To sum up in response to my original question – are social networks (SNs) and virtual worlds (VWs) merging into one medium? In my opinion, not only are they converging, rather social networks are, at the core, just more user-friendly versions of virtual worlds.
The only real differences are user interface (UI), visual presentation, text opposed to graphics/pizzazz, and most of all, the idea of escape from- versus extension of- real life. In other words, either it’s an “escape” – as in an MMOG, where players create an avatar and explore a fictional world and/or storyline, or it’s an “extension” of the real world – as in a social network.
The 2008 VW Report shows that adult and teen VW development numbers are on a steady decline, while kids VWs are more rampant than ever. I firmly believe this is because adults today aren’t generally interested in treading the confusing and often complicated waters of a VW user interface. Our lives are increasingly busy as it is, and most adults don’t have time to build and maintain a “second life”, or for that matter even bother trying to figure out the technology. But we sure as hell have time, and eagerly welcome a SN where we can easily keep up with friends, family, professional colleagues and a million and one other things in-between. I think it’s safe to say that an “extension” must be more important than an “escape” to adults and teens in today’s society…
For example, my mom uses Linked In and Facebook, but (for now at least) would shutter at the thought of roaming around a 2- or 3-D world to interact with friends and colleagues. That said, perhaps a few years from now we’ll see a convergence of the two mediums – once technology enables more user-friendly virtual environments, interaction and tools.
I’m not very efficient at navigating three-dimensional virtual streets with an avatar myself – I get turned around, dizzy, stuck or lost all too often. But if the technology was better and UI less confusing, I probably would be more apt to try (and I think I speak for the general consumer). It’s not even that I really “want” a 3D social network, I’m just saying… when the tech gets to that point of widespread usability, there will be little difference between SN and VW and I’ll probably use it (whatever “it” may be), if it makes my life easier and/or better.
So then, for now the difference between SN & VW all boils down to usability and real life relativity… Even if it’s animated, two- or three-dimensional, or uses visually represented avatars, if you use it to build and maintain social networks, connections and relationships… if you use your real name and actual identity/personality and interact with offline contacts, then it’s simply a souped-up social network. So let’s just call VWs an “alter life” and SNs a “useful extension of real life.” Perhaps the term VW should be reserved for describing the physical surroundings in online games, environments and worlds, instead of describing any particular type of program or service at all.
That’s just my humble take on things, but next week I’ll quickly run through the “real” definitions to give a factual depiction of the landscape, before delving deeper into the Social Web, aggregation and virtual desktops… Also check back next Friday when I’ll be posting highlights from the #NewMode technology and marketing workshop by LaunchMemphis and Southern Growth Studio.