The Web has been the home for
many virtual world communities over the past decade, but with
the advent of broadband access and speedy PCs virtual worlds
have been booming. These 3-D online simulations filled with
thousands of people moving about in attractive digital

draw in not only the gaming community but people
looking for a whole virtual lifestyle and social

, the hottest of these virtual communities, has more
than a million “inhabitants” and an economic system that offers
more than play money for participants. People can buy and sell
real and virtual goods, services and real estate in the Second
life economy, using “Linden Dollars” that members can buy –
complete with
their own
currency exchange market data feeds
. Media companies have
joined the bandwagon with kiosks to promote music and video
downloads from real and virtual artists as well as news from a

Reuters virtual news bureau
reporting on happenings in
Second Life.

In other words the view of cyberspace as a world unto itself
is growing into a more multi-dimensional venue that provides
many virtual equivalents of the physical world to satisfy its
would-be residents. Advertisers have been

quick to pick up on this
, building “islands” for their
marketing campaigns that fit snugly into this fantasy world.
Instead of spending lavishly on ads and promotions to help
people imagine that their products can fulfill a buyer’s
fantasies, why not reach them when they are already inside
their fantasies? Hmm, was that car I just bought a virtual car
or a real one…? This is context that gets way inside the
psyches of consumers.

But if Second Life is pointing us more towards the future of
marketing online it’s a future that looks pretty familiar in
many ways. Look at an interactive map of its terrain and it
resembles a mashup view of Google Earth overlaid with
attractions and services. The game itself, while enhanced with
the depth of a global community of players and an “anything
goes” approach to designing experiences, doesn’t really cut new
territory in presenting an online experience. The most
compelling aspect of the game – everyone is equally artificial
and equally able to have an impact on others in their virtual
social circles – is straight out of the world of online
user-generated content, already enhanced with audio, video and
animated graphics.

The real significance of Second Life is not the great
virtual clothes and the instant online physique overhaul that
it offers members but rather the idea that there is a tool that
can act as a test bed for marketing and publishing in
real-world communities for digital natives. The experience of
shopping in a local store, for example, hasn’t progressed much
in the online era: you walk in, look at things, buy them (or
not) and then walk out. In the meantime simulated communities
are offering a far wider range of experiences for digital
natives that enhance both commerce and social networks in ways
that most local real-world marketers have not even begun to
think about – much less plan for.  The gap is not between
other online outlets and Second Life but rather between Second
Life and real life.

Think of Second Life-like online communities as a metaphor
for what’s possible right now in the real world – if publishers
were up to the challenge.  What are some of the huge gaps
that can be closed in the real world through Second Life-like
services? Try a few of these avatars on for size:

  • “Zooming in” to local services and events. While
    Google Maps has introduced the concept of overlaying
    real-world products and services onto satellite photos of
    actual locations the artificial world of Second Life suggests
    that audiences want to break through the map metaphor into a
    real experience transparently – like walking through a
    looking glass. Newspapers and other locally-oriented
    publishers need to consider how they can help local marketers
    to use online capabilities to act as a communications tool to
    let online shoppers experience the “who” and the “where” of
    local merchants and services providers in a way that doesn’t
    require either the merchant or the client feel that
    technology is getting in the way of a human experience.
  • Subscribing to lifestyles. While marketers and
    players have different end motives in mind by spending Second
    Life cybercash, the mechanism for both is essentially the
    same: prepayment for long-term and on-demand services.
    Publications have been built for years around the idea of
    someone subscribing to content that supports their personal
    or professional lifestyle, which may be amplified with
    real-world events. What if a subscription bought them not
    only a publication or an event but membership in a community
    that included access to actual online and real-world
    lifestyles? There’s a huge opportunity sitting between
    publications, associations and vendors that is poorly
    addressed at this point because each of these players has not
    been able to conceive of how to offer their services as the
    focus of a complete community experience.
  • Making electronic publishing more compelling. The
    strength of online game worlds like Second Life points
    towards a generation that finds even most online content
    rather dull. So we can download songs and videos online.
    Whoopee. We’ve had radio and TV doing that for decades, in
    essence, and now everyone can post video and audio online
    through just about any channel. Web pages may have better
    fonts and layouts than a decade ago but they’re still just
    flat text and graphics. Second Life amplifies the point that
    media companies have reached the end of a long run of
    increasingly second-rate content that cannot compete with our
    own individual and institutional imaginations. And perhaps
    that’s not a bad thing.

Second Life reminds us that it’s easy to get excited about
out-of-body experiences online to the point of forgetting the
in-body world where real people live and make decisions. As
compelling as it may be it’s just a crude reminder of how
incomplete electronic content’s penetration has been to date in
the real world. See you at the virtual mall – oh, if you see
Avery Sikorsky there say hello. He’s a nice guy.

John Blossom