Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is SL for?

I've been thinking about this question for a few days now. Talking to friends, they have many and varied reasons for being in SL. What I find quite... frustrating is that people who live outside SL in the real world, can often see no reason for using SL at all. "I prefer to live in the real world", "oh I don't like computer games", and "I think it's all a bit sad really, people who are escaping from their real lives". My family all consider me batty.

According to Computer Weekly, within five years 3D environments like Second Life are going to be as important as email to companies. Yes, you didn't read that wrong. As important as email. Can you remember a world in which you didn't have email?

I can. In 1988/9 i was offered email by the company I then worked for, Lloyd's Register of Shipping. It was before the internet, but they had what was an early form of intranet, lots of IBM terminals all over the world, connected to HQ. I tended not to use the IBM terminals... I'd fought long and hard for Apple Macintoshs for the creative people in my department, which were new and shiny, but only connected to each other, not to the network.

Anyway, I couldn't see any use for electronic mail. If I had the time to write I would send a paper memo... and if I didn't I would use the phone. Why would I want email? It's a good question. Now that we have text, MSN-type messenger services, forums and message boards, internet mailing lists, email, mobile phones, desktop phones, computers connected to the internet and of course the old fashioned snail mail and face to face encounters, it is hard to explain just how a communication can be right for one medium and not for another. It isn't a problem though... one simply instinctively knows which medium is right for the message.

All of those methods of communication will get the information from A to B, but none of them does what Second Life does: gives you the impression that you are in the same place at the same time, sharing an experience with a friend or friends. In some weird way a video link from one desk to another enhances and emphasises the physical separation of two people having a conference. SL eradicates that, brings the two people to a place where they feel they are together.

I think we are at the very start of virtual worlds, and their myriad uses for business, pleasure, profit and entertainment, and as the technology grows and develops, the uses will increase. In some ways I think the very limitations which so frustrate marketers and commercial companies may turn out to be the best aspect of the early forms of virtual world: only being able to bring 30 or 40 people together for an event makes it intimate, and eradicates the hierarchy and status that people have in big institutions or at big events.

The pay-off for people who are really listening is that the quality of communication is on a different level. People connect on Second Life in a way that they are either too afraid to, or too shy to, in real life.

I am sure my friends will come round to the idea of 3D worlds in good time, the way I did to email. It's still to be seen whether I will have competitive advantages over them and their companies through being an early (February 2004) adopter of the technology. It's that which keeps businesses looking at SL, keeps enticing them in to test the water.

My feeling is that SL as a platform is for connecting people, in the end, like email, like the telephone, but different, very different, because it can provide an environment, entertainment, and a chance to find new people which most of the other media do not. Once companies beging to understand the advantages for themselves, and to see how their clients and contacts will start to be able to use the platform, I think their approach to it will change. Instead of being a fast PR hit, it will become a tool, and maybe, yes, maybe Computer Weekly are right to say it will become as important as email. Maybe it will become even more important, and lead to the development of a truly 3D internet.

With the changes that are coming in the next few months I guess that Second Life, and 3D worlds in general, are going to keep on challenging me, keep on sparking ideas about the way it can be used. Maybe the answer to what SL is for will change; maybe the answer is already different for everyone.

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