For all the talk about virtual worlds being the wave of the future, they don't really seem to have the kind of audience that would even begin to suggest that. Most people who register for Second Life once never actually return, and there is only a group of a few thousand that log in on a regular basis. Besides, that group is largely annoyed by the presence of marketers, and wants to be left alone to do... well... the kind of creepy things that people in Second Life do.
Far more popular is World of Warcraft, which is just a virtual world as a game - but because it's a game, it can't be used for any of the same purposes that marketers have been trying to use Second Life for. Then, of course, there is the ever-popular Webkinz, but it's hard to call that a "virtual world" as much as just a kid's game with a built-in chat room. We have seen the potential of virtual worlds, but despite numerous attempts, no one really seems to be able to make one that will appeal to a mass audience as anything other than a game.
After long debates with my boyfriend over whether or not virtual worlds will ever really "work", I attempted to come up with a model that combined them with the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook. My Second Life meets Facebook mash-up looks like this:
- Everyone starts with an island of their own, which basically serves as their profile page, which they can customize as they choose, and where they can store their personal information. You can also connect your island with friend's islands, to create communities.
- Different parts of your island can be designated "professional", "family", "friends" etc., and only certain people can see these parts of your island, getting rid of the need to keep up several different social networks for different purposes.
- There is no real money exchanged for virtual goods. However, you can obtain virtual money with which to do things like customize your island or your avatar. You'd be able to do this by:
- Playing games similar to Facebook applications (i.e. getting scrabulous points or turning someone into a vampire earns you money).
- Advertising revenue. This is how I'd incorporate ads into the world. Besides having their own islands, advertisers could pay individuals virtual money (based on island visitation) to allow them to place games, merchandise, or company representatives on their islands.
It's obviously a work-in-progress, and there are a few problems I keep running into. First of all, I have no idea how to make it easy to check on your friend's status updates easily without turning the whole thing into a social network with a virtual world sadly tacked on to the end. Second of all, while I know that there are lots of people out there who spend hours every day just goofing around on Facebook, I don't know that this kind of thing would appeal to all Facebook users - especially without the aforementioned lack of an easy way to check people's updates. Any and all suggestions on how to make that work would be welcome.
My idea was that virtual worlds would work well as social networking devices, because this is what people seem to be trying to use them as anyway, but I don't know that this is necessarily the best way to go with them. I've also heard it suggested that these kinds of things will never catch on without the invention of a kind of virtual reality that would make it more like actually meeting with people in person. Assuming that Second Life is not the end-all virtual world experience (and I really don't think it is), what direction do you think the next generation of virtual worlds should take?