Beam me up! Second Life and the Physics of the Impossible


My latest mind-crush is Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist with a knack for making the weird and entangled framework of String theory accessible to mere mortals like us.

In 2008, Dr. Kaku wrote a book called Physics of the Impossible in which he considers the credible scientific evidence and theory behind the dreams of science fiction of which we are all so familiar.

In this talk given entitled “The World in 2030: How Science will Affect Computers, Medicine, Jobs, Our Lifestyles and the Wealth of our Nations” in 2009, Dr. Kaku postulates a bright future that will sound very familiar to Second Life residents. I urge you to watch the talk, though I highlight the similarities below.

Dr. Kaku speculates that in the next 10-50 years, we’ll be

  • using internet glasses (like the Oculus Rift and Google Glasses) and internet contact lenses to interact with our world (00:14:00)
  • using contemporaneous translators when traveling, similar to the ones we now use in Second Life (00.16.50)
  • walking through virtual augmented simulations in the physical world, which reminds me of several historically based sims in Second Life (00:17:00)
  • communicating with intelligent wallpaper when looking to hook up with someone – which is what many of our Adult Second Life groups are used for right now (00:19:00)
  • enjoying classic movies over the internet, but instead of seeing well-known actors play the roles, we’ll be acting as the characters ourselves, like my theatre company and I did for Paradise Lost in Second Life earlier this year (00:20:10)
  • able to enjoy a thanksgiving dinner simultaneously attended by our friends all over the world, which I did for Thanksgiving 2013 (00:21.30)

What follows is a fascinating exploration into the future of healthcare (using our toilets as diagnostic devices signalling the onset of disease well before they become emergencies), the growing of vital organs and body parts from our own stem-cells, and the current state and future possibilities of artificial intelligence.

At 00:33:00 Dr. Kaku talks about the real possibility of full invisibility in the physical world, which we can do in Second Life with a full body alpha (or even more surreptitiously, our alts).

At 00:34:40 he talks about the real possibility of quantum teleportation in the physical world – Star Trek style – which every Second Life resident conveniently enjoys several times a day.

Phoenix One Station - III

Beam me up Caitlin Tobias! (taken by Caity at Phoenix One Station – III)

At 00:35:25 he discusses the science behind telepathy as shown by humans controlling objects via nothing but thought with the BrainGate – a brain-computer interface, which is surely the end-game for virtual reality interface devices.

Discussing the far future (well beyond 2070), Dr. Kaku talks about NASA’s credible designs for an interstellar star ship (think: USS Enterprise) and the theoretical possibility of time travel through worm holes.

During questions, Dr. Kaku talks about stopping the ageing process – which reminds me of our ageless avatars in Second Life (00:55:00).

This is exciting stuff that serves to remind us about how lucky we are to take part in Second Life today, where we can (at least virtually) enjoy walking through a window through time as we explore the things that theoretical physicists can still only dream of, but may well come to pass in the near and distant future.

Many of us won’t be casting a shadow 50 years from today, but isn’t it amazing that we at least have a chance to experience a glimmer of the stuff we’ve only seen in science fiction, right now in the present moment?

Of course, we need to survive as a species long enough to get past the massive challenges facing our world in the coming few decades (I’m not joking at all) to have a hope of experiencing any of this. But if we can make it, the future looks a lot like Second Life today.

And here’s how Dr. Kaku would build a teleporter:

The Last of Us in Second Life

Ellie at the Gas Station

Me, as Ellie from The Last of Us, in Second Life

This last summer I first played Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, an action-adventure survival video game developed for the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) that features the tough and precocious 13-year old orphan named Ellie; and her companion Joel, a grizzled, violent and older bereaved parent of the daughter he lost.

Set in 2033, the story follows the unlikely pair’s emotional development – within themselves and between each other – as they doggedly drive, walk, and ride their way across what remains of the US, 20 years after a worldwide pandemic effectively exterminated 60% of the global population.

As they travel through collapsed cities and near-empty countryside, we learn what life is like in the wake of collapse; a world all but abandoned save few survivors, their infected predators, and the nature that has begun to reclaim it.

Along the way, the couple face horrific challenges, experience the worst of what’s left of a desperate humanity, experience both hope and despair, and are forced to make the most impossible of moral choices – that leave us, the players, questioning what we might do if faced with such gut-wrenching, value-searing dilemmas.

I’ve been playing video games since I was a little kid, and The Last of Us is, without any reservation whatsoever, the very best video game experience I have ever had.

I’m not alone. Wiki says:

The Last of Us received widespread critical acclaim for its writing, voice acting, sound design, level design, music and art direction. Its narrative was praised for its characterization, subtext, exploration of the human condition, and depiction of female and LGBT characters. Considered by many critics one of the greatest video games of all time, The Last of Us received over 200 “Game of the Year” awards and is the most awarded game in history.

My first play-through took 22 hours. Then, I played it twice again after the first sitting. In between and after, I read and watched nearly everything I could get my hands on to further understand the creative background of the developers, the back story leading to the game’s storyline, the experiences of the voice and motion-capture actors, and the critical and popular impact of this watershed moment in video games.

I even made some images with me as Ellie in Second Life in locations that reminded me of the game’s setting.
Ellie, Left Behind

As the holidays fast approach, I’ve thought several times about playing it again. Today, I was reminded of another reason the “Last of Us” – and its downloadable content prequel “Left Behind” – are just so damn important.

I quote Anita Sarkeesian (vlogger behind Feminist Frequency – a blog and YouTube Channel that examines sexism in video games) and Carolyn Petit, from their article in Matter entitled “Five Feminist Moments in the History of Video Games”. For the other 4 moments, see the full article on Matter.
The Unlikely Saviour

The entirety of this short follow-up to 2013’s The Last of Us is noteworthy for its focus on the complex, nuanced relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley. As you venture through an abandoned mall, the characters laugh and argue, have serious conversations and goof off. Finally, in a powerfully honest moment, they kiss. Female characters in games are frequently objects of desire, but they rarely get to express romantic impulses of their own. Left Behind is a lovely affirmation of queer sexuality and proof that big-budget, mainstream action games can tell stories that aren’t just about killing.

I might write more about The Last of Us and Left Behind in these pages. It, and its creators, have been such an inspirational influence on how I look at story, characterisation, themes and the unique and transformational power of the digital medium when one fully participates.

Two of Diamonds


Two of DiamondsA few weeks ago, Vanessa Blaylock, promoter of Virtual Public Art in Second Life, and Editor behind the still going strong iRez Salon, asked me – and 53 other virtual world denizens – to create a selfie playing card for a 2014 Avatar Selfie Card Deck. And it’s now time to pass out the cards! Come to the party, have a drink, and pick up your free copy of this cool deck of cards for FREE!

The party/exhibit will be held at Vanessa’s Trafalgar Square Apartment at 9AM SLT (5PM GMT) on December 14, 2014. See you there! More details can be found here.

Choosing true friends wisely in Second Life


Would you be my friend?Hermits and recluses aside, few of us deny that friendship is a rewarding, if not the most rewarding, aspect of Second Life. Yet, we often don’t talk about how to choose our friends wisely, or how to be a true friend.

Oxford defines a friend as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.”

Hmm, “mutual affection”, isn’t that a tad… wide?

If that definition wasn’t inclusive enough, we now take part in the digital debasement of the term friend. Today we friend (new & improved in active verb format!) pretty much anybody we meet, effectively labelling them as a friend, or just somebody that happens to be on my list of contacts on a social networking site.

Which brings us neatly back to Second Life.

150 friends? Really?

Dunbar’s number is the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people (most commonly agreed to be 150) with whom one can keep up stable social relationships. The means that an individual can reasonably know each person, and how each person relates to every other person, in a group of 150 or less. Beyond 150, anonymity surfaces, and so do the lack of responsibilities and obligations we may feel to those who barely know us. One might argue this is one of the reasons we have things like antisocial behaviour. Tribes, during hunter gatherer times, rarely surpassed this number and kept things pretty cool because everyone knew what everyone else was up to.

A few months ago, I saw my friends list surpass Dunbar’s number, and today, I brought the number down to a more manageable size (sorry contacts who I haven’t spoken to in… months). Dunbar’s number aside, after making a contact set (thank you Firestorm!) the number of people in Second Life that I would comfortably fit within Oxford’s rather over-inclusive definition is closer to 15.

But there’s more, isn’t there? These are my friends… but are they my true blue friends? Errr.. no.

We all have our personal definitions of what makes a true blue friend. Some say that a true blue friend is someone who you’d drop everything for to come to their aid. I’ve read a true blue friend is someone who you can feel comfortable confiding what you most fear, or doubt, or hate about yourself. Some consider time and absence as an acid test: a true blue friend might be someone you’ve not talked with in decades, but time and distance do nothing to diminish the bond between you.

One definition I particularly like is the notion that a true blue friend is someone who brings forth the very best in you. This is a person in front of whom you can feel free to be yourself. A true blue friend is someone that really knows you, and accepts you – every part of you – the good stuff, and the stuff you hold back, from all but your true blue friends. These friends will stick with you even at your ultimate worst, and agree with Emerson when he wrote that “it is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them”.

Paradise Lost

Your own private social solar system

Some of us might see our friends orbiting us in near concentric circles – like the planets orbiting our Sun. Mercury’s unique mysteriousness gets the majority of our attention (often correlated with their superior taste in footwear), whilst stable and reliable Venus is never far from our hearts and minds. Earth is our complicated friend, whom we may worry about, and probably for good reason. Mars is somewhat more distant, and a little bit erratic, but still important to us and at times even somewhat inspirational, and therefore most definitely deserves a space within our inner circle.

Then there’s the asteroid belt composed of our other friends with whom we may share distant history, but probably not very much time. This motley crew of craggy rocks flies in and out of our inner circle, and some of them, like wayward meteorites, drop in unannounced like great balls of fire.

Further afield are our acquaintances: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, and their extended families of moons. These gassy giants are familiar to us, but we don’t really know them all that well. Yet, they loom large in our view so that we won’t easily forget them.

And finally we have poor old Pluto, a distant friend we might see so infrequently that we once even stopped considering them a friend at all, only to have his loveable self again resurface back into our lives, as distant friends are want to do.

Whilst stretched in too many ways to mention, this analogy might hold a grain of truth at least when it comes to our inner circle (of friends, not planets). Dunbar himself said that usually, our inner circle consists of five “core” people (your true blue friends) and an extra layer of 10. That makes 15 people – some will probably be family members – who are your central group and then outside that, there’s another 35 in the next circle and another 100 on the outside. And that’s one person’s social solar system.

Now if we can only convince the people who make viewers that this might be a good way to organise our “Friends lists”…

The long odds of finding true blue friends

Finding true blue friends isn’t easy. But why is that? With 7 billion other humans out there, why is true blue friendship so hard to find? Where is everybody? Does it ever feel like finding true blue friends feels as optimistic as the search for alien life? What are the odds, really?

Working through a probability equation suggests that there might be 1742 people in the entire city of New York (population: 8,244,910) that might qualify as true blue friends. Or roughly 1/5000. This number is derived from an adaptation of Drake’s equation (initially formulated to calculate the probability of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life by an astronomer named Drake):

N = Np (your target population) * fg (your target gender) * Fs (the no. of singles in the population) * fe (the no. that are findable) * fy (your target age range) * fl(a common language) * fa (finding someone attractive) * fa2 (someone finding you attractive) * fi (similar level of education)

Let me just repeat that for a moment… the chances of finding a true blue friend in a city like New York is One.In.Five.Thousand.

And that’s if you live in a humongous city like New York City! The odds get considerably longer the smaller the city you live in and damned is the lonely soul who lives in a tiny village – although something tells me they have no trouble finding friends at all, but that’s a whole other post!

They odds get even longer the less people you meet, the bigger your prejudices, the less open you are (making others less attractive to you), and the less you love yourself (making yourself less attractive to others). And that’s just someone who is reasonably compatible! If you then consider all the other obstacles, walls, mind games, rules and preferences we erect, the lower the number… the longer the odds.

Are you depressed yet? Fear not, I have a plan!

How to choose friends wisely

First, sort quickly. Consider the number of people you might meet in a year. If you’re hoping to find a true blue friend, you simply can’t afford to spend much time alone, remote, or with people who you don’t value. You have to be open to strangers who might one day become friends. You can’t be all things to all people. You need to hire slowly but fire quickly. Some people are the nutrients in our lives, while others are merely empty calories. Choose, and eat accordingly. Don’t be afraid to distance yourself from those that might not become a real friend. The good can sometimes be the enemy of the great. Remember, this isn’t so much a scarcity problem (there are still 1742 people out there just waiting to be found!), it’s a sorting problem.

Second, hang on to the true blue friends you have. Most people can count their true blue friends on their fingertips, with many left over – and that’s over their entire lives. Has your friend let you down? Did they mess up? Does their apparent commitment, or their available time, ebb and flow like the tides? Who cares? Let it go. It’s not the ingredients in your life that matter, it’s what you choose to cook in your dinner. Get some perspective and think very, very, very hard before you dismiss a true blue friend from your life. Consider this: the odds of finding a true blue friend are half as good as the odds of a golf tour professional landing a hole-in-one (2500 to 1).

Three, be a true blue friend yourself. Be the friend you want to have. The other day I overheard a discussion between people about what they wanted to get from a relationship. I want X, one said. I want Y, said another. If I don’t get Z, then it’s goodbye! If they mess up, then there’s the door… have a nice life!

Bollocks Copernicus!

What’s all this about what you want to get? How self-centred can you be? As much as your true blue friends might think the sun literally shines out of your ass, you are not really the Sun! Besides, the Sun has given a hell of a lot more than the planets ever gave it back, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Think instead: what are you ready to give? How can you enrich their lives? How can you be their sunlight? And to really turn the cosmic tables, how can you be the planet orbiting their sun, as much as you’d like them to orbit yours?

But isn’t that one-sided? What if you’re taken advantage of? What if they don’t appreciate it? Again, drop that stuff. Trust me, it’s useless. Life is much too short, and we are much too blessed, to focus on scarcity and what might happen.

Lastly, if you’ve not yet found your true blue friends – don’t fret. It isn’t only you. You’re not cursed to a life of loneliness or never feeling whole. Out there, in the blackness of space, there is someone (in fact many) for you. Open your heart and think of what Carl Sagan once wrote “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”


Post Script for Nerds:

1742 = 8,244,910 (your target population – or in this case NYC) * 1 (your target gender, 0.5 if it’s either male or female ) * .44 (the no. of singles in the population – and I’m assuming that singles are more open to new true blue friends) * .37 (the no. that are findable – a number lifted from the proportion of people using dating sites which suggests they are available for friendship too) * .247 (your target age range – based on one’s age/2+7 – or in this example someone between 20 and 34, which is 24.7% of the NYC pop) * .96 (a common language – percentage of people who speak english in NYC) * .13 (finding someone attractive – which polls suggest is near 13%) * .13 (someone finding you attractive) * .32 (similar level of education – or 32% of New Yorkers with a college degree)

The Instant IM and Honouring Transition Time in Second Life


Liminal Zones What the hell is “transition time” you ask? A transition time might be any length of time spent in a state that has the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in a middle stage, between one state and another.

Huh? What am I on about now?

A “real life” example of transition time – or “Give me some space!”

Here is an analog life example that might help illustrate this phenomenon. Later in the post, I’ll share how this relates to Second Life:

Imagine coming home after your day at work. You open the door to your house, ritualistically take off your coat, and then maybe your shoes… but as you’re doing so, your spouse/partner/flatmate bounds up the hallway excitedly saying “Hey, how are you!?”

How do you react? It may surprise you that different people respond differently to the timing this kind of interaction.

Some I’ve spoken to welcome it. They might turn to their partner happily responding “I’m great, how are you?!” letting the conversation ensue as they transition from work life to home life in the presence of another.

Others are different. Many people need what I’ve heard referred to as “Transition Time”. In response to their partner’s immediate greeting upon arriving home, they might feel a bit overwhelmed with the timing of the greeting, feeling the urge to pull away and escape into their bedroom before emerging 5 to 10 minutes later more ready to engage.

In their private space, they might change out of their work clothes, have a short nap, take a shower, or write a short diary entry. Others might gradually transition in semi-private spaces, as they read a newspaper, enjoy a glass of wine, or watch a little passive news on the TV.

Interruptions during this time rarely get much traction, and partners/spouses that habituate to each other slowly learn to respect these transition times as necessary threshold crossings, like a caterpillar’s cocoon, as they patiently wait for the butterfly they know and love to beautifully emerge.

What’s going on here? Why are some happy to immediately engage whilst others prefer a more slow and private transition from one state to another?

A Second Life example of transition time – or again, “Give me some space!”

Let me speak for myself as I share with you an example from Second Life that might express what it feels like to be in the second camp, those that prefer (need! must have!) transition time.

Before I log in to Second Life (usually after a work day), I notice a few standard rituals I’ll conduct including: having a nap, brewing myself a tea, sitting on a specific spot on my couch, feet up, and facing in a specific direction. I will first check my SL email, maybe read a few blogs, follow a few social media posts, and then finally, when I feel ready, log in.

When I log in to Second Life, I feel like I’m transitioning from one world to another. My friend Caity Tobias calls it “coming home”, which literally expresses what I mean. But just because I’ve logged in, it doesn’t mean I’m yet ready to face the digital world.

I’ll typically log into my bedroom in SL (which is where I always log off and is my designated “home” location). Then, I’ll instantly teleport to my platform at 1500 meters, finding it less laggy and distracting than my bedroom. I know I could simply reset my home location to my platform, but I don’t, because I like to “wake up” in my bedroom. (I know, weird, but we’ve only just begun…)

Now begins my transition time. I start with my notices (because I don’t have to respond to them). Usually, I’ll tick all but a few away, marking specific events on my calendar and saving specific notecards I may want to later reference. Then, I’ll turn to any IMs I may have not already responded to by email, and respond to them so that I can close down those windows. Finally, I’ll choose my outfit for the day. I’ll typically customise it (removing sunglasses if the weather in RL is overcast, updating a pair of shoes that might be more sensible for the crispness in the RL air, perhaps adding a jacket, or changing my hairstyle to reflect what I’m wearing these days.

Then, finally, I feel ready. Sometimes, this process takes 5 minutes, sometimes it takes 10 minutes depending on the work to be done. Regardless, I take the time, and use these transition strategies to help me adjust and orient into the digital world because I find it peaceful and necessary.

Enter the instant IM

Now imagine you’re like this (maybe you don’t have to imagine because you are like this already) and you get an IM, literally seconds after logging in. It feels exactly the same as the analog example above. Regardless of the sender, it interrupts my flow, messes with my chi, discombobulates me, adds to my disorientation, and doesn’t allow me to settle into my ritual transition strategies.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from friends. I like getting IMs from people I’ve not talked to in a while, and from those I talk to everyday. It’s not about being an isolationist or introverted (although, to a degree, I am both at times), it’s about timing.

When discussing this with a friend of mine, she told me that there have been times that she’s logged in, sees herself rezzing slowly, and hears the old familiar “ching ching” of an IM whilst still in cloud form!

Give me some friggin’ space!!!

I’ve had a few instant IMers in my time. Nice people, of that I have little doubt. Some have even been my closest friends. Uncomfortable as it may be, I’ve learned to not suffer in silence. I’ve learned to separate the problem from the person, and to tell them to kindly hold off on contacting me for at least 5-10 minutes after I log in. Most immediately accept my preferences, adjust their habits, and all ends well. Hurrah for honest communication and empathetic flexibility!

A small minority, however, debate my preferences with me. Here are some of their responses ranging, from the innocently thoughtful to the downright inconsiderate:

  • “I might forget you’re online if I don’t IM you when I see your name pop up.”
  • “I didn’t want you to think I’m ignoring you.”
  • “Oh… I am just happy to see you. :/
  • “Ok fine, I just won’t IM you then.”
  • “I just wanted to show you I care, sorry for existing, pffft!”

These lines of debate, I’m sorry to say, rarely end so well.

I’ve done some searching online to find any research on this phenomenon. Maybe I’ve not got the term right (although I’ve seen some similarities with the anthropological term liminality, from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”), but I can’t yet find much written about this subject apart from Alison Armstrong’s work on gender relations, and how both genders require different transition times between the “I’m a worker” state to “I’m a spouse” state.

I’ve also seen some psychological research dealing with how children with autism have difficulty dealing with the many transitions that most of us find routine. I’m certain; however, that the need for transition time (ergo the need for the kind of transition strategies I describe above) exceeds those exhibited by spouses/partners and children with autism.

So I’m wondering, which side of the fence do you sit? Are you open to the instant IM? Or do you, like me, prefer transition time? Are you (gasp!) an instant IMer? Go on then, tell me how I’m wrong.

Marketing Second Life: Where does one start?

Monday night's piano music at Basilique

Random image that has nothing to do with this post! But here is a big thanks to Caity for showing me how to embed Flickr images in my posts!

Yesterday’s blog post about Second Life merchandising and premiums certainly led to some spirited discussions, and I’m feeling motivated to dive into this subject a bit more before I leave it.

One of the questions Draxtor Despres asked in a comment he made to yesterday’s post was:

Who the heck IS THE TYPICAL SL “user”? Do we know?”

Drax was responding to my assertion that he (and anyone in SL’s public eye) is atypical in how we might share our association with Second Life with the greater world outside; and, that I assume that the views and practices of those that might be considered more typical are very different. Drax also mentioned that half of his friends in Second Life are happy to share their Second Lives external to the platform, while the other half are not. Again, however, I must point out that Drax’s friends are also unlikely to be representative of the majority of Second Life residents.

That particular thread of discussion led away from the main thread of the comments (which was about SL merchandising), so I thought I’d start a new post about this topic, because it’s interesting in its own right.

Knowing more about Second Life Residents is the starting point for knowing how to grow Second Life

So, is it important for Linden Lab to know about its typical user (or resident)? Is there such a thing as a typical SL user/resident?

Personally, I believe this is a starting point when planning how to promote Second Life beyond its existing user base.

I don’t think Linden Lab should make a cool product and then hope to attract people to it. Instead, I very much agree with the idea of inviting members from the greater SL community to share why they think Second Life is cool, so that Linden Lab can adapt its core product over time to best fit what we think is cool now, and into what they think might be cool in the future.

Drax’s visit to Linden Lab HQ for the All-Hands Meeting (chronicled in his podcast) is a terrific example of that. At the same time, I do hope they are also surveying, observing, interacting, and revealing what the smaller SL communities use SL for (e.g. the much larger proportion of users that are not famous for anything).

Drax asks if we know who the “typical SL user” is. In part, it depends on how we define “typical”. Many people dislike the idea of fitting people into neat little boxes and treating them as such, so we might tend to undervalue words like “typical” because it suggests fuzzy thinking or homogenization.

Notably however, when I use the word “typical”, I don’t mean “average”. When I use the word typical in a marketing sense, I’m using the classic definition of the word, meaning: “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing.”

Why is this important? Because marketers (and I include strategists, researchers, product designers, packagers, pricing specialists and communicators in that group) need to identify distinctive qualities of particular people to identify needs, design products, package feature bundles, set pricing and spread the word about products that these people want.

In Second Life’s case, as is the case of many sophisticated products for decades now, there are probably several “typicals”. Can they be identified and described? Surely. Is it worth knowing? Definitely. Should Linden Lab aim to know? Absolutely!

So what should Linden Lab do to grow Second Life?

Drax asked me a follow-up question at the end of his comment:

how can Linden Lab do promotion more effectively in this fragmented digital age other than having their most ardent fans be loud and proud?”

Well, marketers have a massive amount of choice when creating their marketing plans, there are a huge amount of tactics to choose from, depending on what the organisation wants to do and in the time frame they wish to do it (not to mention budget).

I honestly can’t, and wouldn’t, answer that question right now, precisely because I don’t have access to the data that I’m talking about in this post. With that data, and that is always the starting point, I’d be happy to try my hand at articulating a comprehensive marketing plan for Second Life, provided they trusted me to do so.

Any other approach would be akin to a doctor prescribing a medication without examining the patient.

Much of what we discuss on inworld, in blogs, in forums, online discussion groups, and in the analog world about what a particular company should do to succeed is little more than conjecture, because we lack answers to five critical questions:

  • Who are the typical Second Life residents? How can we describe them?
  • What do(es) the market(s) for Second Life really want?
  • What’s Linden Lab’s goal and timeline for Second Life?
  • How does Linden Lab stand on that goal now?
  • What’s Linden Lab’s budget to meet that goal on the timeline for Second Life?

I’d be asking these five questions in my first meeting with a new marketing client, and this is only the beginning. Without honest and comprehensive answers to these questions, we can argue all we want about what a company should do (and sometimes that’s really fun to do, so I’m all for it!) but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that any of our suggestions are “right” or “best”. They might be, but it’s really difficult to know, because we don’t yet know the answers to the five questions above.

No logo for Second Life

Image courtesy of Torley Linden

Image of a very rare Second Life pendant courtesy of Torley Linden

I originally wrote this post as a comment on today’s post by Inara Pey, and figured it might be a little more visible here on my own blog, instead of buried under the many comments that Inara might get on her post. Besides, it gives me a chance to correct the many typos and grammatical errors (!) in the comment…

/me sighs at her blindness that, like a miracle, is only cured after hitting the “publish” button.

The original post was generally about how the Lab should market Second Life, and more specifically on the idea of using premiums like logo-marked mugs, clothing and accessories.

Draxtor Despres, who raised this question with Linden Lab staffers in a recent DraxFiles Radio Hour interview, and I have discussed marketing SL in the past, and I remember this and other similar ideas coming up. Like then, as now, Drax and I see this differently.

/me sits comfortably in her leather armchair as she prepares to hand out advice predicated on a data set that resembles swiss cheese.

If I was advising the Lab in matters of marketing, I would recommend them to NOT invest in premiums as a significant marketing investment. And here is why:

Premiums aren’t a good investment

Premiums (which is the broader group for goods supplied by a company with their marketing messages on them) are not a relatively good marketing investment full stop. Studies by The Nielsen Company on global marketing return on investment have shown it to generate $1.19 for every $1 spent, which is only marginally better than average, but falls short when compared to the Return on Investment of (in ascending order) print magazines, co-op programs, long-term PR, long-term TV, and on-line advertising. So, I’d rather the Lab put more investment on on-line advertising and targeted PR before going elsewhere, primarily because Second Life is such a niche product and isn’t ready for TV.

Second Life is a bit like Fight Club – and in some ways the Star Wars Prequels

The first rule about Fight Club is that we don’t talk about Fight Club. Premiums are about communicating communities of association. They act as signifiers of the tribes *we want others to recognise* we belong to (and that “we want others to recognise” is the operative phrase in that statement).

I might, for example, have a coffee cup featuring nothing but Princess Leia’s famous hair buns in Episode IV. This might tell the world that I am a Star Wars fan – because I want to be associated with what Star Wars represents. I might also wear a Captain Picard t-shirt to show which Star Trek *team* I’m on, because everyone knows that TNG was the best series, of course… that goes without saying…

Again, it’s what these ideas or motifs represent, as opposed to what they in fact might even be. Many Millennials might not have even seen the original Star Wars trilogy, but due to retro branding, see it as cool. Original Star Wars branding (and characters) tends to represent originality, innovation, pioneering, and trendsetting. This is starkly contrasted with the idea of wearing a t-shirt with Jar Jar Binks on it, which might only be seen as ironic, lest one be considered devoid of all taste and good judgment. We all know that the second trilogy doesn’t hold a petering blue lightsaber to the coolness of the original.

These premiums (often licensed and not marketed by the brands themselves) might act as conversation starters. This is not why I have these goods, but I wouldn’t mind a conversation coming up surrounding them.

Second Life is different. Most people who use Second Life don’t talk about Second Life to friends and associates – even when probed. In general, Second Life users don’t want to be associated with it in their real life spheres of interaction. Virtual reality as a concept is hardly even discussed among people who work in *highly* technically oriented communities, in which one might consider it to be at least an objective area of interest. The Lab has a word of mouth problem because their product just isn’t seen as very cool.

I’d more likely be seen wearing a shirt featuring Carrie Fisher in her double-barrelled bun-headed glory (even if she was a raging cokehead in the ’80s… but hell, it was the ’80s…), than the same t-shirt featuring the more relatable Natalie Portman, regardless of how much more amazing her hair or how much of a badass she was (barring that unfortunate romance with the incessantly whiny young Anakin, as played by the equally incessantly whiny young actor known as Hayden Christensen).

Premiums are a solution for the wrong problem

Premiums are best for maintaining loyalty among heavy-users, and do very little to attract new users unfamiliar with the product. Second Life does not have a long-term loyalty problem, it has a new-user acquisition problem. As a product, I’ve been loyal to Second Life (albeit with a few short breaks) since 2007. I honestly can’t say that about many other brands. Second Life is by nature addictive because the experiences we have in Second Life are so highly rewarding.

This is even true for famously brand-disloyal Gen Xers (more on this later). We don’t need a logo-festooned jacket to keep us loyal or remind us to log in to Second Life instead of its alternative. For starters, there are very few viable alternatives. Second, we invest a great deal into Second Life, which creates a switching cost. Third, it’s as accessible as nearly everything else digital. Fourth, we don’t even have to be logged in to engage in the community by using the social media surrounding it. Fifth, appearing as a corporate logo-branding shill just isn’t very cool these days either.

I’m not a walking billboard

Premiums are generational, and premiums aren’t viewed the same among generational differences. I have no idea what the age demographic for Second Life is but I can hazard an educated guess.

My assumption (based on nothing but experience and intuition) is that Second Life is most popular among Gen Xers born between 1965 and 1979, with some bleeding into late Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and more penetration into Millennials (1980-2000).

Gen Xers were the first generation to actively wear corporate logos on their clothes, which is why I can understand that this idea might appeal to both Linden Lab staffers, Drax, and many of the readers of Inara’s blog post.

Gen Xers might think back to all the logos they’ve worn emblazoned on back pockets, buttons, chests, shoulders and backs and think that nothing could be more natural. What they tend to forget however, is that this was also the time when George Lucas had a soul.

While we still see some people sporting logos today the way previous generations wore crucifixes around their necks, Gen Xers, and nearly everyone else, has become considerably more aware of how marketing actually works, and refuse to be a walking advertisement for all but the most personally defining brands.

One might cite a trend that seems to fly in the face of that argument, in that for years, the logos on our clothing have become larger and larger. This trend, however, is adopted in mainly three cases: a) the brand is aspirational (which Second Life is not), the adopters of these products are from lower economic social classes (which I’d hazard to guess Second Life users are not), and the adopters of these products are from countries aspiring to Western ideals (which may be a market for Second Life, but wouldn’t constitute the heavy user base for which premiums actually work for).

So, no. As much as I’d like to have a t-shirt with Drax’s handsome mug shot on it (/me winks at Bernhard if he’s reading), I’d advise the Lab to spend its money and energy elsewhere.