Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Virtual World like Polka-dot Flypaper

Recently, the popular Second Life blogger Hamlet Au made a post raising a point of contention against Chris Abraham's remarks unfavorably highlighting the differences between SL and Twitter.  The specific point Hamlet took issue with went roughly as follows. Twitter is not like Second Life in and of the fact that it is "cheap, light, and open."  In essence Chris is pointing out several truths regarding the major differences between Twitter and Second Life.  It is true that Twitter is cheap, its free.  It's also true that twitter is light on system resources in comparison to SL, one is a text-based app, the other is a dynamic real time 3D environment.  Additionally it is also true that in relative terms Twitter is far more open than SL.  The potency of Twitters' API has been on prominent display throughout the #Iranelection crisis.  SL has a long way to go before it can boast such a promiscuous architecture.   

In response, Hamlet listed off a series of advantages SL has over Twitter.  To his mind SL has the advantages of being "unique, sticky, and profitable."  Unique in the fact that there is no real direct competitors to SL, aside from the Opensim grids.  Sticky in how much time users spend using the different services.  For this Hamlet points to statistics showing the huge lead in minutes per month spent on-platform SL enjoys over Twitter.  The last point, profitability is almost a gimme, in and of the fact that Twitter is completely funded by venture capital whereas Linden Labs makes a tidy profit off leasing land to residents.  

For the full post, you can read it here.  Honestly I'm not going to take sides on this one because while I view the argument as rather immature and the comparisons a bit sketchy, the truth is that both of them are right on all points.  What both of them are doing amounts to two blind men feeling up different sides of a elephant.  In this case lets call that elephant The Killer Social Platform.  In order to be effective and pervasive, this platform would have to be open, light, cheap, and unique.  In order to be sustainable, it would have to be sticky and profitable.  In more whimsical terms, the Killer Social Platform has got to be like polka-dot flypaper.  It has to be cheap and pervasive enough that its everywhere you want it to be, and compelling and unique enough to keep users hooked once they've tried it.  

Maybe the solution isn't text based like Twitter, or 3D like SL. Maybe it resides in the middle.  Perhaps the solution is a open, hostable 2D virtual world that utilizes ubiquitous lightweight technology like Flash.  It might be isometric like Metaplace, but my hunch is that a side scrolling style world would spread far faster, as its far easier to create content from a side view.  To be fair to Metaplace, they do a excellent job simplifying the task of bringing content reliably into a isometric world, something I applaud.  Flash is lightweight enough and ubiquitous enough that it could be embedded practically anywhere, and website embedding could allow non-users a window into the world prior to actually signing up to participate.  This is one of Twitters' strong points, as anyone can follow a conversation without signing up, effectively selling the receptive to the platforms' utility.  With persistent hosted environments comes the opportunity for profit, whether through hosting fees as SL does or through advertising. 

Additional profit can come from the sale of additional functionality, or the capacity to handle that functionality. Ownable persistent virtual property has definite inherent stickiness to it, especially when coupled with strong traditional social networking services such as groups, events, and content sharing.   The visual, location based aspect of SL coupled with its ability to allow the user to participate simultaneously in larger discussions is a large contributing factor to its stickiness.   In regards to openness, that is genuinely a structural business decision that must be made early in a product's development.  

The degree of that openness is debatable, as some will lean towards a completely open virtual framework for anyone to host, while others will inevitably prefer the hosted API route of Twitter.  Either way, the current trends point toward openness as a key element to widespread adoption.  Now we're left with uniqueness.  The fact of the matter is that a system that can pull all of the other elements off, and do it well, will be unique.  Sure, there may be competition, everyone believes they can invent a better wheel. Competition need not be viewed as a bad thing though. Historically competition has always been a excellent motivator for innovation.  

I'll give the topic a rest for now, mostly due to the fact I am beginning to lose my train of thought in a haze of sleep deprivation.  I'll probably come back and describe this platform some more in the future, gotta tease this string out to see what unravels.


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