The Hollow Echo of Second Life

8 Aug

Second LifeI do not have a Second Life. I have never built a property in Second Life, dressed my avatar in sexy clothing, visited Sears in Second Life, or converted Linden Dollars to US currency. I bet you haven’t either. Even if you have, you probably haven’t in quite some time (Second Life has less than 10% retention of users after 3 months).

We all HAVE, however, read about Second Life. Why? Because it’s got the digital media advertising world in a tizzy, and it’s the apple of every trend-watching journalist’s eye. It’s made the front page of BusinessWeek (Oct ’06) and been featured in at least eight New York Times articles.

Stephen Totilo at The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a very in-depth, interesting and analytical feature article (“Burning the Virtual Shoe Leather: Does Reporting in a Virtual World Matter?”) on journalism within Second Life. It’s an apt and appropriately timed article about something which is like the digital world’s celebrity: all gossip, glitz, and glamour, but very, very little content.

Totilo describes how journalism has evolved around this virtual world.

In the early days, Second Life reporters were stars of an experimental online culture, the Web-based town criers of a place where every innovation—the first gun, the first hug, the first recreation of Hiroshima as it was minutes after the bomb—was worth writing about.

In a second phase that began about a year ago, a new wave of reporters, representing big media outlets and with a somewhat different agenda from the pioneers, came in. They shined a spotlight, asked for real names, and were generally more interested in the phenomenon of Second Life—in the wow factor and the growing number of ways it mimicked real life—rather than the liberating possibilities of building a world from scratch.

With that second wave of “real world” media attention, Second Life attracted a whole cadre of advertisers and retailers, looking to establish a presence in this virtual haven. It seems to me, however, that Second Life is all spectacle and little substance. Call it a hunch [after all, I’ve never gotten past the registration page], but is Second Life a world populated purely with journalists, media buyers, and college students without anything much better to do with their time? Is it actually a place where businesses can find potentially lucrative customers? Is it really a place where value is being created, either for its “residents” or for the firms which have invested so much in creating their online presence?

The Inter Public Group released a polished, deep look at the business economics of advertising in Second Life for their media customers. Their report (“Should Second Life Be Your First Choice?”) is available for free online.

What is their conclusion?

Originally, many of the investments that real-world companies made in Second Life were justified as generating good first-mover PR, but those types of justifications tend to lose their validity as the investment cost increases above $50,000 and the hype surrounding Second Life begins to subside.

So maybe aside from the first few businesses who generated big buzz through their big moves into SecondLife, setting up a retail storefront may, in fact, be just a big waste of a company’s advertising budget. But who knows, maybe there’s somebody in Second Life who’s not a journalist or advertising analyst there to see it.

Maybe there’s not.

Thanks for the article reference, Mary! [at Valleywag] Also see Game Set Watch for their synopsis of the article.

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