January 30, 2010

Avatars United - where is the beef?

In a surprising move Linden Lab has bought the web portal "Avatars United". In April 2008 now retired blogger Vint Falken presented Avatars United (AU) as "Facebook for virtual personas". While I never was much of a fan of Facebook - and the current (and repeating) controversies about privacy concerns prove me right - I do use the social business networks Xing and LinkedIn with good success. A social network for avatars that bridges te gap between purely in-world presence, blogs and email was an intriguing thought so I signed up.

Avatars United never really fulfilled my vision and expectations. There were certainly a lot of good ideas, but at the same time they fell short in many aspects. The site used to be slow, features were not intuitive or buggy. Also - despite Vint's call for action to SL avatars to become the largest group in AU - it never reached a critical mass.

Other services stepped in. Flickr holds now the largest community of SL avatars for photo sharing, despite efforts of Koinup and Snapzilla to offer more SL centric services. Blogger and Wordpress hosts the majority of SL centric blogs, Twitter and Plurk have huge communities of SL avatars despite more specialized latforms like Ning or even SL centric platforms like rezzed.net (defunct), moolto (a Ning site) or ProfilesLive (aka SLProfiles) offering better tailored services. There are avatars on Xing, LinkedIn and even on Facebook, who is currently undergoing the second wave of ethnic cleansing regarding digital personas.

Avatars United - forgotten by many and dwarfed in usage compared to any of the other sites above - now got the huge boost from Linden Lab. The cards have been reshuffled, the game is open again.

What does Avatars United offer today:
  1. Microblogging
    The "Shoutbox" allows you to publish short blurps of thoughts which can be seen by your contacts or everybody else seeing your public page.
    Who else offers it: Twitter and Plurk are the platforms used most by SL avatars, but also avatar forums on Ning, rezzed.net, moolto and others offer this.
    AU implementation: Solid, but lacks cross-connectivity into other services like ping.fm
    Killer feature: no
  2. Photo Sharing
    You can create albums and upload photos to it. Other users can comment on the photos and "like" them.
    Who else offers it: Flickr is the "mother of photo sharing services", Google has Picasa as probably #2 in the market. Koinup offers specialized services for SL avatars and has a nice followership. Snapzilla is specialized on SL avatars as well and is widely used.
    AU implementation: slow and offering no advantage I can see compared to other sites.
    Killer feature: no
  3. Blog
    AU allows you to create your own blog entries, as well as to subscribe to other's blogs and to comment and "star" posts.
    Who else offers it: Wordpress and Blogger as the most popular services, but also communities like Ning.
    AU implementation: straightforward and spartanic, but missing again important connectivity features.
    Killer feature: no
  4. Feed Reader
    The opposite of the AU-blogs is the function to aggregate blog sources you read in a web based feed reader. With the idea of AU as dashboard, you could read all your favourite blogs from within the AU page.
    Who else offers it: ther eis a plethora of standalone feed readers - as web service Google Reader is probably the largest one
    AU implementation: extremely slow and buggy, claiming perfectly validating feeds as not being proper ones
    Killer feature: no
  5. Plugins and Gadgets
    AU offers the functionality to include 3rd party plugins into your page, adding more functionality. Right now the number of plugins is small, but since AO offers support for Google's OpenSocial standard, there will soon be more.
    Who else offers it: Facebook, LinkedIn and Xing all offer plugins, there is also a number of plugins available for the iGoogle homepage. Ning offers plugins to a certain extent.
    AU implementation: I have not tested this yet
    Killer feature: maybe - no other SL/avatar centric platform offers this functionality. It depends on how this feature gets adopted by the community, but this could be a winner.
  6. Currency model
    While the basic functionality is free, certain features need to purchased with AU "coins", where 500 coins equal roughly 5 US$ or about 1500 L$. It seems that 3rd party plugin developers can charge "coins" for these too.
    Who else offers it: Google Apps offers commercial widgets for one time or repeat charges. No SL oriented site I know offers this.
    Killer feature: maybe - for social websites it is the clearest revenue model I saw so far, and it depends on the attractiveness of the offered features. And of course with the new owner Linden Lab, an integration of the "coins" with L$ would facilitate the success.
Bottom line

Where is the beef? Right now I don't see it. While I definitely will continue to use AU, right now I see no compelling reason to prefer it over my usage of iGoogle, Blogger, Plurk, Twitter and Flickr. However AU is in a great starting position now. With a more responsive server platform, and with essential cross-connectivity features added, it might become a true dashboard for avatars. Let us pipe in our photos from Flickr and Koinup. Let us mirror our blogposts from Wordpress and Blogger. Let us Tweet and Plurk from the AU interface or get support for ping.fm. Let us rate XStreetSL items within AU and create wishlists. Let us mirror our in-world friendship relations in AU and see who's online. Add a landmark sharing service.

The opportunities are exciting for sure. Now it comes to show the SL residents the beef.
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