Monday, May 21, 2007

Virtual Worlds the New Social Network?

We've all heard of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the myriad of other social networks that have popped up since the infamous Friendster spawned the social network revolution. MySpace sold for $580 million and everyone has jumped on the social network bandwagon. Since then however, we've had some interesting developments in the space including virtual worlds, which is essentially a social network based on a movable avatar. Second Life is the most popular of these with a in world economy and real money being transacted. I previously wrote about how I thought that this would be an interesting addendum to the Web with Linden Labs (who owns Second Life) to open up their architecture and allowing anyone to plug into their API (application programming interface) similar to the World Wide Web but in 3D space.

While I still believe that this is Web 3.0, I can't ignore these new Flash based applications like Habbo Hotel, Webkinz, Club Penguin, Runescape, and a bunch of other in browser applications. While most of these are for younger users (children and younger), there is an appeal to many based on the lack of a download and simplicity of it (a common complaint about Second Life is usability). Recently Sony was in talks to acquire Club Penguin for $500 million+. (via Techcrunch) This puts Club Penguin with a demographic heavily skewed toward youth right up their with MySpace. The big difference between the two is that users are willing to pay a fee to dress up their avatars in Club Penguin and have access to members only areas.

I think this customization will allow these social networks to finally monetize. MySpace which allows HTML customization is free, but with virtual worlds, the ability to feel like you purchased something as you would in real life appears to be worth payment. So users feel like there is value in having customized clothing for the avatars which is similar to having personalized wallpaper in MySpace. It's an interesting concept and I bring it up because of the potential for true interaction with your customers. There is now a way to track to see if users would like to use your product for their avatar (which would be fraction of the cost of real world usage). Further, as I previously mentioned, in the virtual world you can create anything, so another great opportunity to see how users interact with your brand.
Watch this space since it appears that it will follow the way of the social network where a virtual world will appear for the long tail.

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