With due respect to Cory, it's well known that there's a fair amount of PR-hype around Second life. (See Reuters and Ren on the hype cycle.) I think I've been as skeptical of Second Life news stories as anyone (except perhaps Clay Shirky). Yet while I have not drunk the Kool-aid they're handing out at Linden, sometimes one of the many self-promoting Second Life-related press releases I chance upon is really striking. Case in point is this one: As reported by Fortune, Coldwell Banker is now selling land in Second Life.
Well, okay, I'll drink just a little of the Kool-Aid, because this is so weirdly metaversal -- if it were not marketing, it would surely qualify as performance art.
Three years ago, I don't think I would have dared to imagine that a real realty company would be, at this time, entering into the business of buying and selling virtual real estate. While I have been telling people for a while now that I believe that virtual property is more like property (e.g. real estate) than intellectual property, I have never felt that virtual real estate is or should be treated like (real) real estate. As Dan and I have explained in our work, there's a family resemblance between virtual property and property, but there are some very important reasons to hesitate before treating virtual property like real (or chattel) property.
Rather than contemplate on these philosophical fine points, it seems Coldwell Banker has seized the day.
Or has it? I've got to wonder what exactly Coldwell Banker is doing here and what kind of deal it has with Linden Labs (presumably there is some contractual arrangement). Second Life advertises on its splash page "Own Virtual Land." But if you buy virtual "land," do you "own" it like you own real land? Certainly not, according to Second Life's lawyer. In a comment on the Bragg v. Linden virtual property lawsuit Second Life counsel Ginsu Yoon was reported as saying: "The term 'virtual' may not have a strict legal interpretation, but if anything it means that the thing being described is NOT whatever comes after the word 'virtual.'" In other words, you're buying something when you buy land in Second Life, but you're not buying land.
But take a look at this Coldwell Banker press release and, as you read it, try to figure out what, if anything, is meant to be taken seriously:
Company Leads Real Estate Industry Into Virtual Future
PARSIPPANY, N.J. (March 23, 2007) – With the 3-D virtual world of Second Life® having become an online phenomenon, Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corporation today announced that it is the first national real estate company to sell homes within the community. Offering houses in a variety of architectural styles and the ability to tour neighborhoods with a real estate professional, Coldwell Banker® is reinforcing its mission to ensure that everyone can achieve the dream of homeownership, whether on Main Street or in the metaverse...
One of the more popular activities within Second Life is the purchase and rental of virtual land, so players can build their own stores, homes and event sites.
Coldwell Banker has an inventory of more than 500 homes on 550,000 square meters in the Ranchero section of the Second Life mainland, one of the largest home developments in this virtual world. These virtual homes will vary in price based on size and style, including southwestern, colonial and contemporary, among others. In addition, Coldwell Banker is offering homes perched atop a picturesque hill overlooking the ocean. Second Life residents can meet with a Coldwell Banker sales associate avatar in the brand’s virtual office and schedule an appointment to tour virtual properties of interest. Homebuyers who close a purchase with Coldwell Banker will receive free “virtual furniture” for their new home as a closing gift...
“Rather than having to negotiate for top dollar with Second Life ‘land barons,’ users can visit our virtual office and interact with our virtual sales associate to buy homes from Coldwell Banker at reasonable rates,” Young continued. “Ironically, Colbert Coldwell, and later Benjamin Banker, founded our company after seeing similar practices in 1906 San Francisco. Coldwell Banker was founded just 18 weeks after the earthquake largely because our founders saw the need for ethics and integrity in assisting victims of the devastation who were being preyed upon by unsavory businesspeople. We want to do the same thing in Second Life: give residents the opportunity to participate in fair and reasonable real estate transactions."
There's just so much in that for the mind to boggle over that I don't know what to say. That last line is tongue-in-cheek, right? Or is it?
In any event, this one worked. A genuinely uncanny metaversal moment. Way to go, Second Life and Coldwell Banker -- you got my attention.
Update: In the first comment, Andy, our faithful marketing commenter, points out that this is essentially a 3-D advertisement for Coldwell Banker's offline services. That's what my cynical side says too -- if it's not all a 3-D advertisement, it is at least partially that. Yet if that's true, then I think most of the press release, especially that last line, should not be taken at face value. Yet Andy also says that if Coldwell's virtual agents provide bad advice to Second Life home buyers, this marketing effort might backfire.
So here's another question: what mistakes might these agents make? (Other than not showing up.) What kind of service would you expect from a virtual home broker in Second Life? Find you a good neighborhood? Direct Furries to Furry-friendly neighborhoods and the rest of us away? (Does the Fair Housing Act apply to Second Life?)
Should they counsel you away from buying homes with doors and a slanted roof? How many baths do you need? Should they inspect for defects? I guess people won't care much about the school districts...
In short, would any of the skills of a real real estate agent seriously translate into Second Life? And if not, what skills might you want from a buyer's agent in Second Life?
Update 2: From my quick tour of the offices, it seems that on day two of this venture, nobody is holding down the Coldwell fort. I couldn't find anyone to talk with, except the virtual dog, pictured above. The dog didn't say much. But weekends are a pretty busy time -- maybe the sales staff were all out showing properties? Maybe.
Ah, well, so much for the Kool-Aid...