Saturday, 9 February 2008

Dutch banks depart Second Life - some thoughts...

Sometimes I get the impression that Linden Lab places rather a lot of emphasis on the "Lab" part of the name. Like a vast scientific experiment, they have created this fascinating virtual world, given it some vital nutrients (in the form of LSL, the L$ and the like) and then sat back to observe what happens. Generations have come and gone under their watchful - but largely uninvolved - eye. Aside from some essential maintenance to weed out what they (often rightly) perceive as dangerous and damaging fauna, Second Life is left to get on with it... whatever "it" may be.

"And quite right, too!" is a reaction I can understand. However, as both a private citizen of Second Life and a rather stop-start corporate evangelist, my feelings on the matter are somewhat mixed. My private citizen self says "Yeah... leave it to the residents and watch how it plays out. All sorts of stuff happens - some good, some bad - so just seize the moment, enjoy it while you can, 'cos it may not be here forever - but let's hope it will." In my more frivolous moments I might even be tempted to add a: "party on, drude"

My corporate evangelist self has a different take on it (and is unapologetic about the buzzword frenzy to follow). Second Life provides a great environment for immersive collaboration and innovation. It collapses geography, instantly co-locating colleagues from around the physical world in a common, shared 3D space where they can network and share ideas around a single virtual view. It is also an environment that challenges marketing people in unexpected ways. It reveals that virtual spaces, while capable of sharing many of the same visual cues as the physical world, are profoundly different in ways that I, a mere mortal, find hard to nail down and that drive some fascinating challenges when trying to define marketing campaigns in this seemingly familiar, but actually rather alien, channel.

Returning to my laboratory metaphor, it seems to me that LL don't really care whether corporates thrive or die in SL. Indeed, it would be unscientific of them to get so involved with the subjects of their observation. Yet this is a naive (some might argue, arrogant) view of the role of corporate (and other non-resident) users of Second Life. Unlike most laboratory situations, the Observed pay handsomely for the right to be observed.Yet they get little in return. A small example is the unwieldy sales process, about which I might write on another occasion.

What has prompted me to write now is news, reported at Mindblizzard, that Dutch banks ING and ABN Amro are pulling the plug on Second Life. To grossly paraphrase Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one bank from SL, Mr. Rosedale, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness."

Both banks took an "innovative" and "creative" approach to Second Life. They didn't just set out their stall and hope people would wander by. They actively sought to build genuine communities here, offering something distinct and unique at a time when most corporates were treating Second Life as a 3D billboard. I am therefore deeply concerned about their departure, and deeply concerned about the long-term viability of Second Life as "the Virtual World of choice" for the future. I still firmly believe that web3D will be an important part of the digital experience for all of us in years to come. But this turn of events is worrying me, a fan of Second Life. I have to wonder whether Linden Lab are simply too detached from both the world they created and the physical world in which they are running a business.

[Apologies if this is a bit rambling - but it's late, and I wanted to get this posted. I'm not a journalist, just an enthusiast - but I hope I got my point across.]


dyerbrookME said...

I'm trying to grok this. You don't have to answer -- but are you Dutch yourself?

I can't grasp the "deeply concerned" stuff. I didn't happen to see these particular banks but hey, they're just banks. I mean, banks aren't that exciting, really, even when you have money on them.

I visited some of the German banks and they had freebies, nice builds, helpful information ATMS where I could start to stash some Euros and flee our dwindling dollar value in the States. Now wouldn't that be a nice thing? I imagine they just couldn't justify the little microtransactions, or maybe there were legal/licensing issues, who knows.

It would be better if those banks stayed, and felt they got something out of SL. But...they didn't. And...we didn't either, did we? So, it will grow slower, and maybe not as impressively, but they will be back some day, possibly.

Please explain more about what upsets you.

When I think about banks, seriously, I draw a blank as to what I'd want from them other than: interest.

I can compliment a campaign like Chase has had recently, with really spiffy, well-lit ATMs that make my neighbourhood safer, longer hours, and stuff like rebates if you use their card on a cab. I'd love for them to be in SL, too. can you do banking in a leaky, crashy, public place like SL? It's scary enough on the Internet itself...

Aleister Kronos said...

First off... no, I'm not Dutch (i'm a Brit) - but I have been watching Dutch companies (among many other) in SL for over a year, and have been largely impressed by their efforts. In the case of ING, they worked to bring the Our Virtual Holland community into SL, while ABN Amro worked on a similar project, Schoondamme.

Both companies - it is irrelevant that they are banks - seemed to me to have come closest to hitting on the elusive magical formula for successfully working in virtual worlds. Their apparent failure - or perhaps the failure of SL as a VW platform - is thus a concern to me. At least, when I'm wearing my corporate hat.

I would like SL to be all things to all people - and all companies. But I am wondering if this hope is misplaced. At least one of the 2 banks may be de-camping to Active Worlds (as others have done before it). I also hear rumours that one of the big build companies may shortly abandon SL in favour of pastures new.

I am concerned that either (a) there is something inherent in SL that makes it unsuitable for commercial organisations or (b) there is something inherent in VWs that make them all unsuitable for commercial organisations.

Working with proposition (a) - I would say that Linden Lab's detached observer approach is a major contributory factor. Arguably, the environment - for all its flakiness - is vastly more stable, populous and feature-rich than any of its current competitors. So what makes it so unsuitable? Sure... using it the wrong way is a great way to get ghost sims, but the 2 banks worked to tackle this problem, but still end up feeling they've had enough of pushing against the tide.

I contend that Linden is not company-friendly, and that if they were, perhaps departures like this would not happen.

If proposition (b) is true, then I can kiss goodbye to the notion of a comprehensive 3D internet. Instead, there will be just a bunch of niche worlds, catering for the escapist fantasies (and/or dream realisations) of bandwidth guzzlers like me.

Incidentally, I don't think either bank ever intended to offer virtual ATMs or get involved in the joys of L$ transactions, but were instead looking to attract RL customers, use them as focus groups, and explore with them what 3D internet banking might be like.

Lem Skall said...

Al, I don't know exactly what the approach was for those banks and why they gave up. I am also skeptical about what would be a good approach for any banks in SL at this time.

Having said that, I agree that it should raise an alarm for LL and yet they seem to usually take it quite lightly. They should be looking at ways of supporting the presence of corporations and institutions. Some people may disagree with their presence, but I agree with you that they are necessary in order to create the "comprehensive" metaverse.

LL is a small company and maybe it needs to distance itself from the vastness of potential commercial users. However,there are already well established building agencies that act as conduits between LL and these commercial users. And yet LL have chosen to distance themselves even from these agencies (despite all the stories about a FIC). I think LL need to create an ecosystem (I used to hear Cisco using that term) with those agencies and help them help commercial users.

Aleister Kronos said...


Interesting idea about an ecosystem. I agree that LL is a small company with big demands on its resources - development, maintenenance, sales and customer service, as well as marketing and "thought leadership." (I'm enough of a cynic to lump thought leadership and marketing under the same heading...)

I have doubts as to whether the big names really have that much of a clue as to what works for corporations. I can't think of a classic success, off the top of my head.

On reflection, LL have already taken some steps in the ecosystem direction, with the outsourcing of some orientation and large regional customer service (Brazil and Korea, for example). However, they should look to go further - and importantly, be seen to be supporting and listening to corporates and other organisations in SL.

Lem Skall said...

I looked up a reference to Cisco's ecosystem and I found this:

It's funny how uncanny some similarities are. Even some common buzzwords like "open systems" and "interoperability". There is nothing new under the sun.

Lem Skall said...
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