Falling into the chasm

It was reported yesterday that Facebook had overtaken Google to become the most popular website in the US last week. The social networking site gathered 7.07% of total hits (up 185% on last year), marginally ahead of Google’s 7.03%.

Pundits are suggesting that this is an indication of how people are increasingly using the internet in a different way – instead of searching for information, the theory goes, we are now looking more for social connections.

As we’ve noted before, this type of thinking seems to be driving Linden Lab’s corporate strategy, as they try to market Second Life as a social networking application. They clearly have some way to go to compete with Facebook though, both in the raw numbers – FB has a user base of 400 million, and concurrency of up to a million, against SL‘s figures of 18 million and 80,000 respectively – and in terms of cultural penetration. Major newspapers are still publishing articles that assume that the majority of their readers will never have heard of Second Life, while Facebook references can be found even in traditionally conservative media like legacy comics.

Grace McDunnough posted an interesting piece (illuminating comments too) on the Lab’s marketing strategy a couple of days ago. Referencing a recent Harvard Business School case study, which itself draws on Geoffrey Moore‘s influential 1991 book Crossing the Chasm, Grace concludes that the educational market is a bust, the “adult” market is an embarrassment, and that content creators are being slowly sidelined. What does this leave? A 3D chat service, or, as Grace puts it, “playing house with paper dolls”.

This rings sadly true to me, and seems a terrible waste of the platform’s potential, but I guess there’s no arguing with market forces. It seems that the early adopter community (in which I count myself spiritually, if not strictly speaking temporally) is going to find itself increasingly marginalised. We can only hope that the Facebookisation of Second Life turns into a complete fiasco, M. Linden gets his cards, and a more enlightened management goes back to the original, steady (if limited) business model of taking money from people like me, who are willing to pay a few bucks a month to live out the life of the mind in a virtual world.

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