Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Impact of Pseudonymity on Second Life Growth

Become Your Avatar Banner
One of the "Become Your Avatar" Marketing Banner for Second Life
I've been somewhat puzzled by the recent focus of Second Life marketing on look-alike avatars. Although there's an untapped market for virtual mirrors, there's really no easy way for a nubie to acquire one. Certainly not as polished as the doppelgänger depicted in banners like the one above. So it seemed like attracting people to Second Life on the basis of something they would quickly find untenable was a bad idea.

I've also been a bit confused by the push to make Second Life more like Facebook. Very few of the people I know who are avid Facebook users seem very interested in Second Life. And those I know who are active in Second Life seem unlikely to want to bump into their mom or neighbor while in avatar form.

So why was M. and his team so hot on creating an influx of people who connected their human and virtual identities?  Well, I can't speak to their actual motivations, but I've come up with something that makes sense to me.

From a marketing standpoint, the most compelling benefit of increasing the number of Second Life residents who will connect their human and virtual identities isn't merely that they comprise an untapped market. The game changing factor is the potential for Second Life to tap into the type of word-of-mouth marketing that has fueled Facebook's viral growth.

Most businesses depend upon personal referrals to supplement their own marketing efforts. But the high level of pseudonymity within Second Life undermines this "natural" process of growth. Many (most?) residents extend "What goes on in Second Life stays in Second Life" to the fact that they even visit the virtual world. So word-of-mouth is untenable.

Despite the positive potential of word-of-mouth marketing, I still think it's a very risky idea for Linden Lab to take actions that significantly increase the percentage of non-pseudonymous residents. If there's one thing that would cause a massive exodus of current residents to other virtual worlds, it would be a change in culture that makes them feel uncomfortable in their pseudonymity.

18 comments:

Tateru said...

Seems to me they're trying to play down the impression that people might get that SL constitutes some sort of ... oh, 'second life'. ;)

sororNishi said...

Data mining depends on RL/SL linking for it to be profitable. None of LL's data is worth a bean until its all 'joined up' ...right back to your credit card number and supermarket purchases. Then they could sell it.... giving your RL name is consenting to this process.

Those choosing pseudonymity may eventually be marginalised tho ridicule etc. as consent is manufactured by the Lab.

Paedophilia, terrorism etc will be used as excuses... the Lab will be seen to be protecting you and your children when you sleep in your beds.... isn't that how these things are normally done?

This may be extreme and paranoid....only time will tell....

Ragatha said...

It's difficult to make any connection between your human and virtual identity when you're forced to choose from a list of bizarre last names. Imagine if Facebook users were saddled with names like Matt Whangdoodle or Karen Snozberry.

Mitch Wagner said...

I think one of the reasons Second Life has failed to take off is that most people aren't interested in having a second life. They want to control their own identities online.
Hence the cliched objection: "Second Life? I don't even have time to do everything in my first life!" This from people who are perfectly happy to spend time on Facebook -- because FB extends their first lives.

I know that one of the reasons I'm increasingly becoming alienated from SL recently (I've unsubscribed from almost all my groups) is that I'm increasingly uninterested in finding out about people's imaginary personalities. I like talking to real people and finding out about them. I've gotten so that suddenly if I see a new Twitter follo from someone with an avatar picture and a SL name, I'm turned off by it.

Mitch Wagner said...

Ironically, I think the reality of the Second Life model for identity is the future of social media. In Second Life, you decide for yourself how much or how little information about yourself that you give out. This is the way it works in real life, but it's not how it works on most other social media.

But newcomers to Second Life don't realize this. They see write-ups that say, "You can be a supermodel! Or a mermaid! Or a vampire!" And they say, "Well, I don't want to be a supermodel, mermaid, or vampire. I just want a place where I can go online and connect with my friends. Like Facebook or MySpace."

Mitch Wagner said...

Another thing I find frustrating about Second Life is I forget who people are in real life. And I like meeting my online friends in real life.

Botgirl, you could come up to me in real life and say hello and I'd give you the stinkeye and wonder who the heck you are. Because I remember enough about your 1st L identity to remember that you're nothing like Botgirl.

philena said...

You're right on the money Mitch. Because the reality is that people believe that having a 2ndlife leads to personality disorders and they don't want any part of it.

But it's a thin line to understand the difference between a different self versus a different self-concept. And if you do understand that SL is about adding another self-concept to your world of self-concepts, then you won't have any issues with identity.

The problem that most veteran SL'ers don't realize, is that the majority of FBookers think that SL does create that issue, even if it was unintended by the creators. They are trying to stop it, not by force, but by making it "uncool" to "hide" behind your avatar.

So, I say, stop complaining about SL's tactics, until you can figure out a better way to attract more visitors to SL, without seeming "uncool" and we should see the numbers of residence jump dramatically.

Mitch Wagner said...

philena - Most people aren't interested in adding another self-concept to their arsenal of self-concepts.

Most of us already have too many self concepts -- parent, spouse, employee, etc.

Most people just want to go online, have a good time, connect with friends and family, and maybe do some professional networking.

ELQ said...

To be honest, I don't see any reason for either 'type' of SL consumer to be ostracized. If someone wants to connect their RL details to an avatar, there's nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with someone NOT wanting to do that. My biggest question on this subject is, "who cares?". A decision on one side or the other of this subject doesn't affect others - only the one making the decision. Since we all use VWs for our own purposes, like any other online medium, we make the decision that benefits each of us the most.

Botgirl Questi said...

Tateru: I have no clue how much depth there is in the strategy behind the "become your avatar" campaign, beyond generating new residents. It would be very, very interesting to hear more about the behind the scenes discussions over the past couple of year within Linden Lab.

soror: Venture capitalists are interested in getting a return on their investment, so any move to change the balance in the pseudonymous/RL-connected balance would be to that end. I haven't heard anything about them considering user data as a profit center.

But as you said, only time will tell.

Ragatha : For sure! Name choice is a pretty weird factor. I love Questi. RL names would be problematic as user names because of the duplication problem, but they could certainly be included in user searches if they wanted to go in that direction...search by RL name, city, e-mail, etc.

Mitch: I'm so disappointed. I thought you were an avid follower of my human counterpart's blogs, flicker and vimeo streams, etc. ;)

I spent my first half of my virtual life in a TOP SECRET pseudonymous identity. Although part of the reason I ended up spilling the beans was to make room for more disclosure in the virtual world, there was just as much impetus from a RL desire to share Botgirl's artistic endeavors openly.

Although there are certain affectations from a few of my RPing friends that get on my nerves once in a while, for the most part, I find discussions with them to be generally more open, interesting and deep than the average discussion I have with RL-identified people.

philena: I've found that most of those I know who have never tried Second Life have only the vaguest impression about what it is or what the people who use it or like. Although a sordid story pops up in the RL media from time to time, I think longterm fallout is much less significant than avid SL residents might guess.

ELQ: I agree with you that there is room for many different levels of pseudonymity and open identity within Second Life. But it's also true that some subsets of either group have a low tolerance for the other.

There are friends I have in Second Life who were very unhappy that I burst the pseudonymity bubble (although they've mostly gotten over it.) On the other hand, there are some who think that you are inherently dishonest and manipulative if you have a secret identity, god forbid it be a gender other than your human counterpart.

Lalo Telling said...

Frankly, Mitch, you've illustrated precisely why I not only believe that SL will never be "mainstream", but that it should never be.

Since my only online presence is in the name and likeness of my SL/InWorldz/OSGrid avatar -- even in venues that have nothing to do with virtual worlds -- I'm probably on your turn-off list already. No worries; I won't be following you on Twitter. By the way... given up being a copper robot yet?

soror's correct about the data mining, and ELQ is correct about the rest of it... as long as the decision is left to the individual.

Let FB be FB, and SL be SL, and -- with luck -- never the twain shall meet.

Mitch Wagner said...

Lalo, you're probably right that SL will never be mainstream, for precisely the reasons we've discussed.

I mostly use the copper robot avatar for the interview program (which I suspended in May and which I don't expect to return to SL) and for appearances in SL as myself. But I haven't spent much time in SL since May. I kind of feel like I've moved on.

Michele Hyacinth said...

Fascinating conversation and post. I'm not sure how I feel about any of this. I can see the points being made on all sides, whether or not I have any strong reaction to the different views. I guess this idea of a clear separation, maybe it's compartmentalization is what I might have trouble with in some sense. I don't know how we parse out our sense of self or whether or not that's what we want to do. We compartmentalization RL identity all the time and always have long before there was a platform that some might suggest encourages calling out only one aspect of identity (which, by the way, I don't necessarily know is really true). That we might use SL to express an aspect of ourselves is no more upsetting than when that happens in rl. Farmville isn't SL but it has created a small army of FB avatars...they are not somehow more real or more valid to me because they may be attached to someone's RL name (who I still don't have the first clue about) than an SL avatar who shares no information about their first life. A masterpiece by an unknown artist isn't of less value for its meaning or life statement than a masterpiece by a known artist. The price tag might be different because of the power of a brand and effective marketing strategies, but the intrinsic worth of the piece isn't. To me, creative expression (or identity) isn't only about art or how we look or provocative things we do or say, but also about in some ways pushing the boundaries against the norm that seems to push out one set of rules for everyone. Somehow that commoditizes identities and experiences. Then too many don't like to be told that we "have" to do something ("be like everyone else" "be normal" (what is "normal?") to be accepted. Is an avatar that looks like you and has your RL name more you...than you? And even if one might think so...how can anyone know for sure? Apologies for the lengthy ramble. It's the hot August days in July. And the disturbing trend I've noticed on Botgirl's blog...no pictures, no machinima, no dancing. WTF.

ELQ said...

Well, I could just be nuts too. My point of view is my own, and is kinda driven by the fact that, like Lalo, my only online identity is ELQ. I've been ELQ for almost 20 years now. The Homewood is an affectation out of SL, obviously, but I am ELQ. It's actually not hard at all to find out my RL details from having my online name, because I don't keep them secret or seperate. However, if you google my RL name, you get page after page of results, not a single one of which is me. If you google ELQ Homewood, you get page after page of nothing but me.

I may be a strange case, I usually am. However, in this, I don't think so. I believe our name really doesn't mean anything - we are what we do.

Botgirl Questi said...

Michele: WTF is right! Every single time I make some public statement about a direction for the blog, the Goddess smiles.

ELQ:I like your "we are what we do" philosophy. It has always seemed to me that unless you are interested in a romantic relationship with a human of a particular gender, RL identity is pretty irrelevant. Are we kind, fun, thoughtful, responsible, etc.?

Lalo Telling said...

@Botgirl & ELQ: Yes, that, exactly.

... with the qualification that we talked about recently (with soror leading), about continuity of image. A consistent name helps immensely; the form it takes, and whether that's traceable to "persons, houses, papers, and effects" (US Constitution; 4th Amendment), matters not.

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Giulio Prisco said...

Mitch: "I know that one of the reasons I'm increasingly becoming alienated from SL recently (I've unsubscribed from almost all my groups) is that I'm increasingly uninterested in finding out about people's imaginary personalities. I like talking to real people and finding out about them."

Same here. I have always been mainly interested in SL as 3D VR technology for remote collaboration, but I have always found the pseudonymous "social scene" boring. These days I hardly log in SL at all, but I still think SL technology (with added videoconferencing etc.) can have very useful applications.

Botgirl: "I still think it's a very risky idea for Linden Lab to take actions that significantly increase the percentage of non-pseudonymous residents. If there's one thing that would cause a massive exodus of current residents to other virtual worlds, it would be a change in culture that makes them feel uncomfortable in their pseudonymity."

If LL does NOT take actions that significantly increase the percentage of non-pseudonymous users, SL will become irrelevant and replaced by other platforms. SL is a multi-purpose platform, and it can accommodate different non-overlapping communities, with zones for pseudonymous users and zones for non-pseudonymous users.