I am reading a lot about Second Life lately. Various companies are looking into it as a way to promote their and show their new products, even to have them tried out, yet withou really understanding or even visioning the business value that it might bring. I wonder what they are really looking for.
IBM for instance is planning to have meetings, lectures and trainings in Second Life. Recently Grady Booch announced that his virtual self is giving a virtual lecture in the virtual world. But I don’t see my virtual self sitting in a virtual classroom looking at and listening to a virtual speaker and virtual peers. Not if there are non-virtual (first life) video conferencing applications available that show real people with real voices and, more over, real expressions. I don’t see myself watching a movie sitting (virtually) in a virtual cinema – and sitting behind the computer in reality – if I can see the same movie in much better quality and performance using Media Player applications.
I don’t even see my try out new Nike shoes just by looking how well they fit my avatar, if I can’t try them on at my own real feet. Haven’t you seen the fancy flash applications of cars, where they show intereriors, exteriors, engines, safety features, in-car entertainment systems. You don’t need a complete virtual world where you can travel between islands to show those products.
Second Life is typically an application to build virtual communities: build social networks and interacting with people within your network. From that perspective it is nothing more – and nothing less – than an ordinary chatroom with a (3D) graphical interface.
IBM and other companies are going to invest in Second Life to explore the business potentials, but they hardly invested in exploring the potential of previous social networks. Take for instance the IBM DeveloperWorks “community”: it’s just a newpaper-like publication board with discussion forums. The community building primarily comes from the people who contribute to the discussion forum. Originally discussion forums were just Q&A forums, where a user could post a question and many users posted answers to the question. But already in the Rational days there was the Rational Developer Network, a thriving community where people not only posted questions and answers, but also shared knowledge and experience. And not only on the product specifics, but also more general about professional interests, such a configuration management, process management, modeling, etcetera.
In 2003, Rational recognized the value of user communities. They formed a group volunteers (called Discussion Facilitators) to foster the user community. The social community would be a (low-cost) extension of the support service, and at the same time be a promotional instrument more powerful than the sales force could be. There were plans to create a real user community, where people feel the social connection and support. And then IBM took over and the focus was completely turned to sales. Rational lost its position as methodology leader, products lost their top class position and the community slowly degraded into a simple Q&A forum and website.
And now there is Second Life, a virtual world where social networks are primarily build around dating and gambling. Like many 3D MMORPG (games) I think there is a future to it, as an entertainment platform. Some people may get rich from Linden Dollars, but as a business platform I think it’s just a hype.