Almost all the promise once held by virtual worlds has since been realized by Facebook.
Wired.com/Opinion, May 30, 2012
The Facebook IPO, however rocky, marked a coming of age for the loose collection of technologies and services known as “social media.” If Mark Zuckerberg had been elected governor of California, it would not have done as much to confer society’s seal of approval. It was almost as if the internet itself went public.
The promise of new and richer means of interacting remotely with friends, colleagues, associates, and strangers; the medium for distributed communities to come together in meaningful fashion, create new forms of narrative and entertainment (as well as new form of marketing), and connect in ways not possible in the physical world; the ability to be just who you are, or whoever you’d like to be, or to drop off the grid entirely if you so chose (and could manage it) — if those promises sound familiar, it’s no wonder. They are the promises (or threats) that have been made by every new communications technology since at least the telephone. Most recently, though, they were being made by a class of online service known as virtual worlds — and if Facebook’s IPO was an apotheosis for social media, it also marked a harsh awakening from the dream of the future presented by virtual worlds, a dream that has kicked around the internet in one form or another since the late 1970s.
Almost all the promise once held by virtual worlds has since been realized by Facebook. For every social interaction, brand engagement or persistent multiplayer social experience that Second Life or World of Warcraft or MTV’s Virtual Lower East Side was supposed to provide, there’s something the same or very similar available on Facebook — probably better, cheaper, and more reliable, and no doubt more accessible.
Facebook’s rise, of course, has not always been smooth. But it is now on track to register its billionth user by the end of 2012. Second Life, by contrast, the best-known virtual world, has signed up nearly 30 million people in its 10 years of operation, and still sees only about a million new or returning users log in every month. Other social virtual worlds have fared no better — and some much worse. Places like Meez.com and IMVU have struggled to become more than 3-D chat rooms, even with something like three times the user base of Second Life. There.com, a more youth-friendly virtual world that was the basis for early marketing experiments, including MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach project, closed its doors in early 2010. [There.com reopened in May 2012 as an 18-and-over platform.]
Why? For denizens of virtual worlds, the race between “Web-based social network” and “3-D social environment” was lost long ago by Facebook. Without the virtual physicality of 3-D space to explore and character models to customize, there’s no comparison. The world is not as flat as a webpage, they maintain. Flat or not, though, the more important point is that Facebook has delivered the tools of social connectivity in a way that virtual worlds have tried but never managed to do.
In 2006, I co-wrote a book examining both the promise and perils of virtual worlds. When we started writing, Facebook’s membership was limited to school campuses and corporate rolls — no trivial cohort, but hardly the world-dominating collection of profiles it has since become. With Myspace fading and brands like IBM, Nissan, and the U.S. State Department flocking to places like Second Life, it was hard to see Facebook as the universal community of tomorrow.
“Second Life will probably not be the platform that will sustain the metaverse,” we wrote, but it demonstrated that “3D virtual spaces could be effective tools for business, education, collaboration, socializing, and entertainment.”
Although not as effective as Facebook, it turns out.
While Facebook has seen more than its share of clumsy rollouts — the introduction of the News Feed, perhaps its most important feature, was met with vocal resistance by users — it has remained the easiest way to connect with friends, family, and colleagues online. Even its warts are not as ugly as they could be. It’s still easier to navigate Facebook’s notoriously abstruse privacy controls than it is to find, buy, and wear a new outfit in Second Life (an issue the company was addressing as late as 2010 — a year I spent working at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, before leaving amid a wave of layoffs and resignations). So confident is the social network of its continued growth that it now voluntarily deactivates more accounts every day than Second Life signs up (20,000 versus 16,000).
On a deeper level, Facebook is the realization of dreams and ambitions that weren’t dreamt in a Harvard dorm room but have been accumulating since the days of BBSes and AOL. Online community, online identity, online entertainment — Facebook has brought them to more people than any technology other than the web, and in some cases has been the thing driving adoption of the internet itself.
Facebook’s near-universal appeal — and virtual worlds’ near-universal failure — has as much to do with presentation as anything else. The very concept of a virtual world works against its acceptance. If I’m your great-aunt and I need a place to post pictures of your cousin’s bat mitzvah, I don’t necessarily mind joining a network in order to do so. But do I really want to join another world?
Yes, Facebook often feels like the downmarket version of the original internet dream. In term of the free exchange of ideas, it is more of a nightmare. And it was not Zuck who brought us a new kind of interconnected commerce. But being downmarket about the dream (instead of demanding and exclusive) is what brought critical mass to the new mode of social connectivity in a way that virtual worlds were never going to do.
I wouldn’t discount virtual worlds entirely. A new crop of massively multiplayer online games is exploring new possibilities for entertainment and narrative, in gaming, on television, and elsewhere. But even in games — and increasingly, even for graphically intensive multiplayer games — Facebook is pressing its advantage.
Sadly, virtual worlds have few advantages left to press. To paraphrase myself: Facebook will probably not be the platform that will sustain the web. But it demonstrates that distributing the new tools of social intercourse is more a matter of making them easy to use than it is one of bells, whistles, shapes and colors.
At least, until the next future comes along.