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This week I have danced in a giant Coke bottle, crashed a C-Class Mercedes and grown a bright purple beard. In other words, I’ve been messing around in Second Life, the virtual world that business is supposed to be taking seriously. Should it be? Yes, though with a bucketful of caveats.

It’s remarkable how many people I’ve met in the last year who have talked knowledgeably about Second Life and have then admitted they’ve never been there. Or more likely have registered, tried to get to grips with it and have decided they have better things to do in the real world. I should know – I am one of them. But at last I have been given a guided tour and have gathered some thoughts about how useful it will be to business and how it relates to the web.

For those who do not know, Second Life is a computerised ‘world’. It does not run on the web, though it has a linked site (www.secondlife.com). It looks similar to the multiplayer games you will have seen, if you have children of the right age; but it is not a game. Members have avatars – virtual representations that might look like them (see the latest FT Digital Business for a report on its editor’s avatar) or can be fantasies. They also have their own Second Life names and can buy land, build on it, and do business. It is this last that has created such a stir in the real world.

As my guide Jangles Junot (real name Neville Hobson of ‘new marketing’ company Crayon) showed me around, my first reaction was that I have seen it all before – in my head, long ago. In 1993 I wrote a book about ‘multimedia’, describing the digital world that experts were then forecasting. This was not the worldwide web – it was Second Life. We called it virtual reality then and it seemed the logical route digital technology would take. But it was mainly theory then. Unless you had a massively expensive computer, it was impossible to create more than the simplest graphical effects.

So has the world wide web been a mere diversion while we waited for computers powerful enough to bring us what we really want? In general no – the web has established itself as a medium in its own right, with a set of valuable attributes that will not easily be replaced by a digitally-rendered world. But there are things that the web is doing now, not very well, that will be vastly better accomplished in a virtual world. There are things where the virtual world will work hand in hand with the web. And there are things that are frankly better left to text-based web pages.

To start with the places where the virtual world can do better. Mr Junot took me to the Coca-Cola pavilion where I found myself dancing in the giant Coke bottle, stars flying around and music blasting. Then we looked at a star-emitting jukebox that was part of a competition – the prize is having your idea ‘built’ in Second Life, and also a trip to (real) California. The pavilion has been created by Crayon, because Coke is not yet convinced it should buy its own island (price $1,600), but it seems to me that this could be much more effective at brandbuilding than any website.

Mind you, it will be as easy to waste money here as in any other marketing medium. On Mercedes Island I did my test driving. Car companies talk of Second Life as both a marketing and a market research tool. As I skidded down the wrong carriageway and rammed the kerb repeatedly, I couldn’t see it – it seemed like a rather basic computer game. You can only see the outside of the car or, by going for the ‘mouse view’, what the driver sees – but that told me little about the car, and I can’t see what useful feedback Mercedes would have got from ‘testers’. But if I had been able to poke around the car, look in its boot, examine its details, yes, I can see the potential.

Recruitment is an area where virtual worlds and the web should work well together. Second Life is a good place for chatting – using text – and it also disguises real identities. So if a jobseeker wants to ask questions without making any formal approach, this is a good place to do it. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of application forms or job descriptions, the text-based web is what’s needed.

There are many areas where the web will surely remain dominant: anything that relies on the written world is wasting its time on Second Life. It is possible to read things on virtual screens dotted around but frankly it is (and I suspect always will be) quicker and easier to use nice two dimensional pages. And I can’t see investors scrambling around in a virtual world looking for quarterly reports.

Businesses need not feel that they are missing a bandwagon if they fail to leap aboard the virtual express at this stage. Whatever the numbers say (“Second Life’s base of active residents grew by 46 per cent to 1.3m in the first quarter of 2007”), this is still largely a place for early adopters and, dare I say it, people who do not have very fulfilling first lives.

It requires a very powerful computer, you will probably not be allowed to use it on your company network, and it can be little intimidating for the uninitiated. Click ‘Help’, and you are presented with questions such as “How do I unpack boxed items I have purchased?’ when what you need to know is “How do I move?” It feels more like an exclusive club where everyone knows the rules than an open and welcoming hall – just as the web did all those years ago.

And then of course there is the question of being a prat. “Why,” a colleague enquired, “would anyone want to pretend to be someone else and make themselves look like an idiot?” A good question, but one that my 13 year old son would be baffled by. He spends much (too much) of his time playing Runescape, a game in a virtual world that looks much like Second Life. When he moves into the job market, he will be as at home in computerised worlds as he is in the real one. That, above all, is the reason why business people need to be messing about in Second Life, and if necessary making idiots of themselves.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com. In Second Life: Lord Rees.

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