Disintermediating the developer

Inside This World has just completed a Second Life proposal to a company suggesting they follow the IBM model. IBM have committed a heresy, building their own multi-island facility using their own employees*. The result is a messy and incomplete build which challenges the orthodoxy of Second Life and threatens to succeed and set some precedents.

The beginnings of corporatisation in Second Life followed the agency-client model made famous by J Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett and BBDO; that is to say, the client needs an image and by virtue of its introspection and inherent lack of creativity is unqualified to construct it. An agency is a specialist in strategic thought. They are custodians of the Menorah of creativity and the sacred maps of the media landscape.

In the tradition of this model, Second Life developers have brought many significant corporates into Second Life, influencing their strategy by virtue of their specialist knowledge of the Second Life culture and using their creative skills to produce slick, impressive looking buildings.

Readers of this blog know that I have been critical of some of these, arguing that there has been perhaps too much emphasis on a pretty shopfront and a press release and not enough on working out exactly what they’re doing here.

I spoke to a couple of the people involved in building the IBM environment and what was striking was their pride in their achievement. There was a real sense of ownership of the project and I’m telling you right now, this will be a thriving community. These people have a stake. On IBM 7, (okay they need an agency to give them a hand with the island-naming) there is a virtual community comprising IBM employees and ex-employees. It’s called Greater IBM.

This is a very sensible inititiative with or without Second Life as it extends the reach of the corporation among a very powerful alumni but it is an absolutely perfect application of Second Life, which generates sympatico like it’s going out of style. All that is necessary for this to succeed is to provide some social activity and allow people the space to collaborate on projects; doesn’t matter much what they are. I notice a machinima competition already exists.

So for companies such as IBM who understand the concept of a virtual community, are committed to a long term presence and have people with a relatively advanced skill set (my client has the same situation) this is a far better approach than an island handed over by a developer with a set of keys. Who has a stake? The developer has been paid (“call us if you need anything”) and the company don’t have the skills to evolve the facility. The buildings sit there like mausoleums but a Second Life site needs new content to an even greater extent than the web. You need new products/events/attractions/traffic to make people return.

If the IBM approach is as successful as I think, where does this leave the developer community? Will they cater for the less sophisticated companies? It’s a moot issue currently. Because of the Second Life growth rate all developers are in demand and for a couple more years there will be enough companies wanting impressive edifices to keep those with professional design credentials employed. I think that for some clients though, there is already sense in developers guiding, mentoring, consulting and training rather than developing, implementing and handing over.

IBM’s new Virtual World division will be doing Second Life development for their industry partners; Circuit City are an early sign-up. IBM’s stated goal is “to be a recognized leader in virtual world solution development”. I think the approach they have taken to their own islands shows that they are on track and it will be interesting to see the degree to which they apply their own approach to other companies’ projects.

* I note that Aimee Weber is assisting IBM with the House of Horizons project, which is not yet public.



  1. Hi Bret. Another great post.
    I think the IBM model of setting up in SL to then assist other companies (primarily their own client list I guess in the first instance) is one that PA Consulting is also adopting. I think the jury is out on whether or not this approach is going to work in the medium-long term.
    Instead, I think the agency-client model will be the most successful. Because, at the end of the day, a flashy building is just a flashy building. The companies that can genuinely offer unique and creative solutions within SL will yield the most joy and I think these companies will have to work with SL marketing/developer agencies to achieve this.
    At present, we’re only seeing the larger companies (global brands) entering SL and they are working with the small number of (rapidly growing) SL agencies. What we’ll see next is the second tier of companies (country-centric) paying attention to SL and integrating SL into their marketing plans. So, we’ll see a growing number of smaller SL marketing agencies catering to these second tier clients. That’s exactly why I have set up a small SL marketing agency in the UK.

  2. I really enjoyed your post and appreciated the postion that you are taking on the development in SL. As a company that came relatively early to the equation, we have been resistant to take on new corporate clients until we could wrap our minds around what is and is not relevant and to whom and why.

    It is flattering and enticing to see the new wave, to have other large entities waving large chunks of money at you with the hope that you can magically breathe relevance into their programs. As a company that has spent 28 years working on implementing our creativity into all new forms of emerging technologies, we saw the metaverse as the next inevitable stage on which to test theories, try art for art sake and have fun experimenting and letting the creative minds roam around without a leash.

    I also think it is equally narcissistic to presume that everyone is building a world to suit the old troop of SL residents. That is naive as the Mayans presuming that Cortez would hang out, take a wave or two and bail. Sure SL will have lots of lookylus with short attention spans. But as that comes and ebbs, a new paradigm will evolve in the metaverse in which more bright minds will codiscover deeper truths in the power of this new social application.

    Combine and project this with the day that your black box and your dlp lcd tv are all one system with surround sound and streamed wirelessly at optical fibre rates, and that is why we at The lllusion Factory are obsessed with SL and metaverse opportunities. To the extent that developers realize that we are in a tivo world that demands less advertising, and more corporate involvement with culture, I think SL will succeed. If the general public discovers that their favorite brands are just another web site plopped into SL by a few guys who know how to model and script, you will discover another dot bom.

    My humble advice… enjoy the new paradigm. Do things because they need to be explored. Show the rest of the world what virtual space offers that no one else has dreamed of… be unique and laugh along the way. Then old SL residents and newbies will know the truth in your goals and you will be an event worth watching…. not avoiding.

    Thanks again for sharing… you bring great insight into how many corporations are seeing this opportunity… and for the limited exposure I have had thus far of IBMs accomplishment… I say Kudos! It is fantastic to look at and I have no doubt that they will make great visuals and opportunities come to life that we may not have discovered thus far.

  3. I think the reason why the IBM’s approach is succesfull for IBM, is because their setup is geared towards their own community. They use SL to prototype their own ideas and to communicate with their greater IBM network. And doing it yourself gives it a very friendly family feel to it. Coworkers seeing what each is up to, etc. And for that it doesn’t matter if there are imperfections or prefabs.

    But for instance Reuters is focused outward to the larger audience and not themselves. And for that it helps greatly to have a slick custom build, and not all kinds of prefabs around that people have or will see all over SL.

    For instance AMB AMRO a dutch bank opended up in SL, and they choose to go with inhouse developers to do it. And sure you can see they have talent, but they defenitly miss the expertise that a dev company can bring. The reason they did this was that they wanted to prove that it could be done inhouse.
    But the goal of the Island was to reach outwards to the Dutch community. While it did bring them the publishity they wanted and new sl’ers who couldn’t see the difference yet. In the long run the difference will become appearant. And then is the question will the inhouse devs still beable to keep up.

    Offcourse this a lot like the early web, where some did things inhouse and others hired out. Succes and fairly happend on both fronts.

    My advise would just like everything else you do in SL, base your decision on who your targeted adience is.

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