Thursday, January 11, 2007

Least Advisable Prediction Ever

From Foghound's Predictions for 2007:

Virtual worlds explode and get branded. While Second Life continues to boom, companies will offer more manageable and intimate virtual worlds, like CokeStudios. Private branded virtual worlds not only appeal to people who are overwhelmed by Second Life expanse, but give marketers a new way to connect directly with customers and capture new types of customer data and insights.


I'm not saying it won't happen. It might happen. But what a honking mess it will be if it does. Remember 1997? Remember how many companies built stuff that marketing companies told them they should build? Remember how few got anything out of it?

Clay Shirky explained the problem with this idea in December. I made an inarticulate attempt at explaining it in Wired in 1996. And by the way, if you follow the link, I have to tell you, that's not the version I gave them. The version I gave them was also inarticulate, but not quite that inarticulate. Editors do not always actually make writing better. The real reason blogs are so interesting could in fact be the absence of editors.

Anyway, that's enough of that. The point is, this mistake's been made before. It was dumb then, it's dumb now, and if there's one thing I've learned about dumb mistakes, people make them over and over again. It happens all the time. How many albums has Britney Spears sold?

So now the question. Let's say it happens. Virtual worlds become the new marketing ploy. Yet virtual worlds are dumb. And you're a programmer, which means that if some idiot wants to build a virtual world, they come to you. So. You might be thinking to yourself, well, many marketing-based web sites are dumb, yet I still learn something every time I make one. In fact marketing seems to be a system whereby corporations with lots of money hire good-looking people to make them feel good about themselves. They are the court fools of modern corporate imperialism, and pretty much everything they do is foolish. But so what? That's tautological. Why not just play along with this virtual world crap? I'll make some money and learn some skills. Yay me.

I apologize for attributing such cynicism to you, the hypothetical reader, but let's go into it and explode it, just for the sake of argument. Plenty of people mistakenly believe that this is what marketing is for, and that for this reason, there's really no harm in building virtual worlds for people that accomplish nothing -- because really, what kind of idiot would ever expect a Coke-branded virtual world to succeed? -- and not only is there no harm in it, but there's profit in it. But they're wrong. That's not what marketing is for, and collaborating with this type of thing is not good for your career.

The first counterargument to this cynicism is a great book by Henry Hazlitt called Economics In One Lesson. The basic idea of this book is that economic consequences of any decision must be explored not only in terms of what does happen but in terms of what else doesn't happen, that might have happened otherwise. For instance, people think natural disasters benefit some sectors of the economy, because repairing broken windows is good for people who sell glass. What such people are missing is that building new buildings is also good for people who sell glass, and in fact better in the long run, and that any given sum of money can only be spent once. If people are spending it to repair damage caused by natural disasters, they can't invest it in new buildings.

The downside of building an idiotic Pepsi-branded virtual world isn't the virtual world itself; it's also the absence of what else could have been built instead. Likewise the effect of working on such a moronic project isn't just the skills you learn in the process; it's also the skills you don't learn, which you would have if you had been doing something else. And if you believe, with Seth Godin, that new features are marketing, then you need to realize what a tremendous disservice you would be doing for your clients if you built them some abysmally stupid 7-Up-branded virtual world.

The iPhone is the perfect example of new features being a form of marketing because nobody else in the portable mp3 player space or the cellphone space has anything to compete with it. The Danger Sidekick seemed pretty cool before yesterday. It's nothing today. The Zune seemed like it maybe stood a chance in hell before yesterday. Not any more. It's pretty obvious Zune is fucking doomed. This is the kind of product that wipes out entire sectors.

Long story short, don't build retarded Dr. Pepper-branded virtual worlds. They'll fail, and you'll be ashamed of yourself. Build iPhones. And don't build them because it's good for your career. Build them because you can.

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