Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Metanomics in Another Place

Unfortunately my technology let me down and so although I watched the Metanomics stream from the world of Theredotcom yesterday, I was unable to hear most of the broadcast until it went online at SLCN this morning.

I visited There briefly before I came into Second Life, and I have to say I disliked it strongly. It might have been because two male avatars approached me and wanted to know if I was white in real life too, it might have been because I had to spend all my starter money on changing my hairstyle, it might have been because I didn't seem able to freely explore the world, or it could have been the disney-esque cartooniness of the world, but I just didn't feel at home there.

It has to be said, that in some respects Theredotcom beats Second Life (otherwise known to Michael Wilson, the CEO of Theredotcom and the subject of the interview, as "another place"). He seemed to object to the number of times Robert Bloomfield, AKA Beyers Sellers and host of the Metanomics interview, referred to Second Life. All depends on where you're standing Michael! Theredotcom is the other place to most of the people watching the stream last night.

As I say, in some respects it beats Second Life hands down, as Michael Wilson delineated: it can run on more or less any computer shipped since 2003, it can run on a 56k download,and is therefore accessible to many more people. The animation for two chatting avatars was much more realistic and integrated than you would find in Second Life, although the cartoon feel was unavoidable... and of course the cartoon flatness inherent in the design of the world is related: one makes the other possible, restricting the graphics is what makes it run on a far wider selection of machines than Second Life.

It's a case of what you see is what you get, because that Disney-like, unreal, blandness is reflective of the decisions they took to make the world as attractive as possible to people with brands to sell. They have made commercial decisions to make the world as populated as possible, thereby eliminating all non PG-13 content, on the basis that more people would be offended by non-PG-13 content than would be offended by their inability to access non PG-13 content in the world.

Secondly they took a decision to protect branding and to respect intellectual property rights. He talked about people wanting their product to be the real thing, although that is a distinction which is hard to justify in a virtual world. Sure in the real world you would want your canned beverage to be made by Coca Cola using safe water and cans which don't contain toxic metals... but in a virtual world where my pixellated can of Coca Cola tastes the same as their own Coco Cola, the distinction is rather less clear. If you look at the history of brand rip offs in Second Life, it is often the case that the products made by in world creators have actually been better than the product made by the company concerned, and so sometimes, while the ethical consideration of hijacking someone else's brand still remains, it is the brand themselves who are producing inferior product.

An example of this is the Adidas and Reebok campaign, widely reported to have cost the company around a million dollars, they had obviously put money into producing a shoe which respected the brand and looked like the real thing. Unfortunately they insisted on making it no modify to stop the residents from customizing and diluting the brand, I assume, which meant that it was bad luck if the size of shoes supplied in the boxes didn't fit. The shoes were over 200 prims each, which began to have a detrimental effect on sims where more than a couple of people were gathered, and soon it was one of a list of things that sim owners would ask people to remove before entering busy places. The shoes also came with an animation which was supposed to prevent your avatar from dropping into the falling down animation on impacting the ground, but instead many avatars got stuck in the animation, which was not exactly an improvement. There are hundreds of residents all over the grid working for no income who have made trainers of verious makes which work better as items to wear in world than those did.

I digress. Mr Wilson continued to outline the decisions which he thinks contribute to Theredotcom's success: PG-13 content, no brand theft, and thirdly, attracting as many people as possible to the world. I thought it was telling that he talked about members when he meant residents of the world, and customers when he talked about the brands who are in the world. He said that one of the aims for Theredotcom was to make the world as appealing as possible to other businesses.

Mr Wilson talked about the unfortunate rumour that someone had put about that if you put your brand into a virtual world you would need wheelbarrows to cart away the profits, and asserted that if a thing seems to good to be true it probably is, a philosophy I subscribe to myself. In a clear dig at Second Life he said that brands jumped into virtual worlds with little or no preparation and just went and built their islands, and then wondered where their wheelbarrows of money were.

"Our approach since we are very customer orientated is that we go out and we work with the brands that want to come into the world on a whole bunch of levels," Mr Wilson continued. "First of all we work on finding them an appropriate place to be in world and we work on integrating them with the community, so that our community doesn't reject them, and we work on putting them in highly trafficked areas in world that don't disrupt the community... so for example we are careful not to drop things in the middle of popular areas owned by our members... in all what we're trying to do is ensure that the brands that come in have a complete experience."

Theredotcom ensures that people respect other people's IP by making them go through an authorisation process before they can upload things to the world. Despite the talks of brand experiences, it seemed that in some respects Mr Wilson doesn't get it, since he questioned whether a Sony branded virtual world for children would encourage teenagers to be buying a Sony product in years to come. I'd have liked Beyers to have asked him what he thinks those people in Theredotcom are getting from their branded experiences in world, if he can see no point in manufacturers owning their own virtual worlds, as it seems to me that a branded experience in There is just a smaller version of a standalone Sony -- or Coca Cola -- or Adidas world.

He then went on to admit that Theredotcom likes to think of themselves as the Disneyland or family orientated theme park... I think that spoke volumes, and it made me itch to ask what the demographics of Theredotcom might be, how many of their members come from lands outside the pastelpink plasticated towers of this Stepford world where nothing that isn't PG13 exists? Do the Dutch, French and Germans show the same inclination to sign up for the sanitized world of Theredotcom as Brand U.S.A does?

It made me aware what I cherish about Second Life, and how different places which may be thought by outsiders to be very similar might be. I like the fact that I can be a grown up in Second Life, and can pursue adult activities if I choose to, or not, being a rounded and whole person in the virtual world is important to me. I don't trawl the bars of Second Life in a sleazy tramp avatar, indeed I usually wear long skirts and behave relatively demurely, but I like the option, and I like the grown up integrated whole of my personality to be there with me, not a sanitized cartoon of me.

What attracts me to Second Life, is the opportunity to leave behind the roles I play in first life, of daughter, wife, mother, friend, and take up the things and the people and the activities which interest me. I'd dislike being restricted to the same things I have in real life, in a virtual world, and there would be far fewer attractions to draw me into it.

The other aspect of Second Life that brings me back, keeps challenging and interesting me, is the opportunity to create, something which is severely curtailed in Theredotcom through both the authorisation procedure and the fact that you have to use 3D modelling software to be able to create things to upload. The tools in Second Life have enabled me in ways that I could only have dreamed of before I discovered SL.

Back to the interview, Robert asked Mr Wilson about the revenue model for There, which divided into four sections: subscriptions, in world currency sales, sponsorship and avertising and e-commerce. he gave away some very interesting information in the course of answering the questions, particularly when he was asked about a comment he made about throwing terabytes of data at commercial companies asking for information.

He shied away from agreeing that he had thrown terabytes of data, and then in the course of answering the question, agreed that the problem was really with knowing hoe to organise the amount of data they were able to provide to companies in world. Although he said that privacy was tremendously important to him and that There would never infringe their privacy, he did still say that it would be possible for There to monitor conversations for mentions of a brand...although they haven't done that.

It gave me a horrible feeling of being in a fishbowl, being subject to the demands of brands to deliver a tailored experience in a world where people do not swear, they don't have sex, where everyone is put through a cartoon making machine on their way in world to turn them into cartoon shadows of themselves and then watched to see what they do when faced with a Coca Cola logo or a pair of branded jeans.

Or as Michael Wilson says: "Making sure a brand can integrate with our community and the fact that we can help with that makes a strong statement."

Robert talked of Mr Wilson and his colleagues at There as benevolent dictators, but that rather poses the question about who they are being benevolent to... although as I wrote last week, the reality is that we have a choice about which virtual worlds we inhabit, and no one is having their arm twisted to make them visit there. I would have loved a few of the many terabytes of facts and figures though, the age breakdown, the nationality breakdown, the relative growth of the community and what it is that the brands who have gone into There find apart from a management that wants to hold their hand throughout?

I thought that some of the advice that Michael Wilson gave to brands was very useful, talking of getting to know the world you are entering and taking baby steps before giant ones... they're all things which brands in Second Life would do well to learn, and some have learned the hard way. He wasn't convinced about interoperability, and saw this as a red herring, preferring talk about the OpenID system to allow people to use the same authorization for many places.

I've written far too much and may write more when what was said sinks in, but I heartily recommend that you watch and listen to the interview in its entirety. It's interesting, has some useful information and it makes one think. What more could you ask? If Theredotcom is your place, good luck to you, but I shall log in with renewed fervour to Second Life, as the place that I call my virtual home.

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