Groups are a standard feature of the virtual world of Second Life. They provide communities for avatars with mutual interests, and can range across every interest or specialization known to avatar-kind. Within Second Life an avatar can be a member of up to 25 groups. Sometimes they are used to restrict access to specific areas, but more often they are used as a communication medium, as it is possible to send messages to all (online) members simultaneously.
A couple of months ago a new group was founded by Nick Wilson (aka 57 Miles in Second Life) of the popular Metaversed blog. It was called “Things To Do” and was based on the simple premise that Second Life is a social environment in which it is enjoyable to share activities with people, and make friends. Things To Do has since grown into both a popular group and an effective communications channel. But it also illustrates some of the limitations of social tools in Second Life, and raises some interesting questions about how to reach and manage large communities of people within the virtual world.
Each day, the Things To Do group is advised of a thing to do, and given a location and time. Nick described to me the selection criterion for choosing a given location: “If it feels right.” If people wanted to socialise, they need only turn up at the appointed place, at the appointed time. A brilliantly simple idea — so much so, I daresay it must have been tried in Second Life before. However, I am not aware of it.
The group charter defines it purpose as: “[it] helps its members find cool and interesting places to visit, and things to DO in Second Life. Daily group notices are sent pointing out newly opened sims, extraordinary sights and events of interest to adventurers of all kinds. If you want to discover cool new stuff, and amaze your friends with your uber-geek SL jedi powers, then join now. Itâ€™s free, friendly, and FUN!”
Many of the earliest members of the group were bloggers, including Nick himself, and thus knowledge of the group spread rapidly through the many blogs now focusing on Second Life and virtual worlds. This, in turn, led to a rapid growth in group membership, which stands at over 400 today. As a result, any single event can attract a large number of people.
The effect is very much like the phenomenon of flash mobbing that appeared a few years ago, and that still survives to this day. Flash mobbing used traditional social collaboration tools to coordinate sudden, often surreal gatherings of people. According to wikipedia, the first successful flash mob assembled in June 3, 2003, at Macyâ€™s department store in New York, where more than one hundred people converged upon the ninth floor rug department. Other have involved pillow fights in the street, and others have been odder still. With Things To Do, perhaps 50 or 60 group members arrive out of the blue to explore, play or meet up. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, the surreal element has been missing; I have not seen a request for people to wear giant bananas on their heads, for example. Maybe this will come. But the effect could still be as surprising as a flash mob.
It does not take much mental effort to realise that a group which can virtually guarantee a crowd will be of interest to any company or organisation seeking to promote an event or launch. Thus it was not long before Things To Do moved on from simply visiting interesting locations to encompass a role as a promotional channel. The benefits for the visited event were twofold: not only did they get a good attendance at the event, but also the high percentage of bloggers guaranteed a great deal of subsequent free advertising in the blogosphere.
Such useful promotion may come at a price. There are basically two ways of launching a new site. The first is a soft launch, in which the doors are opened before the site has officially been announced. A growing trickle of visitors discover the site and their feedback provides the fine tuning usually needed, while also load-testing the site. The second involves a grand launch event, where the site is embargoed until the actual event itself. The latter is particularly exposed if a large number of Things To Doâ€™ers arrive, as there is every likelihood that the performance lag will be dreadful, streamed content could be glitchy and in extreme cases the sim could crash. The net result: an unsatisfactory launch.
The problem for the group as it matures is that it may become a victim of its own success. As it grows, it is not able to accommodate the numbers wanting to do the Thing To Do, due to the inherent limitations in Second Life. Companies planning an embargoed launch may need to think twice about the wisdom of encouraging such a large group. I put this point to Nick. He believes that it should keep growing, and that to mitigate the risk of overpopulating sims, the group will be organised with officers, and multiple visits staged across several time zones. He is not keen on managing smaller, more focused groups.
For my part, I am not so sure. I can see a point, perhaps not so far off, when its sheer size leads inevitably to a natural end for the group in its current configuration. To be useful, both to its members and to the sites visited, the group would need to deliver a maximum of, say, 90 people (50 or 60 would be better), which would suggest a group total membership of perhaps a few hundred. This, in turn, suggests a future splintering of the group into more specialised Things To Do.
Time will tell, but I have found its evolution fascinating to watch. In such a short time it has gone from a daily social event, to a powerful promotional channel and then ultimately . . . well, who knows.
Aleister Kronos appears by kind permission of Ambling in Second Life.