When Greg Verdino of Melville, N.Y., gets up to go to work, he no longer makes a dash for the Long Island Rail Road to commute to Manhattan. No, as chief strategy officer of a new marketing company called crayon, on many days he sits down at his home computer and logs into a 3-D virtual world called Second Life.
That’s where his avatar - a digital version of himself named Jiggy Stardust - meets and chats with the avatars of his co-workers, pitches business to new clients and helps run weekly networking events for other marketing types who are also in Second Life, which is known as being “in-world.”
After registering at Second Life.com, “residents” there, for no charge, can do just about anything they do in the world that most of us consider real, albeit certainly in a more stilted way - walk around, instant message one another, visit the “islands” that individuals and organizations have set up. As in real life, too, they may come across unsavory characters, such as vandals and harassers. But as a bonus, they also can get their avatars to fly and teleport from location to location.
Though it may sound like an online game, this is not a structured contest but a free-flowing world where residents travel, socialize, create things, even do business at will. For fees, they can buy virtual land and products, and operate v-commerce businesses themselves where their virtual profits can be turned into real money.
Roll your eyes if you will, but one Second Life resident who deals in that world’s virtual real estate has become a millionaire - that would be in U.S. dollars, not the local currency known as Linden dollars.
Populated at this point largely by those whom Verdino, 38, sees as the “geek elite” - hardcore technology users, animators, graphic designers - the space also is being used by college professors who teach classes there, as well as librarians setting up information “islands” to help newbies find resources.
Large companies, too, have created their own islands where employees collaborate on projects and meet with clients, as well as where companies are running simulations, testing concepts, connecting with communities and raising awareness of new products or services. Among them: IBM, CMP Technology, Sears, Mazda, Coca-Cola and Starwood Hotels.
Setting up an island, says Verdino, also creates a public relations buzz, pointing out that, “launching in SL got crayon onto the cover of the Wall Street Journal Marketplace section and ... on ABC News.”
Recruiters also are experimenting in Second Life as a potential source of new hires, with TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications LLC, a Manhattan-based recruitment advertising agency, having held its second virtual job fair there in August where avatars from Accenture, EMC, GE Money and U.S. Cellular conducted in-world interviews. In the wake of an earlier fair held in May, three or four people ended up getting hired, among them an executive chef who got a job with a food and facilities management company.
Launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, Second Life reports that it has 9.6 million registered residents, though some bloggers are quick to point out that not all are likely to be active visitors. As of Sept. 20, 474,434 residents had logged in over the previous 14 days, according to statistics posted on the site. And in the month of August, 639 new islands were added, bringing the total to 9,834.
It’s just one of a number of simulated 3-D Internet environments, including Active Worlds and There, that make up what’s known as the “metaverse,” defined on Wikipedia as “environments where humans interact (as avatars) with each other (socially and economically) and with software agents in a cyberspace that uses the metaphor of the real world, but without its physical limitations.”
Though most people today give quizzical looks when they hear the term avatar, by the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users and major companies are expected to have some virtual-world-type presence, according to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research company.
At this point the virtual world space “feels very immature like the Internet once did. It also feels very ripe with possibility,” says Amy Vickers, global director for enterprise solutions with Avenue A5/8Razorfish, a Manhattan-based interactive marketing and technology services agency. She says she spends two or three hours a month checking out new developments in Second Life, as well as a new student recruiting presence set up by her alma mater, Duke University. Saying she’s heard of “audience and marketer attrition” in the past few months, she adds, “We are not recommending it as a marketing tactic at the moment for our clients, but we are monitoring Second Life and other virtual worlds carefully as the landscape constantly changes.”
Here’s a sense of how some early adopters are finding career/workplace/professional development applications in Second Life:
_ CMP Technology, based in Manhasset, N.Y., just wrapped up a seven-day professional development summit in Second Life, complete with keynotes, panels and networking breakfasts for about 1,000 registered senior program developers - in avatar form, of course - from business, academia and government. It was just one of a number of such activities, ranging from hour-long chats to full-scale trade shows, the company has been holding for no charge, at least for now, for interested SL residents, says John Jainschigg, director of online technology and new business for CMP’s software group. Among the company’s business goals, he says: to build on its real-world events business, foster a global community, as well as be part of “the dialogue now shaping virtual reality.”
_ About 5,000 IBMers belong to that company’s Second Life employee community - networking, mentoring and collaborating avatar-to-avatar through real-time online messaging. So extensive is such virtual world activity that IBM has issued virtual-world guidelines for employees, reminding them that chats and actions are public and that “dialogue is similar to having a discussion or meeting in a public place, such as a hotel lobby or an airport.” Also that even as they are moving around that world as avatars, they need to be mindful of presenting professional images. That means they wouldn’t want to show up at a business meeting “dressed as a fuzzy character,” says Sandy Kearney, global director of 3-D Internet and virtual business.
_ Manpower, the Milwaukee-based staffing firm, in July set up a Manpower Island to help new SL residents learn some basics in avatar management - sitting, flying and teleporting from one location to another - as well as provide coaching in real-world and virtual-world job hunting and resume-writing techniques. The company’s goal, chairman and chief executive Jeffrey A. Joerres said in a news release, is “to help people, companies and governments understand what’s coming next in the changing world of work. The virtualization of the labor market is a key issue for all of these groups and our presence in Second Life will enable us to further define the next stages of virtual work, which are emerging in 3-D worlds.”
Among the benefits to networking in such spaces as Second Life, Verdino says, are “the wow factors. ... It’s cool and interesting and different to do.” Plus, he says, it removes geographic and financial restrictions to attending far-flung training and meet-and-mingle events.
But there are plenty of drawbacks and glitches, some related to learning to maneuver an avatar. An interviewee at one of the job fairs put on by TMP, the recruitment advertising firm, ended up flying into the interview room, instead of walking. Another, not knowing how to sit, ended up standing the whole time. And yet another mistakenly handed the company representative a beer can instead of his resume.
Yes, there are some “hiccups,” says Louis Vong, TMP’s vice president of interactive strategy. But at least at this stage, he says, they served more as “ice breakers” than preludes to career disaster.
For Steve Levy, a blogger and executive recruiter in Huntington, N.Y., such virtual-world recruiting leaves something to be desired. “I don’t want to see an avatar, I want to see a person,” he says, so he can observe the nuances of voice tone and body language. “I love technology,” he says, but, “how impersonal do we want to make personnel?”
Plus, he asks, who will be held liable if a candidate going for a virtual interview gets harassed by one of any number of renegade avatars roaming the space? Just check out Second Life’s “police blotter” section for a list of residents’ infractions, including assault, indecency, sexual harassment and disturbing the peace.
Nelly Yusupova, founder and president of Manhattan-based Digital Woman, a Web strategy and design firm, and chief technology officer of the networking group Webgrrls International, has reservations for other reasons: information overload and the amount of time that can be spent in Second Life.
Though she says she does see the promise, she also says, “I don’t even have enough time for my first life.”
SECOND LIFE LINGO
Avatar: A digital representative of a person having the ability to run, jump, fly, chat, instant-message and more with others they meet there
Furries: Avatars in the form of furry creatures
Islands: Individuals and organizations buy and design islands where avatars visit
In-world: As opposed to the real, physical world outside Second Life
Linden dollar (L$): Second Life’s virtual currency, which can be exchanged for U.S. dollars
Lindex: Second Life’s currency exchange
Meatspace: What most of us think of as the real, physical world, as opposed to virtual
Orientation Island: Good first stop where Second Life newbies can learn the basics
Resident: Those with an active presence in Second Life
SL: Second Life
Teleport, or TP: How avatars move instantly from spot to spot
V-commerce: Doing business in virtual worlds
V-product: What you buy or sell there