Saturday, November 17, 2007

Virtual Worlds and the Web of 1997, what do they have in common?

Many people, particularly those that are interested in, but not intimately involved in, virtual worlds, tend to think of Second Life, Kaneva, Entropia and other 3D environments as being at the advancing edge of web2.0. They're often referred to as web3.0, the 3D web, or web 3.D. Many other people view them as a waste of time, or an interesting diversion at best. These people most often have not been into Second Life, or have not managed to get over that initial learning curve. Through no fault of their own, they have a flawed view of what's happening in this space.

The reality is that the 3D web is in its infancy, and as such, is nowhere even close to the leading edge of web2.0 in terms of communication, Search, identity, sheesh, not even collaboration. It's certainly not a waste of time though, or something that's going to just go away if you ignore it, or pretend it doesn't matter. It does matter, and those people trying to make the best of the kludgy communications systems, poor system stability and all the other oddities that arise from using a system that's in constant development are at the forefront of something that will eventually change the way we all live and work on the internet.

That doesn't stop it feeling like some kind of insane time warp though. With that in mind, here's a fun, but true list of reasons why what we're doing in virtual worlds today is like what we did 10yrs ago.

1. Return of the Walled Garden
As the big players fight to maintain their precarious dominance, the concept of the walled garden rears its inevitable and ugly head once more. We're so many years from being able to travel freely between ALL worlds, and when we do, we'll have to fight the browser wars all over again as well...

2. Clueless Corporations
In any new medium, eventually the suits turn up, and get it utterly, and totally wrong. To the hilarity of the rest of us. Like the WWW before them, Virtual Worlds are no exception, and corporations, as well as politicians regularly fall afoul of new media rule #1: Look before you leap! For wont of a little observation, understanding and immersion within the culture of virtual worlds we see all kinds of mischief befall the unwary. Personally I'd not have it any other way, but maybe that's just me..

3. Spinning Logos
...and other horrors, like the 3D equivalent of the blink tag. We're still trying to work out what works best for attracting visitors to commercial sites in Virtual Worlds, but despite being able to look back on 10yrs of experimentation and evolution of technique, it's heartening to see that good old fashioned human stupidity and laziness can overcome such foolish notions as providing regularly updated content, building communities and providing genuine value, and move straight on to the 10m x 10m spinning neon atrocity....

4. First Fever
Hand in hand with clueless corporations, though deserving of it's own listing as it extends far beyond the big real life companies, is the desire to be first. It doesn't appear to matter what at, but dammit, you just gotta be first! "Clueless Twonk Inc Are First Walrus Tickling Company to Enter Second Life" and similar headlines get deleted from my inbox almost by muscle memory now. What truly amazes me here is peoples inability to see that this type of idiotic posturing jumped the shark quite some time ago.

5. Rock Star Designers
As when the web was young, there is a tendency among corporations to leave everything, including public relations, promotion and community management to the people hired to build out a presence for them. Some of these firms have people that specialize in different areas for just such purpose, but as I've remarked before, more often than not, the corporation in question would be better advised to hire a different, specialist company for such tasks. We see the designers of builds trotted out like prize pony's in corporate press releases and being charged with promoting events on corporate sims, which often just means announcing on the designers own email list or group. Personally I find it annoying, but let's lay blame in proportion shall we? 70/30 weighing worse for the corporation for not doing its inworld homework to the extent of being able to work this stuff out inhouse, and lightly(ish) on the designers for not having the balls to tell the client their plan sucks, or that they themselves cannot possibly be experts in every conceivable field.

6. If You Spam It, They Will Come
Search in virtual worlds, particularly Second Life, sucks beyond all possible belief. If we wanted to find the newest listing each time, rather than the best listing, and people were not naturally inclined toward the tragedy of the commons style of community responsibility when it comes to free traffic sources, we'd all be ecstatically happy with our results. As it is though, Search is truly like warping back 10yrs to pure keyword algorithms that only needed a title tweak and a bit of keyword stuffing to send you rocketing to the top of the pile. As a result, its very easy to find stuff, but not very easy to find good stuff.

7. Selling Picks and Shovels
Though the press has recently turned on virtual worlds, as my friend Joel notes here (the inspiration for this post no less..), the gold rush in Virtual Worlds is still in full effect. We're just doing it a little quieter at the moment. In any gold rush, the ones that are really guaranteed to profit are not the gold miners, panning through grit to find nuggets, but the ones selling the picks and shovels. In terms of entire worlds, we've seen a few different kits come out recently, including Icarus and Multiverse, who are frighteningly keen to stress that they're not just for games! but virtual worlds too! What we havn't seen yet, but must surely come, is the 3D equivalent of the CMS. Oh I know you can get prefab houses in Second Life, even ones that you can build yourself with different floors jig-sawing together and the like, but we've not seen anything approaching the kind of functionality and flexibility required to cause a real shift in the way we work in virtual spaces yet. I hope we see it soon, when content becomes easier, so will adoption rate and retention levels.

Despite firmly believing that in many ways we've taken great leaps backward, in our coming forward, on the 3D web, i remain optimistic. There are talented, creative minds working 24/7 on this stuff, and barely a week goes by without the landscape shifting just a little bit. I remain a believer, a fan, and I hope, one of the 'doers', in this space.

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