Apple maybe….who knows, any one of them might have a ‘world killer’ in their back pocket. Even Amazon was building something a while back although it’s not clear they’re still working on it.

The Lab can also trip as it does its high wire act. Another open space pricing thing. It’s servers all melting down one night and destroying our global inventory. Whatever. I’ve got to hedge my bets a little right?

But follow along with my basic premise here: let’s just say that all the hard work they’ve been doing lately with all their road maps and Web portals and land reorganization starts to pay off. Let’s just say they come out with a new viewer that actually makes it significantly easier to navigate and do stuff. Let’s just say they get better at orientation. Let’s just say they can actually do some creative stuff that brings in new users. (Wow, imagine if they advertised even. HAHA).

And let’s just say they do it now, because let’s just say they feel like I do, that there’s a window of opportunity, and it’s closing, but it’s still open wide enough for us all to rush through.

And my personal belief is that 2010 is it. If they miss it, they miss it, in my opinion, and maybe we’ll all find ourselves in a similar boat until we figure out how to program 3D in a browser or something.

But if they make it, they can go public or they can sell out to IBM or they can form a Foundation and Pip and Mitch can sit around extolling open source. Whatever – it’s all free coffee and chai if they can pull off the juggling act of the next 16 or so months.

But what’s critical isn’t JUST that they do all the things that they need to do to take advantage of this window they have, it’s that they ALSO come out of it in a position to pivot Second Life into becoming not just a successful platform, but into becoming a great brand.

And THAT, perhaps, of all the uncertainties, is the greatest one of all.

What Does the Second Life Brand Mean?
You can have a great product, a great application, and even a great company. But the thing that makes you more bullet proof than anyone else, the thing that means you can often claw out of danger, or rejig the business, is having a great brand.

Netscape was a great application, and probably a great company, but it wasn’t a great brand. Actually – I’d propose that any company that hasn’t figured out how it’s supposed to make money probably isn’t a great brand, they’re simply a good front for venture capital infusions.

AOL could have been a great brand, but then they decided to become an ISP, and then a convergence company, and then a media portal, and then a company with limited choices.

Apple is a great brand and always has been, even when it was almost destroyed. You may HATE Apple, and they may be evil closed-source IP-protecting control freaks. But they’re a great brand, and the people who hate them seem, primarily, to be techies, because I can tell you that my mom doesn’t care about shifting her songs across her many devices or what the DRM is on her iTunes, she only has ONE device, and it works just fine and the packaging is nice and she wonders if the computers are just as friendly.

Apple is a great brand because it creates beauty and simplicity out of life’s experiences, when other technology companies take those same experiences and make them complicated, and obscure, and friendly to someone who knows who Lessig is but not so friendly for my mom.

Levi’s was a great brand because it represented solid workmanship suitable for the rugged frontier and the individuals who belong there (or who wish they belonged there).

Nike. IBM. Coke.

You tell me: are these sneakers, computers and drinks? What are these things?

And I’ve heard lots of ways to describe brands, and there are probably as many ways to build great ones as there are brands themselves, but I’d propose that they all have something in common:

- They embody some sort of aspiration
- They clearly articulate that aspiration through both the products themselves and how they’re sold
- They are embraced with an often religious devotion by core communities
- This results in a “brand halo” that makes them desirable to wide audiences.

And I believe that Second Life has the potential to be a great brand. What’s partly missing, of course, is the second bullet. But remember I’m going on the premise here that the product is headed for a tipping point: the first hour will be improved, the interface will rock, you’ll be able to find stuff, you’ll be able to meet people, things will make sense. (OK, remember…caffeinated!)

But what’s really missing, for me at least, is the brand aspiration, the brand value. Nike isn’t about shoes, it’s about personal achievement. Second Life isn’t about virtual goods, it’s about something else.

I don’t believe for a minute that the brand represents the ‘improvement of humanity’ or whatever – that’s a mission statement for the Lab, not a brand value. Besides, I don’t usually log in to improve humanity, I log in to play with prims, or to attend a conference, or to chat with people.

Maybe it has something to do with what Tom Boellstorff said: that Second Life is “techne within techne”. We have the tools WITHIN the tools.

Maybe what SL can do is to humanize our engagement with technology. Maybe it’s the place where rather than technology being an appliance, like a phone, or a piece of software, we can interact from inside the code. And maybe somehow that’s humanizing, and maybe as we keep on coding the Grid, we’ll start coding stuff other than a door script, we’ll start coding, I dunno, protein foldings or something.

So maybe there’s something in that “Second Life” thing…it’s life, only better. It’s technology, only it doesn’t FEEL like technology. It’s being able to do cool stuff with code but not knowing that you’re coding. I’m not sure.

And that’s the problem. You don’t have to sell me on the product. You don’t have to make me any more religious about virtual worlds than I already am. And I create lots of brand halo recommending it to friends and clients.

And while I believe that virtual worlds are transformative, I have a hard time putting a finger on that brand aspiration – that brand value, that nugget at the heart of it, the one that sounds a lot like creativity, and maybe spirituality, and certainly community.

Which is the nub isn’t it? Because here we stand, on the precipice of what could very well become one of the great brands, and it is predicated on a product which, yeah, is a bunch of code that the Lab built and serves up but which is also, at the day, nothing without the contributions and imagination of its users.

Because this is Your World, and Your Imagination. And maybe that’s all the aspiration we need. And as we head into a community convention that’s not such a bad place to start: to revisit the aspirations we hold for the world, to ask ourselves how to articulate those dreams, to question how far we dare take them, and to wonder whether, if we were to slip towards the sea, we could build a boat with sails that are wide enough and a hull sturdy enough to carry us across the waters and to ponder where it might lead.


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