Sunday, August 2, 2015

Social Media Pariah: What is Second Life Doing Wrong?

This post is going to be kind of lengthy. I don't expect many people to read this thing, but it's stuff I've been thinking about. And I'd rather write about this topic ATM than my current and rather depressing freelance assignment: "The Plight of Tennessee's Animal Shelters." So buckle up and let's go with "The Plight of Second Life in the Grand Scheme of All Things Social Media-ish" instead. (I should probably break it up into two parts, but then that'd most likely be two posts you'd skip.)

But first, here's a picture, because who wants to deal with giant blocks of text and no art?

 photo Mermaids prize_zpsrnfshuf2.jpg

If you're into scattering kitschy-cool little things around your house and yard, get these mermaids in fish bowls as the prize in the Around the Grid in 80 Days hunt at StoraxTree. (Look in the plant garage there.) I'm into them. Thank you, StoraxTree!

There you go. News you can use. Now moving on:

Several years ago, I worked as a national PR director for a multifaceted, multi-property wellness resort brand. It was (and still is) a haven for people with way too much money, a place where a guest could get a pricey facial and massage, then hike out into the desert and embark on a guided shamanic journey, come back and eat a guaranteed-healthy gourmet meal, get their chakras realigned during an evening energy-healing session, hit the sack in a luxury $800/night room and wake up the next morning and reunite with their inner children by interacting with horses.

Yeah, that kind of woo-woo place. (Oprah liked it. So did Martha Stewart.) You see a person out in the world running around wearing that resort's T-shirt, they might as well be proclaiming, "I have a lost, empty soul and TONS of money!"

During that time, the executives were employing a team of pricey graphics artists and techie types to create 3D imaging models of our properties in efforts to continue to "elevate brand awareness" and "attract strategic business alliances." They thought a virtual walk-through type experience would not only engage potential business partners during professional presentations, but also attract future filthy-rich guests.

I was pretty active in-world at the time, and I admit that I wanted a great excuse to spend even more time in world AND get paid for it! So I suggested they create this virtual experience in Second Life, rather than lug it around the globe on computer software.

During my pitch, I explained the potential here (in Second Life); created an alt; showed them some examples of existing beautiful and impressive builds; demonstrated the chat functions (typing and voice); and further explained how they could gather people from all over the world to host lectures and virtual tours, showcase their wellness experts, conduct meetings, etc., in this one very visual and very accessible place.

They balked.

Too labor intensive, they said. Wouldn't work in business presentations. A Second Life presence would require already harried professionals to download a "foreign program" to their computers, create an avatar and quickly learn "video game skills" in order to function in this particular virtual environment.

"Who has time for all that?" they asked? "Doesn't this place have a website they can just log into instead?"

Well OK, it takes a little effort, but also consider the existing "audience" here, I rebutted. Many of these people are talented, engaged professionals in real life who invest a great deal of money in owning virtual land, running businesses and selling content in Second Life. They like cool things to see and do. You could create a true-to-life replica of one of our scenic, back-to-nature style resorts in Second Life and offer services such as mini meditation classes, virtual yoga demonstrations, virtual healthy cooking classes, virtual "shamanic journeys" using interactive HUDs (they were big on shamans at this place), not to mention the infamous "horse therapy experience" (which, hey, people breed, buy and sell in SL, BTW) and you might actually entice people – who do have money – to come visit the place in real life. Plus, you'd be doing something not many other resorts are trying at the moment, thus further advancing your "cutting edge of everything" brand point.

In the end, they told my PR team to go back to posting peppy, upbeat status updates on Facebook, complete with lots of lovely photos that people might want to share with their friends.

"Just keep thinking viral social media content," they said.

I tried again: But this type of presence – which, yes, would take a little work to get rolling, but then the company could even find an relatively inexpensive customer service employment base WITHIN Second Life to then keep it running – would live on as a perpetual "viral" existence, so to speak. The marketing potential – provided we keep the experience authentic and visually, creatively and intellectually engaging – seemed almost limitless, if executed correctly.

"Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!" they responded. Pinterest wasn't big then, nor was Instagram, or I imagine they would have added those two to that chant as well.

Let's pause and cut to another bad picture. Don't look at my butt:

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(Kawaii Circle Backpack in Black by [KRAVE] from the Crazy for Kawaii Hunt. Prize also includes blue and pink versions.)

Anyway, as a real-world PR and marketing professional, I can't help but stop and think about this scenario from that perspective and wonder what Second Life could be doing better, not only to make it a more viable force in the realm of professional outreach tactics, but also in the overall category of social media as a whole. No, we don't want the whole place cluttered with logos, obviously, but there IS a niche market for companies that have something beyond the tangible (such as "life-enhancing" knowledge and wellness tools, which is what this particular company was selling) to offer. We do have a few of them in world. We could have more though.

If you happen to be in the real-life PR industry, you know that many businesses are more concerned with the impressions they're making on social media than good old-fashioned traditional media coverage these days. It's one reason why former journalists and now "media relations specialists" like myself are doing our best to keep up with these trends and add "social media outreach" to the top of our lists of marketable skills.

When I sit down with PR clients, their wish lists of social media successes are always the same: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram. Most of them have never heard of Second Life, a place for "meeting friends, doing business and sharing knowledge," as you'll read on almost any Second Life maps page.

Photo break:

 photo ocelot_zpsgrpdkqfg.jpg

(I like it when you throw down a hunt prize in the yard expecting it to be a box to open and instead it's a BIG MESH POND complete with trees and wildlife. It's a serious "Woah!" moment. Get this Ocelot Pond as the Around the Grid in 80 Days hunt prize at Heavenly Bacon, which wins my award for best store name ever. And if you can see my feet in this spontaneous photo, don't look at them. I'm hiding.)

OK, so all that said, I've also been thinking about why the mainstream population doesn't consider Second Life to be a more credible social media vehicle, when in fact it's one of the most vivid and engaging forms of social media I've encountered. I've made just as many friends here and have been introduced to just as many new ideas and experiences – if not more – as I have on other social media platforms.

Here are the reasons I can gather. Feel free to add your own in comments, if this discussion inspires you. (If not, just wait a while and I'll get back to meaningless chatter in the next post.)

– The "Catfish" Factor: Because we're all using avatars, we often have no idea who the hell we're really talking to and hanging out with in many instances — so thus giving it a slightly seedy undertone? I don't know. Many of my SL friends have crossed the bridge into becoming my RL Facebook friends, but some of you remain a mystery. That's cool. I get the fantasy factor here and I'm fine with it, as long as we're not swapping fake bodily fluids. But maybe that's why SL seems to be more of an online fringe society, rather than a more commonly adopted thing. People would prefer to interact with real faces (even though many of them also highly exaggerate their joy and successes on places like Facebook) than virtual masks.

– The Time/Effort/Creativity Factor: Let's face it, SL takes a little work. You have to download a viewer. You have to create an avatar and customize it so other residents will accept you as an equally invested member of the community. (YES. You do. Feel free to disagree though.) You have to learn the ropes. And you'll probably even have to spend a few bucks to get the most out of the experience. For many of the busy uninitiated people out there, these things take way too much time. I've tried to introduce friends to this place. The usual response is "SHEEEEEEEZUS, too complicated and way too much work. Retreating back to Facebook, but thanks for trying."

– No Kids, Pets, Vacation Photos or Recipes Here (at least not real ones): Sorry, but there's really no place to proudly post 900 pictures of your new baby, cute kitten videos, your real-life home DIY projects, your enviable spouse or what you cooked/ate for dinner last night. For many people, the elimination of these bragging rights equals "What's the point?" (Do I sound cynical? Sorry.) But yeah, that's what FB and Pinterest are for. And most people are perfectly content with keeping it at that. And that's cool.

– Conversations. You Have to Actually Have Them: It's more than just blurting out every little thought or witty observation that comes to mind via a stream of status updates or tweets ... unless you subject others to it in public outbursts while you're wandering around the grid, I guess. The only exception to this rule I've seen was the day Michael Jackson died. Many of us were at Hair Fair. And suddenly people were yelling out updates in public chat. It was surreal.

– The "I Don't Play Video Games" Factor: Sometimes when I get brave enough to mention that I have a presence here, a common response I get is "Oh, isn't that like a World of Warcraft thing? I don't play video games." You know the responses to this argument: Yes, there are games here, but as a whole, it's not a game. You can talk and meet new people. You can hang with your friends in a more creative manner than merely typing words on a chat screen. ("But why can't we just Skype then?" "Because you can wander around and see and do cool things while you're talking." "So ... it's like a video game?" Sigh.) Sometimes I try to entice people with the fashion angle — you can dress up your AV in ROCKIN' clothes! That usually leads to some kind of mention of the Covet fashion game app. (I do have to concur there: Many SL fashionistas would probably love this app, in which you go head to head with other players, a la "Who wore it best?" Try it!)

– The "This is Not Healthy" Attitude: I've had a few friends check out this place and give me a stern "This is not healthy" lecture. You've maybe heard the key talking points: "You should be out interacting with people in the real world, not from behind a computer screen" or "You should be going to REAL places, not pretend ones" or "You should be spending your time and money on real things, not imaginary stuff." Sometimes I tell them if that's the case, they should probably stop reading books and binge-watching TV shows. And put down the smart phone that's usually glued to their hands. Or sometimes I just wander off with my tail between my legs. Depends on my mood.

And to that point:

– SL Lacks a Mobile Platform: Or maybe it has one now? I've been away for so long, I have no clue. But these days, if something doesn't allow many people to stay attached to their mobile devices, they want no part of it.

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(The absolute mess of an AV I made at what was then known as Orientation Island when I logged in for the first time.)

I started thinking about all these things when I looked at my inventory the other day. My inventory dates back to 2008. I am that old here. And yet during that time, I haven't seen much proliferation of awareness or, for that matter, acceptance of Second Life as a valid social media space. In fact, there's still something of a shame factor involved. I'm selective about the people to whom I "come out of the Second Life closet," due to some of the antisocial and dysfunctional perceptions some people still associate with it: A fantasy world where you pretend you're someone else and interact with virtual strangers doing the same thing? No thanks.

But hell, maybe that's the way we want it. For instance, I wouldn't want my mom — who is now ALL UP IN EVERY CORNER OF FACEBOOK — to be in Second Life, nor would I want many of my professional associates to be here. There's a lot of freedom in the fact that Second Life is kind of like a social club, and you have to be a certain type of open-minded, progressive and creative person to be a member. You can look and even act a certain way without worrying about how it'll affect your professional or even personal image. This isn't the place for baby photos, recipes, ongoing attempts at wit and commentary on current events. This is a place where you get to show your true creative colors, play, create and share parts of yourself that you wouldn't normally share on other online social platforms. And for those reasons, I'm still excited to be a part of it, even if I only log in once every few months now.

I just wish it didn't sometimes feel like a weird little secret. I recently read a Washington Post article about people who collect salt and pepper shakers. Some collectors had 40,000 pairs. Some of them went to great lengths to hide this hobby from friends and family members. Paraphrasing: "People don't understand it," one guy said. "It's not something I'd discuss on a first date." Yeah. Kind of like that. SL is my secret salt and pepper shaker collection.

But in case we want to touch on one last reason as to why, after all these years, Second Life still lacks a significant mainstream presence in today's social media arena:

– Second Life Needs a More Appealing PR Campaign.

And to that point, hey Second Life honchos, I'm in between jobs, I love this place, I win bright shiny awards for my RL work and I'd love to help you out on that front. *wink*


Deoridhe Grimsdottir said...

I think the part where it's a whole other world really throws people - I'll never forget showing my mom WoW the first time, and her amazement that all the other avatars were PEOPLE doing their own thing in the same place. Second Life is that to the Nth degree.

I also worry about the emphasis on getting more people. Yes, that means more potential revenue, but it also means more assholes who get a kick out of ruining things - and SL's security isn't exactly robust...

Emerald Wynn said...

Yeah, I go back and forth on the "more people" thing. I agree that we don't need more people wandering around causing problems. More people who are active, engaged and contributing to the community would be cool, though, as would a clearer public understanding of the fact that SL isn't just for weird antisocial types.

From the real-world perspective of my profession (public relations), I have to wonder what Linden Lab's PR/Marketing standpoint is. (Not to mention the fact that they top my fantasy list of "Companies where I'd REALLY love to work.") Are they in meetings discussing ways to recruit new residents, engage more businesses and garner more public awareness? If so, I was just thinking about the obstacles to these goals. I don't have solutions at the moment ... or if I did, I wouldn't give them away for free. *wink*

Thank you for reading, Deoridhe! I didn't expect this one to really get any responses. It's long and I've dropped off a lot of blog rolls during my absence.

Deoridhe Grimsdottir said...

My blogroll would have 100% less Em if you dropped off of it! I couldn't have that.

Pay said...

Great meditation on the subject, Em! (You will never drop off my blogroll, fwiw, but then mine isn't on a massive number of blogrolls anyway.)

Immersive virtual reality is just not for everyone. We are special people and we have a special place thanks to Linden Lab. Mayo Clinic recognizes the value of SL in augmented virtual reality for one example of where a large company has seen SL's worth but it's special, too.

I would love to work for Linden Lab, too, but they would just be paying me for doing what I presently do, unpaid. Well, except for all that escort service--um, customer service stuff I used to do.

Take a look at the Drax Files. LL is doing pretty well with his videos showing real people and their avatars doing interesting and complex things. I do wish they would hire you because you are such a wonderful writer.