Second Life in A Second World

This week I got a second life, a least temporarily. I spent a significant amount of time (significant for a mother, full-time high school teacher, and part-time grad student) discovering Second Life, both by becoming a “visiting” resident  for an afternoon and by reading an introductory chapter on Second Life ethnography from Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life. (My altered Goth girl avatar is pictured above visiting a dream selection world.)

Boellstorff spends a large portion of the introduction playing with semantics. Real world, actual, virtual world, game, escapism, techne, and a slew of other terms are dissected and mostly found wanting in accurately describing the culture of Second Life. As I am not a resident or fan of Second Life, I’m not about to enter into those debates (save for addressing my personal beliefs on several terms later). The points he makes are valid, yet dizzying.

The first passage from the book that got me thinking was this:

I show that Second Life culture is profoundly human. It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our “real” lives have been “virtual” all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human “nature” to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being. Culture is our “killer app”: we are virtually human.

That is something to think about. Don’t we populate our own “worlds” with the people, impressions, activities, interests, and “things” we want to be surrounded with? How different, really, is what we do “out here” different from what we would do “in there”? I think it is very similar while still being very different. (How’s that for a horrible response?) We can still behave like humans, create and live in a common culture with other humans, but in a growing simulated world. Acknowledging this, Boellstorff goes on to say:

…virtual worlds do have significant consequences for social life. … in virtual worlds we are not quite human—our humanity is thrown off balance, considered anew, and reconfigured through transformed possibilities for place-making, subjectivity, and community.

One connection that kept popping up in my mind was that of reading fiction. As an avid reader, I like to jump into the world of a book, much like video and computer gamers like to jump into the world of the game. I used to refer to it as escapism, but Boellstroff’s argument against calling Second Life escapism holds true with those mediums as well. He quotes another author who denies that reality is the physical world and computers are just distractions from it. Likewise, he said that SL cannot be called a game because it lacks a begging and an end, winners and losers. Yet I still feel that what compels me to read and read and read is the same compulsion that compels residents of Second Life to build and alter and explore. And yes, I think they are distractions from the physical world. I will gladly assume the moniker “naive realist” for saying so.

I think Boellstorff also acknowledges this point well when he refers to John Huizinga’s theory of play as an element of culture. Huizinga contends that there are three main characteristics of play: voluntary activity/freedom, a stepping out of real life into activity with its own personality, and limited time and place. I like the idea of gaming, SL, reading and other activities being called “play”, and I agree that it is necessary in our culture.

The question is whether you think that “play” is necessary in our culture today? Would you call Second Life play or are you a resident who thinks the term demeans or misrepresents what you do?

 

Beyond ‘Likes” and “Tweets”

Customers are providing a continuous flow of mind-boggling data in their online ventures every day. Sometimes they are very aware of how much they are telling the world about themselves, but most of the time they are oblivious to it. Nevertheless, the specific data, when harnessed, could be a wellspring of information to help marketers and organizations reach customers with tailored materials. Unfortunately, marketers have not all jumped at the opportunities, be it because of the relative newness of social networking, the challenge of harnessing, interpreting, and implementing programs utilizing the data. Now there are websites and companies sprouting up to help marketers do just that, including Google Analytics Tutorials and HootSuite. Both of the site mentioned help take the statistics from social networking sites and help guide marketing efforts and convert investments into revenue.

In a Mashable article titled “Why Marketers Should Get to Know Customers’ ‘Digital Selves’” author Peter Pachal refers to a point Adobe’s Chad Warren said, “When brands successfully connect with customers around the things they love, advertising ceases to be a commercial endeavor and instead becomes simply useful information.” Adobe and other organizations are attempting to tie together “signals” customers are sending out from many different places in order to tailor creative material to match customer interests. A great point Pachal makes is that in order to do this effectively, organizations need to build this ability to tailor into the marketing process from the beginning, rather that try to insert it as an after-thought.

Another Mashable article titled “Beyond Likes: How Google and Adobe Aim to Measure Your True Social ROI” compares Adobe SocialAnalytics and GoogleAnalytics in their abilities to harness the social media and other online customer data mentioned in Pachal’s piece to improve CRM. As proof of the scope of the task, author Todd Wasserman said, “Given the dynamic nature of social media and the mind-boggling number of variables involved with each campaign, isolating the elements that made a campaign successful might be tough.”

While some segments of the business world are clamoring to get to the numbers, there are some that are taking the more “listen and learn” approach before jumping into to social data pool, notably banking. In this article from American Banker, Shane Kite details several bank’s toe-dipping in the data pool, with no real commitment to scour the social networks for customer information. This could be because of the high level of compliance mentioned on HootSuite to which financial institutions are required to adhere. It could be because banks have a vested interest in maintaining impressions of steadfast, traditional, stable business partners. They note the rapidity with which a customer incentive program spread through social media, but it was through customers and not initiated by the bank.

In previous posts here and on classmate blogs, I refer to the value in harnessing online customer data for targeted marketing and surveying. With all this taken into consideration here are some questions I have:  For companies, are personalized marketing strategies worth the investment in the long-run? For customers, is being on the receiving end of personalized marketing creepy or comfortable?

Online Surveys as Research Tools

While most surveys can yield a valuable amount of data, both qualitative and quantitative, the convenience of online surveys can reach a wide sampling and provide a large amount of data relatively quickly and at low cost. An example of one recent study that drew its information from dozens of different online surveys was presented in the April 2011 issue of the journal Media Culture & Society. Jennifer Ann Hill discussed the effects of branding and advertising on the self-perception of children in “Endangered childhoods: how consumerism is impacting child and youth identity.”

Hill asserts that technology has been a double-edged sword, on the one hand inducing anti-social behavior and reinforcing racist and sexist stereotyping and on the other hand being praised for educational advancements. Consumerism of children between the ages of 4 and 12 accounts for $130 million annually, with the influence of $565 billion of their parents’ spending, which is why advertising and branding are specifically focused on controlling the purchasing power of these mini-magnates.

While this age group is physically, emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically different from adult consumers, media and advertising treats children the same and is blurring the lines of subjects that were formerly taboo and robbing children of their creative play and childhood experiences that are important in natural human development, according to Hill. Children are identifying with images and personae portrayed in advertisements, videos, and other media through “disconnection and the insatiable desire to transform the self” rather than discovering their own identities. Surveys in children’s health and activity trends reinforce the influence of media in the daily lives of western society’s youth. (On average, children and adolescents spend 15,000 hours watching television versus 12,000 in the classroom by the time they graduate high school.)

Further surveys show that brand loyalty is being sought from the cradle, and children begin to recognize brands before they walk, can discriminate between programming and ads by age 5, and understand that ads don’t always portray the truth by age 8, all of which leads many organizations to justify direct advertisement to children at earlier ages. Branding toward tweens and teens not only encourages purchases, but adoption of an identity/aura that the brand represents (Aeropostale, PacSun, etc.). According to Hill, the fiercely competitive market for children’s attention in cradle-to-grave brand loyalty battles has led to dramatic cultural shifts in identity development.

So I must ask, when is enough enough? Does the traditional view of child development yield to a new idea of development? Are we raising generations of children that will never be satisfied with who they are and what they have? What are the long-term effects of branded consumerism on children raised in an advertising-saturated media free-for-all? On society in general?

Surveys played a significant role in this research, and may be a valuable tool as I begin to to explore research topics for class (crowdsourcing in presidential campaigns is a contender). I registered for a free trial of the survey research site Qualtrics (www.qualtrics.com).While I am not yet comfortable enough to create my own survey, Qualtrics provides hundreds of valuable resources in its library — everything from “Help Us Name Our Baby” to “Supplier Service Evaluation Survey”. Tailoring an existing survey, or at least using one as a guide, will help me gauge the effectiveness of survey questions and length.

The Creepy-Crawlies

This week’s fare: How Google Crawls, Indexes, and Serves the Web.

How does Google know about so many sites serving so many interests all around the world? How does Google compile a list of millions of results from one simple search for something as mundane as “bread”? Do people pay money to have their name at the top of the search page? And what about the little guy – does he/she lose out when it comes to a chance at the top?

The more I learn about Google indexing, the more fascinated I am. Of course, I’ve said it before, I am decidedly right-brained and even the mention of the word “algorithm” makes the left side of my brain yawn, open one eye, sort of groan, and then complain about being woken up yet again to try to explain something to me that I am never going to get. Once we’ve all acknowledged this proclivity, it should come as no surprise that I really do picture tiny little robots going to town on all the pages of the web. (I mean, c’mon, this is the same person who relished the image of “hand-to-hand spam fighting” from last week.)

In all seriousness, I am thoroughly amazed in the ability of Google to index sites over and over again, registering new, out-of-date, or updated sites. I’m sure the hardware investment alone is significant, warranting this comment from its Webmaster Tools article on the Googlebot: We use a huge set of computers to fetch (or “crawl”) billions of pages on the web. (What does Google consider a “huge set of computers”?) The most welcome part is the end of my perception that people or organizations pay to be in the top ten. (I guess, in a way, they “pay” to optimize their chances of getting seen in a search, but they don’t pay Google.)

In this forum, everyone has a chance of being seen in the top of the search order if they’ve done what they needed to do in SEO on the front end — keyword placement, URLs, title tags, ALT tags, site maps, meta tags, back links, and more. PageRank alone is determined by 200 factors. Every page is fair game for the spider, but it’s up to site managers to leave the right trail of food bits on the web.

I’m wondering if there is a resource out there – a case study of sorts – that really shows a “little” site doing things right enough to threaten one of the “big” ones? And is there a point with all these factors feeding the spider when enough is enough?

 

Sticking My Toe in the Technical Pool

 

As we head into more thorough discussions on SEO (search engine optimization), I find that I am getting into areas that I have traditionally felt are overwhelming (read: technical mumbo-jumbo). I have tended more toward the right side of the brain, and steered clear of the left, but lately my exposure to the technical aspects in this master’s program have actually helped me to connect the dots with more frequency. Case in point: the week’s assigned readings.

Multivariate Testing Software

Designing a website that successfully meets the needs of any business is daunting, especially for a person like me who sweats the details. MVT was a fascinating discovery for me. I love the idea that designers and developers have the ability to test multiple elements of web pages “live”. Those test results, to a newbie, like me would be valuable because they are from actual users in actual visits to an actual website. (The example sites proved for results were fun to explore.) .

Search Engine Marketing Glossary

Also this week, I read through a dizzying glossary of search engine marketing terms – some familiar, most new. Three terms grabbed my attention as I read: Attention Profile (APML), Bounce Rate, and Online Reputation Management (ORM).

Attention profile is amassed information about what users read, write, share, and consume. Besides the Big Brother creepiness that still exists as a voice in the back of my head, it is intriguing that there are profiles of all these people with shared activities and interests online. The possibilities for target marketing are incredible (and visible every time I venture online, now that I’m paying attention to it) when armed with this sort of data.

Bounce Rate refers to the percentage of people who leave a site within the first 5 seconds. Would I be a “bouncer” if I know I’ve been guilty of that?

Of the three terms, this is the one that really hooked me: Online Reputation Management (ORM). While freedom of speech and expression are guaranteed by the First Amendment, many individuals and companies may easily become the target of negative attacks by others exercising their rights online. Hence the need for ORM as a necessary PR tool. I highly recommend this article by Anvil Media, Inc. on ORM.

Google Webmaster Guidelines

As with most of the information it provides, Google has given very clear, and easy-to-understand guidelines, divided into three sections. The Design and Content Guidelines are helpful and the Technical Guidelines were, well, technical.

The Quality Guidelines, though, were very interesting, as they really do emphasize integrity and honesty. Among the “don’t” guidelines were several that I have seen in practice on the web, but as I thought about it, I got the impression these instances are becoming more rare. I’ve seen cloaking and doorway pages in the past, but haven’t come across as many lately. Does that mean quality control on the web has worked? Does it mean that the web community has somewhat succeeded in patrolling itself? Or does that just mean that those guilty of these guideline infractions have gotten more clever and clandestine?

The two most important guidelines I walk away with are these:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Provide unique and relevant content.

One last question for the day: What exactly do they mean by “hand-to-hand spam fighting”? (It’s probably not as entertaining as the picture in my head right now.)