The grid is another country

For the past year that I’ve been attending meetings in Second Life and OpenSim, I’ve been thinking of the virtual platforms as another kind of collaboration tool. I compare it to Web-based conferences and seminars.

A few days ago, however, I read a blog post by Avril Korman, where, in the comments, sororNishi compared a virtual world to a foreign country.

And it occurs to me that many aspects of virtual worlds are more akin to foreign travel than to learning a new technology.

For example, we adopt new technologies in order to solve problems. Technology allows us to work more efficiency, communicate better, or deliver products faster to our customers.

But we go to new countries to expand our horizons, to meet new people, to find new markets, to explore.

I ran a news bureau in China for five years, and brought my family with me, and each of us had a different degree of engagement with China. My engagement was business-related, my friends mostly professional colleagues. I know a lot about how China regulates the securities industry — but almost nothing about popular Chinese culture. I’ve got enough Chinese to get around the city, but can’t read or write.

My job also involved coverage of the rest of Asia, and I regularly traveled to other countries — Singapore, Malaysia, India, Hong Kong, Korea, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. I had a different degree of engagement with each country, based on the assignment — or lack of it, based on my previous experience there, based on how many people I knew who lived there.

Similarly, my engagement with Second Life is business-related. I show up for business meetings and that’s about it. All my “friends” in Second Life are professional contacts. I have one business outfit in addition to the free clothes that my avatar came with.

So that would make Second Life …. like Singapore.

On OSGrid, I had a permanent office — for a while, before moving to our own private grid — and use my OSGrid avatar as my default avatar for all OpenSim travels. I have both business and personal relationships on OSGrid, and have attended social gatherings in addition to business meetings.

I’ve been to over fifty other grids by hypergrid teleport from OSGrid, mostly quick in-and-outs. Occasionally I’d meet a local grid manager, or stop for a quick shopping trip. I do a lot of hypergrid travel on my own — the same way that I travel in real life. But I enjoy travels with other people much more.

TRAVELS WITH FRIENDS

When it comes to real-world travel, 89% of us prefer to travel with other people. Only 11% of travelers go solo. One of the biggest complaints with virtual worlds is that you arrive and you don’t know anyone there.

Arriving in a virtual world on your own is like showing up by yourself in a strange city. Do you go to a museum by yourself? Hang around the hotel lobby? Randomly wander the streets? Get a book of travel advice and visit top area destinations — alone? That may sound exciting to some of us (11%, in fact) but to me, it just sounds sad. What’s the point of visiting a tourist destination if you can’t make fun of the other tourists with a friend?

There’s a business opportunity here of some kind, I’m sure.

STICKING WITH THE FAMILIAR

When traveling to a foreign country — especially one very different from where I started out with — I often look for familiar sights. After a few days of unfamiliar cuisine, it’s nice to walk into a global fast food chain and order the same exact thing that you could have ordered at home. Or stay at night in a room that’s a carbon-copy of the same room in any hotel anywhere else in the world. Yes, it’s impersonal, but it’s also comforting and familiar. There’s Internet and a mini-fridge and little soaps in the sink and toilet paper in the bathroom.

It is exciting to be someplace new, doing new things, but also very stressful. I think that’s one reason why business meetings these days look identical, regardless of what country they take place in. The meeting rooms look the same, we watch the same PowerPoint slides presented by folks wearing the same suits and drinking the same bottled water. Everybody knows what a Western-style business meeting looks like — they’ve seen the movies, watched the TV shows, read the books. Everyone watches CNN and CNBC and reads the Wall Street Journal. As a result, we can concentrate on the content of the meeting instead of worrying about the format.

When a virtual landscape is familiar, it serves the same function. We know what to do when we walk into a virtual conference rooms if it looks just like the one at home. We know where we’re supposed to sit, and where we’re supposed to look, we know when we’re supposed to ask questions, and when we can get up and mill around and network.

I have a high tolerance for unusual destinations. I’ve reported from throughout Asia, Russian, Chechnya, Afghanistan… but I still prefer the familiar when I’m on the road. Work is hard enough. Travel is hard. Familiar places, fixtures, and products reduce stress on travelers, and allow me to focus on work rather than on the environment.

SEEKING THE EXOTIC

When the business meeting is over, and all the handouts have been packed away and all the emails answered, it’s nice to be able to take off the business suit, and head outside and see something you can’t see at home. And maybe buy something to bring back for friends and relatives.

And when I go on vacation, I’d rather go someplace exotic and unusual. I want to go to a tropical island, or stay in a medieval castle. I will wear exotic clothes I don’t normally wear, and drink drinks with umbrellas in them. I might even adopt a foreign name, or pretend I’m a Russian spy. A cool one, from an old James Bond movie, not one of the lame ones who just got caught in the suburbs.

The thing is, if I’m on a tropical vacation and having a fling with a sexy diving instructor and making friends with the locals, it doesn’t mean that my life is empty and meaningless at home. In fact, if I’m making friends while on my trip, then I probably make friends easily at home, as well.

The exotic vacation is a break, a bit of extra spice.

If you think of Second Life and other virtual worlds as a vacation destination, and not as a video game, then our attitude towards how people behave in the virtual worlds will have to change.

Who among us hasn’t fantasized about quitting our day jobs and becoming a snorkeling guide on a tropical island?

Realistically, we know we’d quickly get tired of the long hours, low wages, and cranky clients — and how many tropical fish can you stand to look at before you’re ready to shoot yourself? — but we can go on vacation, and pretend.

Today, virtual worlds are still in their infancy. It’s not actually like foreign travel — the image resolution is too low. The immersive 3D isn’t yet all that immersive — or all that 3D. We can’t feel the sand between our toes or the wind on our skin. But the immersion is going to keep getting better.

So it makes sense for us to start thinking of virtual worlds as travel destinations, not software platforms — at least, when it comes to long-term business decisions.

Today, virtual worlds are often marketed to role-playing, a-social technogeeks like Dwight Schute on The Office. And virtual environments are sometimes designed with science fiction fans in mind. But the top-selling real estate in Second Life is beach-front and castles — a typical vacation destination for pretty much anybody. In Second Life, we’re thinner, tanner, and wear bathing suits more often — we are our ideal vacation selves.

Everybody would love an exotic vacation, but we can’t all to take the time, or spend the money.

There’s probably a business opportunity here, as well.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • I think this is just the explanation I need to "come out" as a Second Life user -without- having to listen to people talk about Dwight Schrute before dismissing me as a total nerd with nothing worthwhile to say.