Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Few Suggestions to Transform "Avatars United" From a Useless Mess Into A Competitive Social Networking Site

I decided to post on Linden Lab's acquisition of Avatars United before it joins its past brethren in the digital wax museum of internet stories past. The constant flow of information over the NetStream has two significant effects on news items:  First, it takes stories that would otherwise be minor issues and magnifies the hell out of them in the emotionally resonating feedback loop of blog comments and social networks. Then, it sweeps yesterday's brouhaha away as the next Big-Frickin'-Tidbit-Of-The-Day pushes the prior item into oblivion.  Um. Sorry for the mini-rant. Anyway...

I registered over a year ago on Avatars United with great enthusiasm. It was positioned as a site that allowed you to bring together avatars from multiple virtual worlds and create a central web-based home for information sharing and social networking. Unfortunately, after spending the time to add a half dozen of my avatars to their site, I couldn't figure out anything useful to do there. The problem wasn't that there weren't enough users in the network. What still makes the site almost unusable is a combination of poorly executed features, kludgy information design and no apparent workflow direction to accomplish obvious common use-cases. 

I think having a Beta graphic on a site that's almost two years old testifies to the relatively sorry state of affairs.

I would love Linden Lab to invest the time, money and resources to actualize the great potential of an integrated transworld avatar social network. So here are a few suggestions:

  • Create a home page that makes it easy to find the information that we are likely to care about.  I'd love to see new blog posts and photos from my friends, but unless I've logged in within a few minutes of the posting I'm out of luck, unless I go hunting from friend to friend, which would take a lot of effort. And do you really need to ask for my birthday at the top of the page? Does half the screen real estate need to be related to friend suggestions and acquisition. If you can't figure out what is most important to your users, why not let them build the content of their own home page, like Ning? And/or filter the type of information that appears as Facebook supports.
  • Figure out something useful to do with the option to associate avatars from different worlds. Okay, I get that I can have a single sign-on that allows me to quickly go from one of my avatars to another. But you're assuming that each world is a ghetto. What if I want my Second Life friends to see content from my Twinity avatar? Do I need to separately friend each one of them with each world's avatar (or the same world's alt)?  Maybe I'm an unusual case, but I have one named identity that expresses itself across multiple worlds. Check out our Transworlders site. I also have another identity that is in the same position. Please give us granular options to associate our manfold avatars and RL identities as we choose.
  • Make it easy to import content from other sites. Let us bring in our content from Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo in some automated fashion. Your embedded media pop up has potential, but it has an interface that is way too complicated and begs for either integrated help or an additional level of abstraction. You do have one of the most comprehensive sharing lists I've seen. Why not turn that around and support importing from external sites as widely as you support sharing to external sites.
  • Realize that community members don't want to feel like we're walking around with "Will Consumer-Whore For Coins" signs around our necks.  WTF is up with a "Offerpal"? We realize that you need to create revenue, but save the 14 day free trials for late night cable TV stations.

There are other aspects of the site that are in great need of revision, but I'll stop here for now. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt for the time being and keep an eye out for improvements over the next few months.  Stay tuned for future reports.



Anonymous said...

Ouch, blunt title! Your points are pretty good though, Botgirl.

I too signed up pretty early into AU's life, and for a time, it was good. Nifty swapping between avatars, some very welcome storage space for photos, and some surprisingly active fora for the various worlds AU was hosting. The venture prompted a fascinating discussion with Chrish Mureaux at Extropia's Saturday Salon, as it seemed no site had done this sort of thing before.

The move from their first layout to this one was a mixed blessing, given that it looked cleaner but more spacious, cross-avatar friendships eased up (as far as I can tell, the news feed pulls content from all my avatars' networks) and the forums were sadly deleted. We were a small crowd, but I met nice people there I would otherwise never have met on the Grid; +1 Social to them.. while they were there.

Above all else it is Unknown Enemy who endeared me to the product, though. They've been enthusiastic about feedback from day one, and their move to admitting widget applications from the community only furthered the homely feel I had as it was being built. Sadly a withdrawal of the forum and a focus on the coins system seemed to stagnate the groups I was involved with, and my visits to AU became just as sparse as those to SL's Grid.

I'd say that this merger into Linden Lab is just what the place needs: more users to provide content, the financial backing necessary to abandon a rather stark donations system, and above all a greater body of people to help offer feedback. It's no use taking one look at the thing and disregarding it as so many seem to have done since that Linden Lab post. Feeling it out and speaking up when designs could change is what made AU prosper at the start - critique, not complaints. :)

Dale Innis said...

Yeah, the "coins" thing is unspeakably lame, but at least for me the whole thing is sufficiently pointless (and would still be sufficiently pointless if done well) that I don't see much point in even listing what's wrong with it.

Given that I don't need a left-handed dinglewasher in the first place, figuring out what's wrong with this one someone gave me isn't a very exciting prospect. :)