SecondLife presence for nonprofits -- Yay or Nay?
May 15, 2007 12:50 PM   Subscribe

My overlord has fallen in love with SecondLife, and wants our organization to build a presence there. How can I convince her that this is a dumb idea? Or is it not a dumb idea?

My boss thinks it's really great (although she doesn't have a SecondLife account, has not wandered around in there, etc), but she's heard the buzz and thinks we should try it.

(We're a nonprofit with an older supporter base.)

She thinks this would be a way to get Teh! Kidz! interested in our work and our cause.

I think this is a bad idea. Our own computers don't have the horsepower to use SL, the site itself is blocked by our IT department, I've read (and shared) the stories about SL vandalism (Edwards, Le Pen) and how much effort it takes to build and maintain a presence. But she's heard that Greenpeace has a big presence there, as does PETA.

We have three people on our web team -- I can see this as a major time suck. Am I being an old fuddy-duddy? Are there statistics that show conversions of SL visitors into activists/donors?

posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably a good idea to get in now and own some real estate. You can always leave. Maybe second life real estate will become popular.
posted by markovich at 1:11 PM on May 15, 2007

What is the goal for this, to get 'kids' interested in your non-profit? Since you say your support base is of an older demographic right now, will Second Life be the only initiative to reach this new age segment? Remember, educating a new market segment and converting them into donors or supporters is incredibly expensive and time consuming.

I bet Greenpeace and PETA have their Second Life people staffed by volunteers. Unless you can copy that, it's gonna be a big time and money suck for an idea that may not bear fruit. I'm not saying it's not worth it, but treat it as a highly speculative effort and go in with reasonable expectations.

Take it as you will. I'm a marketing guy in my first life and I don't have a Second Life account. Were my resources infinite, I'd give it a shot. Were they not, I'd channel my efforts to where the money is; your older support base. See where they're gathering. Get more support by contacting people in your database more often.
posted by Tacodog at 1:16 PM on May 15, 2007

Visit, join the discussion boards, and post this in their Virtual Community section. Techsoup and NTEN are setting up shop in SL and are making space available for like-minded nonprofits.

You can also log into SL and search for There is even a Google Group to check out.

Good Luck!
posted by IndigoSkye at 1:19 PM on May 15, 2007

One of the major draws of a presence there would be a live representative (otherwise there's no interactivity that a web page couldn't provide). If you can't even run it at the office, and lack the manpower for a telepresence there a good portion of the day, it's a terrible idea.

PETA and Greenpeace have a large number of youth activists who could accomplish this on their own with a short leash (a watcher/liason with administrative control who only needs to check everything is fine periodically). Do you have volunteers who fit the same profile -- eg, being in SL in their free time anyway? If you don't have any, I doubt it will work.

Web banners, contest sponsorships, and other traditional web marketing on youth-oriented sites seems like a much better way to go about this. Then maybe you can branch out.

On preview: what Tacodog said.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2007

Funny, I had the same problem. I'm against it for the following reasons:

1. Most of our outside (and inside) users do not have the CPU nor the GPU to handle SL. Just upgrading our own machines would cost too much.

2. Its extremely gimmicky and full of innappropriate (for business) avatars, chat, etc.

3. After the wow factor, you realize its laggy, slow, and has graphics on par with SIms I, yet requires 10x the horsepower.

4. Its uses quite a bit of bandwidth for what it delivers. We may not have the bandwidth for sounds and such, and need our T1 for other more important purposes.

5. I don't want to support it nor train people to use it. These people in question still wrestle with Outlooks 2D interface on a daily basis.

6. Vandalism.

7. Linden dollars are something of a scam. People shouldnt feel pressured to turn real money into linden dollars for basic functionality (clothes).

8. The client is pretty buggy, imho. I've had problems running it on machines that are way over-powered for SL and oddly enough have gotten it to run semi-smoothly on semi-junkers.

9. It seems like an excuse for employees to slack off.

10. In our case, whatever we could do there, could be done cheaper and easier (for donors/clients) using old fashioned web technology.

11. In my mind, I cant picture donors really approving of this (not that it matters). It just seems like a waste of money, time, and resources to play digital dress-up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

This question could have been written 10 years ago, substituting "the web" for "Second Life" and "modems" for "the horsepower to use SL".

I'd deflect this absurd request with a counter-request for what goals she'd like to accomplish. Point out that SL is just a tool, a medium to market your message. Therefore, it's only appropriate that your company's marketing department lead the initiative with a proposal.
posted by mkultra at 1:33 PM on May 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think it's a dumb idea. Sure, someone might have asked this 10 years ago about the Web, but someone might have asked it 30 years ago about CB radio.

1. Your boss should wade into SL on her own time. Accounts are free. If she says "hey, my computer can't run the client," you say "maybe that should tell you something."
2. You should direct your boss to read Warren Ellis' travel guides to SL.
3. What kind of budget would you have for this? For a non-profit, land in SL (which you'd need to establish a presence) would be fairly expensive to rent, and you'd probably want your own island (more expensive), unless you are comfortable having radioactive penis farmers for neighbors.

The only way SL could be useful in attracting "teh kidz" to your organization is if A) teh kidz already have some vague interest in it, and B) they manage to find your plot of land out there in the vasty continents of SL. Most of SL is a ghost town at any given moment.

At this point, SL is mostly a plaything for geeks. There's no particular need to get in on the ground floor the way there was with getting your own domain name. Once computers catch up with SL requirements, and if SL ever becomes a more viable hangout, then maybe you revisit the question.
posted by adamrice at 1:46 PM on May 15, 2007

Point out that the actual number of people on SL is pretty darn small. It's hardly the million-plus Linden claims. Also, she needs to see some videos of it. If she really thinks her organization needs to be represented in a simulated landscape featuring towering, animated genitalia, and people who run about holding guns which fire tacos, she might as well just post some 3x5 index cards on the community message board for a group of recovering schizophrenics, it would be about the same.
posted by adipocere at 1:47 PM on May 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Almost certainly not worth it.

I say this as someone who's been doing research into the design of social spaces in Second Life more or less full time for the past month or so.

What's great about SL is that presence comes for free - your visitors could easily interact with each other and you. That's a super powerful experience, that for reasons I don't totally understand yet is way more visceral than embedding chat in web pages. The problem is that without other people there, content in Second Life is very rarely more compelling than content on the web unless it's inherently three dimensional.

As a marketing platform, it's also quite lacking. The demographic doesn't skew as much to Teh Kids as you might thing (median age is around 36), but the people density is insanely low. Most places are abandoned most of the time, and it's hard to get people to visit your particular place. There are also, as noted, tons of technical issues with getting started in SL.

All that said, there are some potential benefits. If you can be in an area with lots of other non-profits, you might all experience some nice cross-talk between spaces. More than having "our friends" links on a web page, being near something else in Second Life really does drive traffic if your space looks interesting.

So unless there is relevant 3d content (if this is a health related nonprofit, an interactive model of some particular disease might be interesting?) Second Life probably doesn't make sense. Even if there is 3d content, it's pretty likely that you could build a 2d version in Flash and put it on the web and have much wider viewership.

If you need more info, feel free to write. I spend a big chunk of my day in SL these days building social spaces, so it's a topic I'm always happy to go on and on about.
posted by heresiarch at 1:50 PM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Always refer to it as "the Second Life video game". In e-mail, conversation, documents, everything. If challenged that it's not a video game, because it doesn't have rules, objectives, a way to win, etc., you respond "I didn't say it was a good video game."
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 2:03 PM on May 15, 2007 [12 favorites]

I'm not a marketer in my first life, but I've wound up consulting on web marketing/outreach for a small nonprofit in the past, as part of their larger rebranding effort (they did the rebranding, then told me "okay, now we want a webpage.") I don't use Second Life, although I was an ActiveWorlds citizen in the late '90s.

I agree with everyone here that this should go through marketing first. Unless you have a good idea that for some reason your cause is going to be compelling for the SL demographic, I think it's an incredibly stupid idea and I suspect your marketing department will agree. The dollars/hours per eyeball just aren't in your favor.

Also, in my experience Second Life has a fairly severe stigma as "that place with the perverts and the skyscraper dongs." I don't use it and I don't know how true that stigma is, but it's what I've heard and if other people are hearing the same thing, even the association could do more PR harm than good.
posted by Alterscape at 2:13 PM on May 15, 2007

This piece by Clay Shirky does a good job of debunking SL hype.
posted by aparrish at 2:29 PM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sounds like a terrible idea for the reasons everyone has mentioned.

If you can, try to avoid a direct refusal, and steer the overlord into deciding against it herself. Suggest that to start with you should both go into it and look around. Hopefully after she's seen some of the non-business appropriate content and struggled with the navigation she'll decide its a bad idea.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:31 PM on May 15, 2007

I joined SL. The first time I logged on, someone handed me a leather jacket and a penis with attached balls. I knew right there it wasn't for me. I was further convinced of this when I couldn't figure out how to attach the penis or hide it.

Just tell your boss to try it first. It's a pointless waste of time.
posted by chairface at 2:55 PM on May 15, 2007

Show the boss this page, maybe?

Speaking as someone who has never tried Second Life and doesn't know anyone who has tried it, my impression of it is: It's a place for furries/similar perverts without the sense to hide their shame and for the type of useless, greedy leechers who probably used to be "Search Engine Optimizers" and now think they should make a quick buck on "Virtual Real Estate." It also somehow manages to have as many news articles about it as it does serious users.

To wit, putting your organization up there would, to me, reflect negatively upon the organization. I am one of "teh kidz" (21 y.o., graduating college, going to grad school) and me and my friends would notice any Second Life presence since we aren't on it, and if you advertised your Second Life presence in other media we'd find that laughable.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:58 PM on May 15, 2007

I have nothing for or against the idea of going into Second Life, but doing so simply on the expectation that doing so engenders cheap or free PR is delusional. A marketing plan with budget, timetable, benchmarks and goal have to be drafted.

As for the age of the population, anecdotally the only people I know who regularly spend time in Second Life are in their early 30s or older. The real kids are playing goal-oriented MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.
posted by ardgedee at 3:01 PM on May 15, 2007

Oh yeah, if you want to reach the kids on the internets, I'd recommend some sort of Facebook presence, if that's available at a comfortable price level for you. (I have no idea what their offers or prices are.) A Myspace presence will help you to reach the dumb kids.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:25 PM on May 15, 2007

It's a good idea, if volunteers are doing the work and donating the space. Otherwise, it's a time suck. Even building a simple building, etc., is going to be several weeks' worth of time if you're doing it from scratch.

Having said that, there's a reason why businesses that have no reason to build an SL presence are doing so. It's a great angle for writing press releases. But it's still going to be a few years--if ever--before this press starts paying for itself for anyone other than Linden Labs.
posted by roll truck roll at 3:36 PM on May 15, 2007

The Register is the place to read about Second Life. They write a bit about what a con it is:

First, the economics and 'real' size of the place:

real size

And a whole set of links, including ones about what really goes on there and some stuff about the infamous Wang flyers….

( check the bottom of the article for the related links )

Wang Flyers

If your boss wants to get in touch with the kids in a way that will actually get in touch with the kids, first, make sure your web site is good and worth reading and advertise where you think your target audience would be (i.e. dailykos or whatever) and get a good presence on Myspace and the other social networking sites.

Don't waste your time and money in Second Life, at least not for now. Wait a year and see if anyone cares about Second Life after another year of hype. It may take off, but it probably won't.
posted by sien at 3:58 PM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

I play in SL, and while its great for book clubs, etc, I've often wondered how much charity's that set up shop there are really getting out of it. There's a pretty big fundraising push for Relay for Life, but everything else seems like its very vague brand awareness. And as others above have said, it takes a *lot* of volunteer tiem.

If your boss is really pushing, and you don't have the interest in pursuing, see if these people might be able to help - looks like pro bono.
posted by korej at 4:13 PM on May 15, 2007

Seconding sien's advice. Second Life isn't where "the kids" are. Myspace is.
posted by mendel at 4:43 PM on May 15, 2007

Depending on the nature of your non-profit, you might try contacting the folks at Commonwealth Island. They are helping grassroots orgs with a liberal bent establish a presence in SL. Of course, the real benefit of working with them is that you can get a pre-fab thatch hut in the caldera of a volcano.
posted by squink at 4:58 PM on May 15, 2007

Also, as I understand it, most of the people in Second Life are in Europe. I'm not sure if you're in Europe too, but it would be worth finding out who's there if your organization is US-only, for example.

Blog advertising is a good way to get the attention of politically aware younger people (not the under 20 crowd, but the 22-40 crowd), and might be more easily tied in with a traditional ad campaign.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:26 PM on May 15, 2007

Show her all the stories about virtual child rape (as silly as they are) and she might reconsider her ideas.

Or, log in and see if you can find more than 2 people. Last time I logged in (yesterday) I found a whopping 2 people. That was it.

"the kidz" aren't using SL. They couldn't care less about SL. That's not where they are.
posted by drstein at 6:46 PM on May 15, 2007

Thank you, thank you, thank you for asking this question. My crazy boss, who must be your crazy boss's twin, wants me to buy us an island too. I really appreciate having some ammunition other than "stop chasing the new-and-shiny, please, it's pathetic."
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:12 PM on May 15, 2007

Response by poster: Wow! So many great answers -- I'm going to have to come back later and pick a couple. (And Sweetie Darling, you are most humbly welcome.)

Answers to some questions:

1. We do have a MySpace account, and it does take time to keep even that crazy thing maintained. We're still evaluating its usefulness.

2. I'm actually a bit pleased that SL skews a bit older, because older generally means "more likely to be philanthropic/civically involved" -- although I'm not convinced that the SL crowd is.

3. I did read recently where a large percentage of SLers are German, so that's good information. Our nonprofit is based in the US, and definitely has a US slant.

4. We did talk a bit about Facebook. My concern is there's a lot of "flavor-of-the-month" going on with social networking sites.

4. It's a constant battle for me to try to reason with people in the office who fall in love with the technology before thinking it through.

5. The Commonwealth Island shack-in-a-caldera thing sounds intriguing -- if we get pushed to do this (oy yoy yoy) I think that's the direction I will suggest.

Our particular nonprofit isn't really sexy, so it's a hard sell to the older folks, too (but when we explain what we do and why we do it, people generally say "That's great! Where do I sign up?")
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 7:29 PM on May 15, 2007

My usual answer to "How to I talk my boss out of Crazy Business Idea" questions is "Draw up a budget."

Draw up a budget. Or have them do it. Here's some things to get your started:

- Ongoing cost of an island
- One time cost of creating both a building and in-game branding.
- Initial cost of hiring a script-jockey to create some decent security robots for the place. (Got to keep the flying penis attacks out.)
- Ongoing cost of making sure your security robots are up to date and effective.
- Cost of training at a bare minimum one full-time staff and one intern in the use of SL and being a reliable daytime presence in SL. These people would also manage volunteers if any.
- Cost of a dedicated SL computer and support from your technology department.
- Consulting lawyers for liability for what happens when visitors to your island get attacked by flying penises and invites to child porn parties.
- Also have them draft acceptable behavior guidelines for your virtual volunteers. Unless you want them showing up to work as furries. (unless you work for the ASPCA or someone)
- And draft a policy for how to deal with the press and contributors when you get in the media for flying penis attacks.

When the start saying "oh, but we don't need that..." point out the fact that it would be better to have no presence at all rather than a really shitty one. Teh Kids are merciless on something of less than the best quality.

Once you show how much it'll cost and how much work it'll take, they'll slowly lose interest.

Or just let some of your bigger contributors know about the idea. I'm sure they'll convince the boss much easier than you can.
posted by Ookseer at 7:36 PM on May 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's a blog post from the company that runs Second Life, linking to an Excel file with demographic info as of February 2007.
They say their active users are:
30% in the USA
13% France
10% Germany
8% UK
7% Netherlands
4% Spain

Here's a post from BoingBoing about Second Life releasing their source code. This post has links to a lot of other stories BoingBoing has posted about Second Life; just a quick bit of reading if you need a place to point the boss to pictures of animated weiners floating free.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:00 PM on May 15, 2007

(the demographics file also has ages; looks like it skews a bit younger than we were saying above, if their numbers are credible)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:02 PM on May 15, 2007

But this different report on Second Life demographics says that US residents only make up 16% of the population as of March 2007.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:07 PM on May 15, 2007

Here's a survey that states, "72% of respondents expressed themselves as being disappointed with the activities of the companies in Second Life. Over a third of them were unaware of the branded presence and 42% said they thought it constituted nothing more than a short-term trend, lacking durable commitment from the companies. Just 7% consider that it has a positive influence on brand image and their future buying behaviour."
posted by spilon at 8:10 PM on May 15, 2007

It sounds like what you need is a well-designed website and some good old-fashioned PR.

(Nthing that SL is not a great idea. And your org has trouble keeping up with MySpace and hasn't fully assessed the usefullness of it, but wants to jump into SL? Eeesh. "The kids" can spot a poser from a mile away.)
posted by desuetude at 7:00 AM on May 16, 2007

i'm pretending you're a nonprofit who wants my money for something. the first thing i do is look at your website. do you have a good, usable website? that is most important.

i don't care about your myspace or your facebook or your second life. frankly, i think those things detract from your message/plea for money. i don't want my donated dollars going to help you fund a new web toy.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:21 AM on May 16, 2007

This is a link to the MP3s from the Virtual Worlds Con recently.

Go listen to the one titled Virtual Worlds Casestudy - “CDC in Whyville and Second Life” for how the CDC is using VWs. Many of the MP3s there can also tell you more about how to do a VW presence right. The Pontiac case study is probably one of the most successful SL marketing programs in SL and the talk explains why.
posted by jopreacher at 1:12 AM on May 17, 2007

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