Facebook vs. Second Life: No Contest

Facebook Second Life

If you work for a major company and have even considered an outpost in Second Life, think Facebook first.

The technical novelty of Second Life has made it a favorite of the geeky set. And just as Facebook has received significant attention from mainstream media recently (e.g. Newsweek and TIME), so has Linden Labs’ virtual world over the last year or so.

Beyond the media hype — or perhaps, because of it — lots of major companies have established “in-world” presence in Second Life, from Adidas Reebok to Wells Fargo and including heavyweights like IBM, Coca Cola, Mazda, Major League Baseball, ING Group, MTV, Toyota, Disney and Dell. In the government and non-profit sectors, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Cancer Society have outposts.

That’s why a recently updated blog post, “Why I Gave Up on Second Life,” by Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson is a must-read for anyone consider a Second Life excursion.

I freely confess that I haven’t tried Second Life, so I’m not speaking from first-hand experience. (In some ways, I will even boast of this, because it gives me a ready response at work, where I’m perceived — correctly — as a technophile, when people ask, “Is there any technology or gadget you haven’t tried?”) I’ve seen some demos and screen shots, though, and from what I’ve read — including this Wired article — here is why I think businesses should put much more effort into Facebook (and MySpace) and forget Second Life (unless they want to consider it an educational experience for communications and marketing staff.)

  1. Size. Second Life claims an “in-world” population of 7 million avatars, but Linden Labs says the number of real people represented is more like 4 million because many Second Lifers have multiple personality disorder. Facebook’s user base is 10 times as big, and is growing by more than a million users a week. In other words, Facebook is growing the equivalent of a Second Life population every month.
  2. Engagement. As the Wired article pointed out, only a million Second Life users had logged in during the previous 30 days. Fully half of Facebook’s 40 million active users return at least once a day and spend an average of 20 minutes on the site.
  3. Reality. Do we really need another place on the internet where people can abandon their inhibitions by taking on a fake personality? Don’t we already have MySpace? As the TIME article on Facebook says, one of its chief advantages is that people mostly use their real first names and last names, not a Freudian alter id.
  4. Ease of Entry. You can get into Facebook in minutes, and don’t need any special software, just a browser. In Second Life you need to download the software client, and the hardware requirements are significant.
  5. Scalability – Each Second Life processor can handle only 70 avatars at a time, so you’ll never draw even a virtual crowd. The Apple Students group in Facebook, by contrast, has more than 424,000 members as of this moment.

Chris Anderson is as geeky as they come, as exemplified by his infatuation with radio-controlled UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). His “checking out” of Second Life gives me comfort that it’s not a place that I need to check into, at least yet.

Maybe as technology advances and the simulators become browser-based and more scalable, places like Second Life will matter for business. And for some of the corporations investing in Second Life, even the hundreds of thousands of real American (vs. Linden) dollars they spend are barely rounding error in their overall marketing budgets. So they can count it as continuing marketing education.

As Shel Holtz says, it might be a good idea to get the experience with 3D virtual worlds now, so that when they do eventually become important, you’ll be ready. He thinks that might be five to seven years. He didn’t exactly put it this way, but one of the benefits of experimenting with Second Life now is that you don’t have to worry about anyone seeing your mistakes.

I think Second Life is currently a long way from consequential for marketers, but my main point is not anti-Second Life. My main point is a positive one, and I leave it to you in the form of a question:

If you’ve even considered a Second Life presence for your business, why wouldn’t you immediately look for practical ways to use Facebook and MySpace?

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Author: Lee Aase

Married father of six and grandfather of seven, and the Chancellor of SMUG - Social Media University, Global. By day I'm the Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Whatever I say here is my personal opinion, and doesn't reflect the positions of my employer.

13 thoughts on “Facebook vs. Second Life: No Contest”

  1. A few individuals are already making good use of Second Life. It is important to understand what engagement means, and in what context we are talking about. I believe that the core killer applications for Second Life will be in the education domain and it shows. The education community in Second Life has grown at an unprecedented speed. Second Life has leveled the playing field regarding the use of virtual environments for Learning.

  2. Facile, derivative, factually incorrect–I don’t know where to begin on this, so I won’t.

    You haven’t even been in Second Life, yet you pontificate off-base, regurgitated half-truths! Reader, Beware! The b.s. here is thick.

  3. Thanks, Ramesh. I agree that experimenting with Second Life can be valuable, and can see that for education it could be really good. I don’t see it being hugely significant for marketing, at least yet. But my main point wasn’t really against Second Life, although speaking of b.s., Joe, the pro-SL hype has been over the top. I think it could matter someday.

    So what was factually incorrect? If I have misstated any facts, I will be glad to correct them?

    My main point stands; if you’re even thinking of Second Life, you should be in Facebook. I wouldn’t think that’s controversial at all. Not that you shouldn’t think about Second Life, but why would you ignore a platform that has ten times as many active users?

  4. I don’t think you are factually wrong, but I agree that your argument is facile, in that it uncritically makes an apples-to-oranges comparison (FB vs. SL) based on dubious evidence (a Wired article and disproportionate knowledge of one) to make rather grand general claims (A is better for marketing than B), which happen to coincide with your rather conspicuous bias (since I don’t see a “Second Life Business” button next to the “Facebook Business” button on your banner).

    Surely corporate marketing is not a monolithic problem space, and companies can have different reasons for developing (and experimenting with) different approaches to relationship and community development. How can you make a generalization that Facebook is objectively better, based on, of all things, a Wired article?

    Additionally, login as a measure of engagement has some rather obvious limitations. I log into Facebook a dozen to three dozen times more often than I log into Second Life. But Second Life captures my imagination, is filled with dynamic friendships, and often provides the *source* of the content that I later share on Facebook. I do not claim to be representative. But I do say that login is an overly reductive measure of engagement.

    As for “reality,” uh, how many of your friends’ Facebook photos look like your friends? About a third of my friends (and myself) have pictures that are expressive of something or other, but not the “real” me in a literal sense.

    I am not trying to advocate SL over FB. I love them both. And I see profoundly different business cases for marketing in each. I just like to see a little more nuance precede sweeping conclusions.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Jeffrey. I appreciate your thoughtful discussion. My opinion of this isn’t just based on a single Wired article, but obviously my knowledge of Second Life is superficial compared with yours.

    Actually, a lot of my friends in Facebook still have question marks for their photos. They are relatively new and haven’t quite gotten that part yet. They’ve joined because I invited them. But that just reinforces for me the difficulty of getting new people to adopt a technology, and with Second Life being more complicated and requiring zippier hardware, adoption will be slower. It obviously has been slower, as witnessed by the relative sizes of the two user bases.

    I do agree with you and with Ramesh that for some businesses and applications Second Life could be good, to create really deeply engaged relationships. If I had one thing to change in my original post, it probably would be the “forget Second Life” phrase. That’s stronger than I really meant. I think exploring Second Life is a good idea, and I probably will get around to it.

    But my main point was that there was such a rush into Second Life by lots of big brands, and they spent a bunch of money on it without much deeper knowledge of it than I have, mainly based on buzz or racing to be “the first ____ in Second Life.” I mainly wanted to say that if companies are considering Second Life or have gone there, they certainly should be in Facebook, too.

    As you note, I’m clearly an advocate for Facebook. I appreciate your contribution of nuance and balance. Corporate marketing isn’t monolithic, and just as the Peninsula law firm’s call for all companies to block Facebook doesn’t make sense, neither should anyone say all companies should steer clear of Second Life.

  6. I certainly don’t dispute this part:

    there was such a rush into Second Life by lots of big brands, and they spent a bunch of money on it without much deeper knowledge of it than I have, mainly based on buzz or racing to be “the first ____ in Second Life.”

    That drives me nuts as well. But now that the SL hype is cooling, I don’t want to see it go in the other direction, where people are choosing the opposite conclusion than before (from “SL is awesome!” to “SL is useless”), but based on the same media groupthink. (Magazine and newspaper accounts are often particularly vexing in this arena.)

    Anyway, thanks for your clarifications. I love to see thoughtful discussions about this stuff!

  7. I checked out your web site, and it looks like you’re into some serious research in this area. I feel the same way in that I don’t want to have the pendulum swing too far in the negative way on SL. As processors in general get more powerful, as bandwidth costs continue to crater, and maybe as browsers can handle the 3D, we’ll see broader adoption. I know my oldest son loves HALO and plays it over the net while he talks with teammates (and I know how the Geek Squad at Best Buy used games like this to connect and swap work-related stories), so I think I undestand some of the appeal and potential uses.

    Who would have imagined five years ago what’s happening in AJAX-based sites now? Well, based on your research profile, you probably did! So I definitely defer to you as someone who would know some of the real-world potential for these newest tools.

    I’m mostly concerned about people lumping MySpace and Facebook in the same category. They’ve seen the singles ads all over MySpace and equate that with what social networking is. And I frankly think the MySpace interface is awful.

    When it comes down to it, as I’ve said in another post, all of these new media are just tools, and the real insight is to find ways to use them to meet practical needs. I think the classroom setting Ramesh mentioned makes a lot of sense for SL. And maybe it would be a really efficient to put a meeting together with people in multiple time zones (or continents.)

    And yeah, just having fun experimenting with them is great…because you never know when an experience you have will create an insight that can fundamentally reorder how you approach a problem through tools.

  8. Interesting article. I don’t want to comment on the original article as much time has passed since it was written. The last survey I saw on Facebook mentioned the audience was 60% female and the demographic peaked between ages 18 – 24. This is great demographic for passive recruiting of employees as Ernst & Young does very well.

    SL has a far more technical demographic and offers three dimensional areas for meetings, training, recruiting and some dare to even experiment with economic modeling with a virtual banking system.

    Interestingly the CIA has a Facebook page and the US Air Force and Army are in Second Life. They both offer value which must be weighed against the demographics and goals of any effort. As we move beyond Web 2.0 and towards Web 3.0 Second Life will increase in popularity and value.

    1. Second Life definitely has its applications. I just think it’s more of an intense, small group niche like education as opposed to marketing. And my main point of the post was that at that time Second Life had gotten a lot of hype and companies were jumping in spending a lot of money to establish a presence. And if your organization is thinking about Second Life, you definitely should have a Facebook strategy.

  9. Here’s where your article completely misses the point. Real World businesses don’t belong in Second Life. In fact, Second Life residents shun and disregard the Coca Cola’s and IBM’s trying to foist real world products on them in a virtual world. Second Life and Linden labs generate more yearly revenue from subscription users than Facebook could ever hope to. Those users are looking for virtual products, not real ones. The most successful SL entrepreneurs get this and do very well creating virtual products for a virtual audience. The poo pooing of SL is evident in the tone of your article and you seem frustrated that RL businesses can’t seem to find a way to easily exploit this demographic. Keep your real world businesses in real life and feel free to exploit the vanity of Facebook users. Second Lifers aren’t having any of it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Alex. I wrote this post a couple of years ago, and at that point Coke and IBM were spending a bunch of money on Second Life…and my main point was that if you’re spending anything in Second Life you should definitely be using Facebook. I’m not denigrating Second Life (well, maybe just a little) but instead saying it isn’t a marketing channel. And it looks like we agree on that completely. I can see lots of good uses for Second Life; marketing just isn’t one of them.

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