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    Hype and Backlash for Second Life Miss the Bigger Picture

    by Mark Glaser
    December 5, 2007

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    CNN ampitheater in Second Life

    In May 2006, BusinessWeek ran a cover story on the virtual world Second Life (SL) by Robert Hof called My Virtual Life. The tagline breathlessly said, “A journey into a place in cyberspace where thousands of people have imaginary lives. Some even make a good living. Big advertisers are taking notice.” It didn’t take long for other mainstream media outlets to trumpet the new frontier of Second Life (SL), and seemingly every big company — including some media companies — set up virtual shop there.

    But a little more than a year later, in July 2007, Wired magazine turned its largely positive spin on SL on its head, with a negative piece called Lonely Planet that said marketers were “wasting millions on a deserted Second Life.” The media helped build up SL into an overhyped phenomenon, only to turn on its creation and start a massive backlash of bad press, including a recent piece in Forbes that detailed how the hype had outstripped reality in SL.

    The hype-and-backlash cycle is eerily reminiscent of the dot-com boom media coverage, where breathless hype turned to “we-shoulda-known” platitudes after the bust. With SL, many reporters often didn’t spend enough time in-world to understand its nuances, leading them to instead replicate other journalists’ assessments of the virtual space. But recently, coverage of SL has shifted, with CBS doing a more balanced piece on handicapped people in SL. Plus, CNN took a more open approach by extending its citizen journalism operation, I-Report, into Second Life so residents themselves could do the reporting.

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    Joel Greenberg is vice president of marketing innovation at Electric Sheep Company, which creates in-world experiences for corporate clients. He told me it’s about time journalists took a more balanced view of what’s happening in SL.

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    Joel Greeberg’s SL avatar

    “It seems like a lot of reporters were reading a lot of other reporters,” Greenberg said. “So when it’s really positive, everything’s positive. And when we’re in the down cycle, it gets negative. In general, the frustration that people in the SL community have had, especially with the Wired article [“Lonely Planet”], everyone says that when they talked to the reporter they said all these positive things and they didn’t get in the story…The Wired article in particular was the harbinger of all this stuff. It definitely affected our conversations with clients.”

    That article was specifically commissioned by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, the man who invented The Long Tail meme. While Wired had run largely positive stories on Second Life over the past few years — including a travel guide that was nominated for a National Magazine Award — they seemed to go from hype to backlash in an instant with “Lonely Planet.”

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    In an email exchange, Anderson told me that Wired simply was looking at Second Life from two different vantage points.

    “The two big stories we did do in the mag were on very different aspects of SL,” he said. “The first (travel guide) was from the consumer side, and we continue to be big fans of that. The second, on SL as a marketing vehicle, was on the corporate/marketing side, and we’re skeptical of that. Additionally, I’ve blogged about my own experience in using SL for marketing purposes [for Wired], and the sobering lessons learned (partly due to mistakes on our part, but partly reflecting structural problems with SL as a marketing vehicle). We’re bullish on SL as a consumer experience and bearish on it as a marketing vehicle. “

    So why couldn’t Wired be a little more skeptical during the hype phase and a little more upbeat during the backlash?

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    Chris Anderson

    “Because we’re not perfect?” Anderson responded. “I wish I could tell you that every story we run touches on every possible angle, anticipating every possible reader question and eventualities past and present…but sadly we’re in the same business you are, trying to do the best we can in telling a story as we understand it at whatever point in time we happen to be writing.”

    The Challenges of Covering a Virtual World

    The problem for many reporters covering Second Life— myself included — is the steep learning curve and technical requirements necessary to enter the world and explore it. Daniel Terdiman, who has written about SL for Wired News and most recently as a CNET reporter, says that SL’s biggest weakness is the difficulty that newbies have when they first check out the world.

    “What happened was that it was really sexy to see Fortune 500 companies going into what most people see as a game,” Terdiman said. “But I don’t think there was a lot of depth to the coverage. I don’t think anyone bothered to ask the question, ‘Why are they doing it?’ ‘How are they doing it?’ and ‘Are they doing it properly?’…Second Life is very hard to use, and it’s very hard to find things to do there. It takes more work than most people who are writing on deadline have time to do. The problem with Second Life is that it’s extremely difficult to use, which is why so many people sign up, try it, and never come back.”

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    Daniel Terdiman

    Once Terdiman got beyond the initial learning curve, he said reporting on SL was much like reporting in the real world. He gets leads from wandering through the world, hearing from developers and following scuttlebutt on blogs. Terdiman said one of the main differences between virtual world reporting and the real world is that people with avatars tend to blow off interview times — but they do like getting the publicity in real-world media.

    Freelance journalist Wagner James Au has been writing about SL since 2003 on his New World Notes blog. For the first few years, he was paid by SL’s owner, Linden Labs, to write about it on contract, but says they only killed one story in that period because it involved nudity. Au told me he finds original stories by spending time within the virtual world, and he’s covered the gamut, from social studies to the entrance of marketers to architecture and art installations.

    “Most of my best stories are from wandering around and meeting people,” Au said. “The story you think is going to happen [often] becomes a different story entirely. I was interviewing this guy and he was talking about his SL real estate business. And then I noticed that his profile had him in full Marine uniform. He told me he had his kneecap blown off by a mine in Afghanistan…so he made ends meet by being a virtual real estate guy.”

    Au lauds CBS for its story on people with disabilities using Second Life, and he estimates that 10% of residents are handicapped either physically or mentally in the real world and use Second Life as a way to experience movement or social interactions that they can’t have in their real lives. Another story line he’s been following is the way regular SL residents have outdone the real-world professionals who come in thinking they can dominate the virtual world without learning the ropes.

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    Wagner James Au

    “What excites me is kids in the middle of nowhere who are making amazing art and they would have no other outlet for this creativity,” Au said. “One of SL’s best fashion designers lives on a farm in Georgia, and that’s exciting to me. When the corporations come in, they’re not that serious about it or they’re arrogant and think, ‘The professionals are here.’ And they don’t engage with the community, and when I look at their traffic, I can see that the community is ignoring them too. Shortly after Nissan came in to give away cars, I noticed that a kid in the Midwest had a site that was four times as popular against this giant car corporation.”

    CNN Lets Residents Report

    While Reuters made waves by setting up a news bureau with two correspondents in Second Life, CNN decided to take a different tack. The cable news giant decided to extend its citizen journalism I-Report efforts into Second Life with a special hub, ampitheater and tools for residents to submit news stories and screen-grab “photos.” Rather than put traditional CNN reporters in-world, they’ve had a few I-Report producers spend time in Second Life, including weekly meetings with residents at their amphitheater.

    “Those meetings are evolving, but we usually show a presentation, show off the I-Reports from the last week, explain what could be better,” CNN.com senior producer Lila King told me. “The second time we had a pretty lively Q&A that was focused on helping them [file reports], and we talked about photography because we’re asking people to share their ‘pictures’ which are essentially screen grabs. We shared what we knew from CNN photographers and their tips on composition and lighting and translated that to the world of Second Life.”

    As dozens of I-Reports from residents start to pour in, the CNN.com team goes through them just as they do with real-world citizen journalism reports. They filter out inappropriate material, commercial pitches and check on the veracity of questionable reports — by teleporting directly to the scene. Each I-Report comes with exact coordinates in-world so producers can check on events easily. That’s something King wishes was possible with real-world I-Reports, which are often trickier to track down.

    CNN’s experimental approach shows a willingness to work within the SL community rather than simply give a tourist’s point of view, as most reporters do. CNN consciously didn’t want to set up a building in Second Life that would sit empty — a common problem with most corporate efforts in SL. So far, the producers are happy that every time they have visited the amphitheater there have been residents there, discussing the news, even outside of the weekly meetings.

    So far, the SL I-Reports on the special CNN blog are basically screen grabs and three- or four-sentence captions rather than full-blown reporting. But that might change as the weekly meetings continue and the resident citizen journos get their feet wet.

    The bottom line is that news organizations and even bloggers aren’t sure what the business model is for doing journalism in virtual worlds. Au says he spends about 60% of his time on the New World Notes blog but supplements his income with writing for GigaOm — as well as an upcoming Second Life book (something Terdiman has already done). Nick Wilson, who runs the Metaversed blog about virtual world business, decided to do less reporting and beef up his productions of in-world events, which has been a more lucrative business.

    No matter the business model, reporters and bloggers who want to tell the story of virtual worlds, including Second Life, will hopefully continue to get past the hype-and-backlash cycle and take the world seriously as a social phenomenon that has business and marketing potential — even if it’s not yet fully realized.

    What do you think about the media coverage of Second Life? Who do you trust to give you the best reporting in-world, and what do you think is missing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Tagged: advertising digging deeper second life
    • Thanks for a thoughtful article. I’m one of the many SL bloggers (I run a site on virtual worlds from an Australian perspective).

      One of your points is key – if you don’t spend the time in-world, you don’t truly reflect what’s going on.

    • Lowell, this is a great piece, with great balance of all the varied views of SL. I work for Boots in the UK, and we took our leading brand, No 7, into SL in October. Whilst that news doesn’t generate Business Week covers anymore, it has so far been a worthwhile experience, as part of an overall strategy of looking at new ways to engage consumers. It’s a learning process, having watched a lot of “build and they will come” type experiences. I think the big thing to remember when you go into SL is not to forget the stuff you know from running your business in RL. We don’t open our stores and leave them the same way every day of the year, there is always something going on. For SL to be valuable as a marketing and communication strategy, then I think you have to keep up the level of activity. Otherwise you’re just a museum piece, something to go look at once, but probably not make another visit to any time soon. Like most businesses, you have to give your customers a reason to come back regularly, otherwise you really are wasting your money and time.

    • Thank you for providing an article that’s simultaneously refreshing and tragic at the same time (tragic due the fact that there’s a need to comment on the coverage).

      Watching the media coverage of Second Life has always been a contentious point for many of us involved in this marketplace. What we read in the press is quite different from the (virtual) reality we take for granted. It’s particularly frustrating in the various blog and new media spheres that seemingly thrive on the frivolous and disposable commentary that is usually tacked on to an already ‘let’s go for the easy headline’ kind of coverage.

      However, it should be no wonder that Second Life is so difficult to cover–few are qualified to do it–since covering and reporting on an open-ended, freeform, game-like world is akin to covering the entire real world single-handedly.

      Coverage of the traditional video game world is fairly straightforward: report on game mechanics, graphics, flow, story, etc– and is no stranger to sweeping generalizations (“video games make people kill!”) Second Life’s disadvantage is that it is everything and anything, and does not afford the luxury of specificity.

      The optimistic among us simply equate the media coverage of Second Life (and subsequently, other virtual worlds yet to come) to the early coverage of the Internet itself. Look where we are today.

      This too, shall pass.

    • Thank you for providing an article that’s simultaneously refreshing and tragic at the same time (tragic due the fact that there’s a need to comment on the coverage).

      Watching the media coverage of Second Life has always been a contentious point for many of us involved in this marketplace. What we read in the press is quite different from the (virtual) reality we take for granted. It’s particularly frustrating in the various blog and new media spheres that seemingly thrive on the frivolous and disposable commentary that is usually tacked on to an already ‘let’s go for the easy headline’ kind of coverage.

      However, it should be no wonder that Second Life is so difficult to cover–few are qualified to do it–since covering and reporting on an open-ended, freeform, game-like world is akin to covering the entire real world single-handedly.

      Coverage of the traditional video game world is fairly straightforward: report on game mechanics, graphics, flow, story, etc– and is no stranger to sweeping generalizations (“video games make people kill!”) Second Life’s disadvantage is that it is everything and anything, and does not afford the luxury of specificity.

      The optimistic among us simply equate the media coverage of Second Life (and subsequently, other virtual worlds yet to come) to the early coverage of the Internet itself. Look where we are today.

      This too, shall pass.

    • Au said. SLs best fashion designer lives on a farm in Georgia, and thats exciting to me.

      meh… whom does Au think SL’s best fashion designer is???

    • Leave it to PBS. Thank you, Mark.

    • This is a strong piece because it speaks to the laziness of other reporters that have entered Second Life. If a reporter comes in for a day and even begins to think they got it, they are sadly mistaking.
      Marketing in Second Life is very in depth and very new. I believe the changes we will see in 2008 will strongly point to success in marketing adventures. Pushing the limits even further than companies already have. Mixing it up. I can’t wait.
      “I have had a lot of success with failure” – (Thomas Edison)
      I think we have gone past the failure and we are onto success! Great article!

    • Chip Midnight

      Thank you for finally laying the blame for SL hype and its backlash squarely where it belongs… at the feet of lazy sensationalist journalists (Wired being only one of the most egregious examples). It’s incredibly refreshing to see such a balanced and objective piece of reporting on Second Life. I didn’t know much about CNN’s SL operation prior to this article, and when I’d first heard about it I’d mostly just rolled my eyes, but it sounds like they truly “get it” by engaging the community in a way that’s both fun and rewarding for the participants. Hats off to them.

    • Corman

      Several months ago a J-school student, in a big hurry, on a week long class assignment, wandered into a Second Life group that I was in. After he reflexively said, “I know” for the third time, cutting off the person answering his question, I took pity on him and privately advised him by Instant Message not to say “I know”.

      He obviously did not “know” and even if he was bored to tears, he had his interview subject talking and would have an opportunity to ask another question. That’s always a good thing for a reporter.

      I wonder how many experienced reporters have jumped in to Second Life with “I know” in their minds if not on their lips? The story half written before they ever hit the Connect button? Get a story that follows the current meme-of-the-day on the editor’s desk (because that’s what the editor wants?)and then on to hacking out the next assignment.

      A word of advice, reporters and editors? Your readers and viewers can almost always spot a poorly done story even if they are completely unfamiliar with the subject matter.

    • “whom does Au think SL’s best fashion designer is”

      I winced a bit at that quote (though Mark quoted me accurately)– I meant to say the Georgia Resident is *one* of SL’s top designers (both in reputation and financially.)

    • Hamlet,
      I fixed your quote to reflect that. But who is she?

    • memory harker

      Yeah, Hamlet ~ by all that’s Noodly, name the name!

    • Nice article! Thanks for the reference to the Wired article as well. I had not seen it.

      I think one of the main factors marketers seem to miss with SL is that of connection. We go to SL not to buy but to connect with other people who share our interests. We may buy at a later date, but that will be as a result of our experience in SL, not as a result of a marketing push or publicity stunt.

      I’ve been actively following the CSI:NY in SL experiment in my blog. I think Anthony Zuiker is one of the few “corporate” people who gets it. The Venus murder mystery, following the RL October 24th episode of CSI:NY, engages new and old SLers to pursue the CSI experience in SL. The Wired article referred to a deserted Coca Cola location. I’ve never been alone in the CSI crime lab, or at any of the crime scenes (there are three other current crime investigations going on right now). Not only do I meet other CSI fans, but there are also CSI greeters on hand to help the noobs along. Hats off to Electric Sheep, the company shepherding this project. That’s what it’s all about: Interaction, active participation, connection.

      How does this convert into dollars for the CSI franchise? Well, granted, there’s no product per se they sell. However, because of my investment (read: time spent digging and deciphering clues and solving mysteries) in this project, once a week now my eyeballs shift from my computer to my television screen to watch the show in RL, which should make CBS and its advertisers happy.

      Am I surprised by the lack of success by major brands to make it in SL? No. Again, most are making the mistake of using SL as another advertising medium and staying within the limits of that technology. It’s one web, folks, whether is text-based or graphics-based! One of the trick that blew me away with CSI :NY in SL is how the creators did not stay within the boundaries of SL. We are regularly led to a webpage, from within SL, for the latest sightings of Venus, or the latest news on other crimes. In fact, one of the clues to the Zuiker mystery was a link to a page with a video of the man himself, posing as a wise guy, giving us more clues and a SLURL (a location in SL) which then teleported you directly back inworld from the web.Yeah, now that’s what I call seamless integration.

      I’m looking forward to the next Zuiker mystery, scheduled to debut December 8th. The Venus mystery will come to a conclusion at the end of the season, depending on the writers’ strike, I guess…

    • The SL hype cycle is pretty typical of media hype cycles. First breathlessly and inacurately rave about next thing. Then gonzo the heck outa sex, slander, page selling headlines. Then strart trying to report to a better informed public. Get annoyed that they gotta report real news now. Take out frustration on yesterdays media darling.

      Tis the way it works. Well considered and researched articles don’t pay as well as cheap fodder, and journalists know this. It irritates them and their editors. So they follow the gonzo cycle. Even Reuters has been a bit naughty in that respect.

      It’ll take a few years until we have a large enough body of well informed journos living online in VR’s before balanced reporting arrives. That’s the way the internets worked, this is just new turf.

      Really though, virtual worlds are just another place, full of people doing stuff. When the novelty wears off the general quality of reporting will improve. Journalistic focus will shift to the peopl and events rather than the platform.

    • “But who is she?”

      Nephilaine Protagonist– here’s an excerpt from a documentary about her (though I believe it’s currently being retooled to cover more Residents):

      http://www.rocketboom.com/vlog/rb_05_sep_28

      This is also a video I often show people to break their stereotype of what a hardcore SL user is supposed to look like.

    • You hit the nail on the head. Time. Time. Corporate-think still believes that time can be bought with money, but SL is one place where this does not apply. We’ve all seen the empty Big Name builds. The Biggest clue that they are completely uninvolved with the Second Life grid? They announce an event and do not list the slurl, OR the sim location, nor do they post anything in classifieds. In other words, they have absolutely no idea how the average resident finds anything in the Metaverse. In short, everyone dealing with SL needs to leave their preconceptions at the door. I didn’t know about CNN’s endeavours. Sounds like the right track. Great article.

    • Thank you for a very well written article.

      I can only speak from personal experience, and would have to agree with most of what you said.

      I had the AMAZING honor of working with a company in SL, (Pontiac) on their Motorati project that in my opinion did it well, “as right as I’ve seen it”, and who engaged the community in their efforts.

      They really approached building their “Motorati” sims in a way that was respectful to the community in that they “engaged” them to come and build and contribute to a “car culture” themed land.

      In my time there, (over a year) I have had an amazing time with the other builders, have been really impressed by the constant enthusiasm, hard work and community we have all experienced.

      I was honored when they signed me as their “spokesavatar” for their Maxim Tours event. It was something I will never ever forget. Going from a model and designer in world, to actually being in a 2 page ad spread in a major magazine and all over the internet and meeting people for the tours for 6 weeks (we did 5 a day) was such an amazing experience.

      It was “big” in the sense of the Real World tie in, and “small” in the sense of the tours were maxed at about 20 people. But we did them 2 times a day, 5 days a week, and people returned over and over brining friends and would spend time at the various Motorati locations after so that was something I called “success”.

      To answer your questions:

      1. I’m not sure I know who does the “best” inworld reporting. For quick “tid bits” of info on a LOT of subjects weekly, I read the AVASTAR. http://www.theavastar.com They seem to cover the full gamut and it’s a fun read. I also read Dr. Dobbs. who does a good job and new world notes…

      2. What is missing for me, is something that is balanced between the “technical end” and “layman’s end”. I’m not a technical person but do want to keep up on that side.

      3. What I find missing, in speaking with RL journalists, is they have NO clue what SL is for the most part and I end up educating them for hours before we get to “my interview”. This recently happened with a HUGE national newspaper, and the reporter had never been “in world” and kept saying, “yes I’ve been on the site”… it became frustrating for both of us, and I’m not sure this paper ever did the piece. My feeling was they gave it to a junior level reporter so they could say “they covered SL”.

      (I won’t say the paper’s name in case they do the article someday)

      Ok, well that’s my 2 cents this fine Sunday morning!

      Thanks again for a great article and great comments!

      caLLie cLine
      (SL resident, model, designer, blah, blah….)

    • Excellent in depth report.
      What you wrote:
      ” The bottom line is that news organizations and even bloggers arent sure what the business model is for doing journalism in virtual worlds”
      holds true for all of us in Second Life not just for journalists or bloggers. If the business models of the past worked in SL then SL would quickly become just a reflection of the world were those models dominate.

      I am hopeful that new models will continue to reward all those talented people that provide the most thoughtful, experimental, and expressive content.

      Thank you.

    • Thank you! As others have said here–this is the sort of balanced reporting on SL we so rarely have seen.

      It took a bit of wrangling to convince the print editors at our local Media General outlet to let me cover SL on a pro-bono basis. The buzz was “that’s the one with sex and gambling.”

      Well, the SL gambling is gone now, and my SL blog continues. We saw–and I’ve my Web editors to thank for going to bat in meetings–that a print division can “come around,” as they did a decade+ ago for the Web.

    • Frankie

      So Facebook will be dead like Secondlife one day?

    • Thank you for your update on Second Life. The timing is perfect as last year at this time Second Life seemed to be right in the middle of the huge media wave that brought many real life corporations and user registrations. A year does make quite a difference. Second Life feels a bit different, to me anyway, now. The buzz was certainly exciting, but now the people I meet in world seem a bit more sincere in wanting to learn what Second Life is all about.

      On the news angle, CNN has set up a nice service. I also actually felt that the best source for news was from residents themselves which is why last summer, I opened SLPulse.com where any Second Life resident can come and post their Second Life news directly to the front page. Surprisingly, spam posts have been almost non-existent, and instead residents have shared some great information and news about the current happening in Second Life.

      I, for one, am interested to see where Second Life takes us in 2008.

    • who are the Ireport people? I don’t seem to see the CNN teleport site up anymore? how do you get there?

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