It's hard to open up a newspaper or a business magazine without stumbling upon an article about Second Life, the Linden Labs virtual world which has a thriving virtual economy, a real estate market, a crime rate, and a host of other pleasures and pains you'd think were only available in the real world.
Retailers, including big names like 1-800 Flowers, have launched virtual storefronts on Second Life (see article), I assume in hopes of attracting virtual customers that might someday turn into real customers that spend real dollars instead of Linden dollars. IBM has an avatar-run customer service center on Second Life (see article), and Sears, in their own version of virtual re-creation, launched an avatar shopping site for teens and tweens this back to school season(see article), along with already having a Second Life 3-D home showroom. Maybe that Land's End Virtual Model really was just ahead of its time.
Now, if you're an e-commerce marketer who's tapped out real world marketing media like email, search, TV and print, this might sound like an interesting opportunity.
But a few things I've read recently might make you think twice - or they might make you even more curious.
The WSJ recently published a story called "Is This Man Cheating On His Wife", about an addicted Second Life user who has all but abandoned his real world life and wife, opting instead to (get this) spend over 14 hours a day in his virtual life, where he has a job, a wife, a sex life and a large circle of friends. When I finished the article I concluded: a) this man needs serious help and b) he and others like him are never likely to become an attractive target for real world retailers, given that they are never in the real world, unless it's to sleep, eat and go to the bathroom (the only three things you don't do on Second Life).
Then, an article in the NY Times called "Even in a Virtual World, 'Stuff' Matters", made me think again. Materialism definitely exists on Second Life, with avatars buying up better hairstyles, clothes and shoes, and even taking on second jobs to be able to look good and keep up with their avatar Joneses. But here's the catch: a lot of real world brands have flopped on Second Life, with names like Calvin Klein virtually ignored (no pun intended), American Apparel closing up shop and Wells Fargo abandoning its presence. So the rebellion against mainstream brands is alive and well, with independent designers and entrepreneurs succeeding at a faster rate. Lesson learned: retailers setting up shop will face a new economy of discriminating avatar consumers.
But, I've saved the best for last. Here's the real kicker: we might all actually be living in someone else's Second Life right now. Another NY Times article, this time in the science section, not the business section, will really make you think. It's called " Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy's Couch". We've all seen The Matrix and wondered if we might all just be part of one big video game. But now there's actually (according to an Oxford University philosopher) a very real mathematical chance that this is indeed the case. He says "my gut feeling ....is that there's a 20 percent chance that we're living in a computer simulation." So, if that's true, all of the work you're doing to run a successful business, have a fantastic web site and market effectively to your customers is actually someone else's doing. Note, this would probably not be a good thing to bring up the next time your CEO asks why your business is not growing as fast as he'd like to see.
Now, for me, the thought of not being in charge of my own business and my own life seems preposterous. But in the off chance that the Oxford philosopher is right, I've decided to take matters into my own hands (as much as is possible, given that I might be controlled by someone else). Since so many retailers seem to be floundering to establish themselves on Second Life, I'll be setting up an e-commerce consulting practice there. Who knows, with a couple of good engagements, maybe I can buy a new outfit and look as good as the other avatars.