virtual community


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.

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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.

If you think that Second Life members are just “users,” then the authors of Wikinomics would have to disagree with you. According to Tapscott and Williams, Second Life members are “prosumers.” These prosumers “participate in the design, creation, and production of the product, while Linden Labs is content to manage the community to make sure the infrastructure is running” (p. 125). In other words, they make user-generated content.

Residents create most of the content—not Linden Lab. This empowers each member to build avatars, houses, relationships, and essentially, a second life than can differ from their real one as much as they want. There are about 8.5 million members, with approximately 1.6 million that have logged on in the past two months. When you compare these figures to other social networks like MySpace or Facebook, it doesn’t seem like Second Life is such a big deal. But…countries have opened embassies in Second Life to boost their image. Esteemed universities like Harvard and Stanford are teaching online classes in this alternate world. Brands are selling their products to raise interest to those members that actually log on. What is it about Second Life that makes the trendsetters stumble after it?

Tapscott and Williams think the answer is “prosumption,” and that Second Life is so successful because it relies on the following key points (p. 148):

  • More than customization: rather than being mass customized to tailor to a group of people, Second Life allows each user to build an alternative identity and even use Linden Dollars ($270 Linden Dollars to $1 US Dollar) to mold the lifestyle.
  • Losing control: Linden Labs proudly states that they have little content on Second Life. These enables the members to treat Second Life as their own platform with seemingly infinite freedom.
  • Customer tool kits and context orchestration: Second Life hit the jackpot in making their product “modular, reconfigurable, and editable” (p. 148). This user-friendly nature of Second Life enables anybody to log on, funnel in some money, and use the materials available to them to create their identity.
  • Becoming a peer: This is fueled by treating the members like peers rather than customers. Second Life is successful with this in that Linden Labs only controls 1% of the content—this puts the ultimate power in the hands of the members.
  • Sharing the fruits: Members of Second Life feel ownership and entitlement of their virtual products. Members can buy and sell products, and therefore have a stake in Second Life.

It’s hard to determine where Second Life is going to be in the future. I’m baffled by the idea of an alternate identity to begin with—don’t social networks like Facebook and MySpace reinforce your personal identity and image by displaying your own interests, activities, education info, pictures, friends…? Personally, I’m a fan of this website that I came across: Get A First Life, a spoof on Second Life. Number of total members? Oh, about 6.5 billion.

Despite it’s criticisms and backlash, there are still loyal supporters to Second Life that believe in its general purpose and future. These prosumers will be the ones that determine the potential success of Second Life in the years and months to come.

As soon as I read that we were studying virtual communities this week, Jamiroquai’s 1996 “Virtual Insanity” popped into my head. In this new virtual world of interaction, oftentimes this sense of community can become linked to an idea of chaos. The name of Jamiroquai’s album, Traveling Without Moving, highlights this idea of online communities—in a time where they hadn’t even begun to really gain ground in cyberspace like they have today. And of course, there was the music video that most people think of when they hear the song. Jamiroquai walks on a conveyer with the image of moving, but actually staying in place. A metaphor for the online world? Depends on how you look at it.

Facebook: a new online community
Facebook was launched on Harvard’s campus in February of 2004. Following suit of an ideal online community, Facebook was originally marketed towards college students who wanted to get in touch with students on other campuses as well as connecting with members on their own campus. In April of 2004, Facebook made its way onto my college campus through vigorous word-of-mouth. Following the path of the Ivy League schools, UVA students quickly scurried to their computers to sign up for this new networking site. At the time, I barely knew what it was, and I had not even heard much about MySpace or Friendster. All I knew was that it was obviously popular in New England schools, and we saw ourselves as trailblazers for what we thought might be a fleeting trend. As we now know, Facebook has erupted into massive phenomenon not only for college students, but for anyone with a working e-mail address.

Facebook’s growing popularity
So what is it that makes Facebook so popular? Work and geographic networks are almost as popular as undergraduate and graduate networks. For myself, it started out as a great way to get in touch with high school friends and see what old friends were up to. Not before long, however, it turned into an opportunity to create long profiles, add photos, links, and exchange gifts. Facebook has become its own empire, complete with t-shirts and other paraphernalia. Obviously, this is no longer just a “college thing.”

Our dependence on virtual communities in cyberspace
The very definition of a virtual or online community is a group of people that interact on the internet. Online communities have become a rather fluid concept. I have a number of friends that will deactivate their facebook accounts, only to go through a kind of withdrawal and reactivate it in a week or so later. Not only do they feel out of the loop with new information—cultural, local, gossip, or otherwise—but their friends give them a hard time for getting rid of their membership. In an age where communication is key, Facebook serves as the ultimate tool.

Where is Facebook going now?
The new applications on Facebook have been met with mixed responses. There are an overwhelming amount of new applications to customize your facebook page. Being curious, I added a few—soon after, I had somebody tell me “Your profile is starting to look like a MySpace page.” Enough said, because I quickly deleted all of my new apps and kept my page at the bare minimum. Many Facebook users have chosen the site over its competitors like MySpace because of its simple interface and sleek look. The last thing a loyal Facebook user wants to hear is that it’s turning into MySpace.

The power of Facebook
Facebook became popular at a time when college students were looking to connect with one another. Websites like College Humor allowed students to send in pictures, videos, and stories to share. Facebook enabled students to personalize this information with their own profiles, while still being able to share things they thought were amusing or funny.

As a generation, we have become especially adept to this notion of sitting at our computer and learning about almost anything. The customization of the internet is what has powered Facebook gain so much momentum. Now, anybody can sit on their Facebook account and get link to YouTube videos, personal blogs, or the most recent news articles and political debates. It’s the very essence of traveling without moving. The very hustle and bustle of the online world has a chaotic factor to it. The personalization of RSS feeds, Facebook accounts, Google homepages help control this online world of virtual insanity.