3D avatars are everywhere these days, from Nintendo’s Miis to World of Warcraft to Second Life to the newly announced PS3 Home. But, while 3D avatars have been generally accepted in the game world, questions remain for applications beyond gaming. That’s what makes Second Life a bit of a special case since it’s not a game out of the box but more of a 3D MOO, a social space where you can build stuff. Perhaps, then, it makes more sense to think about Second Life in the context of social software than in the context of games. After all, social software is the place where end user content creation is king.
And when you think about Second Life alongside Web 2.0 poster children like Flickr, del.icio.us, Gmail, and 37signals, one thing becomes clear: where web 2.0 is typically characterized by strongly targeted apps designed to get things done efficiently, Second Life is anything but. For one thing, there is no quick-turnaround trip into Second Life. When you enter the world, you can expect to be there for a good while. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it is different: lightweight vs. heavyweight.
So the question becomes: If those prototypical social web applications are so tightly written and deeply social then what exactly is the use of the more heavyweight, time intensive experience Second Life provides? Of course, that’s the $100k question that everyone is racing to answer. And, since building stuff in Second Life has become my day job, I’ve been thinking a good deal about it. So far, the most interesting feature of Second Life to me comes down to this: I can stand next to you.
It sounds trivial at first but, as near as I can figure, that’s where all the really special stuff in Second Life comes from — the stuff you don’t see in the more traditional web2 gadgets. If you’re standing next to me, I know it. And the fact that you’re there brings social rules into play (strange as it is) — I feel obligated to say something, I feel obliged to wave, I feel weird if I do nothing. That kind of exchange can also happen on the web, but there isn’t the same sense of presence forcing lurkers to delurk or risk becoming social pariahs. The social acceleration 3D avatars provide can’t be ignored, from the ease at which folks walk up and talk to well-known figures (somehow you don’t have the same permission on im) to those folks that stop by your creations and ask about them, opening up opportunities for collaboration. Imagine, for instance, being able to see the folks currently looking at your photos on flickr and have them know that you know that they’re there — through a mechanism we naturally understand: personal proximity. I can see you standing next to me.
Community-focused 3D avatar worlds have been tried before, but Second Life (and compatriots like There.com, too) are happening at a particularly opportune time. A time when Web 2.0 ideas are everywhere and give us new ways to think about the future of the 3D MOO.