While talking about Public Diplomacy in Cyberspace... news on Second Life (updated)

Following up on my previous post on electronic media is this article by Frank Rose, writing in Wired, How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life:

For months, Michael Donnelly had been hearing all about the fantastic opportunities in Second Life.

As worldwide head of interactive marketing at Coca-Cola, Donnelly was fascinated by its commercial potential, the way its users could wander through a computer-generated 3-D environment that mimics the mundane world of the flesh. So one day last fall, he downloaded the Second Life software, created an avatar, and set off in search of other brands like his own. American Apparel, Reebok, Scion — the big ones were easy to find, yet something felt wrong: "There was nobody else around." He teleported over to the Aloft Hotel, a virtual prototype for a real-world chain being developed by the owners of the W. It was deserted, almost creepy. "I felt like I was in The Shining."

...

Second Life partisans claim meteoric growth, with the number of "residents," or avatars created, surpassing 7 million in June. There's no question that more and more people are trying Second Life, but that figure turns out to be wildly misleading. For starters, many people make more than one avatar. According to Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, the number of avatars created by distinct individuals was closer to 4 million. Of those, only about 1 million had logged on in the previous 30 days (the standard measure of Internet traffic), and barely a third of that total had bothered to drop by in the previous week. Most of those who did were from Europe or Asia, leaving a little more than 100,000 Americans per week to be targeted by US marketers.

Then there's the question of what people do when they get there. Once you put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn't much to do. That may explain why more than 85 percent of the avatars created have been abandoned. Linden's in-world traffic tally, which factors in both the number of visitors and time spent, shows that the big draws for those who do return are free money and kinky sex. On a random day in June, the most popular location was Money Island (where Linden dollars, the official currency, are given away gratis), with a score of 136,000. Sexy Beach, one of several regions that offer virtual sex shops, dancing, and no-strings hookups, came in at 133,000. The Sears store on IBM's Innovation Island had a traffic score of 281; Coke's Virtual Thirst pavilion, a mere 27. And even when corporate destinations actually draw people, the PR can be less than ideal. Last winter, CNET's in-world correspondent was conducting a live interview with Anshe Chung, an avatar said to have earned more than $1 million on virtual real estate deals, when Chung was assaulted by flying penises in a griefer attack.

Hmmm...

Joseph Jaffe, the marketing consultant who advised Coke on its in-world presence, dismisses the notion that such efforts might not be worthwhile. "The learning is now," Jaffe says. "You are a pioneer, and with that comes first-mover advantage" — that chestnut from the Web 1.0 boom. And the paltry numbers? "This is not about reach anymore. This is about connecting. It's about establishing meaningful, impactful conversations. So when people ask, 'Why Second Life?' I ask 'Why not?'"

Yes, why not? Are you going to see lots of people? No...

...the popular islands are never crowded, because each processor on Linden Lab's servers can handle a maximum of only 70 avatars at a time; more than that and the service slows to a crawl, some avatars disappear, or the island simply vanishes. "It's really the software's fault," says Andrew Meadows, Linden Lab's senior developer. "Way back when, we used to say, 'This is not going to scale.'"

Why go?

"Companies say, 'It's an experiment' — but what are they learning?" Tobaccowala asks. "Basically, they're learning how to create an avatar and walk around in Second Life." Which is fine if that's what you want to do. Just don't expect to sell a lot of Coke.

Seems like a good place to have a presence. In a cost-benefit analysis, seems like it isn't the best investment for the money if you're attempting to counter enemy propaganda through engaging foreign and domestic publics directly. But that's just me...

Ok, Michael's got some updates. First, was his post a couple of months ago about SL being a terrorist training tool. But all ICT(information and communication technologies) can be dual purpose, so I'm not concerned there. Better to use technology to empower the good than to fear its use by the bad. We may as well return to the communications systems of the Seventeenth Century to prevent the spread of ideology, food, etc. But here's the good stuff MT shares: Virtual Terrorists, Hunted in reality, jihadists are turning to artificial online worlds such as Second Life to train and recruit members.

In SL people create their own characters, known as avatars, and live an alternative life, buying goods, real estate and living in a community of more than eight million people from across the world. They go about their lives, attending concerts and seminars, building businesses and socialising.

On the darker side, there are also weapons armouries in SL where people can get access to guns, including automatic weapons and AK47s. Searches of the SL website show there are three jihadi terrorists registered and two elite jihadist terrorist groups.

Once these groups take up residence in SL, it is easy to start spreading propaganda, recruiting and instructing like minds on how to start terrorist cells and carry out jihad.

One radical group, called Second Life Liberation Army, has been responsible for some computer-coded atomic bombings of virtual world stores in the past six months....

Earlier this year Britain's Fraud Advisory Panel warned that SL players could launder money across national borders without restriction and with little risk of being detected. The FAP says criminal or terrorist gangs can also use the game to avoid surveillance while committing crimes including credit card fraud, identity theft, money laundering and tax evasion.