Second Life, virtual worlds and the future of the Internet

If David Copperfield can fly, so can I!Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending an intensive one-day intensive course in social media marketing and Web 2.0, put on by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada. The presenter was Mitch Joel of Twist Image, who in addition to being the company’s president runs an esteemed blog about online marketing and social media (one I’ve been subscribing to and enjoying for several months now).

Joel’s nine-hour seminar was a bit overwhelming even to me, and I’m fairly well read on the subject matter; I can only fathom how intimidating it must have been to those inexperienced or unfamiliar with the platforms of the new digital age. But Joel’s presentation was expertly structured, giving everyone a bird’s-eye view of the broader principles and ideas behind “Web 2.0” (a term he seems to dislike as much as I’ve come to) before explaining how they apply to individual platforms and programs. It was a great contrast to the highly-disappointing conference I attended recently where all of the internet marketing material was either too high-level or narrowly tactical.

There were dozens of pearls and pockets of wisdom throughout the course, and although the majority of the content was familiar to me, there was more than enough new websites, concepts and perspectives scattered throughout to make the entire day incredibly worthwhile. In particular, I left with a much better sense of how to explain and pitch the material to others, an essential skill in translating all these ideas into actionable items. Heck, it even led me to brainstorm a multitude of ways that I can improve McNutt Against the Music (maybe some ideas to think about for my upcoming one-year blogiversary).

Upon leaving, Joel encouraged us all to continue the conversation after we left the hotel. Consider this post my attempt to do so.

The Virtual Future

Early on in the day, Joel asked us to put aside any knee-jerk skepticism that we might have about these new media outlets, instead urging us to ask why it is that people like to use them. For most of the day, this worked perfectly fine, especially considering that I generally agreed with almost everything that he had to say. Where I diverged from this, and didn’t even try to hide my scepticism, is when he got to his final section about virtual worlds.

I wrote about Second Life late last year as Linden Labs’ media juggernaut was really beginning to pick up steam. Much of what I wrote was knee-jerk and lacking in research, but now that I’ve spent a wee bit of time in-world and have done some secondary research on the service, my opinion hasn’t changed as much as you might think.

Thankfully Joel, unlike many marketers and news outlets, has not drunk the Linden Labs Kool-Aid. He recognizes that the Second Life interface is pretty awful, and is likely one of the reasons why around 85 per cent of the people who try Second Life don’t return. I wish he hadn’t spent so much time batting around the “six million” figure that Linden Labs uses because I think it’s a load of PR bunk (six million accounts does not equal six million users) but Joel’s approach to Second Life’s status quo was refreshingly honest.

But Joel sees the clunky and cumbersome Second Life interface as akin to the early stages of the World Wide Web. In fact, he asserted that virtual worlds are going to become the new Web in time, evolving into the primary means by which we communicate and engage with each other online. He’s not alone in this – Gartner research argued recently that as early as 2011, 80 per cent of Internet users will partake in virtual worlds.

As an example of where things could be headed, Joel showed us the video for what Telus is starting to do in Second Life. They’ve established a virtual store where you can browse the latest phone models, learn about the service, and even buy a virtual version of the phone with in-world capabilities. Joel asked the question “Why would you go back to text-based web browsing if you were able to do something like this?”

My response, had I felt like pushing the point, would have been: “Why wouldn’t you just go to a store?” And I know that statement makes me sound like a cranky, close-minded traditionalist, but hear me out.

The Uncanny Valley

The “UncannyValley” is a famous robotics theory that I’m quite fond of. Introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori back in the 1970s, it predicts that as robots become more and more humanlike, we will continue to be empathetic towards them – until a point. When they reach a state of “almost human,” we will reject and be repulsed by them. The reason for this is that the closer they come to appearing human, the stranger and weirder their minute differences from us will seem. The theory hypothesizes that once a robot and a human become completely indistinguishable from one another, a positive relationship will once again commence.

What does this have to do with virtual worlds, you ask? Because I think that the UncannyValley hypothesis might apply to them as well, especially once they abandon their escapist elements and become “almost real.” The most popular virtual worlds that exist right now are rife with fantastical elements. World of Warcraft, for example, sees players controlling wizards and other creatures while completing quests and fighting monsters. And even though Second Life is more realistic, it’s still quite removed from our first life, with creature avatars and the ability to fly. Second Life may have a wide array of practical applications, but it still looks and feels like a game.

And let’s face it – gaming is the big reason that we’re having this conversation at all. I would wager that if The Sims hadn’t sold 16 million copies to become the best-selling PC game of all time, people would be treating Second Life as a fascinating niche product instead the first step in a virtual world revolution. The Sims proved that there is an audience out there willing to engage in replicating the mundane, but its interface plays more to a God complex than participatory impulses. And 16 million copies? That’s impressive for a video game, but what we’re talking about is virtual worlds becoming the primary means of communicating and interacting online.

What’s going to happen as these virtual worlds like Second Life become more and more realistic, losing their fantastical elements and becoming a functional replication of our actual reality? We’re really entering into uncharted waters with this stuff, and while nobody really knows for sure exactly what’s on the horizon, the sceptical side of my brain thinks that realistic, functional virtual worlds are a level of representation and simulation that is simply too strange and uncanny to be attractive to the majority of potential users.

This might already be the case. Like Joel, Jon Lester of Linden Labs argues that existing virtual worlds are just like every other communications vehicle in that audiences at first find them difficult to learn and understand before eventually coming around to comprehending their potential applications. But the development of online media thus far has generally been understood as replacements or supplements to traditional media. We read blogs and websites, just like we read newspapers and magazines, whereas e-mail and instant messaging are like quicker versions of faxing or sending letters. Clearly there are massive differences in how we use online media versus traditional media (namely interactivity and customization) but they’re still a case of media replacing or supplementing media.

What we’re talking about with virtual worlds like Second Life is media replacing or supplementing our physical reality. It’s about creating a virtual representation of ourselves, navigating through a virtual representation of our world, and living out virtual representations of the very things that we do in real life. I don’t deny that there is an audience out there for this, or that there are practical applications for it like services for the disabled and holding conferences and events across long distances. What I question is if it’s a mass audience. It’s tempting to attribute Second Life’s 85 per cent churn rate to its interface, but what if the real reason people don’t come back to Second Life is that most people are not sold on the idea of virtual worlds to begin with?

Sadly, I can’t seem to track down any research about attitudes towards Second Life, and even if I could, I’d expect that the data would be skewed by those who are interested in it for its novelty. So like most assertions about what the future of the Internet holds, my views are still a bit too “crystal ball” for comfort. That said, my gut tells me that as virtual worlds become more and more realistic, the mass audience that’s already lukewarm on them will reject them in even greater numbers because they’ll have become too close for comfort to our actual world. Virtual worlds are going to fall right into the UncannyValley.

The Undiscovered Country

See, here’s the thing – one of Joel’s best points throughout the course was the importance of channel-appropriate content. He argued that the best way to approach online marketing is not to apply traditional offline models, but to come up with marketing solutions that build on the unique features of the medium and can’t really be done elsewhere.

So if this makes sense (and it should), then why is it that our concept of “the future of the Internet” is a virtual approximation of real life? Why are we talking about taking the things we can already do in real life and placing them into the digital one? Is this really the best that we can come up with? I don’t buy it. The Internet is the most revolutionary and exciting undiscovered country in human history, and something tells me that its possibilities stretch much further than the narrow, reductionist perspective that virtual worlds impose upon them.

So what will the Internet look like in 5, 10, 20 years time? Damned if I know.

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5 responses to “Second Life, virtual worlds and the future of the Internet

  1. An excellent post, and a well-spotted dilemma; yes, indeed, it is the playfulness of the virtual worlds (being WoW, or SL or ‘simple’ blogging communities like Livejournal) that matters. It is their capacity to evoke the imaginary, and to allow people to innovate and transform themselves which are greatly valuable (and valued).

    But of course all these qualities are invisible for the businesses who tend to see the world through the prism of ‘cost-efficiency’ and ‘profitability’, and who tend to appreciate only those qualities in the virtual worlds.

    Virtual worlds can help me to have ‘online meetings’? Oh, thank you, that would be really nice, we can cut costs on the flights! Can you please make my avatar more ‘photo-realistic’, and may be add some voice?

    Online world can create new room for experiments and transformation of our culture, unblocking our creativity, letting new phenomena to emerge? Errr, thank you, not needed.

    So the issue of forecasting of the future developments is in fact goes to the betting on whether Lindens, and eSheeps and Red Rivers of the world will bend or not.

    On whether they start producing “efficient 3D interfaces for the web” (thus making the whole story irrelevant and non needed to people). Or whether they will further embrace the potential of these worlds as imaginary spaces, looking for more, and new ways to enchant our reality.

    And believe me, the ‘masses’ as you call them are very ready for the latter. Remember the most recent history – it was ‘the masses’, not the business, who made out the web what it is now, a hugely creative, agile space. So the question is more about the chances of business learning the lessons and catching up with ‘the masses’.

  2. The more I look read over my essay, the less fond I am the line in the conclusion that reads “[The Internet’s] possibilities stretch much further than the narrow, reductionist perspective that virtual worlds impose upon them.” What I really am really writing about there – and in the rest of the piece – is “the narrow, reductionist perspective that our current understanding of virtual worlds imposes upon them.”

    Which is kind of the point that you’re getting at, centralasian. The problem is that Second Life has become our de-facto understanding of what a virtual world is, and it’s a world where commerce is one of the most common in-world activities. Given that, it’s no wonder that businesses seem to be more excited about SL than the average person seems to be, and as a result they’re driving most of the conversation about virtual worlds at this point. I’ll be interested to see if, and when, the conversation shifts towards the idea of virtual worlds as “imaginary spaces,” as you put it, because once you move past the idea of virtual spaces as merely another place to partake in real-world activities, their future becomes far more exciting.

  3. We read blogs and websites, just like we read newspapers and magazines, whereas e-mail and instant messaging are like quicker versions of faxing or sending letters. Clearly there are massive differences in how we use online media versus traditional media (namely interactivity and customization) but they’re still a case of media replacing or supplementing media.

    I would like to note a key difference between “traditional” media and phenomena such as blogs, e-mail, forums and so on. The difference is in the role of participants. While the vast majority of participants in the traditional media are consumers (readers or watchers), the wast majority of participants in these new phenomena are creators. Not all the time, of course, but “often enough.” People who only read or watch even have a special, slightly derogatory name of “lurkers” attached to them. The amount of content (video, art, text) thus created is huge. It’s like an unbelievably scaled up Renaissance. If anything, creating is now so active that it’s often hard to find consumers: everybody’s too busy writing their own blogs and can’t be bothered to read other blogs.

    For technical reasons, the internet started from text, progressed to pictures and is only now, in the last decade or so, going into video and 3D environment and sound stages. You can trace the comparative ease of working with interfaces for different types of representations by the age children start applying them. But we have to constantly remember that creative part. A baby can watch a video, but we are talking, in brave new virtual worlds, about creating. As of now, 2d visual (drawing) and voice representations in computer environments are accessible to kids – as active, content-creating participants – who are as young as two or three (with appropriate hardware modifications, such as touch screens), and texting is accessible as soon as writing and reading starts. 3d, spatial representations are harder. Other people use their grandmothers to gauge the ease of interface, instead of kids. In any case, the experience shows that if the interface is too hard for a six-year-old or so, it’s too hard for wide masses of people to take on an active role in an environment – as we can witness in SL, hehe. But there is a very real, and very strong, need for people to use more representations than text and 2D pictures.

    When humans communicate irl, the majority of information exchange isn’t in words. There just aren’t tools, yet, to support humans as active, creating agents, rather than consumers, when it comes to more “physical” representations – 3d spatial features such as positioning and gestures. It’s very easy to create a text representation online, but very hard to create, say, a dance. But people, quite often, would rather use plain text than go back to passive (consumer) roles in lush but non-interactive environments such as movies. They would dance, too, if they could.

  4. Pingback: …in which McNutt discusses “viral marketing” « McNutt Against the Music·

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