With the recent announcement that Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale was stepping down, only a few months after the departure of CTO Cory Ondrejka, it's time to consider Second Life: The Next Generation. If ever there was a textbook example of the Gartner Hype Cycle look no further than this virtual world. Fourteen months ago Second Life's in-world Reuters bureau contacted Gartner analyst Steve Prentice and at that time he saw the platform somewhere betwixt the "peak of inflated expectations" and "the trough of disillusionment." Can Second Life and its partners reach the last of Gartner's five phases --- the "slope of enlightenment"?
Steve Nelson, EVP of Clear Ink, has worked extensively, if not exclusively, in Second Life. The twelve-year-old Internet marketing agency's experiences range from building Second Life's Capitol Hill, working with clients such as AutoDesk and Philips, bringing the TED Conference (read Jack Myers' TED dispatches here) in-world, and more recently, adding authenticity to an episode of NBC's The Office.
In an exclusive interview with JackMyers Media Business Report, Nelson leads with an unembellished statement, "This is not a mass medium, but it is where the Internet interface is heading." It's as good a place to start as any. For every IBM and CMP Publishing that has firmly planted a flag in SL, there's an AOL that's run screaming for the exits. As Nelson observes, "It went from "last person in isn't cool," to "last one out isn't.'" Past the hyperbole, Nelson finds Second Life first among equals: "Anyone can create within Second Life, all creations are programmable and can interact with the outside world, and that creation is tied into a viable economy." The fact that SL runs cross-platform, on Mac OSX, Linux, and Windows further adds to its creative diversity and universality.
Second Life Is a Platform
Nelson is quick to distinguish between Second Life the community, from Second Life the platform, suggesting that Linden Lab placed too much emphasis on publicizing the community aspect without simultaneously supporting the growth of its platform. To be sure, in his Reuters exit interview discussing the search for SL's next CEO, Phil Rosedale (who stays on as chairman of the board) concurs: "We're looking for someone who has experience with and a passion for growing this type of company - a software platform company - from 250 people to thousands of people, which is where we think it's going." Nelson is hopeful that Rosedale's successor be chosen sooner than later: "I'd like to see the same thing that happened with Google or eBay, with someone who can make this a scalable and viable system but keeps the vision and culture of the founders."
Nelson is an evangelist of Second Life as a communications medium and touts an interesting benefit to in-world conferencing: "We're seeing that companies investing time in holding meetings bridge the distance. Psychologically, whatever part of your brain it is I'm not sure, but you feel that you've been at a meeting. You have memory of interacting with avatars and an experience." Perhaps it's an analog, in a sense, to executives who see World of Warcraft as the new golf – a place to enjoy some leisure time while talking business.
Dwight's Second Second Life
Last October 25th NBC aired a very special episode of The Office, "Local Ad." A subplot had character Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) retreating to Second Life and Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) falling through the looking glass after him. While Electric Sheep had painstakingly built an episode of CSI:NY around an arc of foul play emanating in Second Life, here the virtual world was a footnote, but that didn't undermine Clear Ink's all-out effort. While they built three sets, they scouted five actual Second Life locations including the Blarney Stone pub. They created avatars for Dwight and Jim, fleshing out their in-world lives. While CBS heavily publicized CSI:NY's entree into virtual worlds, The Office was entirely a word of mouth phenomenon. The Dunder Mifflin Paper Company was a group that Dwight would have naturally joined; here it became the de facto fan club for the show. While Second Life definitely saw a surge from CSI, The Office's was completely organic. "Dwight Shelford," Dwight S.'s avatar, was constantly IM-ed, in demand although he was merely the avatar of a fictional character.
Nelson attributes the success of the project to an absence of bureaucratic layers and a close working relationship with co-executive producer Kent Zbornak, showrunner Greg Daniels, and scribe BJ Novak.
For its efforts Clear Ink's work landed it in the Top 10 of IAG Research's most effective placements of 2007. The Office/Second Life partnership bore the distinction of being both the only non-reality show and the only unpaid placement on the list. Nelson adds that there are a number of other TV shows that deserve mention for their savvy use of Second Life: Both The L Word (an early adopter in social networking from its first season) and Gossip Girl have successfully built communities that reflect and extend their brand.
Before entertainment properties can see scale, trust remains a challenge that inhibits growth on Second Life. Nelson has two provocative explanations here:
(1) Users are still getting accustomed to representations of people. "When we go onto Amazon we don't see everyone else who's browsing. For that reason, logging onto Second Life can be disconcerting. Other platforms that are demystifying avatars, be they broadcast television or YouTube, are crucial to broader adoption."
(2) Nelson thinks that traditional forms of media – including the thirty-second commercial – will go a long way to normalizing Second Life: "Trust was a problem in the beginning of e-commerce. I remember one particular Visa commercial: It's the Holiday season and a woman is about to click on 'submit' for the first time. The spot captures both her anxiety and joy as she makes the purchase. Etoys had a moment like that as well, where a father and son are driving through a car wash. The son then goes home and searches for 'carwash toy.' At the end of the commercial he's playing with it. How does a brand gain trust in this case? Resort to old time media."
What does Nelson believe is on the horizon for Second Life? "Look at the area of mash-ups and visualization, building connections between real world data and systems with virtual worlds. We'll see experimental interplay between entertainment and virtual worlds. Definitely, we need better first-time user experiences."
While the economic slowdown might bleed into Second Life, Nelson believes that most significant stakes were already taken last year and that 2008 will see modest investments in technologies. While he no longer sees SL as a core, cohesive community, Nelson remains bullish, pointing out one defining trait that the virtual world shares with the TED conference – making serendipitous connections.
Steve Nelson may be contacted directly at: email@example.com. He is Kiwini Oe in Second Life.