We are not blind to the appeal of Second Life: Build a virtual life that is more interesting and entertaining than reality. But three words keep us from enjoying this too much. No matter how compelling virtual life may be (cue the words), it isn't real.
Should executives considering Second Life initiatives intone those words? If they do, will they be seen as cynical or smart?
We don't deny there is value in Second Life for companies willing to look for it. After all, its residents spend some $7 million a month on virtual land, products and services, according to a recent BusinessWeek story.
A Sun executive mentions the ability to dazzle prospective clients with visuals such as a rendering of a server deconstructed before their eyes.
An ABN Amro exec cites the ability to make communications with customers more direct and personal. (Not as personal as speaking to them face-to-face, but opportunities for that kind of contact have dwindled as bank customers conduct more transactions online or at ATMs.)
Wells Fargo is doing its best to convince a young demographic that banking is hip by letting them sky-dive and go clubbing on its Second Life island. Other companies that have established outposts in Second Life include Toyota, Dell and Cisco.
IBM is perhaps the most ambitious to date, with its plan to establish an internal emerging business opportunity group that will focus on virtual worlds such as Second Life.
Yet tangible benefits are hard to come by in all of the glowing press coverage. Now some observers, notably blogger Clay Shirky, are questioning the number of users, which Second Life says is approaching 2 million. Shirky contends the site is counting too many one-time users who check out Second Life to see what all of the publicity is about and then never return.
He also points out that the coverage neglects to include any mention of earlier failed experiments in virtual worlds, such as LambdaMOO. Media types have been quick to latch onto the concept of virtual reality because it is one that is simpler to understand than, say, social software, he says.
So what's an exec to do? Maybe get someone with their finger on the Web pulse to help determine which online opportunities are real and which are only virtual.