Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Second Life Killer Apps and Weak Ties

When I was in school we used to sneak out, drive down to the coast and go surfing. (yes Dad, I know I never told you) When we got back our friends would almost always ask "How was the surf?" and most of the time it was "Alright". But there were those rare times that the surf was really, really good - take your breath away good - and we'd answer: "It was -------- killer."

Fast forward to my land-locked career life and the word killer reappears, this time as a modifier, ala "killer app" or "killer application". This phrase means very little to most people; I could not find a standard definition so I lifted this from The Jargon File:
The application that actually makes a sustaining market for a promising but under-utilized technology. First used in the mid-1980s to describe Lotus 1-2-3 once it became evident that demand for that product had been the major driver of the early business market for IBM PCs.
For those of you new to Second Life, you should note that the founder of Lotus Development and the developer of Lotus 1-2-3 is Mitch Kapor. Mitch Kapor is also the co-founder of the EFF, founding Board Chair of the Mozilla Foundation and is a founding investor in Linden Lab.

Mitch is no stranger to "killer apps" so it's not unusual to me that Mark Kingdon / M Linden, now CEO of Linden Lab, has found fascination with the phrase.

But, like that killer wave that you catch once in your life, it seems that Mark's having a hard time really nailing down what constitutes the "killer app" for Second Life. I've seen/heard him use the word several times in the past year or so as follows.

M Linden quoted from his posts on the Second Life blog:
Apr 2008: Second Life has many magical properties, but one killer app is Second Life for work. It can’t be beat. 
May 2008: Inworld collaboration is going to be a killer application
Jul 2008: I’ve come to see a couple of use cases as future killer apps – namely virtual meetings and education
Jul 2008: Even though the initial novelty has worn off for me, I am blown away by how effective Second Life is for meetings. I am fully convinced this will be a killer app
Jul 2008: Using the virtual meeting environment for education is an even more exciting killer app. Dozens of universities are buying land from us or working with other inworld providers every week and the pace is accelerating. Seventeen of the top twenty universities in the US have land in Second Life.
M Linden quoted in interview with Second Places:
Oct 2008: Mr Kingdon says his company is still looking for the “killer application” that will draw in the casual consumer. He suggests “it could be live music, learning a new language, visiting a virtual landmark. It could be connecting with friends to go out for a night of dancing.” But arguably, those things will always be available in a richer form in the real world.
M Linden quoted, Agence France-Presse"
Mar 2009: The array of things people do in Second Life has blossomed. One thing that has popped out as a killer application is business meetings.
What I hear Mark saying for the past year is that somewhere there is a breakout, ass-kicking application of Second life for work, and mostly for meetings - meetings for business, meetings for education, meetings for collaborating.

Take all the imaginative power, creativity, persuasion, immersion, community and passion that is Second Life, do you think the transformational application for Second Life will be about meetings?

For me that answer is just a "meh", not because I don't appreciate a good meeting, but because I think Mark is missing something more fundamental about the strength of weak ties.

We have meetings primarily to sustain or maintain our strong ties, not our weak ties. And because they are strong ties, our preferred choice for interaction is "in person" and secondarily via phone, VOIP or video conferencing but not virtual worlds. Mark et al hold meetings in Second Life because it is their job - drinking their own bathwater - but you, Mark, are not your audience.

Strong ties reinforce homogeneity and don't spurn organic growth. The leverage toward mass adoption and transformation within virtual worlds and social spaces resides within the weak ties and the ability to navigate the paths of our connectedness over which we would normally be stymied in the real world. Weak ties help us build bridges that help us solve problems, find information and unfamiliar ideas. Weak ties further innovation - that is the target of a killer app. NOTE: For a lesson in weak ties, please read Mark Granovetter: 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology, 78 (May): 1360-1380.

The killer app within Second Life is that which allows for rich fields of weak ties, that which affords relatively easy access to other people, other art forms, other spaces, ideas, cultures, music, and all within the context and dynamic immersiveness of Second Life.

More recently, Mark spoke of another "killer app". M Linden follow up to Metanomics talk:
May 2009: We absolutely have to make it easier for musicians and other performers to perform meaningfully in Second Life. We’ve looked at the challenges extensively and have a good idea of what we need to do but we won’t be able to get to it in 2009. We see live performance as a “killer app” in Second Life.
Furthermore, at the opening of the MacArthur sim yesterday, Cory Ondrejka indicated that it was watching live music emerge in Second Life that "led directly" to him to taking the position he holds at EMI. He even says:
Music became this killer app in Second Life years ago.
As a live musician in Second Life, I might be standing on a chair applauding - but I'm not.

Why? Because live performance cannot be a killer app unless it can adequately leverage the strength of weak ties and currently the infrastructure, poor performance and design limitations of Second Life social systems - groups, chat, messaging, and events - does not provide us the ability to do so.

How many groups can you join? 25
How many live musicians are there in Second Life? Hundreds

How many group notices fail to deliver? Too many.
How often does group chat fail? Too often.

Where is the messaging system that allows for casual conversation that doesn't result in social harassment, banning or group expulsion because you were chatting in the group IM?

Where is an event system that has a robust search capability, one that you can put on a calendar, one where you can see who else is attending, or one that allows comments, that allows you to share with others?

I could go on and on, but I'd like to hear your ideas about how Second Life might change so that weak ties become the killer app.

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