State of Play V, from immaculate Singapore, kicked off this morning with a panel on "Building Businesses in Virtual Worlds." As I write I'm listening as the panel wraps up, with the panelists -- all involved in business development companies that focus to some extent on virtual worlds -- taking questions from the audience. But continuing to resonate in my mind is a phrase that panel participant Ken Brady of Centric used in his remarks to characterize what businesses should aim for in virtual worlds moving forward: "sustainable branding." This idea was echoed by the others on the panel as the discussion progressed, and to me this should prompt us to continue to think about the current era of virtual worlds as one that is beginning to be defined less by the relationship between their makers and their users (as individuals or nascent groups), and more by the expansion (one might even say colonization) of them by both emergent and pre-existing institutions.
My mind reeled at the collision of memes from greenspeak and marketing that "sustainable branding" contains, and down that road probably lies an illuminating deconstruction on its own, but on a more practical note it became clear that for the panelists this idea captured the nuts and bolts dilemma that faces commercial institutions as they enter virtual worlds: how to maintain control over their brands while tapping into the innovation that virtual world users can provide. In the panelists' remarks, especially in not only Ken's but also those by Ted Tagani of Millions of Us and Bret Treasure of Inside this World, this tension between control and creativity was a constant refrain, and with a very optimistic tenor; there seemed to be little doubt that a "balance" could be achieved, and Coca-Cola's efforts through Millions of Us in Second Life were held up as a model for how companies could be "flexible" about the use of their brand in a way that would serve their interests.
So there was little in the way of a critical dimension in this discussion, so maybe we could develop that here. Do we really think that this balance will be one that will be a happy fit of cultural creation and business interests? I've no doubt whose interests will, on the whole, be served in the aftermath of any confrontation between these institutions and users; after all, the third and all-important party here is another institution: the virtual world maker. As I've blogged about before in different ways, we have every reason to be concerned about how established interests will find ways to maintain their position in virtual worlds, and today's panel left me in a Marxian mood -- it seems that, as usual, there is little reason to bet against the powers that be.