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Second Life circa 4 BC

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the July 15, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger

Ad nauseam

Second Life circa 4 BC

“If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

I always understood Judas’ complaint in Jesus Christ: Superstar. If you’re going to promote a message concerning the afterlife of the human race, a message that determines whether they’ll spend eternity in a burning pit or a flower-scented paradise, why not do so at a time that it could reach the largest number of people? Why not do it in the 20th century when mass media really came into its own?

Mass media is a powerful tool, and sometimes a powerful weapon — although not nearly as powerful a weapon as cynics like to believe (there are too many voices involved for any one influence to make them all sing the same tune).

There has always been some form of mass media. Churches, visited by virtually the entire population, had the ability to pass along certain messages both religious and social. The printing press enabled ideas to spread to an entire population — or at least to the literate among them. But in the 20th century the pace picked up exponentially. New forms of communication came into being. Radio and television broadcasts could be retransmitted across an entire continent. When Jerry Seinfeld says, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the phrase and its context become so widely known that it can now stand in as a handy and humorous reference to homosexuality. Even old-fashioned media take on new life with technology. A good example is the roadside sign.

In the early part of the 20th century the car increased in popularity. This meant that simple signs, little different from the one discovered in ancient Pompeii, acquired the potential of being seen by many thousands of people, thereby propelling a completely stationary medium to the edges of mass media. The Burma-Shave poems, each line of which was posted at appropriate distances along the highway, proved to be one of the most successful roadside campaigns of the pre-World War II period.

On curves ahead

Remember, sonny

That rabbit’s foot

Didn’t save

The bunny


Following WWII, however, gasoline prices dropped dramatically and industries previously dedicated to the war effort began turning out affordable automobiles. An entire generation of young adults grew accustomed to the idea of action and travel. As a result, America transformed into a nation of mass mobility. That scenic two-lane highway, winding its way through the countryside, was no longer adequate. Furthermore, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the nation’s head, the two-lane highway was a death trap in the event of a civic evacuation.

In 1956, to meet both domestic and military demands, Congress gave its approval for the National Defense and Interstate Highway Act by which 42,000 miles of new four-lane highway would be built across the country.

These new highways brought about a drastic change in roadside advertising practices. Due to increased speed, and wider roadways, the small, personable signs such as the Burma-Shave ads, were no longer viable. To catch the attention of the new motorist, ads had to increase significantly in size, thereby giving birth to the billboard.

Judas recognized that the modern world afforded countless new methods of spreading a message which would be seen or heard by a vast majority of the country’s population. As he so accurately noted, “If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.”

Just like Jerry Seinfeld.

Of the modern world, however, the most modern aspect is the virtual world. If we’re impressed by the modern marvels of mass transportation, how much more impressive is teleportation? In a world in which an entire building can be erected in an afternoon by someone sitting at home in his pyjamas and slippers, the modernity of the world outside pales in comparison.

Yet there is a paradox in this: for all its cutting-edge, George-Jetson characteristics, Second Life has no mass media.

There is no medium in Second Life which is seen, heard or read by virtually the entire population. This, naturally, has an enormous effect on advertising. It’s the reason so many experts have written off the platform as having no significant marketing potential. It’s also the reason why so much of the advertising that’s done in world is done so badly.

But if that’s bad news, there’s worse to come: Second Life is unlikely to ever have mass media.

Mass media comes with its own internal contradiction. Despite its appeal to a major portion of the population, mass media is most often experienced in isolation. “Television is like the invention of indoor plumbing,” said Alfred Hitchcock. “It didn’t change people’s habits. It just kept them inside the house.”

We watch television on our own or in small domestic groups. We read newspapers either at the dinner table or sitting alone in coffee shops. Many offices have a radio going, but the number of listeners in any given group averages no more than a dozen. Our mass media reaches us most when we are least engaged in activity.

Second Life, on the other hand, is a world of activity. Seldom do people come in world to sit at a virtual table and read a newspaper, or settle back in a virtual armchair and watch TV. We come in world to socialize, to build, to create, and yes, to have sex. Nowhere in all this activity is there room for a particular medium to gain mass appeal.

Whether this means that Second Life, as the nay-sayers have pronounced, is useless for marketing, or whether it will ultimately give rise to a new form is yet to be determined. But the stakes are high and not just for us.

The fact is that what has happened to mass media in Second Life is rapidly happening in the real world, if for far different reasons. As media becomes more fragmented in its demographics, its power as a mass communication is weakened. It’s entirely possible that more young people between the ages of 14 to 20 have seen the YouTube video of Star Wars Kid than have watched a single episode of the OC.

What we do in Second Life, and the solutions we find to this problem of patchwork media, will give help pave the way in the real world to new methodologies in marketing and advertising.

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