Friday, November 24, 2006

A Room of One's Own

I work in new product development, and the first question we ask ourselves when evaluating a new product or service concept is: "What is the consumer job to be done?" or put differently, "What unfulfilled needs does this product meet?". The answers help shape the product concept and focus and naturally, when this question was posed to me about the Second Life platform, it peaked my interest. As part of the Kuurian Expedition, I led a round table discussion with Gwyneth Llewlyn on November 20th to seek out answers to this question directly from Second Life residents.

The round table was an interesting Second Life experience for me on a number of levels - not the least of which was trying to facilitate an open discussion with 15 participants without the luxury of using body language and basic human interaction cues. All in all I found it mentally exhausting and sometimes frustrating, but a good dialogue nonetheless.

I'd like to say we covered all the bases, but keeping 15 avatars on topic is challenging even under the best of circumstances. The detailed transcripts have been posted by SignPost Marvin on his site, so I am not going to do that here, but wanted to highlight just a few of the discussion points I found interesting.

A Room of One's Own
The title of this post was inspired by a comment made by my friend DrFran Babcock - an allusion to Virginia Woolf's essay entitled A Room of One's Own. The context of use was a *home* as an expressed need. In DrFran's words:
Yes, I have a sense of home here. There is a space to which I retreat when I need to. It's not a space so much as a space to be on my own and create... Like Virginia Woolf's A room of one's own.
DrFran's point of view resonated with me. I found that after a few weeks in Second Life, I was feeling a bit lost without a home. At that time, I met my now dear friend Micala Lumiere, who not only offered me a place to live on Mill Pond, but even more important, a community of which to be a part. Mill Pond is just one of many places that offer residents a chance to be part of a community, rather than be stuck randomly somewhere on the mainland. Micala has even provided people a haven in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, adopting the "tumbleweed hotel" model made famous by George Whitman.

There are a few people such as Anshe Chung who have wagered that having a physical home in Second Life is an overwhelming need - the booming virtual real state business seems to indicate that is the case. On the other hand, the non-physical home seems to be what is most appealing to people.

SIDE NOTE: I've tried several ways to count the number of groups within Second Life, but the search result sets are constrained to 100 - if anyone has this number I'd really be interested. Nonetheless, it seems that shortly after their rezz day, people join some kind of a group.

I had not given any thought to the notion of safety as a need that Second Life can fulfill, and this was an interesting part of the discussion, especially as the news we often hear about online communities is the lack of safety.

Safety was most often described as safety from physical harm - the result of which is a willingness to participate more fully. Second Life thrives on participation so one might assume that meeting this need would be paramount to Linden Lab from a product management perspective.

To that end, we touched briefly on whether the CopyBot was a threat to people's safety - as it seems that perceived safety has a place within Second Life. The flight or fight reaction to the CopyBot most clearly indicated to me that safety is not only a need, it may be a lynchpin of the resiliency of the platform.

Do Avatars Have Needs?
This is a topic I wish I had pushed harder to explore; it is a point that intrigues me the most. At one point, a participant said:
I'm surprised by my avatar sometimes. ... It made me think about how more outgoing my avatar is than I am for example ....
This led me to wonder if there are a set of distinct needs that do not exist in the physical world, but become apparent in virtual spaces. As we assume an identity as an avatar, do we develop a new or complementary set of needs that must be met in order for our virtual existence to thrive? Do our human and avatar needs intersect?

Some participants were very clear that avatars do not have needs, I am less sure. In fact, I would argue that with the ability to extend ourselves into a new space, our needs increase accordingly.

I may hold another round table discussion on this topic alone.. once I can find that soap box.

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