Does Philip Linden need a Colgate Smile?

I’ve written articles about the Colgate Smiles in Second Life. I’ve written about the Second Life Banking Ban in many places, and recently about Philip Linden being sad. People have asked if I really believe that avatars need to be able to smile, that the Second Life economy needs banks, or why I was so harsh on Philip Linden. To me, it is all part of the same question; what is Second Life really about anyway?

Too many people view Second Life as a game rife with sex and scams that nonetheless is getting some sort of interest from corporations and educational institutions. Others are very happy with the types of role playing that Linden Lab allows them to engage in, as well as the commerce to buy and sell clothes, skins, and other objects to enhance their role playing and don’t really want to see it change.

I believe both perspectives are too narrow and overlook the real potential of Second Life and other virtual worlds to become the key platform for the Internet in the twenty first century.

What makes Second Life compelling as the basis for the Internet platform of the twenty first century is three fold. It is the immersive three dimensional nature, which many recognize, combined with the community aspects and a functional microcurrency. If you fail to pay attention to all three aspects, you end up with something much less compelling.

An immersive three dimensional nature is nothing new. In the mid 1990’s I was experimenting with the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) to build websites that had an immersive three dimensional element to it. The VRML consortium has changed into the Web3D consortium and I hope to see further developments with VRML, Web3D and ideally those efforts coming together with Second Life and other project like OpenSim and Croquet. There are plenty of immersive three dimensional options out there. Second Life needs to be more than that, and I believe it is. In any of these environments, you don’t need a smile, but it makes the environment look better.

The second component is community. If you look at the popular websites these days, whether you talk about Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or many others, they are all about the community. They are about social networks, connecting with friends. In my case, I try to bridge some of this by using the Facebook Second Life application and using the TwitterBox to integrate Twitter with Facebook. This gets to a place where the Colgate Smile is even more important. The buzz agents that distributed Colgate Smiles went into Second Life and interacted with the community. They handed out useful objects, not only the smile, but also lists of interesting places to visit. They got into discussions. They helped new people learn how to use Second Life.

Many people complain about how difficult it is to get started in Second Life. Perhaps some of this is because the folks at Linden Lab don’t recognize the value of the community aspect of the experience. While it has been nearly two years since I was at Orientation Island, I don’t remember much for interaction with other people there. Perhaps it has changed, but I’m not hearing stories to indicate that it has. On the other hand, when CSI-NY had its little adventure in Second Life, I visited their orientation space, and whenever I got engaged in some IM discussion and appeared idle for more than a few minutes, someone was bound to come over and ask me if I needed help. Like the folks at Colgate, they understood the importance of community. So does Philip need a Colgate Smile? The smile itself isn’t as important as what smiles stand for. They stand for friendliness and approachability and that is something that Philip, no-reply (who seems to send out all their emails), and all of Linden Lab desperately needs.

By better engaging with and listening to residents, Linden Lab can make considerable progress in setting the direction for the Internet platform of the twenty first century. Failure to do so will make them less relevant.

With that, one of the things that I expect will be very important is the role of the Linden Dollar. By referring to the Linden Dollar as “a limited license right available for purchase or free distribution at Linden Lab's discretion, and is not redeemable for monetary value from Linden Lab”, Linden Lab may be trying to carefully skirt legal issues, but they are clearly missing the potential of Second Life and failing to interact with the community. None of us want our money to be controlled by the discretion of some company, yet that is what Linden Lab is asserting, and by taking actions like the banking ban is illustrating that they will continue to do.

Yes, we could continue with Second Life without banking or without any currency at all. It would crimp a lot of activities. The currency adds to the environment by providing ways in which live musicians can earn a little extra, ways in which non-profits can raise a little money, and ways in which creative people can create and be compensated. All of this could be done with other external currencies, but it would be more cumbersome, less frequently used, and the failure to keep a meaningful currency integrated in Second Life would further damage the community fabric of Second Life.

So, as the Linden’s and others argue about how community and currency should be managed in Second Life, we would all be wise to look at the bigger pictures of where all of this leads us in our search for our Internet platform of the Twenty First Century.