Giving Second Life a first chance

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Meet Seymour Grut. That's me. Or at least that's me in Second Life, the crazy, popular, immersive online community that has lately captured the attention of business marketers.

I'll admit I've been biased against Second Life from the start. I've never been a computer gamer, and I am frankly a little alarmed at the spell that virtual reality games seem to cast over my kids. But I'm coming to believe that Second Life and other virtual worlds are something marketers should watch closely.

Second Life, with an estimated membership of 5.7 million people, is what's called a virtual world. Participants assume new identities using avatars, which are graphical characters that interact with each other and their environment. Second Life isn't a game; it's an alternate reality in which the goal is whatever you want it to be, whether that's building a home, starting a business or simply meeting new people.

Avatars are what I find most interesting about Second Life. Not that they're new. In fact, as Henry Jenkins of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program has pointed out, people have been assuming alternate identities for thousands of years. Masks, costume parties and other cultural traditions have long served a useful purpose: They provide a way for people to pretend to be someone they aren't. When people assume alternate identities, they often behave differently—and more honestly—than when they're being themselves.

It's avatars that make virtual worlds such an interesting tool for marketers. In Second Life, participants can respond not only to the actions of a leader but also of the audience. It's this ability to incorporate feedback from the group that distinguishes virtual worlds from anonymous chats, webcasts and other tried-and-true tools. It's probably the closest you can come in cyberspace to modeling human behavior.

This trait has led to some surprising applications of Second Life. People whose mobility is limited by accident or disease have found it a useful way to interact with others, while some therapists are using it as a treatment for autism. Sociologists and business leaders are fascinated by the potential of virtual worlds to accurately model human communities, saving time and money over the conventional trial-and-error approach.

By now, the potential for marketers should be apparent. Virtual worlds give you the chance to test new ideas in a form that can deliver more realistic feedback than what you can get in a focus group or survey. Technology companies like Cisco, IBM and Sun Microsystems are already tapping this channel to observe the interactions of groups of customers.

Second Life has plenty of critics, and it could turn out to be a passing fad. But it's hard to overlook the potential of an electronic community that, in theory at least, has the best potential to create an online model of life itself.

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