My new corporate blog

astral-flowerAfter some thinking about this, from now on, I have split my usual posting between my other blog (Gwyn’s Home) and the corporate blogs here at Beta Technologies.

When I started blogging about Second Life®, my original purpose was quite naive: create a place where starting residents (newbies!) could find some information about Second Life. It was supposed to be a sort of “guide” — but a guide written by someone who was actually also starting her first steps in Second Life! Each time I figured something out, I would immediately blog about it (well, I had far more free time for blogging, that’s the simple truth!).

Soon, however, I found out that there were far too many “beginners’ guides” out there (my personal blog still gets lots of queries for “tutorials” or “free scripts” or “clothing templates!”), and I should just turn to something else: discussing the implications of living and working in a virtual environment.

That did, indeed, capture my attention for the past five years.

Starting in 2006, we saw the arrival of a new generation of business in Second Life. It was not only the people creating content in SL and selling it for a few L$. It was not just land barons. And, to a degree, it was not only pseudonymous avatars doing transactions in SL. A new type of business — the Metaverse Development Companies (MDC) — had arrived on the Grid, and were here to stay. They are real companies, with physical locations in the real world, with employees getting paid through bank transfers, and paying taxes like any other company. Their clients were not other residents of Second Life — but other companies, as well as universities, institutions, or the Government. For all purposes, they were conducting business transactions outside of the Second Life economy, and thus it’s always hard to estimate how big that market is.

Surprising at first, most residents were baffled at how these companies could survive at all. Labour in Second Life was cheap; for as little as L$500/hour, you could hire any reasonably good content creator, and most would work for free anyway. How would real companies manage to survive with all that low-cost competition?

The answer actually baffled our original team (just Eggy Lippmann, Moon Adamant and myself) in mid-2006. Residents come and go; content creators appear one month or one year to disappear forever in the next week, either because they got bored with Second Life, or stopped outputting content. For a large group of content creators, Second Life was entertainment — something they did for fun, and this meant that their “real job” (in the sense of their job outside Second Life) always had priority. They quickly got tired from answering emails or IMs from their angry customers and just deleted their avatar and started from scratch with another one. The notion that work in Second Life actually entailed some responsibility was completely out of their minds. Doing business with them was a nightmare.

Of course not all thought like that. But, again, surprisingly, the number of reliable content creators in Second Life in 2006, the kind that corporations and institutions are after to establish business deals, was quite small. Beta Technologies was created to fill that niche: when the real business meets the virtual world, it means responsibility, liability, quality processes, and the ability to meet a deadline with professionally designed content. The many freelancers in Second Life were simply unable to provide all of that.

On the reverse side of the mirror, many individuals also were quite reluctant to engage in “serious” business with real life corporations. A few stories popped up in the past about some less reputable organisations who simply took all the content and refused to pay for it, alleging all sorts of reasons, but the most usual one was simply being able to afford not to pay a pseudonymous user. What could a resident do? Hire a lawyer to fight against the megacorps? It was highly unlikely…

Today, fortunately, the content development business is quite mature. Linden Lab lists over 300 developers on their Solution Provider Directory, and these are just the ones that bothered to get listed. Over 30 are Gold Solution Providers, like Beta Technologies, which has been through a long, detailed, and thorough process of validation, where Linden Lab has taken some pains to interview clients, view the overall work delivered, and confirm credentials. This list doesn’t include a lot of reputable organisations, like universities and not-for-profits, that regularly output content in Second Life for other real life organisations — they’re also “metaverse developers”, just working under different assumptions (i.e. they don’t work for a profit; but they most definitely wish to cover their costs!).

While I was still happily walking around the grid in search of cool things to see, to do, or cool people to meet, part of my daily work was spent in the more administrative aspects of running a new company. I’m no stranger to that, of course, but working in Second Life was really way more challenging, since so many things we take for granted are so different. Perhaps the thing that mostly affected me was to have to deal with this idea that “people in Second Life are playing”. I used to tell my colleagues and friends that I had to go back home, because I would be meeting a client in Second Life. At the beginning I was merely laughed at; later I guess that some of my friends just thought I was plainly insane. Right now, I’m a bit more careful — I just tell them that I have a teleconference to attend with clients from overseas, and so I have to get back to my computer where I have all the required setup. This is far more acceptable in the corporate world: we’re used to teleconferences, and most of them do not happen in the office any longer, specially if you work across 12 different timezones, as I did for a while 🙂

Still, the reverse is also true. These days, except for a few scattered exceptions, I tend to login to Second Life only for business-related work. I’m aware that a lot of residents who work for other metaverse development companies have simply created a different alt when they want to join SL for fun. I never managed to do that, and as time goes by, it makes less and less sense to me. On the other hand, in the real world, I can easily separate between “work” and “fun”. If I’m at the office, people usually don’t ask me out to go to a dance club in the middle of the afternoon. Even though a lot of people still believe that MSN is just good for setting up dates, since 1997 I’ve been using instant messaging tools just to do business — but at least I can turn it off if I don’t want any interruptions (like I switch off my mobile phone during meetings!).

In Second Life, the separation is not so clear. I might be in the middle of a meeting, but a newbie I met the day before asks me for some tips and help in IM. A friend, living on a different time zone, sends me a teleport request to join a party — because they assume that if I’m in Second Life, I’m free and having fun (or bored at work — yes, there are so many lucky people who have time to be bored at work and log in to SL for some fun!). For them, declining politely the IM or the offer to join them at a club, is even more weirder than explaining to my colleagues, friends, and family that I have to attend a “teleconference”. They can’t understand how someone possibly has a job that makes them stay in Second Life and not have fun! (Well, actually, most of my work in SL is fun, although not all of it…)

And it’s always hard for me to explain to someone that just dropped inside a corporate meeting that we’re not really socialising and chatting about trivia, but actually trying to get some work done. Most of them don’t believe us, or just think we’re some strange roleplaying types that get their kicks by pretending they’re business managers 🙂

All this is actually quite fun if seen from the right perspective, and part of being alive in the 21st century — very likely, the first century in history where the fine dividing line between “work” and “play” is so narrow as to become invisible. So, naturally, this whole aspect of Second Life — Second Life as the tool that will finally shatter the barrier between fun and work — caught my attention as a blogger, and I wrote a lot about it.

Although it was quite unexpected or unplanned for, the articles about this strange relationship between “work” and “pleasure” caught the attention of many of my readers. I can’t possibly claim any credit for being the “first” in writing about it — after all, almost all my competitors in the MDC business wrote about it very early, as well as a lot of media journalists, specially after Anshe Chung became famous for making her first US$ million from work done in Second Life.

But it certainly was something that I quickly found out to be even more interesting than writing tutorials for newbies (please, no disrespect intended; I still teleport to the Help Islands and spend some hours there, just to have a feeling on the type of newbies that we’re getting, and what are their current major issues with Second Life). In a sense, I started to write for “business newbies” — people that had heard about Second Life, wanted to engage in business here, but were completely lost in the process. They needed something to hold unto that gave them reassurance that things in Second Life might be “weird”, but, like doing business on a country you never visited before, the weirdness goes away as soon as you start getting familiar with it. That was my purpose: making people familiar with Second Life, and understand how it is valuable as a business tool.

Well, it’s now time to split my blog in two 🙂

On my original blog, I will continue to explore one aspect that always fascinated me about Second Life. It was, for the first time, a technological tool that fundamentally allowed me to think about my self. I’m familiar with several other approaches, of course — from the sciences of the mind. I hardly expected to find a tool that would allow me to explore the self using, well, a crude thing like a computer. But this is a vast field — and it encompasses what I find cool and exciting in Second Life, as well as more trivial things like SL fashion, or how art is slowly blossoming inside this medium and coming up with novel ideas, or, well, how we view and explore relationships inside a virtual world. There is always so much to talk about this whole area that I could spend a lifetime writing about it and would never see beyond the tip of the iceberg.

On this blog for Beta Technologies I will address the issues that mostly affect business in Second Life: how the technology and the in-world economy work, and how both influence the use of Second Life as a business platform. Oh, I’m sure I’ll be digressing a lot — that’s the fun bit about writing about Second Life 🙂 I rarely have any idea where things are going to lead, and I’m quite sure that the whole entertaining aspect of it (and writing about it!) is just to follow the process and see where it ends.

After all, none of us at Beta Technologies would ever imagine that we’d be here, today, doing what we do for a living…