Social Media Club/Boston – 5/17: (Getting a) Second Life

Last night the Social Media Club/Boston had a real humdinger of a meeting. Sponsored by Text 100, the topic was Second Life. The meeting was at the Harvard Club on Comm Ave in Boston and there were well over 100 people – making it one of the biggest events to date. It started out with snacks and pop – how nice. People from Text were helping others create avatars and explore Second Life. At the appointed hour, we all made our way to the Massachusetts Room, where – under the watchful gaze of great American heroes and statesmen – we were treated to an excellent panel.

The panel was John Rodzilla, Emerson College; Drew Stein, Infinite Vision; John Lester, Linden Labs; Mike Askew, Fidelity; and Aaron Uhrmacher, Text 100.

Ken Peters from Text acted as the moderator and kept things flowing with good questions for each of the panelists. I’ve not included his questions in the following summary.

John Lester started by saying that looking at Second Life today reminds him of the early years of the Web. Every communication medium, he pointed out, has been hard to adopt at first. He cited the early days of film when the were essentially recorded plays, and the telephone which was initially treated like the telegraph. Over time people come to understand how to put technology to work and Lester is starting to see that process happening in the ways people are using Second Life.

Mike Askew explained that Fidelity stared using Second Life about six months ago. His group functions as a think tank within the company and he wanted to explore the possibilities for collaboration that Second Life offered. He believes that business-to-business is the best place for Fidelity to start and they have established a briefing center similar to the physical one they have here in Boston. Lester pointed out that Linden Labs uses Second Life as their meeting and collaboration venue.

Drew Stein talked about businesses’ changing expectations around their participation in Second Life. Many of them seem to want their 15 minutes of fame for being there, want to grab some headlines for being there and that’s pretty boring. At this point, Stein explained, people have figured out the what and the when and the how of Second Life– now we need to address the why . He no longer looks what he does as Web development, now he says, they need to think more deeply and help clients understand how Second Life fits into an overall interacting strategy. When working on a project, Stein asks two questions – how can this be made fun? and what would Walt Disney do? He views Infinite Vision (and Linden) as an entertainment company.

He made some good points – especially on the importance of considering a company’s broad goals – but he did come across heavily on the tools and functions side of the equation.

Aaron Uhrmacher suggested the need for balance. Second Life can’t just be about entertainment. It’s also an opportunity for people to develop new and different relationships with brands. Over the last 10 months three phases: being there, becoming involved in the community and then integrating Second Life in the real world business activities.

I talk a lot about brand myself sometimes, but listening to someone else talk about it made me wonder what does a relationship with a brand mean? And as much as I like Second Life (and I do) how helpful is it as a brand relationship tool at this point? The realism is still not there, the performance can be spotty and frankly these things could point to a rocky relationship. The fact of the matter is that these are details that will be worked out as the technology improves.

Lester described the power of Second Life as its ability to create a sense of community. Once a community exists it needs to be maintained through interactivity. This is an important point and one that many people and companies don’t get. It gets back to points that Stein and Uhrmacher – people want to start just by being there and getting their 15 minutes of fame without thinking through the meaning or implications. Lester sees this starting to turn around as more people understand the interactive nature of community in Second Life.

As Fidelity considered using Second Life, it became a big debate within the company. Askew said that it was the enthusiasm of senior management that overcame the early concerns. One of the important things for Fidelity is the social aspect of meetings in Second Life. Conversations take place and trust in built in meetings – whether in person or in Second Life – that just isn’t possible with conference calls. In Second Life meetings people start to talk in small groups and socialize much more. Askew thinks that this provides a higher quality interaction.

Lester believes that this is because of the sense of place in Second Life. On the phone everyone is just a voice, and multiple voices quickly become confusing. Linden is working on spacialized audio which will allow voice interaction adjusted for peoples location and proximity. This well, he feels, add to the realism without the problems of muddled conference call audio.

Uhrmacher was asked to provide some communication lessons he’s taken away from his work with Second Life. The first phase, he said was for people to go and watch, get cards, etc.; but not much interaction. Now he is starting to see more companies staffing Second Life and engaging with people in the space. There is also an organic evolution of groups and communities with some of the interactions moving beyond Second Life .

Stein felt that customers my not be fully on board yet but that they will be. He feels that older people don’t get social media but that 15 year-olds do and so businesses need to starting thinking of how things like Second Life will fit into their communication mix for the future. Second Life, he believes, is the next generation of the web – it is why brands like the Weather Channel are there now.

I continue to wonder if the claims of social media as a youth movement are valid. It seems like a real oversimplification to me. I’m sure that there are some social media elements that are more appealing to different demographics and age cohorts and I wish someone (maybe the Pew Center?) would do a social media census to clear this up for everyone.

Lester spoke of the potential merging of various virtual worlds. The fact that much of Second Life is open source will allow for this integration and interoperability and the more people that get in there and start hacking away with the tools the better.

Askew brought up some of the issues the stand in the way of Fidelity using Second Life as a B2C tool. On the top of the list were identity and security – issues, frankly with any social media platform. The argument was made the people invest time and energy into their avatars and so maintaining a persistent identity in Second Life is possible. I didn’t get the impression that Askew or Fidelity would be satisfied with this. The reason it’s less of an issue for B2B is that Fidelity can invite specific people to specific locations and control who joins or participates in a meeting.

John Rodzilla was asked to discuss how Second Life might function from a literary perspective. He explained that it depends on the author or publisher. There are already a number of authors who are active in Second Life now and Random House recently held a book group for The Time Traveler’s Wife which went well. He also pointed to Info Island – where real people are staffing a service to help people find real world information.

I had a chance to talk with John after the session and wish that he’d had more opportunities to participate in the panel. Given the flow and themes that were discussed though this wasn’t the case.

Stein was asked about the barriers to entry. He said that they are lessening every day but that even with executive support and buy-in you still need to create something that makes sense.

At this point, members of the audience began asking questions. The first was around audience type, size and where they congregate. Stein talked about the four islands they build for the Weather Channel. One of them was designed to show surf. Very quickly, the surfer community within Second Life made their home on this island because it had the best waves. An interesting answer, but not what the questioner was looking for. Prompted, Stein began to describe the Linden traffic system. Lester jumped in to talk about how they are creating sensor-based measurement systems to see where people are spending time and are coupling this with survey data to get a better view of audience behavior.

Uhrmacher said that there basically three main audience groups – those looking to be entertained, to be educated and to conduct business. Their levels or participation depends on the nature of the event or space they are visiting. He pointed out that each sim can accommodate about 50 people. Stein said this number was too low and that he’s conducted events with close to 100 people; and that some events, like the Suzanne Vega concert, have been viewed more than 10,000 times.

This discussion prompted Lester to mention that they are working to improve concurrency; but the fact remains that server resources are limited and that even traditional Web sites can run into trouble with heavy volume. He started to make the argument that Second Life’s limit on the number of people in a space was actually a nice benefit – you know, because it keeps events on a human scale and allows interaction. I pointed out that at a concert I don’t necessarily want to interact with everyone else in the audience but with my friends and the artist.

It brought to mind for me the fact that not all of our time in the real world involves engaging with the people around us. There are times when we just want to be able to go about our business without having interaction thrust upon us. Stein had made a good point earlier in the discussion that they always try to work with clients to understand their goals and reason for wanting to get involved with Second Life – and that there are times when it doesn’t make sense. I think it can often make sense but that we all need to take a breath and not assume that time spent in Second Life needs to be all engagement all the time.

Askew built on the theme of interactivity by explaining that they are faced with different levels of ability to deal with interfaces. They are trying to create a level playing field that will work for all audiences.

One mistake that people make, explained Uhrmacher, is that they are still focused on trying to replicate the real world in Second Life. Until you’ve tried it, it is hard to conceptualize. Once people do try it and become engaged they begin to realize that duplication doesn’t make sense. His counsel is to try something different in Second Life.

Peters asked everyone to project the development of Second Life a few years into the future.

Rodzilla thinks there will me more meetings occurring and the people will be more active in assisting one another. He referred back to the live reference assistance available on Info Island and thinks that this type of think will become more common.

Stein expects to see a deeper level of immersion and avatars able to travel between different virtual worlds. He also expects we’ll be seeing more fun to. He thought it was interesting that no one had discussed mashups in virtual worlds and thinks that this is also something that will be come more and more common as people begin mixing different media types in Second Life. Finally, he suggested that people should begin asking themselves how they can use Second Life to have a positive impact in their real lives.

While Stein was speaking, Lester’s avatar kept changing on a screen to the right of the panel. One questioner, perhaps prompted by this, asking if all of this was actually really engaging for people.

Uhrmacher thought that Second Life generates the same degree of interaction and pressure to interact as exists in the real world; and that companies – recognizing this – will attempt to engage and entertain people to bring them back. They still have to fulfill their brand promise though in a way that is more compelling than a traditional Web site. I don’t think I buy this idea that one experiences the same kind of interaction of pressure to interact that one does in the real world. While there is certainly some very cool stuff in Second Life there are also vast stretches of nothing that are not especially compelling or interactive. On top of that, I often don’t want to necessarily interact with the people I see in Second Life. Not because they’re bad people or anything but because I generally don’t strike up conversations with strangers in the real world either.

I was talking with Hiawatha Bray from the Boston Globe after the event about this idea on ad hoc interaction with strangers. There are plenty of times when I go into a store simply to make a purchase. The fact that there are others in the store – potentially shopping for the same item as me – doesn’t make them fair game. We joked that if you started talking to everyone about what they were doing, buying, thinking, etc. you’d probably be escorted out of the store by security.

Anyhow, back to the question of Second Life ability to really engage. Lester explained that his background is neuroscience and that one of the things that our brains do really well is filling in cognitive holes. He went on to explain that when you are in Second Life, because you are interacting with real people in three dimensional space, your brain begins to function as though everything in the space is real. This is one of the reasons people get so immersed in Second Life.

Another questioner wanted to hear the panels thoughts on the experience of construction and creation in Second Life – an important aspect that is often overlooked.

Uhrmacher agreed that co-creation is really important to Second Life and that more and more, members of the community are being invited to participate and build. (I took this to mean that the community was being invited to build by a company or other entity within Second Life rather than to build for themselves.)

The issue of identity and authenticity came up again. Lester explained that they are working on ways for people to prove who they are – the first step will be age verification – but that this is a challenge in all online environments. Askew said that this is really hard to create secure and authenticated identities for financial services but that they had to deal with it on the traditional Web as well. Developing standards will be critical – especially as people want to move their identities from one world to another.

Someone else wanted to know how does the business aspect of Second Life works and how much it costs. Stein explained that it starts with fixed costs (which are sent by Linden Labs). After that, you need to look at what you are trying to accomplish – the effort, scope and creativity will determine the ultimate cost. He went on the say that the costs are comparable to developing a good Flash site.

I called him on that, point out that a good Flash Website would probably be seen by more people. Not necessarily, he said, at any given time there are 30,000-40,000 people in Second Life and no Web sites have that kind of concurrent traffic. That may be true, but it still doesn’t make sense. A more correct analogy would be to look at all of the concurrent users of the Web itself (I’m willing to bet it’s a lot more than 40,000). I personally think that the whole numbers discussion about Second Life is immaterial. The fact remains that at any given time there are a ton of people on there; but they are all over the place. This means that investing to develop a presence may not pay off in the short term; but the same was true of the Web and that changed very very quickly.

That was essentially the end of the formal panel portion of the evening. I spend some time talking with John Lester and Hiawatha and enjoyed myself throughly. I was also able to catch up with Stein and Rodzilla before night was out. All of the panelists did a great job. I especially enjoyed my conversation with Stein at the very end of the evening.

Second Life – and other worlds like it – are here to stay in one form or another and it was a good topic for the the evening’s meeting. The next meeting will be on June 7th at the Watertown Public Library and will be focused on the business case for social media. Cymfony will be the sponsor.

[tags]SMCBoston, Social Media Club, Social Media, Second Life, John Rodzilla, Emerson College, Mike Askew, Fidelity Investments Center for Applied Technology, Drew Stein, Infinite Vision Media, John Lester, Linden Labs, Aaron Uhrmacher, Ken Peters, Text 100[/tags]

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5 thoughts on “Social Media Club/Boston – 5/17: (Getting a) Second Life

  1. Hi Greg, I agree with you on that point about age and the use of social media. I believe there was a recent survey that demonstrated that a large percentage of the content that’s generated in social media is generated by older people compared to the people who consume it.

  2. I also wonder about the type of content generated versus the type consumed. One thing I’ve started thinking about is how we classify content. I have a few ideas and have had a couple of discussions on it but nothing real to report yet.

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