Second Life’s Path to Mainstream Adoption: Becoming a Friendlier Virtual FirstLife
By: Ricardo Garcia
Second Life is the online social 3D virtual environment where users are given the freedom to design their virtual characters, buy a plot of land, build their virtual living spaces and interact with other individuals.
The result: Every month, one million crudely modeled avatars roaming the streets of badly designed cities.
Does it ring a bell? MySpace was, for a long time, a convoluted community defined by badly designed personal websites with no cohesive social structure.
So How Long Must We Wait for the 3D Virtual Facebook?
We need a Second Life competitor to do what Facebook offered over MySpace: a less flexible design but a robust platform making way for a more cohesive social network experience, thus making it easy for users to navigate through 500+ friends’ personalized pages. In the case of Second Life, this looks like thousands of islands and communities.
Don’t get me wrong; I am Second Life admirer and believer. 3D virtual environments are the future of the web. Gartner Research estimates that 80% of online users will have a presence in metaverses by the end of 2011 (Gartner Research, 2007). However, I just cannot wait for an easier, friendlier and more first-life version of Second Life.
What do I Mean by That?
In Facebook, I am ME. What If I want to be ME in the virtual world and not a Viking or a gnome? I am obviously being facetious, but what if I want to use a 3D virtual space to attend online classes and speakers’ engagements, hold business meetings, group projects or product launches, or express my personality and be part of a living 3D virtual social network? In order for this to become a reality, Second Life needs to develop a stronger network effect by getting buy-in from twenty times the current number of monthly active users (1M). You do not accomplish this by seducing more geeks taking time-outs from playing strategy games 20 hours a week, nor from companies tinkering with the idea of launching new but not so successful marketing campaigns in SL. You do not accomplish it by having companies like IBM holding companywide meetings in SL alone. To accomplish a robust network effect you need to entice the mainstream Facebook user.
So Why Not Offer an Easy Transition onto Second Life?
Currently, the learning curve for navigating Second Life is too steep for mainstream Facebook users. An account can be opened in 10 minutes. However, buying property, building property and customizing an avatar is a time-intensive process. It can take hours of research. How do you change your avatar? Where do you get new skins? Should you lease or buy property? And where do you buy it? And once you have it, how do you build your property? (Just as in the real world, you don’t want to buy land in the wrong neighborhood.) How can you convert real money into virtual money? The list of questions goes on and on.
There is a need for Second Life to offer a complete starter kit: a rich suite of already-designed avatars and prefabricated residences in well-designed cities. Following the steps of Facebook, where the structure has been developed and all the user needs to do is update text in the right areas and images and videos in the right buckets, Second Life needs to set up the original structure to the point where a user only needs to focus on the accessories and everything else that will make them different from other individuals.
If it is not easy for individuals to create a presence in Second Life, it is even less so for small businesses looking to create their virtual 3D online debut.
Making Second Life Small-Business Friendly
We are starting to see a trend of large companies using Second Life to market their products, with a handful of them conducting serious companywide meetings. However, it is very difficult for the average person or small business to create a presence in Second Life. In order for Second Life to enter the small-to-medium market and become more mainstream, Linden Lab, the creators of SL, needs to dramatically improve the time in which a small business can set up shop to less than 30 minutes. Linden Lab can do this by having a large menu of options that can be configured into a Small Business Kit for purchase. This menu should have a large selection of avatars, a large selection of different plots of land, and buildings and structures varying by the type of business, along with a number of additional features such as customizable information kiosks offering ways to easily transfer online content into a 3D space.
What is Needed to Get a Virtual First-Life Experience?
How long do I have to wait to be able to visit a 3D virtual store, try a pair of jeans for my avatar (who happens to match my body measurements), and then have the product delivered to my first-life mailing address?
One important piece to the puzzle is Second Life middleware: the programming that will seamlessly tie today’s internet stores’ functionalities with a virtual 3D environment. This is usually developed by third party providers that form companies to make applications that are tied to Second Life. Usually the best of these companies will eventually be acquired by a mature Linden Lab. However, a strong community of developers will not emerge if there is no strategy from Linden Lab to lure Facebook users to Second Life.
Today, Linden Lab is a growing small-to-mid-size company with over 300 employees but with the potential to become larger than 2,000-employee company in the next five years. Linden Lab created SL in 2003. Six years is enough for an experimental “let the user build his/her own space” strategy. It is time to modify the business plan to become more of a Facebook-like user-friendly environment and accommodate mainstream 2.0 users by offering a very strong hand-holding strategy, which begins with delivering a very comprehensive starter kit.
Now We Are Talking!
Small steps. I just wish I didn’t have to socialize with Ewoks and dark knights while waiting for Second Life to mature into a virtual first-life experience.
© Copyright 2010 The Stern Opportunity
July 2010 – UPDATE: This article was written four months before the newly appointed CEO of Linden Labs introduced a new upgrade to SecondLife offering out-of-the-box features that made it easier for new users to purchase pre-made land, housing and other cool features.