Entering a virtual world inside Facebook

On: November 15, 2007
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About Pieter-Paul Walraven
Besides enjoying my MA New Media and doing research on Web 2.0 developments in China at the UvA I am working 2 days a week as a project assistant at KREM (www.KREM.nl). KREM is a web 2.0 oriented company which specializes in so called corporate social networks. Movies: Koyaanisqatsi, O Brother where art thou?, Amores Perros. When not studying: Golf!, running, traveling, China, Web 2.0. Books: Life of Pi, War and Peace, The World is Flat. Furthermore I am currently doing research on Web 2.0 in China and Chinese Web companies expanding overseas. For this MA thesis research I will travel to China on the 14th of April to interview the most prominent Chinese Web companies that have the ambition to expand internationally.


Deep integration

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into an interesting short post on the Seeriously blog. It was a post about a new Facebook application by Activeworlds (AW) and yesterday I decided to give it a closer look by stepping into this virtual world in Facebook.

Before reporting my actual experiences of the virtual world ‘deeply integrated in Facebook’, I will give a brief description of Activeworlds, Inc; the company that made the platform and created the Facebook application. Activeworlds, Inc originated as WebWorld in the summer of 1994. After several name, owner and positioning changes it was eventually named Activeworlds, Inc in September 2002.The future vision that AW has for 3D virtual worlds is that they will eventually become web-browser substitutes. So instead of using 2D browsers like Internet Explorer and Firefox, users should be able to walk around in a 3D environment where they can click on web pages and links. As AW CEO, Rick Noll states it: “We are building towards a future where virtual world sites will be mainstream and realistically implemented”.

At first glance the virtual worlds of AW seem to have an education and commerce porpuse since these are subjects with a prominent space on the company’s website. But when taking a closer look at their strategy it becomes clear that because AW hosts over a 1000 different virtual worlds where users can play, shop, make friends, learn, and so on, AW its main strategy is based on diversity. When looking at all the different virtual worlds that are available it becomes clear that AW is trying to cover all possible virtual world niches. A few examples: Russian World, France World, US World, AWschool, AWteen, Virtual mall, Atlantis, Sales World, AWChess, AWadult, and so on.

Entering the world

After the required ticking of the (people at Activeworlds) ‘Know who I am and access my information’ box I (being a Facebook member) was allowed to download the application and I installed the software on my computer. After selecting the newbie recommended ‘All worlds Gate’ I was ready to roll; a chat window opened and a small screen started loading in Facebook.

The first thing that caught my attention were the big ‘register’ buttons and the menu that provides users the opportunity to invite all their Facebook friends by simply clicking on their profile picture. Before the entire world was loaded the next thing that crossed my mind was that the small window in my Facebook page was nothing more than an interactive banner; a banner-extra. But then the world was finally loaded and I could start running around, chatting with people and play; doing research.

I decided to look for someone more experienced in the virtual world and within a couple of seconds I ran into a female avatar called ‘HoneyB1’. After chatting with Honey for a while I asked if she was fine with a short virtual interview and she agreed. The first question I asked was whether she entered the world via Facebook too, but to my surprise she replied that she did not even know Facebook. It turned out that the beautifull looking 32 year old girl from Australia wasn’t even aware of the phenomenon social networks! She had entered the virtual world via an Australian AW enabled website.

Tourist Guy

When I asked her if she was a frequent user she told me she considers herself a local in several different AW worlds. Her favorite though is the All Worlds Gate (the world we were standing in during the interview) because “it is a good world to meet people since almost everybody is new”. Then I realized that almost all the avatars that walked by looked the same; as a new unregistered user you are only allowed to enter the world with a tourist avatar; big belly, Hawaiian shirt, camera, shorts, ‘Crocodile Dundee tourist hat’, white sox etc.
After finishing the brief interview I decided to extend my virtual research by asking some general questions aimed at all users I bumped into in order to find out what the amount of users was that had entered this world via Facebook. The result: 0 avatars out of the roughly 30 that replied, had joined the world the way I did; through a Facebook application. One of the few persons that were even aware of the social network Facebook told me that she was not a member herself, but she uses it to check the pages of her three sons…..



The next step in my ‘research’ was checking out the graphics and the characteristics of the world. As an unregistered tourist I was only able to walk around, chat and click on almost every billboard or portal. I found this restricted world comforting since I am used to a lot of options in other virtual worlds I have tested. The relatively small All Worlds Gate provides users with a huge ticking clock on the so called ‘information area’. I assume the clock indicates a virtual-AW-wide time since it did not match the (real) time it actually was during my investigation.
When you click on a billboard the future-vision of AW that I described earlier becomes clear; after clicking on the billboard a screen within my screen within my Facebook screen (!) opens and I am able to browse through a website. It turns out to be an AW Gatekeepers website and after heaving read that there is always a gatekeeper running around in the All Worlds Gate (where I am at that moment) I decided to go find one to ask him or her some questions.
After I had expressed through the chat application that I was looking for a gatekeeper, a certain ‘ManxMing o’ with a Mila Jovovich in 5th element look-a-like avatar approached me and proudly told me she was a gatekeeper for Activeworlds. After she introduced herself I asked her what a gatekeeper is: what does it mean to be a gatekeeper? She replied with a rather copy-paste pre-instructed answer:
“All Gate Keepers are volunteers. Our mission is to enhance the experience of citizens and new users, as well as promote the AW community; by providing a welcoming environment, that allows for instruction, assistance and camaraderie.”

After I had expressed my doubts on the volunteer part of her answer she told me that she honestly applied for the gatekeeper’s position herself, she ‘works’ at home and does not get paid. Furthermore she considers herself a helper, a true AW fan from the beginning and she did not know Facebook! After the conversation I think she wanted to impress me even more by blurting out:

“To register, just click on the “register now” button on your screen or go to the active worlds web site at www.activeworlds.com. It only costs $6.95 U.S. to register per month of unlimited usage! Or $69.95 a year.”

She closed of with an impressive:

“,oº°ºo..(¯`’•.¸(¯`’•. Welcome to the Active Worlds Gateway.•’´¯).•’´¯)..oº°ºo,”

Wow, what a highly engaged user did I just bump into, she must be a true fan!
After thanking ManxMing for her friendly collaboration I decided that it was time to say goodbye and go home; back to Facebook.


In this part I would like to express some of my views on AW it’s general strategy in the market of virtual worlds but also it’s approach concerning the luring in of new users.
The first thing I want to mention has to do with accessibility. As I discussed in my earlier post about virtual worlds in Modern China, Novoking is a virtual world created by a company in China that tries to attract the more newbie users by not offering too many functions. The application that enables Facebook users to access the AW virtual world fairly easy and integrates the world in a social network does exactly the same thing. By keeping it plain and simple, users get to know the virtual world very quickly instead of being scared of by too many functions, buttons, and complicated functions. This makes it the easiest accessible virtual world I have encountered so far. So by offering a very simple version of a virtual world, almost like a teaser, the learning curve is even smoother than the one of the Novoking world. The user friendly possibility to click on Facebook users and invite them into this virtual world adds to this.

invite friends

The second thing that caught my attention while walking around in the virtual world was the phenomenon of the ‘use’ of extremely engaged users. If we assume that Manxming was indeed an unpaid volunteer, the so called gatekeepers can be considered a very effective, innovative and cheap way of engaging other users. Approaching these highly involved users as a company and expressing your respect by providing them with extra information and authoritarian abilities, has several advantages:

– Gatekeepers such as Manxming are the best ambassadors a company could wish for
– Gatekeepers are very cheap; since they are proud to be a part of your company, they just need some instructions and attention and in the case of AW they do not demand any reward for this
– Gatekeepers are a good method for word-of-mouth advertising because they are on the same level as users.
– Gatekeepers are able to answer all the questions new users have in a very personal way.
– Gatekeepers will build en generate content in virtual worlds.

These are only a few of the advantages that highly engaged users could offer. This example does not only apply in this case, it also applies for social networks and countless other Web 2.0 websites, these users should be approached pro-actively and stimulated at all times!

A final thought that I would like to express about AW is about the fact that the company tries to serve the whole virtual world market by offering over a 1000 niche virtual worlds. I think the goal of trying to become the biggest virtual world in all branches is rather arrogant and ignorant. In the near future there will be an endless amount of different virtual worlds, each with very specific characteristics and different users. I would suggest AW to start focusing on a more specific genre such as virtual malls or virtual education through gaming, like for example Seeriously does. I think it will not take too long before the virtual market will be much more competitive. Picking a specific virtual world niche and establishing yourself as the biggest authority in this niche should be the next strategic step for AW.

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