Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Office - A Viral Approach to Second Life

Almost - but deliberately, not quite - slipping under the radar into Second Life this week was the hit US TV comedy: The Office. Based on the UK version, but reworked for an American (and indeed worldwide) audience, The Office purports to chart the fortunes of a small, struggling stationery company through the eyes of a fly-on-the-wall documentary team. Unlike most such remakes, this has been a critical success on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the latest episode, Local Ad, we discover that Dwight Schrute, the "Assistant to the Regional Manager", has an avatar in Second Life. Here is a link to YouTube, with a short clip - sadly a longer clip seems to have been removed. The NBC website makes only passing reference to Second Life in the episode description, and it is left to the viewer to discover more if he or she is sufficiently intrigued.

And this is where it starts to get really interesting. If you start digging you quickly find that the dalliance with Second Life goes far beyond a one minute slot in one episode. Dwight had already intimated that he had, in effect, replicated his first life in Second Life, so much so that he had even created an inworld game called Second Second Life. It turns out that all of this is "true." You can search for Dwight's avatar, Dwight Shelford, and check out his profile. You will find this is detailed and complete. For example he list his talents as "Avid traditional corn husk doll maker; beet sculpture; recorder player". A little more digging will reveal the avatar names for other members of the cast. However, to save you the virtual legwork, you can find all you need to know here, a fans' community journal.

This leads to another clue - the existence of a Dunder Mifflin Second Life group (our motto: Paper for a Paperless World), which you are free to join. Again, this is played deadpan - with little indication that this is anything other than a company group. If you check out the group notices, you will find reference to the after-show party - and crucially this is where I found the location of the virtual set. I won't spoil it for you by telling you where it is. If you are that interested you will find it yourself. As a taster, here's the pictures I took:

And some desktops:

When I joined the group, about 12 hours ago, there were 362 members. I have just checked, and this has now increased to 487. I know this is not meteoric, but you need to bear in mind that this is the effect of word of mouth - no advertising whatsoever. Furthermore, a lot of the folks I met at the Dunder Mifflin office and other locations, were newcomers trying out Second Life because of what they saw on the show.

The office itself is, I understand, a fairly faithful reproduction of the one in "real life." This is where things get even more subtle and ambivalent. Is this office the work of the fictional Dwight, and therefore itself a fictional virtual entity?? Or is it just a set, like any other except for being in a virtual world, used in the making of the TV show? The best I can come up with is: it is a bit like schrodinger's cat - existing as both a fiction and a tv stage until you actually look at it!

A note of encouragement for fans: in the "locations" notecard that I picked up it is clear the Second Life will feature in more episodes. And unlike another TV show in Second Life, there is no attempt to treat the Dunder Mifflin offices as some kind of walled garden. The notecard leads you to a recreation of ancient Babylon, where oddly enough you will find Dwight's Second Second Life. It also indicates that a future episode will take in the busy, popular and slightly salty Amsterdam sim. Closer to the office, there's a recreation of Troy's Tavern, where you can help yourself to free drinks and play pool or poker. For the freeloader, other freebies include a range of T-shirts.

The build has been done by TROI TimTam of Clear Ink, who have made only a short announcement on their Clear Night Sky website. And these are not dumb people when it comes to marketing and understanding how to apply Second Life. The website suggests a low-key, quick build - but I am impressed with the detail that has been put in to the profiles. Dwight and his co-workers come across as real people with Second Life avatars.

So what to make of this? I described this as a viral approach to Second Life for the following reasons: First, the word is spreading by personal recommendation through chats, IM and blogs. Second, it has depth - your digging is rewarded with new, often hilarious discoveries. And this means you can feel like you are contributing to the story, "adding value". I would like to think I am doing that through this post.

The result is a ripple effect, spreading wider and wider, and luring more and more people. It might not bust the Second Life ceiling - but the newcomers I met seemed already in tune with what SL was about and looking forward to discovering more. I hope this post may encourage more to take a look. Pssst... pass it on.


dyerbrookME said...

Here's what I liked 100 times better about this "The Office" approach than the CSI NY campaign.

o They didn't have to rent 400 sims to put on the show -- at least, I don't see that they have more than one

o They didn't have to create a special viewer and obliterate the usual view of the world, and drive people to their own properties and fete their own FIC on a special shopping island-- that wasn't part of their agenda

o They didn't threaten to overwhelm SL with a million or even 12,000 sudden new viewers, they viralled in more slowly

o They didn't break on day of show

o They were totally accessible -- I had 3 tenants IM me that they were talking to the Dwight avatar -- he may have been puppeteered, but it was still thrilling

o The Office made the character who entered in SL someone like the average Joe in SL, not like CSI, a murder victim, and therefore having something wrong with her because she played with fire

o The Office leveraged the existing interest of SL residents and likely brought some new residents to SL who wanted to see what Dwight was up to

o A way was created to make the Dwight character and his friends interactive -- again, even if only puppeteered, it made him accessible in ways he can't be on the blue screen

Prokofy Neva

Nick Wilson said...

You've gotta hand it to them, that's genius. Thanks AL..

Nick W

Aleister Kronos said...


I think it is too.

Grace McDunnough said...

Brilliant post AK.

Thanks for sharing just enough to be complete without being a complete spoiler!

Robbie said...

This seems very interesting, from what you are saying I get the feeling - either these folks are simply brilliant marketers, or this growth is taking even them by surprise

Aleister Kronos said...

Mitch at Information Week has an interesting interview with Clear Ink about this. It seems they thought of this as a one-off task, to support the making of the TV show(s). However, the fact that they have furnished groups, visitor info and even realistic avatar profiles indicates a level of commitment that is higher than that required.

That's my roundabout way of saying I think it is genius AND its success has taken them by surprise (but maybe not as big a surprise as they may espouse).

JimmyJet Fossett said...

Aliester, good insights. I visted the Office 'set' in SL, as well as next door Troy's Tavern, and they added to the experience of having watched the TV episode.

Perhaps a question to be raised is whether only those a bit more experienced in using SL would have the ability to locate all of this (groups, etc.), and as such while generating 'buzz' among a user base already familiar with the medium, might be less appealing to non or casual users? Conversely, if enough 'viral buzz' is generated will it draw in newer users, who will spend a little time to learn how to use the present viewer, orientation, etc., and maybe make them stick around as well? Could it be that a more mainstream audience can be technologically savvy if motivated?

Anyway, I see a recent RL 'Office Convention' was held in Scranton, Pennsylvania
I think the one slated for next year may need to be brought into SL (Troy's Tavern perhaps?).

Aleister Kronos said...


Interestingly, while I was there I spoke with 4 or 5 newcomers to SL (and saw more) who had joined because of this episode - and who had found their way to Dunder Mifflin. I guess they used good ol' web1.0 methods - googling blogs and bulletin boards - to find out where to go. I was impressed with these folks' ingenuity - they prove you don't always need to be told in big, bold letters (but it helps!).

A good point about motivation - my sample of newcomers is hardly statistically significant, but it was clear to me that these fine folk were fans of the show who were intrigued and wanted to find the SL places from the episode. Crucially perhaps I think this conveyed a feeling of inclusion - of being part of a club.

I was also interested to see Prokofy's comment at the top, about the approachability of the Dwight avatar (and others?). No matter that it was probably "puppeteered". The level of accessibility, of engagement with people, networking, fosters that sense of authentic Second Life experience.

Kiwini Oe said...

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." I don't know how many times in my marketing career I've been asked to conjure up a successful viral campaign on the spot. But, it's like trying to be cool: if you have to say you are, you probably aren't, and if you try to plan a viral success like you would an ad campaign, it probably won't happen. It's difficult to predict ahead of time when it will happen, but when it does, you'll find a good deal of preparation had something to do with it. You are right: we were happily surprised by the extent of the response to "The Office" in Second Life, but because of the preparation applied to this opportunity, the in-world response was what we had hoped for, and then some.

The producers of "The Office" entrusted us with authenticity and doing the right thing in Second Life, so we knew that a few things had to happen. First, Dwight and Jim would need last names off of the standard SL list, just like every other new resident. We could have requested custom names from Linden Lab to match the characters in the show, but those would not have been available to the "real" Dwight Schrute or Jim Halpert. The producers gave us this kind of creative control from the start. We knew that Dwight and Jim would need groups so that they could have their titles ("Asst to Regional Mgr", "Philly Sports Writer"). Dwight would need a profile that would accurately portray his perfect first life, and Jim, his idealized Second Life. The producers knew that authenticity would also come from locales in Second Life, so location scouting was a big part of what we did. The three sets that we built (out of the eight scenes that we shot) were based on a respectful and creative knowledge of "The Office" character and lore.

We knew that using real Second Life names meant that these avatars would not live forever in isolation from the Second Life community. As soon as NBC released publicity stills that showed "Dwight Shelford," the Second Life community had their first point of contact, and it never really stopped. Daily care was taken to preserve and protect the character and personality of Dwight's avatar in that balance between being an empty one-shot avatar and being an over-exposed puppet. We applied the same standards and treatment to the other avatars that were created to add depth to the in-world group. The profiles were detailed because we knew that experienced SL'ers would dig deeper once NBC began to publicize the upcoming episode. (We live in a world where people truly believe TV characters are real, and now given this second degree of separation from reality, we made it clear that these were avatars created for the show; it was not really Dwight Schrute--how could it be?--or the actor Rainn Wilson.) Yet with actual Second Life avatars, fans felt the right amount of connection.

The IM's and friendship requests received before the show gave us an indication of what the reaction might be on Thursday night, and they started pouring in even before the first commercial break. As members of the Second Life community, we knew that there had to be someplace in-world to go after the show. Avatar-fans of The Office were able to bring their real life enthusiasm for the show into a familiar virtual setting, which we provided on our "back lot".

We felt an obligation to be true to two very passionate communities: to the fan base of a popular TV show and to those who identify Second Life as their community. Our project was better informed as we felt a kinship with both communities and it is gratifying to be a catalyst for the overlap between the two. Much of the credit for the preparation and success of this goes to TROI Timtam, both for her attention to detail as well as for her (literally) careful approach to knowing and doing what had to be done.

On a closing note: although there are the inevitable comparisons between CSI:NY and "The Office" in SL, they were two very different endeavors. I know how hard we worked in a short period of time on "The Office" in SL. The scale of effort on CSI:NY, both on television and in-world, was a different order of magnitude, and the Electric Sheep are to be congratulated for their concept and execution of it. (I donned my Second Life Mentor title last Wednesday night to help in-world and to be part of that phenomenon.)

It will be up to the producers of "The Office" to decide if or how they want to proceed in Second Life. I don’t know where this is all going, but for now, it's great to be part of it.

Aleister Kronos said...


Thank you so much for such a full and interesting comment. In fact - I think I will be cheeky, and promote it to its own separate post, as I think many people will be interested to read it - and may miss it, if it is buried down here in the comments.