Eggs and Baskets: How Second Life’s Facebook Marketing Has Backfired

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

We’ve all heard that phrase, and it’s true, quaint as it is (particularly when you handle a lot of eggs, like I do). But time and again, for various reasons, people ignore that age-old advice and learn the lesson the hard way.

Interestingly, what’s happened recently between Facebook and Second Life illustrates perfectly a frustration of Second Life content creators when dealing with Linden Lab itself. But in all honesty, I don’t think the folks at the Lab have figured that one out yet. If they did, and really thought about it, it would give them much needed insight into one of the largest issues content creators have, and why many of them simply leave rather than try to work around whatever the Lab’s latest “obstruction of commerce” might be.

Ubiquitous = Necessary

As we all know by now, Facebook has become the default social networking site on the planet. When you get a movie made about your company called “The Social Network” I think you get to safely be able to make that claim. With well over 500 million accounts (which is larger than the population of entire large nations), and the single most visited site on the internet, you’re dealing with a juggernaut.

Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been open and staunch about his views on personal privacy. That is to say, he doesn’t believe it has any place in online life. He doesn’t really believe in privacy, and I think that can account for quite a number of the (endless) privacy breaches and failures Facebook has had over the years. What Zuckerberg really has done is create the world’s largest storehouse of marketing data that has ever existed, because Facebook tracks EVERYTHING.

It is not the functionality of Facebook that is important. It’s that data. No one on Earth has as much valuable information in one convenient location as Facebook about over 500 million people. It’s a marketer’s wet dream. It’s an advertiser’s best Christmas present ever. Finding a way to get hands on whatever fraction of that data is important to you, or finding a way to tap into that data stream? Is like spinning straw into gold.

Because of Facebook’s ubiquitous nature, it is a given that if you want to be seen as a business, particularly one that works exclusively online, you must have an active and engaging presence on Facebook. It becomes a necessary part of doing business.

The First Problem

Linden Lab’s rather unholy alliance with Facebook was doomed from the start, based on the privacy issue alone. Second Life is a world built on the notion of privacy. It has been a haven for people to escape the constraints of their day to day real world existence. It’s a place where they can build one of their choosing, which may not only have nothing to do with their RL one, but one that would be decidedly unwelcome in their RL, or perhaps even simply impossible. For every person like me, whose RL and SL move between one another freely (though ironically I do not now, nor have I ever had a Facebook account) there are a large number for whom the very thought is anathema. What’s more is that Second Life residents have steadfastly resisted any and all attempts to force them to more closely align their RL and SL existences.

Right there, with that fundamental misalignment of purpose, Linden Lab has a problem whilst attempting to create a presence for Second Life on Facebook. But at the time (and frankly, still), as I’ve said uncountable times, the folks down at Linden Lab care far more about potential new accounts than they do about the accounts they already have. In order to keep the economy moving they have to keep churn going, as newer accounts tend to shop more (after all, they don’t have enormous inventories already bursting to the seams with stuff), and old ones for various reasons slip away. So from the Lab’s perspective, they have to *try* to tap into that potential market. The allure of over 500 million people and all that marketing data is a siren song that’s impossible to resist.

In SL, that parallel can be made, loosely, to Marketplace. Though many content creators bristle at the various hassles of using it, the ability to market your creations to a much wider potential pool of shoppers is difficult to resist, particularly when making that potential money can make the difference between remaining in business and not doing so. In addition, new potential customers are always important as they don’t have an inventory full of your stuff already. In some ways, it’s much the same situation.

However, SL residents are not particularly interested in tying their avatar to that avatar’s typist, which led the entire plan afoul of Facebook’s Terms of Service from the starting gate, as Facebook specifically disallows avatar accounts- they only want “real people”, because avatars pollute their marketing data. They also go against the fundamental ethos of the site. Avatars provide a layer of privacy between a person and their online persona, and Facebook is specifically looking to remove that privacy as a matter of course.

This problem is one that has parallels within Second Life. It’s a case where a content provider or creator is forced to technically go against TOS in order to do the only thing that makes sense. For example, it’s against the SL TOS to allow someone else to access your account. But since the Lab makes no provision for multiple people to work on the same business(which is short sighted at best) in Marketplace, and in fact makes no provision for one person to have multiple stores (something that’s frankly stupid, outright), often times business partners are left with little choice but to break that rule.

One Business Per Avatar

The ToS Issue

The problem of Facebook’s TOS led to a problem that needed to be if not overcome, at least attempted to circumvent. Because the Lab wanted people to make the connection from Facebook to SL, and potentially vice versa via technical means, they needed a way for people to use their RL names within Second Life if they chose to do that, at least giving the indication of a nod to Facebook’s Terms of Service. That led in turn to the way Display Names were implemented within SL many months ago. Understand that the methodby which display names were implemented (not their existence- the method by which they exist) serves no other logical purpose but this one. None. There were many significantly better, more efficient, and more aligned with what SL residents were truly asking for than what actually happened. The only reason for this particular path is the Facebook connection.

However, the Law of Unintended Consequences said otherwise. While it is true that a small portion of SL users who choose Display Names are using them to show their RL name over their heads, the vast majority of those who are using them aren’t doing that. From my observation, the biggest use, sadly, seems to be the rampant abuse of Unicode, allowing people to mangle the appearance of their existing names using specialized characters to make them all but unreadable. While I support the use of Unicode, since I think people should be able to write their names out in languages that don’t use western English characters, believe me when I say that there’s an awful lot of people just messing with unicode in order to make their names look cool, at the expense of actual readability.

The fact remains that this whole RL/SL connection business didn’t catch on very much, which anyone with a lick of knowledge about how SL really works could have told the Lab. Wait. They did. Never mind.

People continued to create Facebook accounts for their avatar, and not link them to their real lives- because most people don’t want their SL and RL connected. Yet, the Lab continued to ignore the onoming freight train and continued to push Facebook as Facebook is the best place to find out about cool things going on in Second Life, share ideas, and get the inside scoop on inworld events, contests, machinima releases, PR activities, fun discussions, and more.”. One would of course think that Second Life would be the best place to find out about cool things going on in Second Life, but perhaps that speaks to the Lab’s (lack of) confidence in its own product, and it’s desperate desire to get a piece of the Facebook pie.

The Basket Drops

About a month ago, Facebook finally got around to doing what had long been expected- they enforced their own TOS, deleting thousands of Second Life avatar profiles from its service.. This puts Linden Lab in a nasty position- having invested quite a bit of time, money and energy into creating a connection between Second Life and Facebook, only to have Facebook declare that connection meaningless to them based on *their* ethos and priorities, is a slap in the face for the folks down on Battery Street. What is curious to me is how they didn’t see it coming- because I sure did.

While some decry this as a stupid move on Facebook’s part, the issue though is that Linden Lab now has a problem- they now have to figure out how to work around Facebook- something they have invested an entire projected model around. This is more than just a simple TOS issue on the part of Facebook. It’s about their core ethos- something that the Lab ignored not only at their own peril, but they specifically devoted resources to ignoring. The argument can be made that the decision to do so was at the expense of other, existing Second Life resources that are only NOW receiving attention, like search and marketplace issues (though both are works in progress, for sure)

The timing of this action is likely not an accident either. Facebook has recently announced its intention to add facial recognition softwarefor photos. As they are only interested in images of real life people (everything else skews their data collection abilities), now is the time to dump all accounts that are clearly not being used for that purpose. To them, it’s a simple database cleanup operation. To Linden Lab, it’s something much more problematic.

Time to Look Inward

Now would be an excellent time for Linden Lab to re-evaluate their projection models and cease to create marketing strategies that depend upon brand and product dilution in order to make them work. The fact is that most people involved in SL are simply not interested in connecting their RL identity to their SL one(again- I, personally don’t care. But I realize that I am in the minority on that)and that getting more people involved in Second Life must come from making Second Life *worth* getting more people involved with. It comes from valuing the people already supporting the platform and supporting the economy. It comes from really analyzing and investigating how the people here actually use SL, rather than attempting to force them into a model they’re simply not going to adopt. Anything less, and all people do is leave, and there’s no new people to actively replace them.

If you’re going to put your eggs in one basket- at least put it in your own basket. Not one that someone else is responsible for carrying- because their best interests are not necessarily yours.

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