For my Digital PR class this summer, I wrote about the idea of “virtual insanity” and the strange ever changing online world. I’ve also blogged about Second Life and how this trend (well, trend would mean it’s somewhat temporary, but that’s another topic for debate…) has been on the rise lately.

And now, we’re reading Julian Dibbell’s Play Money which details Dibbell’s quest–and success–in becoming a millionaire by selling “virtual loot.” And I’ve got to say. . .this seems like BS to me.

Social networks, blogs, etc–that’s all one league of online behavior and habits that I enjoy and participate in. But the virtual communities and second identities seems beyond what my imagination can stretch to. Second Life and these virtual communities seem like outlets for people to escape their real lives and fantasize about an alternative identity for themselves. This all seems fine and dandy, but what about when it gets out of hand? There have been examples of rape and crime in Second Life–obviously people have taken their imaginations too far.

Dibbell has been able to make a living off of his virtual loot in second life. I agree with what John said on our Google Groups dialogue: “That being said, I think that virtual goods are a stupid idea. There is no reason anyone should pay cash for a free item (paying for entertainment is one thing, paying for non-existent items is beyondme). I dislike the idea of Microsoft points in the Xbox marketplace and I don’t like the idea of having to pay for second life dollars and real estate.”

The fact of the matter is, these virtual worlds aren’t real!!  It doesn’t seem entirely ethical to me to be making millions off of something that doesn’t even exist, and this is why I don’t agree with Dibbell’s business venture. It seems somewhat exploitative; on the other hand, however, people seem to be willing to buy their virtual loot online, even though it fails to actually exist.

What I have to say about this is simple: virtual communities foster some sense of togetherness, but once we go over the boundary of paying for these free good I think people have gone too far.  Go out and explore your real life! Don’t be so dependent on the computer screen and a fantasy world when there are real problems not only in the world but in your own life. I think the rising dependence on virtual communities is unhealthy for the overall online and real world communities.

I’ve heard this phrase–the long tail–tossed around, and I never fully grasped what it meant until I started reading the first four chapters of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. The long tail basically refers to niche marketing and its importance in our current economy. Thanks to online companies like Netflix and Amazon that rival their store-only competitors (well, what started out as store only), these online giants have perfected the idea that people can customize their profiles and have their choices actually come to them rather than seeking out movies, books, etc.

I loved the way Anderson opened his book with the example of the mountain climbing book. A twenty year old book has been given a second chance thanks to generous online distribution, niche choices, personalized suggestions, and its presence on the long tail. Amazon turned the book into a best seller by coupling it with a similar selection. Like this book? Try this one, too. It works. And so does the long tail.

long-tail-graph.gif

In a world where virtually everything–information, books, knowledge–is easily accessible, the long tail demonstrates that niche marketing and consumption is as important as ever. Everything around us is personalized now–from our Google homepages to our Nike shoes to the engraving on the back of our colorful iPods. Most of the websites I use every day require some kind of log in information, and continue to provide me with choices that will be of interest to me.

The long tail is important because we’ve come not only to expect a vast selection of choices but to demand it. It’s frustrating to go into a store and be turned away because the selection you want isn’t in there…and it’s so easy to log in to your Amazon account and find not only what you’re looking for, but also a few more options you didn’t even know pertained to your interests.

What’s popular in our culture (iTunes Top 10 Songs, and so on) will continue to attract the majority of people, but after a certain point the choices taper off. Those choices to the right of the graph–away from the head and defining the tail–contain niche fragments. Consumers can belong to different parts of these niches. The overload of information and the sheer volume of choice makes these niches absolutely essential to our lives as consumers and online users.

Amazon and Netflix both started out with overwhelming choices, personalization, and customization. Others such as BN.com–which started as physical stores and later tapped into the online world–have followed suit with more selections offered online than in the stores. Blockbuster succumbed to the pressure of Netflix by offering their own expanded online mail services for movies.

I’m all for the long tail and niche marketing, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen as more companies adapt a bigger inventory in an effort to customize and personalize the selections for their customers. Netflix and Amazon have been so successful because they were the pioneers of this new type of economy. I am interested to see what will happen as this slowly becomes the norm, and the tail might taper off for the big guys so that the newcomers can participate in the long tail.

I read Wikinomics for a class this summer, but this time around I couldn’t help but think of Facebook’s new applications. Earlier this year, Facebook opened up their website so that people and companies could add applications and users could add them to their profiles.

I find the influx of Facebook applications and their popularity to be absolutely amazing. Facebook was already popular as it was–in a way, it was a giant collaborative effort where every member had their own profile, participated in groups, and had multiple networks of friends, family, classmates, and colleagues. But what Facebook had obviously wasn’t enough. The Facebook Applications show the need for more–more interaction, more collaboration, and having some kind of impact on the wikinomony (wiki+economy). In August alone, over 14 million users used the various Facebook applications.

14 million users…but how successful has it actually been? A closer look at the long tail shows that a very small number of Facebook’s applications have even been successful. Regardless of this fact, however, stands the notion that the very idea of Facebook third party applications are necessary to keep Facebook alive amidst the sea of Wikinomics.

Tapscott and Williams rightfully argue in Wikinomics that the “heart of MySpace is the personalized profile. Members fill them with interests, tastes, and values, supplemented by music, photos, and video clips that make their profiles even more appealing.” (p. 29) Facebook went from having more static pages with fairly basic questions to adopting the MySpace way of social networking. Customizing facebook pages with the third party applications is where the bar is, and Facebook sought to surpass it.

I think that Facebook’s pursuit of the third party applications is exactly what has brought its value up over the past six months. In September of 2007, Microsoft bought out 1.6% of Facebook for $240 million, meaning the actual price of Facebook is billions of dollars. Had Facebook remained the way it was–sans third party applications–I doubt their numbers would be able to go that high.

Wikinomics stresses that collaboration is happening not only on a social or social networking level, but more importantly on an economic level. The four basic ideas of Wikinomics–peering, sharing, openness, and acting globally–are all evident in Facebook and its new applications. Non-Facebook third party application developers are the very essence of crowdsourcing and mass collaboration.

So what does this mean for the future of Facebook? Wikinomics is the name of the game, and Facebook has to continue to allow Facebook applications to enter their space. But when is too many Facebook aplications simply. . .too much? There is already an overload and the long tail has already made itself noticeable. Facebook must stay on top of mass collaboration to stay ahead of their competitors and thrive in the market.

I posted a question about texting on this week’s Google Group and it really got me thinking: texting has evolved so much over the past few years in our country, but it’s still sub par compared to other places around the world. Why is this? Rheingold‘s book is a little outdated when it comes to texting since it was printed in 2002, but at the time the reason was that you couldn’t text with consumers of other cell phones providers (Verizon could only text with Verizon, Sprint with Sprint, and so on).

But I’m not just talking about the sheer numbers of texts we use every month. Sure, texting has increased in the US and is almost matching Europe, but other countries have taken it to a whole new level. Rheingold opens up Smart Mobs by discussing the power of texting in Japan. Young people gather at places because of widespread text messaging. This trend has hit other parts of the globe, too. Protests in Chile and unrest in France have both been attributed to the influx of texting habits in those countries. Asia leads the international pack in terms of texting, with Europe following behind. The US has been catching up, but not quite to the extent that the rest of the world is dominating.

Rheingold’s explanation doesn’t hold up for today–now we’re able to text all of the phone service provider networks, but we’re not surpassing countries. We don’t have subway meet up initiatives like in Tokyo. There seems to be a lack of urgency with texting in the US.

I think the reason for this is that, in Europe for example, people have been reliant on texting as their main way of communicating. Everybody has cell phones, but these phones come with cards that have to be charged when the $20 or whatever runs out. Calling other cell phones is expensive and the price is docked from the money that you put on the card. Texting is the cheapest option.

And what do we have in the US? Well, now we have unlimited IN texting so that it’s literally free to text with anyone in your network–and these usually come with texting bundles with an additional 50o or 1500 free texts. And who doesn’t know or love this commercial with the old grandma saying “IDK, my BFF Rose?”

But even with all of our free messaging, however, we are still falling behind. True–video and picture messaging has gone up, but why hasn’t texting in the US soared given all of the seemingly high advantages? As the younger generation gets older, it has become their norm–but not as much for those just a few years older. As for Europe and Asia, seemingly everyone is using texting to communicate.

We haven’t become dependent on it because we haven’t needed it. While other countries were using texting to communicate, we had Free Nights and Weekends on our cell phone. Now it’s the norm for almost every member of a family to have their own computer and use it for AIM, G chat, and other messenger services. Blackberries are buzzing at every metro and Starbucks around the district. With this overload of utilities at Americans’ disposal, there hasn’t been a dire need for texting. Sure, it’s a nice thing to have and companies are capitalizing on giving it to their consumers for free, but now it’s more of an added perk than anything else.

Let’s take a step back from the America-centric bubble of Google and check out what China’s doing…

Battelle explores what’s going on with search in China. Extreme internet censorship has prohibited Google from becoming the phenomenon that it has become in the states and in so many other countries around the world. But just because China hasn’t become “Googleized” doesn’t mean that they haven’t figured out their own formula.

It’s exceptionally important to understand what China is doing, because “China represents a problem for a democratic businesses–its political and moral cultures are repugnant, but its market is far too rich to ignore.” (Battelle, pg. 204) Battelle notes that in the fall of 2002, the Chinese government filtered Google and other search engines–but this caused a huge backlash among Chinese citizens. Google censors its website for China–definitely making an exception for the growing population. China has continued to be a problem for Google…something they can’t quite conquer.

Censoring their website belittles Google’s very own goal to crawl through websites and obtain all the information relevant to a search. By censoring the information returned to the searcher, Google doesn’t have all of the charisma that it has outside of China. In defense of this, Google released the following statement: “While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information… is more inconsistent with our mission.”

So what does China use if they don’t rely on Google? Baidu. And what has this basically meant for Google? “Hey, we don’t really need you. We have our OWN Top 10 search engine.”

And that they do. Baidu continues to be the predominant go-to for Chinese citizens living in an e-world of censorship. Baidu and Google’s home pages look remarkably similar, as does much of their ideology. In a business overview, Baidu claims the following:

“Our mission is to provide the best way for people to find information. To do this we listen carefully to our users’ needs and wants. Have we collected all the Chinese web pages they want to see? Are the pages current and up to date? Are the search results closely related to their queries? Did we return those search results instantly? To improve user experience, we constantly make improvements to our products and services…Our users definitely notice the many little things that we do differently to ensure a simple and reliable search experience every time.”

And yet, Google continues to push and push…they want to bump Baidu out of the way and resume their #1 position in the world. As Battelle argues, “China is a huge market, and as a soon-to-be public company, Google could not afford to sit on the sidelines as competitors charged into the region.” (pg. 207).

I think we should leave China be. They have figured out a popular search engine for them, and who is Google to try to push itself onto one more country? Admit defeat and move on. Yes, China would be a huge conquest for Google, but the omnipresence of Google can be all but too creepy.

The China Question looms on. It would be absurd for Google not to try to tap into the Chinese market, yet they are definitely playing by China’s rules in doing so. China took the confines of their censorship, and did something about it–they didn’t take a backseat to Google by any means. It will be interesting to see how other countries may respond internally to Google’s bubble, or if they will continue to use Google when Search 3.0 rolls around.

Remember You’ve Got Mail? That 1998 romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? Kathleen and Joe, respectively, meet online and let their online relationship flourish as their personal one essentially crashes and burns.

An entire movie based around AOL e-mail, THE vehicle for online communication in the late 1990s. “You’ve Got Mail”…a term I now think of as synonymous with middle school and high school years (trust me, I’ve still got–and use–the screen name to prove my adolescence), at a time when I thought the internet was IT and there was nothing else that could surpass it.

Kathleen: We only know each other – oh, God, you’re not going to believe this…
Joe: Let me guess. From the Internet.
Kathleen: Yes.
Joe: You’ve got mail.
Kathleen: Yes.
Joe: Three very powerful words.

And weren’t those words powerful?! I really mean it. They came to symbolize at least part of my generation at the time. Maybe that’s a strong statement but I know that when we got AOL in our household it felt like a new world unfolding before our very eyes.

But…then what happened? POOF! be gone, AOL was out and Google was in.

Or was it?

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that John Battelle mentions in The Search that Google pretty much took over AOL’s search in 2002. Search for something on AOL.com and then search for it on Google–you’ll come up with remarkably similar results, thanks to the takeover of AOL. Battelle asserted that “Not only would AOL begin employing Google’s search technology; it would also be using Google’s paid listings.” (pg. 144). But, as Battelle argues, “the AOL deal was a major risk for Google.” (pg. 145)

If you ask me, AOL definitely paved the way for Google. With AOL, we could all start personalizing our login accounts with information that we wanted to explore. Sports? Entertainment? Any of those things could be personalized for specific AOL accounts.

Google took AOL…and then some. I wrote back in June (check it out–it definitely supplements this blog) in my class blog for Digital PR about the sheer power of Google. The idea of “Just Google It” speaks true now more than ever. Here’s a list of some ways I used Google today–without even really realizing it:

  • Gmail
  • G chat
  • Google texted for weather
  • Google texted a phone number
  • Google texted movie times
  • Google maps
  • Gmap pedometer
  • Google News
  • Google Search
  • Google Picasa for uploading pictures
  • Google Notifier
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Homepage
  • Google Reader

And…that’s no exaggeration. I pretty much live and breathe Google–don’t we all? They have managed to perfect the practice of vertical integration and diversifying their portfolio by truly tapping into every field they could think of–something that AOL never managed to fully accomplish.

Today, AOL announced they will be cutting 2,000 jobs; meanwhile, Google employee numbers continue to grow more than ever before. AOL claims that cutting jobs is their way to focus on online advertising rather than being an internet provider. Looks like that “ding ding ding” of my Google Notifier for Mac has officially replaced that void where “You’ve Got Mail” used to be.

Scoble and Israel’s focus in Naked Conversations is on how companies can integrate blogs into their businesses and make them more successful. But what happens when this goes awry?

The authors discuss L’Oreal’s Vichy blog campaign, which focused on the character of Claire. After Claire debuted in the blogosphere, bloggers were up in arms about the credibility of Claire as a consumer. Was she real? Was she merely the production of L’Oreal advertising? Vichy reacted to the outrage by ultimately shutting the website down, apologizing to their customers, and starting over from scratch.

But it’s interesting to see what the drama said about blogging culture. When it comes to consumer products, people want to know the truth–they went to know what’s real. They want the Avon Lady to give them her honest opinion on new products, and they want Claire to be a real person and NOT just the faux spokesperson of a new marketing campaign. People feel deceived when blogs are anything less than real and tangible reflections of a person or company.

Hmm…interesting, especially considering the popular surge in CEO blogging. Do we really believe that CEO blogs are the handiwork of a reputable CEO? That’s like saying that speech writers don’t exist, and that everything politicians say is straight from their own mouths. As students in a Communications program, we know the value of press secretaries and speech writers. Since blogs are quickly becoming the staple of communication, it would be hard to believe that a CEO doesn’t get any help with their own blogs. Are we holding CEOs of companies to a higher standard than we do to PR and advertising campaigns?

The issue comes down to trust. We want to believe that a CEO or politician is sitting as his desk pouring his or her heart out. Nice thought, isn’t it.

Let’s take a look at lonelygirl15. This started out as an online YouTube diary featuring a teenage girl. After popularity and fame, it was discovered that it was all a hoax. Multiple YouTube videos emerged saying what a fraud lonelygirl15 was. Again, the issue came down to trust. People who tuned in to watch lonelygirl15 believed that she was a real teenager discussing her life; exposing something otherwise caused feelings of deception. One might think that whoever was behind lonelygirl15 would be paralyzed by this scandal…but far from it. Now with a functioning website and new acting careers, the actors and crew behind lonelygirl15 were able to turn a bad blogging fiasco into a phenomenon. Had people known from the beginning that it was all an act, would as many people tune in each time? And as something so informal, should lonelygirl15 have displayed a caveat?

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction in the blogosphere. Some things are purely for entertainment (think: Dwight’s Blog from The Office, an obvious way for viewers to stay engaged in the TV show) while others require trust from the readers. With so much information permeating from every computer we look at now, I think we need to absorb everything with a teeny tiny grain of salt. We can’t hold CEO blogs to a higher standard that advertising or public relations campaigns because we have to keep one very important thing in mind: the CEO blog is itself the product of a PR campaign in some shape or form.