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

The Why of Virtual Worlds, and Selling Second Life

The why is more important than the what or how – and in saying that, Grace McDunnough reaches my heart. Picking up on a speech by Simon Sinek at TED, the question of “why” doesn’t negate the “what” or the “how”, but it’s the basis of leadership:

Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows WHAT they do, 100 percent. Some know HOW they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know WHY they do what they do. And by “WHY” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “WHY” I mean: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?

Now, it’s no big secret that when it comes to Second Life, I’m not the biggest fan of the approach being taken by Linden Lab. My belief is that they’re designing by numbers: extrapolating design solutions primarily from data.

- The data tells us that people who spend money stay in Second Life longer – so push shopping as an engagement strategy.
- The data tells us that people find Second Life hard to use – so try to make it easier with a new orientation experience and “improved” viewer.
- The data tells us that people are using mobile phones (duh!) so plan on “light” ways to interact with Second Life content. (What are you willing to bet they do some sort of social/shopping iPhone app?)

But breakthrough design or TRUE design thinking doesn’t look to the past to project the future, it creates a future that we couldn’t have anticipated if all we did was look at Excel spreadsheets and listen to participants at focus groups.

You think Steve Jobs sprung the iPhone out of a bunch of usage statistics and market research?

Now, I’m not in the business of doing the Lab’s job for them. But Grace is pointing to the flaw in their design strategy – because, well, there’s no “why” there.

Maybe the Lab knows exactly what they want to be when they grow up (I mean in a way that is beyond being bigger or IPO-ready or an acquisition target). But right now, there’s a murkiness to how their mission and vision is actually connected to what they seem to spend their time on. I mean – draw me a line between mesh import, or “socializing” Second Life and how that’s going to help enhance the human condition and I might be convinced.

All I know is how I sell virtual worlds to other people, that I do so within a broader context of Web-based, traditional and mobile media, and that Second Life and other immersive media have a particular place and purpose: a WHY. And while I primarily use this value proposition with enterprise clients, I haven’t found any major difference as a broader story with consumers, my family, friends, or that guy on the street corner who wondered what I was talking about.

And these why’s aren’t incompatible with where Second Life has come from and what it is.

Second Life Challenges, Well, Everything
So I’m doing my job. It’s not that different this year than it was 5 years ago.

I’ve heard of social media, I’ve used Facebook, I’ve watched videos on youTube.

I understand that things are more accessible, information is easier to find, and people are having conversations with each other in ways that weren’t even possible a few years back. The media model is changing, and it’s harder to find ways to reach customers whose attention is diverted from television to the Web and from the Web to their iPhone.

I’ve played games and I get how immersive they can be. I’ve noticed that more and more movies are coming out in 3D, but it doesn’t seem like much more than new dressing on an old story. I’ve watched as Wikipedia became the new “go-to” authority, but couldn’t help wondering whether this crowd-sourcing thing is much to worry about when the quality of the output seems so, well, spotty.

And then I log in to Second Life.

You see, you don’t come to Second Life to play a game, or watch a movie, or attend a concert, or even, really, to hang out with friends. You come to Second Life because you’re ready to have your worldview challenged.

Forget about a movie where you relate to and are moved by the characters and story. Now, there is no plot line, you ARE the character, and you’re about to be more engaged than you believed possible.

You might run a business, fall in love, hang out with friends, explore, be shaken, enriched, scared, or enlightened. But you’ll be hard-pressed to emerge unchanged.

You probably don’t set out to do much more than waste some time, have a look around, try to figure out the rules, find someone to hang out with, or attempt to crack the puzzle of why you keep ending up with a box on your head. And if you’re not open to change, to shifts in perception, then Second Life probably isn’t for you.

A Change Agenda
There’s lots of “hows” and “what’s” in Second Life.

You’re a business that wants to save on travel? What about a virtual meeting room.

You want to train your sales force? Try virtual training instead – it increases engagement and retention.

But let me warn you: the real reason you’re coming isn’t because geography collapses, or engagement increases, or because we learn faster or better in an immersive space. You’re coming because you’ve seen that thing in your peripheral vision like I did: that crashing wave of change. You know it’s coming, you’re scrambling to keep up, you want answers but the books don’t seem to give you that visceral in-the-gut feeling that will help you understand the future.

Well, the future is here, it’s unevenly distributed, and a big chunk of it is in Second Life. Spend some time and here are a few of the things you’ll learn:

- Your notions about how we’ll work and live will be challenged. You won’t just understand the distributed workforce, you’ll understand in your GUT that the corporation of the future doesn’t have walls, it doesn’t log off, and it will be a fluid dance of talent and innovation, chaos and serendipity, granular work flow and global reach.

- Your notions about your customers will be challenged. You’ll begin to realize that consumers, students, suppliers and clients have distributed themselves, their identities, their activities and their lives across digital spaces that are increasingly difficult to imagine much less track and capture. You’ll start to respect that ‘identity’ is fluid and shifting, and that the promise of algorithmic tracking and AdWords is matched by pseudo-anonymity and identity play. Just wait until those different forms of self show up to work one day.

- Your notions about value will be challenged. You’ll see that the tangible has given way to the ephemeral. That people are valuing, increasingly, things that don’t exist, even when there’s an atomic product at the core of experiences. This is the age of the idea, the era of imagination, one in which people are happily buying virtual furniture and investing time in exploring concepts and personas over gadgets and packaging. What we’re allowed to create, how we’re allowed to contribute, is having as much (if not more) currency than our hourly wage, and in the right circumstances people are investing career’s worth of time for sub-minimum wage mostly because – well, because they LOVE it.

Is It Hard? Hell, Yes
The future is difficult.

Second Life is difficult.

Get over it.

The first time I walked someone through how to send an e-mail was a one-hour exercise in frustration. The first time I was explained a fax machine was the same – I remember trying to figure out why the damn paper went in upside down after sending what ended up being 10 blank sheets of paper.

And think about it – Second Life skews to an age group that has the patience for complexity, and has grown past the age of immediate gratification. It’s a place for strategic thinkers, for adults, for individuals who are able to tackle tough conceptual problems because of their life experience.

Doesn’t that tell you something about the kinds of returns it provides?

Sure it’s hard. All this crap about making it easier to access and making the first hour more of a delight – what are we, children?? The kids are on Facebook poking each other. The adults are in Second Life trying to grapple with a future that they don’t understand as intuitively as someone born with a controller in their hands. And for those of us who are content to ignore that wave of change we see in our peripheral vision – well, my suspicion is you’re just as happy to watch television in any case.

So bugger off.

We Create, and the Age of Imagination
So Second Life will challenge you. But it will also move you, because you’ll find an almost spiritual capacity for joy in the act of creation.
Now, if you’re a senior exec at an oil company or something and that sentence left you scowling or shaking your head, then you can bugger off too.

This is a place for folks who know why they wake up in the morning. Or want to know.

Getting in touch with who we are through creative forms isn’t just a way to tap into new ways to innovate, engage or inspire – it’s a way to tap into our humanness at a time when corporations are increasingly asked to have a face, a set of values, and a level of trust.

Social media takes no prisoners.

If you’re not understanding the future, if you’re not personally inspired, if you don’t know WHY you get up in the morning – then you have two options: put up the barricades and pray for the best, or begin an act of (re)-creation.

And not to worry. The act of creation takes a lot of forms. You don’t need any special skills to do this. I’m not saying it will be easy, but we’re all adults here. We’ve tackled challenges before, we’ve learned interfaces or how to program our VCRs – surely moving an avatar around isn’t like climbing Mount Everest, right?

There’s a bunch of ways we create.

We create variations on our identity – even when our avatars are tightly coupled to who we are, and look like us, and act like us, we’re still one removed from, well, ourselves.

We connect in spaces that are whimsical or serious, realistic or not possible in real life. Created spaces. Places.

We create communities, connect with people with similar interests, attend events or courses or classes – and in those interactions realize that without the usual short-forms for identity, trust, and physical appearance that we’re bound only by the impressions we create and receive.

The person next to you might live on the other side of the world and be disabled. I wonder – would you have dismissed them out of hand at a conference? The person who looks like a dragon might be the CEO of a large manufacturing company or a movie star. The person with the brilliant idea that could transform your sales training might be living in some small town somewhere, and you’ve discovered that there are creative energies hidden in the pockets of the world.

These explorations in how we create identity and present ourselves open us up to the possibility that we’ve constrained ourselves all along….that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that our physical selves, the place we live, or the rules and norms of the schools, or jobs or communities around us might, in fact, be self-imposed.

In fact, do me a favor. And rez a prim.

Set aside an afternoon, actually. Don’t worry about whether you’re good at it or not. Don’t worry that you don’t “get it”. Just keep rezzing them. (And if you need a place to do it, give me a ping and I’ll lend you some of mine).

Maybe you’ll be able to get the square prim on top of the round one. Maybe you’ll learn that you can swivel your camera/view around. Or that you can texture them, and that the square prim and those cylindrical ones look a lot like a table when they’re mashed together.

This is the age of imagination. Those prims are a reminder of the customer who is about to put you out of business because they’re redesigning your whole product line in their spare time. They’re a reminder that the tools for creation have advanced to such a degree that we’re now able to create an ENTIRE WORLD out of seemingly simple blocks.

Tell me – how much of a leap do you think it is from a time when pretty much anyone can figure out how to rez a prim, from the time when individuals can, together, create an entire digital world – to that moment when we reinvent the real one?

Don’t scoff if you haven’t tried it. Don’t dismiss me because you think I’m sounding all starry-eyed or ‘unrealistic’.

You can either wait and see whether I’m right, or you can take my concept for a test run and judge for yourself.

In the act of creation and in the knowledge that the tools for inventing worlds are at our fingertips, we discover that we have access to a wellspring of ideas that won’t just transform our lives online, they’ll show us the way to transforming the atomic one as well.

Don’t Take Life Sitting Down
So come along for the ride.

It’s not a game, there are few rules, it’s complicated, and it’s tough.

But it’s a way to see the future. Now.

Don’t take life sitting down. Accept the challenge. Create. Experience. Connect.


Come along for the ride.


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