Web 2.0's 'Second' act

SecondLife's unique approach to building its community stands apart from other social networking sites.

SecondLife's unique approach to building its community stands apart from other social networking sites.

With a multitude of angles to explore, the media has gluttonized on stories featuring social networking services in the past couple of months.

Dateline was the latest media outlet to run a piece on News Corp.'s MySpace and the potential for online sexual predators or scammers to use the social networking site as a way to lure underage girls and boys. The company is working with the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children (NCEMC) to run PSAs on the MySpace Web site and other News Corp. properties, in order to take a "leadership role in providing a safe community for both its adult and younger users," according to Julie Henderson, SVP of corporate communications for Fox Interactive Media.

That news follows the revelation that Facebook, a college-focused social networking site, has rebuffed an acquisition offer for approximately $750 million, and the founders are reportedly looking for a $2 billion sum. (News Corp. paid $580 million for MySpace.)

Additionally, business social sites LinkedIn and Plaxo (which calls itself a contact directory, rather than traditional social networking site) are also busily churning out news relating to financial results or new business strategies that will make their services more user friendly. Perhaps the only Web site that hasn't reaped the benefit of the media spotlight is Friendster.com, the original "MySpace" that lost a lot of users when MySpace beat it in the amenities' game.

But what many of these Web sites have in common is a focus on rapid growth in order to enhance revenues and make sure users have enough friends and families on the service in order to make it a worthwhile experience.

Todd Masonis, Plaxo co-founder and VP of products, told PRWeek.com that despite challenges to Plaxo's business that might be on the horizon, 10 million entrenched users provide an adequate word-of-mouth service and would be unlikely to switch to a rival service.

"It is better [for you] if your contacts join Plaxo, so you all stay up to date," Masonis says. "People don't want to join three or four networks."

That strategy separates those sites from SecondLife, a social networking service that is slowly (and carefully) building its own buzz.

Explaining SecondLife is more complicated, notes Christopher Downing, principal for Flashpoint, which has represented SecondLife creator Linden Labs since April 2005. The difference, he adds, is evident in how the company pitches the media.

"When the [game] first came out, Linden did hour-long briefings," Downing says, adding that the process could take much longer for interested parties. "Any time you give a tour of [a complete] 'world,' it can take as much time as you have to give."

Essentially, SecondLife is a social network where people can create a "second" virtual life, replete with home, job, and friends. The game is incredibly intricate, to the point where Robert Scoble, a leading blogger from Microsoft, questioned if the platform could become the next operating system.

He wrote on his blog: "You can store files there. You can script things (there's a whole API). In fact, it's a platform. You can build a video game inside of second life. Or a music store. Or a dance studio. Or a city. Or a helicopter. Or a video screen that plays whatever content you want. Or fountain that spits blood...Or, pretty much anything you can dream up. And it already has a monetary platform so people are willing to pay for things you develop!"

Where SecondLife, Plaxo, MySpace, and others share ties is that they're serving the overall Web 2.0 service of connecting people while, hopefully, eliminating the complexities of interacting online. Of course, that simplicity is created by a complex build-out. Plaxo's most popular feature, the Outlook toolbar, took a couple of years to perfect.

Currently, Second Life's stats include 178,805 residents and a digital acreage the size of Boston. Downing says that Flashpoint works closely with the Linden team regarding promotional strategy that ensures the right kind of growth.

Whereas other social networks may have silos (you don't necessarily have to interact with anyone other than your friends and contacts), the totality of SecondLife's value stems from its communal experience. As such, it has not pursued the same blanket word-of-mouth strategy as other networks.

"The company has taken a strategy of a slow, organic growth focused on digital creatives," says Downing, who describes this audience as "people who were familiar with expressing themselves through the Web and through technology, like web designers and game developers."

SecondLife began in beta in 2002, and officially launched to the consumer audience in 2003. Devotees today are often bloggers, who have spread word of the network (or game, depending on your point-of-view) to more users.

"Because a lot of the experience is created by the user, the company reached out to people who would know what to do with the world and would be excited to build it out," Downing says. "We've very respectful of the residents already there."

Growth today is still targeted to particular segments.

"We wanted to reach different people who might not have heard of the company, but the company felt would further development in the world," Downing said. The company is also targeting less tech-focused entrepreneurs, who can make a "second" income within the game.

Downing says that not only is SecondLife a place for users to make money, they can also find real world jobs there. He says Electric Sheep Company, a non-affiliated, for-profit SecondLife content creation and application development services company, looks for talent within the game. Additionally, he says CERTs (community emergency response teams) have used SecondLife for real-world simulation applications.

And Second Life has entered into the burgeoning environment of machinima, roughly defined as filming actions in video games and turning them into movies. The Second Life machinima movie, Bells and Spurs, premiered at the 2006 SXSW festival.

SecondLife has, in fact, had a couple of lives in the media. After creeping through the underground tech world's conscience, it started attracting the business press in the fall of 2005, when people started making significant money within the game and could exchange their online "Linden" dollars for actual US currency. People can make money in the game in a variety of ways, such as by selling virtual land or creating avatar (digital representations of people and objects) skins.

"That helped bring that story to the mainstream media and consumers," Downing said.

While the mainstream media coverage has not been a front-page story in Time, Plaxo's Masonis contrasts today's environment with the past, by saying, "Three or four years ago, you had to work real hard to get some press in some magazine before people knew about you," but not anymore.

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