April 13, 2007

Weekend of April 13, 2007

*Editor's Note and Collaboration 2.0

*Opening Note: Huma Yusuf on Smaller Alternatives to Massive Online Social Networks

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Beth Coleman with the First of a Two-Part Report from the Virtual Worlds Conference

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3.

This Friday and Saturday, we will host Collaboration 2.0, the C3 partners colloquium here at MIT. The event will feature a variety of speakers, including representatives from our corporate partners, C3 affiliated faculty and researchers, and guests from outside the consortium. Friday afternoon will feature a reception and an opening presentation, while Saturday will feature a full day of presentations. Be sure to contact me at samford@mit.edu or Joshua Green at jbgreen@mit.edu for more information.

As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.

This week's update features an opening note from C3 Media Analyst Huma Yusuf, who continues her research on online social networks by looking at the myriad small niche networks popping up around MySpace and Facebook and other sites with massive user numbers.

The closing note is from C3 Principal Faculty Investigator Beth Coleman, who writes the first of a two-part series looking at the Virtual Worlds Conference she attended late last month. The first part of her report is entitled "People are the New Medium." The second part will appear as the opening note in next week's Weekly Update.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Social Networking

By: Huma Yusuf

Social networking using online social networking sites is so last week. People who still use websites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com to meet FOAFs (friends of a friend) are in danger of seeming anachronistic. It's been nine months since News Corp. bought MySpace.com - the fifth-most viewed internet domain in the US - for US $ 580 million, thereby sparking a fiery debate about the future of social networking sites. The blogosphere is abuzz with conversations about what revenue models and online advertising campaigns should be developed and deployed to ensure that social networking sites justify their high valuations. The dialogue is further complicated by the fact that industry insiders and users are collectively unsure what the social networking site of the future may look like.

In some ways, the concerns about networking sites may seem familiar to the layperson. After all, the big industry question is, does size matter? MySpace.com made headlines through 2006 for growing faster than a brush fire (in June last year, just before being purchased by News Corp., the site boasted 15 million daily unique logins, nearly 30 billion monthly page views, and growth by 240,000 new users per day). Today, the site boasts over 100 million registered users but is no longer making headlines for logging big digits. The fact is, disillusioned by the lack of privacy, safety, and amiability on the website, users are beginning to flock towards smaller, more exclusive social networking sites.

Dissatisfied by the safety features tacked on by MySpace.com in the wake of 14-year-old Judy Cajuste's murder (she met her killer on MySpace), many parents and middle-school teachers encouraged tweens and young teens to gravitate towards Imbee.com, one of the first secure social networking site to target a particular age demographic. Meanwhile, the suits on Wall Street who did not fancy having their professional and personal worlds collide in the relatively public realm of their homepages on Facebook.com or MySpace.com were more than happy to switch to SmallWorld.com, an invite-only social networking site restricted to big corporation employees with similar interests.

In keeping with the trend towards restricted social networking sites and simultaneously doffing a cap to the importance of advertising revenues, companies are offering 'social sites' around content areas. Cars, music, and hobbies such as gardening and golf, which would logically inspire online social interaction, are increasingly the premise behind new social networking sites. The question raised by websites such as Cardomain.com and Travellerspoint.com, though, is whether content-driven sites will begin to display social networking characteristics (thus deeming traditional social networking sites redundant), or whether social networking sites will offer a forum for promoting products and passions. More importantly, what's the difference? Large social networking sites such as MySpace.com and Orkut.com, for their part, are also beginning to wonder how they will differentiate 'groups' on their websites from independent interest- or content-focused sites.

More radical commentators suggest that 'micro-marketing' will usher in the grand tomorrow for social networking sites. Virtual world Second Life has already established that people are more than willing to exchange real-life dollars for virtual accessories. The UK-based social networking site FaceParty.com has already cashed in on this trend by monetizing its features: users are asked to pay for advanced identity controls, the ability to see who has been viewing their home page, and advanced search options. Meanwhile, the South Korean social networking phenomenon Cyworld.com has taken a step further and enables users to micropay for clothes, furniture, and other accessories that help make the homepage a far more comprehensive space for self-expression. It's safe to assume that people are simply seeking a better - that is, holistic - social experience. The examples of Cyworld.com and Faceparty.com suggest that not only are users willing to pay for that better experience, but also that unless social networking is conflated with artistic, self-expression and game play, the online phenomenon may wither.

Of course, Cyworld.com points to yet another future alternative for social networking sites. The website has unprecedented penetration in South Korea: 90 percent of South Koreans in their twenties have a Cyworld account, and 25 percent of the country's population is represented on the site. As social networking extends to cultures beyond the US where there aren't as many venues for self-expression, debate, or merely hanging out, there may be a heightened interest in developing nationally, geographically, and linguistically specific communities. Hi5.com, which has over 40 million users, most of whom are Indian or of Indian descent, also suggests that there may be something to nation-specific social networking sites. Friends and family members spread out across diaspora communities may be more inclined to stay in touch and seek out new friends with a shared identity in new places than an American teenager on the lookout for the latest rock anthem.

So what will it be? Bigger and better, or members only? At this stage, there's no way to know for sure. What seems most likely is that different social networking sites brandishing incarnations of all the abovementioned features will co-exist. Consumers enjoy the freedom to choose, and as connectivity increases across the globe, they'll expect more choices than ever before.

Huma Yusuf is a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. After graduating from Harvard University in 2002 with a Bachelor's degree in English and American literature, Yusuf has worked as a journalist in Pakistan, winning the UNESCO/Pakistan Press Foundation 'Gender in Journalism 2005' Award and the European Commission's 2006 Natali Lorenzo Prize for Human Rights Journalism. With the support of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, she is currently launching a first-of-its kind webzine, the goal of which is to provide an alternate forum where journalists, academics, and media students can examine and critique the Pakistani media industry at large.

---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

Commercial Ratings, Measurement Accuracy, and Engagement. The TV Upfront Summit raised issues facing the advertising and television industries that C3 has been following closely for the past year, showing that these questions have not yet come close to being resolved.

Creating a System of Monetization for Digital Video. This piece presents C3's take on a discussion from the TV Upfront Summit focuses on how business models can be created to direct more advertising dollars to the Internet and particularly to digital video.

DirecTV Using VOD, HD to Establish Itself as Premiere TV Provider. The satellite company continues to use new technologies to bolster its relationship with subscribers, as service providers scramble to distinguish themselves in the worlds of high-definition television and video-on-demand.

Norman Lear Asks Young Couple to Declare Themselves--in Multiple Media Formats. The All in the Family creator is taking his voter initiative across multiple media platforms, hoping to connect with a new generation of young voters through online intiaitives.

P&G, Product Placement, and Mo'Nique. The media's biggest advertiser looks to attract African-American consumers by integrating its product throughout Oxygen's Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance reality show.

Comcast Purchasing Fandango as Part of a Plan to Launch Online Video Destination. The massive cable service provider looks to create a new site for consumers' cross-platform entertainment needs by first buying the popular movie site.

Vidmeter Study Emphasizes that Blatant Piracy Is Not What Powers YouTube Community. The online research site finds that the majority of popular videos within the YouTube community are not clips that have been pulled down because of copyright violations.

Update: Lime TV Living On as Online/VOD Brand. Now that Lime has left its linear channel in the past, the brand continues to use its site as a major driver of interest in its initiatives, including online video and interactive contests.

Fox and Hearst Team Up for Online Video Content for Popular Magazine Titles. Fox Television will be developing video content for titles such as Popular Mechanics and Cosmo Girl, which will starts as 2-3 minute Webisodes.

NBC Makes an Effort to Explicitly Embrace a Social Network Around Its Content. Plan and a central site for the network have already been created, as the initiative both shows NBC's dedication to fostering a social community around its content and also raises questions about how a network-created social network for all NBC shows will interact with fans' interests.

SOAPnet Leaves Some Ardent Fans Feeling Betrayed, Questioning the Brand Identity of the Network. Now that the cable channel's lineup features The O.C., Beverly Hills, 90210, and four hours of Dallas a week, some fans of the network feel that the original conception of a Long Tail channel devoted to soap operas has been neglected in an effort to compete for bigger advertising dollars with channels like Lifetime.

Xerox Touts Viral Marketing Drive with New Campaign, Leaving Some to Question What Viral Marketing Is. The company has posted a video that it has encouraged others to share and that is legitimately considered funny by many, but the corporate force behind such a campaign leave others questioning whether this could really be considered viral marketing.

--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Virtual Worlds Conference Report, Part I: People Are the New Medium

By: Beth Coleman

This is the first of a two-part series based on Coleman's experiences at the Virtual Worlds Conference. The concluding piece will be featured as the Opening Note in next week's C3 Weekly Update.

John Henry Clippinger, a computer scientist and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, works on network identity at the Higgins Project. Much of his work is on trust and reciprocity within social groups. Essentially, he argues in his new book A Crowd of One that network relations allow for greater possibilities of human generosity than we've previously experienced as a society.

He writes on the subject of network identity that the learning of new social behaviors happens now at a more accelerated pace. "Social evolution is far less physically bounded than biological evolution and consequently can transpire over the course of days and years rather than generations," says Clippinger. "Digital encoded relationships, transactions, information, knowledge, images, content, even institutions, for all practical purposes are frictionless and can form, dissolve, and evolve in seconds and minutes rather
than days, years, or generations. They offer a unique, wholly new opportunity for accelerated learning, speculation, and social innovation." His conclusion is that social network evolution has literally outpaced our brains, stating that "[w]e're largely digital, we just haven't appreciated what it can tell us about ourselves." The concept of generous exchange--the dynamics of co-creation--was a strong subject of interest and exploration for the group gathered for the Virtual Worlds Conference, March 28-29, 2007.

People Are the New Medium

The first morning began with a convocation from Philip Rosedale, virtual world god of Second Life. It's not the technology (stupid), it's the people. "People are the new medium," as John Maeda had quipped when I met with him in January. Difficulties of many sorts persist across the various virtual world platforms, such as UI, concurrency, lag, uncanny graphics--the list goes on. Nonetheless, group wisdom from the podium reached an accord on the idea that the tech solutions are not magic (they are known and, now, need to be applied). The magic rests with the delightful prospect of building out co-creation platforms. The analogy of the early days of virtual worlds with an Internet experience circa 1994 pervaded (I've made it myself).

Some of in the audience wondered why fairly serious, as in "game killer," impediments to a lower user threshold or better advanced-building tools were not fixed, if there's no magic in that. For example, in Second Life, we're still talking about a platform where one has to use legerdemain to have 150 live bodies assemble. There, which is a different engine, does not have the same instability--nor possibilities for real-time co-creation, which seems to be crucial for virtual world sustainability. Habbo supports many and
sturdily, but it is extremely constricted in what constitutes user play and creation. The grumbling, though, was balanced with a great deal of curiosity, friendly predisposition, and strong desire not to miss the next important platform in Internet development. The 600 some media planners, marketing experts, and entertainment and IT industry professionals who crowded into the new Jewish Museum for the conference certainly attested to that.

(Btw, this is not the first virtual worlds conference. I believe that honor goes to the 1998 gathering in Paris of the same title. But that was a computer science conference not industry--so perhaps two firsts? )

Matt Bostwick's keynote on virtual MTVN properties brought us the term "4D TV." The fourth dimension is social interaction (one-through-three are TV, Internet, and UCC). This fit into a larger picture of media and marketing professionals and a few technologists reflecting on the coming of 3Di (that's 3D internet or 3D interactivity). The debate still rages around the importance of realistic 3D graphics versus 2D "cartoony" worlds or 2D Internet usability. Reuben Steiger of Millions of Us very wisely asks his corporate clients if there is an existing Web format in which they might build their projects. If the answer is "yes," he tells them to do so. He also said that Second Life's first generation of users have shown a "utopian ideal that is
at its heart capitalistic. With the homegrown brands [the ones originating in-world], there's lots of marketing." In a conversation earlier that week with Cory Doctorow, he reminded me that bohemianism
and money are not mutually exclusive endeavors. In any case, the fate of out-world brands in virtual worlds is still being sorted out. The rule of thumb is the same as that which applies to embedded ads in games: get content right for the context right and don't disrupt users. The recent news based on the Komjuniti study
that Second Life denizens don't like marketing is not exactly news (though it was a topic of debate at the conference).

C3 partner MTVN had three keynote speakers at the conference, and I think it needs to be recognized that the network has gone from 0-to-60 in the virtual world space in a very short two years. Their work with the Makena Technologies There application with vLB and vHills is now being followed up with a Pimp My
interactive space that might have more boy pull where the first two have spoken very strongly to a young female demographic. It was the presentation of Steve Youngwood, Executive Vice president digital Media MTVN Kids and Family Group, in the new Nickelodeon virtual world property (Nicktropolis) and the
historical value of Neo pets that really made it all make sense. Nickelodeon's growth numbers for persistent users of virtual worlds are the highest in the field. Highest.

MTVN has recognized that it has in hand the Shangri-La of vw participants. The tweens and twenties of vLB and Pimp My Ride are game to play with extending the brand space into a participatory space of a well-known television show. But it is the really little kids who are the participatory audience killer app. Interactivity is the bread and butter of early childhood learning. As public space and child safety evolve, increasingly more of this happens in computer-simulated environments. Please look at Club Penguin if you want additional proof of concept. The possibility is that this youngest vw generation grow up using the interactive world space as second nature--as we do now with our email or cell phone. Or, equally good, each generation of young users goes through this gateway of vw platform.

It is the construction of a "digital home" for the older users that is trickier. Adult and youth spaces are more complex, not necessarily in design but in the dynamic of interaction. Once people have arrived, made their
avatar, and the initial OMG-we're-here factor has waned, how does the vw experience drive toward persistent use? Virtual worlds, as was reiterated many times at the conference, are in the end only as good as their participants--be that gauged in UCC or experience design.

Bonus track: Second Life may not have the lock down on most creative virtual platform in the near future. Look for first showings from The Multiverse, Areae, Whirled, and Ogoglio.

The concluding piece of this Virtual Worlds Conference Report will appear as the opening note in next weekend's C3 Weekly Update, focusing on ROI and other virtual goods.

Beth Coleman is one of the principal faculty investigators with the Convergence Culture Consortium and serves as faculty director for C3 on game culture and mobile media initiatives. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing and New Media, in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and Comparative Media Studies at MIT.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)

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