Friday, August 28, 2009

Life's Tough, Get a Second One

Perhaps it is a result of seeing James Cameron's Avatar trailer or maybe it was the friendly email exchange I had with my former Social Media Marketing professor, but my mind has wandered to Second Life. For those of you unfamiliar with Second Life, "Second Life is a free online virtual world imagined and created by its Residents. From the moment you enter Second Life, you'll discover a fast-growing digital world filled with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity." Don't be confused -- This is not a video game, and essentially, there is no over-ruling "purpose" to Second Life. Sounds a little bizarre, right? That was my impression when I first learned about this mysterious Second Life and I brushed it off as some strange fad that would surely die off. My thoughts were seemingly confirmed a few months after initially learning of Second Life when I read a news article about a couple that got divorced over a 'virtual affair'. If you have a few minutes, I really encourage you to indulge yourself with this truly ridiculous news story: Second Life' Affair Leads to Real-Life Divorce

So there I was, utterly convinced that Second Life was inhabited by a few really strange people. Then, I stumbled across another news article about a Second Life user, Anshe Chung. Chung might possibly fall into this category of 'really strange people', but she was smart -- and very, very wealthy. Chung's avatar graced the cover of Business Week magazine as a result of becoming Second Life's first millionaire in just two and a half years after joining Second Life. Essentially, Chung saw an opportunity in selling real estate in this virtual world. She received payment in the form of linden dollars, Second Life's own virtual currency, and then was able to convert it to actual, spendable money. Maybe Second Life users weren't so strange after all...

My next astonishment about Second Life came about when a Second Life expert come in as a guest speaker for my Social Media Marketing class. James Moore is the Director of Online Learning for DePaul University's College of Commerce and sure knows his stuff when it comes to Second Life. Professor Moore informed us of the massive volume of Second Life users around the world. In the first quarter of 2009 alone, Second Life residents logged in 124 Million hours of use and the economy tops $120 Million. Surely, it's no surprise that businesses have tried to tap into this phenomenon at increasingly high rates since it's conception in 2003. As you can imagine, some were greeted with success, while others failed miserably.

Let's start with the failures --those always seem to be more fun to hear about, right?

There have been a slew of marketing failures in Second Life. American Apparel and Armani are two examples of companies that jumped head-first into Second Life. These brands spent a lot of time and money to build replica stores in Second Life only to be met with failure. Perhaps they didn't invest enough time into this process. This "if you build it, they will come" mentality did not translate to Second Life users and their stores remained empty. Tough love. Learn from your mistakes.

My favorite Second Life failure has to be John Edwards' attempt at virtual campaigning. Any failure that warrants a Second Life: John Edwards assaulted by poo-slinging communists news headline must be good. John Edwards' campaign advisers set up a virtual headquarters in Second Life as part of his 2008 presidential campaign. This area was intended to be used as a tool to reach out to potential voters and help them learn more about Edwards' potential as president. As it turns out, the non-Democrats of Second Life took a greater interest in this attempt. Not only did the Avatar version of the presidential candidate get food and trash thrown at him during an attempted Second Life town hall meeting, but the headquarters itself fell victim to extensive vandalism. The John Edwards' blog commented on this event:

"Shortly before midnight (CST) on Monday, February 26, a group of republican Second Life users, some sporting “Bush ‘08″ tags, vandalized the John Edwards Second Life HQ. They plastered the area with Marxist/Lenninist posters and slogans, a feces spewing obsenity, and a photoshopped picture of John in blackface, all the while harrassing visitors with right-wing nonsense and obsenity-laden abuse of Democrats in general and John in particular."

Nicely done, Edwards Camp.

While Second Life is certainly not for everyone, there have been some wonderful success stories in some unlikely places -- namely, educational institutions.

The articles Case Western Reserve University and Second Life Building a Private Virtual World for University and Case Western Announces Use of Private Second Life illustrate how Case Western Reserve University has successfully integrated Second Life into their own course curriculum. In 2007, CWRU built a near-replica of the Universities’ campus and buildings in Second Life. Since 2007, professors have used Second Life as a tool to engage students and give them virtual practice, without fear for failure. For example, psychology students can use Second Life to interview faux patients and diagnose their condition based on speech, facial expressions, and body language. Furthermore, Spanish students are often encouraged to visit Second Life to converse with native Spanish speakers in this virtual realm.

Recently, CWRU, with the help of Linden Labs, announced the use of a private Second Life. The CWRU virtual campus is now protected by firewalls to ensure that the information available to Case Western is totally protected. Matters of confidentiality are extremely significant for institutions specializing in the medical field.

While the Case Western articles talk mostly about using Second Life for the use of medical students, I could see Second Life as a useful tool for any university, even one's with a very small presence of medical majors. Second Life could be a great tool for engaging business students in mock business conferences, sales, or other events. Second Life could also be used by fine arts students as a platform to display artwork that can be openly critiqued by other students. The colleges of digital media could certainly make use of this virtual world as well by contributing to the virtual campus. Furthermore, students might have greater access to resources like the Career Center or Academic Advising, which almost require students to meet in person with these experts. Finally, any student that has ever been in a group project would surely enjoy the opportunity to not have to coordinate locations and availability for group meetings.

I think a tool like Second Life could be a worthwhile means towards success. It offers easy access and a more personalized experience than typical campus and course connection sites. Furthermore, Second Life is interactive. It encourages students to collaborate and offer feedback to one another, as opposed to just doing individual assignments. My hesitation about Second Life involves matters of security and ease of use. I see no reason why Second Life wouldn’t be a success if those obstacles are properly tackled.

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