Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A World That Dares Not Speak Its Name?

Location: New York Times Web Site

image courtesy of the Language Lab site

My departmental chair sent me this story about the use of the Virtual Globe Theater in a class at Bryn Mawr. I read it with great interest, seeing in it the sort of nuanced story about virtual worlds that too rarely appears in mainstream media outlets.

Not once, despite the clear image of the Second Life client on the screen of a laptop, was the Linden Lab product mentioned by the reporter.

I have an idea that, as noted in an earlier post here, that the name "Second Life" is so tainted by sensational stories from a few years ago, or tainted by the "once was big" reputation among technologists, that the brand name simply got dropped. As Hamlet Au noted for the Language Lab project, its site does not mention Second Life on its first pages. The video they provide flashes the name "Second Life" on screen for a brief instant, when the woman demonstrating how to get started downloads the client. The product name also appears on the Language Lab FAQ page about job opportunities. It is refreshing to see that SL knowledge is a prerequisite for a job.

There's no mystery here for me: the Second Life brand-name is toxic enough, but the product good enough, to create this discomfort. How can Rod Humble rebrand his product?  If Linden Lab had taken a different route with the enterprise version and licensed it under a different name and with a lower price than they did, they might have achieved more uptake.

Language Lab students do not need a larger world than English City and the cluster of other restricted-access sims, the Language Lab sim, to attend classes. The other "LL" in this story might have taken a different route to offering its product to just such potential customers.  Doing so under a different name ("NewWorld," "Metaverse," "MatrixLand," even the old standard "Linden World") would have helped make many projects like Language Lab's viable.  We might be talking about hundreds of thousands more regular users in various SL shards.

Part of me is proud to see increasing evidence that the use of virtual worlds can go "mainstream," as we all hoped in the glory-days of hyperbole and utopianism before 2009. Part of me is sad, however, that when I do say "Second Life," in any group of colleagues, the grins come out still, because every negative (and usually exaggerated) stereotype about slave-girls of Gor, virtual sex, and more from 2007-8 rushes to mind.  Now that CNN plans to close its bureau there, the last of the big-media holdouts is gone.

What next? That is Linden Lab's decision.


Anonymous said...

To understand the specific market that a company is shooting for, just look at its current advertising.

Enough said.

Iggy O said...

Once I saw an SL advert by an in-world merchant that said "Be 18 again...forever."

Just don't look in a mirror when you log off.

Matthew Leach said...

We ran an activity almost identical to the one at Bryn Mawr last December, with half the group in SL and the other half in OpenSim. It was the same experience in both:

I would like to think that virtual world technologies are now mainstream; and that the choice is not worth mentioning, any more than saying that the results will be written up in Microsoft Word. Although the tainted name of SL is probably still a factor.

They seem to be aiming at a market somewhere between the loose social connectedness of facebook and twitter, and the collaboration-for-a-task of MMOGs. It seems like a small niche, and if all you're really selling is empty space then you still need to attract the creatives.

Mera Kranfel said...

Great post! And I agree with Pathfinder....

I have had a posting like this myself "is Second life embarrassing?" and sorry to say the brand/name is soiled and its very hard to turn that to something positive. It will cost them serious PR money...

Iggy O said...

I don't suppose Linden Lab can grab the mass market they need for growth with videos like this one at their YouTube Channel:

It shows that The Lab still promotes other aspects of their world but are enough folks listening?

There may not be enough Steampunks and academics and designers to pay their bills, I suppose. Pity.

We'd build one hell of a world.

Elaine Greywalker said...

I must travel in very different circles. I still get "What's that?" when I mention Second Life. And when I say "It's a virtual world." they keep on staring. Still searching for the right elevator speech.

Anonymous said...

It's great to try and capture a mass market. While my focus is on education, I think it's very important for virtual worlds to have broad appeal.

I have a few marketing ideas up my sleeve that I'll be using in my work with ReactionGrid.

And none of those ideas involve avatars in bikinis.

Iggy O said...

The only LL adverts that got me interested were two. First, the "put some steam in your punk" that crops up at Koinup from time to time. Second, this one:

These are my people :)

Mark Childs said...

lol yes - I was the project manager of Theatron 3 (the sim in which the sessions were set) and we've always been upfront about the Second Life involvement. I can understand how people might want to airbrush out the SL connection though.

Neil said...

I have to agree with this - the SL brand is soiled.

I am an organiser for a project that was started nearly five years ago - an attempt to use the platform as a place to organise a Left Unity group, and for the anti-capitalist Left to come together from across the real world and share experiences.

Now, I know this is a "specialist" application of the interface, but the group has been relatively successful - with people who are ALREADY IN the V.E. To say to people interested in Left Politics in the real world that we organise in SL, is, quite honestly embarrassing.

Our group (SL Left Unity) discusses rl issues and encourages through discourse, people to get involved in left politics in rl. It has had some success. I don't, however, believe that such a group could be set up now from scratch. I feel that SL was killed off by adverse publicity AND perhaps it's attraction - ie. in the early days, "Anything goes." The sex thing will never leave it unless it is operated on an entirely different log in interface and grid - but I have no idea as to how that can be done.

The trivial use of SL is not enhanced by the *romantic* videos on the login page. I personally think some of the work that Universities such as the Universities of Delaware or Ontario do there, and such commons projects such as the Four Bridges Project with it's Afghanistan Museum and displays etc were highlighted, SL would again become Zeitgeisty.

SL has relaxing uses such as shopping, building treehouses and the likes - but by far the most amazing work is the education and political work that goes on there.