The Unexpected Power Of The Virtual Space

Joe Jaffe has been a good friend of The BeanCast Marketing Podcast. So I've continually deflected the criticisms I've heard of his support of Second Life since he started coming on the show. (And don't ask who's been criticizing, Joe, because I'm not gonna tell you.)

But here's the thing: Even I had to wonder, after all the negative publicity the man suffered as a result of his early promotion of Second Life, and the subsequent ribbing he's had to endure for this support, why he continued to use and stand by the service? Certainly he must have learned a lesson about being too gung-ho about new tech too early, because he's displayed a much more pragmatic approach since. But it seemed to me he should have immediately sought to distance himself from this "source of shame."

Instead, Joe and his team at Crayon (now Powered) continued to regularly meet and conduct business via Second Life. What's more, they all seemed to remain upbeat about it. You might even say they've been glowing about the service. It was completely baffling.

But then, in the most unlikely of places, I found my own fascination with virtual spaces. And now I'm here to capitulate.

Mall Hell

For those of you unfamiliar with the virtual realms out there, there's everything from World of Warcraft on the gaming side to Second Life on the adult community side. But nestled between those two extremes is the much-maligned virtual world of PlayStation Home.

Picture, if you will, a mall overrun with teenagers, without any parental supervision other than a persistent censor that knocks out foul language from chat scrolls, and you come dangerously close to describing Home. It's no wonder the gaming press hates it and most serious gamers avoid it. Why would anyone, other than hormonally charged teenagers in desperate need to be seen as a demon or to walk around in public places in bikinis, ever want to go there?

Well...apparently me for one. I'm almost ashamed to admit it. But yes, I now like PlayStation Home. And here's how it happened.

A Joke That Formed Community

A group of my gaming friends recently took on the challenge of Home. And I'm not talking teens. This is a group of 20-40 year-olds, both men and women. Their sole purpose? To mock the whole thing and cause some trouble.

I won't name all the participants, but the group was the brainchild of the EZMode Unlocked podcast, featuring Dana LaPorte,Rob Felt and Rob O'Connor. And as a lark, they decided that it would be fun to gather listeners and go cause trouble. So like a gang of rowdy teens heading to the mall, the group descended on the service.

But a funny thing happened. The Home meetups started occurring week after week. People started talking about it more and more on the EZMode Unlocked Forums. People even started to buy crap. Not real crap. Virtual crap. Not even resellable crap like in Second Life. We're talking crap crap, like glowing dumb-bells.

Pretty soon, the joking was left by the wayside. People were actually having fun. And even though we all participated in a forum to stay in touch with each other, Home was actually forming stronger relationships among the group than we'd ever had before.

The Power of the Eye

I attribute our sudden change of heart to one thing: Seeing a person (even if he or she is virtual) is a much more connecting experience than simply talking or writing to that person.

Think about how conversation works. It's not just about voice or words. It's also about visual cues. That's why people invest so much attention on user-account pictures and emoticons. These are both attempts at replacing the visual cues that are missed when conversation moves online.

But in a virtual world, these cues begin to approach real cues. For instance, in Home you can change your stance or show physical reactions to conversation. And most importantly, you can face another avatar who is speaking to you. It all sounds silly, but the result is a level of intimacy in conversation that is surprisingly effective and engaging.

And there was no way to discover this until I had a large group of associates online using the service. Until I had friends also adopting the service, it was simply a large, empty space with ghostly dancing bodies wandering around with lackluster activities to participate in. It takes a commitment to relationship for a virtual space to work. Once I had that, the world literally opened up with possibilities.

Visionary or Martyr

There's an old saying that if you're one step ahead of the curve you're a visionary and if you're two steps ahead you're a martyr. But in the end, it doesn't make you any less insightful about what the future holds. Joe may have leaped a little early into the virtual space, but I now think he may have been right to do so.

My experiences with Home are revealing to me that the problem with virtual spaces is not their usefulness, but rather the massive shift that is required to use them effectively. It's pretty unnatural to manipulate a virtual character on a screen. It feels silly and stilted at first. And frankly, the technology is not fully up to the promise. But to allow any of these negatives to outweigh the future benefits is foolish short-sightedness.

I can envision endless business and social applications that most haven't considered. Brainstorm sessions over distance can become more immersive, incorporating a sense of shared space and intimacy. Visual collaboration can become much more personal and effective as the tools evolve. Social meetups online can become more engaging, as we can go to the movies together with friends across the country and shoot snarky comments to each other during the film.

In many ways, it was good that the bubble burst on virtual spaces. It took the pressure off and allowed these applications to evolve more naturally. Now we can look to a more reasonable future in these digital realms, instead of dealing with the early hype and land-grab that went on with Second Life.

So to Joe, on behalf of all who care to join me, you were right. And I believe you'll be remembered for being so.

EDIT: I'm already thinking of about a zillion more angles on why virtual spaces are still good for the future of branding. Look for a follow-up post in a few days

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