As you probably guessed, since returning from our Worst Vacation Ever, I've been swamped working on my new company and crazy hobby (along with my Real Job), which explains the posting famine. But I have now been flushed out by a flurry of controversy over our story on the failure of Second Life as an advertising vehicle, which is something I personally commissioned.
Why did I turn on Second Life, after not only paying to build a Wired HQ in-world, but also doing a book signing and interview (shown) there, and even being nominated for a National Magazine Award for our "travel guide" to SL?
Well, partly it was the whole "there's nobody there" problem, which is of course just anecdotal. Like everyone else, I had fun exploring the concept and marveling at all the creativity. Then I got bored, and I started marveling at something else: all the empty corporate edifices. By day I'd speak at marketing conferences that usually had someone pitching SL services, complete with staged demonstrations (the "inhabitants" invariably paid employees). By night I'd go back to the same places, which had reverted to ghost towns once the demonstration was over. I couldn't understand why companies kept throwing money at in-world presences. Were they seeing something I wasn't?
But like I said, that was just anecdotal. So I asked a real reporter, Frank Rose, to figure out what was really going on. He came back with this sobering piece, which we headlined "Lonely Planet"
Unsurprisingly, SL's most entertaining evangelist, Wagner James Au, took umbrage. Our side responded in his comments with devastating logic, etc, etc. Suffice to say we very much stand by the piece.
But now that clever Au has come back with a seductive Long Tail argument for why I should give SL a second chance. Sure, only about 30 people showed up for my book signing (a number capped by the server limits, not my popularity, I hasten to add), but the chat log from the event (perhaps the worst interview I've ever given, due to my crappy typing in real time) got 90k hits on Au's blog and the YouTube video was seen by a few thousand more. A fair reading of SL's impact, Au argues, would include "length of engagement in SL, versus other ad mediums; quality of engagement, in terms of brand immersion and recognition; quality of potential participant, considering Resident demographics as content creators, bloggers, early adopters, etc."
In other words, a SL presence has a "long tail of impact" that's measured in more than the number of avatars in any one place at any one point in time.
Maybe, but I can only manage what I can measure. And in terms of things that I value, such as links, smart comments, traffic to my blog, etc, the SL appearance might as well have never happened. It didn't leave a ripple in the world I live in (AKA Real Life).
As I asked Au in an email exchange:
1) Were those page views on your blog worth the many thousands of dollars and tens of hours we put into that event and our SL presence?
2) You were kind enough to feature the appearance on your high-profile blog and grace it with your own participation. What about everyone else who doesn't get your personal attention? Would they have fared as well?
Personally, as much as I enjoyed the experience and appreciated your support, as a business executive I think the answers are "no" and "no". I can defend our SL investment on educational grounds, but not on any other.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh?
[UPDATE:] Wagner James Au responds with a very good point in the second paragraph. In virtual worlds, what you're seeing is "who's here now" rather than the "who's been here" tracks of comments in a blog and other online media. If you judged other media by the same momentary metric, they might also look barren; then again, they're not dependent on real-time interaction between visitors the way SL is.
My feeling is that if you're going to evoke real world conceits such as "places" that you "go to", then you've got to deal with real world expectations of those places. We don't like like empty buildings in RL; why should be more tolerant of them in SL just because there are traces of those who have been there before? After all, ghost towns have ghosts, too, but that doesn't make them any more attractive ;-)
[Au:] I'm not sure what Millions of Us charged you for it, so I couldn't calculate your exact virtual world CPM, so to speak. When adding up that ROI, however, the near 100,000 page views on my blog and the 2500+ views of the YouTube video should probably be counted along with the 30 actual visitors to the event. (Not to mention the page views of the 20 or so other SL-centric blogs which linked to the event transcript or its announcement, according to Technorati.)
[Chris here: we set up the Wired presence for more than just my book signing, and I fully admit that we didn't do all we could have in continuing to promote and tend it after that. But the reason we let it languish is the same as my own: we just weren't seeing results.]
Why should these be factored in? Because this is the nature of *all* 3D online worlds, even standard MMOs like World of Warcraft: they're dynamic and architecturally restrictive, and only a small percentage of users can be in a specific location during a specific period to witness a specific event. This is why MMO users depend on screenshots, machinima, chat transcripts, and other asynchronous mediums to document and share events they weren't able to attend; it's how they create their folklore, their history, and any sense of cohesive community.
> 2) You were kind enough to feature the appearance on your high-profile
> blog and grace it with your own participation. What about everyone
> else who doesn't get your personal attention? Would they have fared as well?
Probably, if you took the time to promote it with the wider SL blogosphere, because my Second Life blog is only one among several high-profile SL-centric blogs. Weblogs Inc.'s secondlifeinsider.com, 3pointd.com, and secondlifeherald.com are also in the Technorati Top 5000; Linden Lab's official SL blog is in the top 1500. (That's not even mentioning influential blogs like Boing Boing and Terra Nova which often blog about SL activity and content, or celeb bloggers like Larry Lessig and Joi Ito, who visit SL semi-regularly and write about it.) Then there's the vast ecosystem of SL blogs, 3rd party sites and bulletin boards, podcasts, social network groups, and machinima videos which number in the thousands. (YouTube alone has 5000+ videos tagged with "Second Life"; the top 20 have been viewed over 3 million times.) This is the network of activity you're promoting your appearance to, not just the 40,000 Residents who happen to be in-world at any given time.
In aggregate, their reach into the wider Web is enormous.
Take another case: I did a similar event in conjunction with Creative Commons which was budgeted considerably less than many thousands of dollars, to promote Judge Richard Posner's book, *Not a Suicide Pact*; his Honor appeared in SL to discuss it, virtual world law, and other topics, then sign copies of the virtual edition. According to Technorati, the chat transcript was linked by 41 blogs, including several influential law blogs, and even got cited in some legal journals like this one.
And now when you Google "Judge Richard Posner", his Second Life appearance currently comes up in the top ten. I can't emphasize the wonderful and powerful strangeness of that: Judge Posner is the world's most influential jurist, and according to Google's longtail of search, his appearance as an avatar beset by fireballs and a giant raccoon ranks among his very most relevant achievements. I'd call that impact. (Then again, Chris, when you search your name in Google Images, your avatar comes up in the top ten. *Twice*.)