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What can we learn from Kitely?

April 10, 2011

Recently, burst onto the Virtual Worlds scene.  If you will forgive me for borrowing an overused term from another virtual world company, the response has been “passionate!” Unfortunately for Kitely, and for Virtual Worlds as a whole (in my admittedly humble opinion), the response has been based less on the actual product and more on other arguments that were raging before anybody ever heard of Kitely.  Still, there are some positive and negative lessons to take away from where Kitely finds themselves now.

Virtual Worlds Accessible Via MainStream Venues Are Important.

Look, if nobody cared, we wouldn’t be having all this passion.   The appeal of Kitely is that you can create a (small, so far) Virtual World via a web interface that is accessible to the mainstream, and that users can create a character and log in  using an existing online identity.  This is something that many people want, and even the energetic detractors of Kitely’s practices seem willing to concede that the concept is a good one.   Getting people into Virtual Worlds that first time, whether it be for business, education, or fun, can be challenging.  Streamlining the process and putting it in the context of things that are familiar is a good option to have.  “Hard-core” users will still prefer more traditional models, and for them it is going to be more cost-effective, but we need “Lite” options for virtual worlds hosting.

When Marketing to a Community, Know the Group Dynamics

As I say in the “About” tab of this blog, I work at intersections.  I work where Virtual Worlds, Education, and Disability Issues (among other things) meet up.   Each of these groups has a culture, or more properly, multiple cultures that tend to find themselves in close proximity and, too often, conflict.  If you want to work effectively with those groups, you need to have a fair understanding of how the group dynamics work so you can avoid a serious faux pas.

That was a bit obscure, wasn’t it? I’ll restate it plainly: politics. Education, Disability Issues, and–oh yes!–Virtual Worlds are all fraught with politics. Linden Lab cannot seem to learn this lesson: they have ignored the group dynamics of Mentors groups, Disability Groups, Business Communities, Community Gateways, Educators, Adult Communities, Teen Communities….  Really, I could write a book about all the different groups where Linden Lab has blundered around and played poor politics, but it would just be another War and Peace: very long, more talked about than read, and in the end the company dies–or at least is much less than it was and could have been.

Sadly for Kitely, they wandered into a couple of political arenas that have already been well and truly stirred up.

One is the “Copybot” controversy, which has been with us for some time: a small number of people ripped copyrighted content out of Second Life and ported it over to OpenSimulator grids, where they put it out in “Freebie shops” under their own names.  Content Creators are (rightly) upset about this.    One of the first big news articles about Kitely’s Open Beta included a screenshot with some Copybotted content front and center.

The other is Facebook. While it is true that millions of people use Facebook, most do not understand Facebook’s privacy and data-mining practices.  Enough people do, or have had other negative experiences with Facebook, that when Linden Lab was perceived as trying to link Second Life identities with Facebook identities (which, per Facebook’s TOS, are required to be “real” identities, though they seem to have eased off on enforcement of that), the whole thing blew up.   This ties into a lot of other politics: Many Business and Education users either use their real names as their avatar names or openly link the two names.   Others, whether it be out of a desire for simple privacy or because they are part of groups that traditionally have faced prejudice and discrimination, want to keep the two identities separate.   The mainstream media has weighed in on some of the problems that Facebook and other social media sites have created for us: they are used by Human Resource Departments vetting potential employees, for instance.

Kitely did not create and should not be held responsible for either of these issues.  However, discussion of their actual product is being overwhelmed by discussion of Copybotting and Facebook Connect.  Had they been more aware of the community dynamics surrounding these two issues, they would be better prepared to address them.  They have stated, and I do believe, that they are working to address DMCA and TOS concerns, and that they will offer other ways to use their service outside of Facebook Connect.  Still, we must consider the final lesson:

You Must Take Control of First Impressions

Whether it is your product launch or one user’s “First Hour Experience”, you simply must retain control over what the public sees for the first time.  As I understand it, Kitely planned a small public Beta before moving to a formal launch of their product.  For the purposes of Public Relations, Beta is over for them: people are judging the final product by what they see now.

How did this happen?  The Good served the Bad: the first lesson I pointed out was that the concept is something the public really wants!  That’s the “Good”: the product as envisioned is definitely viable and marketable.  That’s why it went viral among the Virtual Worlds Community.  Sadly, this meant that the “Bad” happened as well: the concept as it exists in open Beta skidded into a glass-shattering collision with the hot topics of Virtual Worlds Politics.  Because the concept was Good, lots of people want to see it, and seeing the Bad was inevitable.  The First Impression came from that, and it’s going to be a rough road to get past it.

In hindsight, they should have tried a longer Closed Beta, carefully identifying some key players who could give useful feedback, binding them with NDAs, and listening carefully to their concerns.  They could have entered Open Beta with at least one other login method and clear and accessible policies relating to things like illegal content.  They still would have come under fire from somebody: nothing can prevent politics!  However, they would be in a better position to answer it, rather than hopping from blog to blog and trying to do damage control.

I hope Kitely succeeds, I really do.  Virtual Worlds need to grow and be more accessible, and I think this is a worthy experiment in how that can be accomplished, though only one of many.    I’m going to keep an eye on it, and I hope that six months or a year from now, the controversy will have faded and the Good allowed to shine through.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2011 11:00 am

    Kudos on this in-depth, intellectually honest post that touches on the issues of politics and emotion but is driven by reason and perspective.

  2. Clare permalink
    April 10, 2011 5:15 pm

    Thanks for a well-balanced post Talvin. I believe that there are a great many people who would love to try out virtual worlds but who are currently unaware of options like Second Life and OpenSim. I think options like the one offered by Kitely are going to make it possible for some of them to do just that.
    I agree that the early enthusiasm for Kitely has caught them by surprise but that goes to highlight how timely the introduction of the concept is.

    • Talvin Muircastle permalink*
      April 10, 2011 5:20 pm

      The concept is sound. Oh, it’s not something I would likely use in any case: my model calls for a 24/7/365 presence. For somebody who needs to teach a class for 2 hours a week, it might be ideal!

      Kitely stumbled a bit out of the gate, and they are some serious stumbles for sure. That doesn’t mean they can’t recover from it, and I have hope that they will.

  3. April 10, 2011 9:33 pm

    Thanks to Gabe for directing me to this article and I think it is a fair and honest assessment of Kitely and the founders approach to beta testing their platform. I have been there and I can say I found it stable and very usable but I was not happy with using Facebook or letting the unsigned .exe past my firewall. I chanced it so I could experience first hand and write about it to my own blog but got into difficulty with my FB ID making connections to my avatar Google ID under which I blog and this strikes at the heart of the problem with using Facebook as the login ID, “Privacy and Data mining”

    I too want to support and encourage new ways to get people into virtual worlds. Linden Labs has let down the people that have built them up and profited by our creativity and faith in their product so it is little wonder many of us have branched out into the free metaverse in search of new worlds. Opensim held the promise of a free connected-metaverse and Kitely may yet hold a key to accessibility that could open doors to wider adoption. I wanted to give them a chance and did the unthinkable by joining Facebook and I hope the people behind Kitely take careful note of the problems I encountered.

    There must be other ways to register and the opportunity to use alias names or Kitely will cut themselves off from the wealth of content and creativity that the existing avatar community could bring into their worlds for the benefit of those in Facebook they are hoping to attract.

    I agree with Talvin, they should have identified this issue, and others, before launching the beta and the fact they didn’t is worrying but I hope they will learn quickly before their reputation is sealed in the negative.

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