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Saturday, January 19, 2008

If toddlers hang out in virtual worlds, so should news companies

This caught my eye on - PBS, the US Public Broadcasting Service, is developing an ad-free subscription-based virtual world for toddlers. Yep, toddlers.

"Dubbed PBS Kids Play, the site is ad-free and is aimed at ages 3 to 6. It’s currently in beta. PBS is offering free trials and claims to offer a pre-school and kindergarten curriculum along with PBS characters such as Curious George and Bob the Builder. The free trials will end before spring," says PaidContent.

Suddenly the impetus for news brands to get themselves established in virtual worlds - such as Second Life - seems greater. If future generations of news audiences are growing up using virtual worlds, they're going to want to work, network and consume information in virtual world formats, as well as other formats.

It's easy to ignore virtual worlds at the moment because they are optional and primarily recreational. But companies are beginning to hold meetings in virtual world conference rooms - allowing people in various countries to work together - and the format lends itself to all manner of commerce, educational projects and social networking. Some schools already teach children how to get around in virtual worlds.

The technology is far from perfect - I'm not alone in having abandoned my avatar at a bar in Second Life after getting frustrated at trying to move around in there - but once it becomes easier to use and more people are using broadband, its wide adoption is surely guaranteed.

It's also easy to dismiss the commerce going on in virtual worlds as a flight of fancy. Most of us were stumped the first time we heard about the run on banks in Second Life which left users seriously out of pocket. But that commerce is very real. As Techcrunch notes in this story: Disney paid $350m last year for Club Penguin. If you google the phrase 'virtual worlds' you'll find listings for people selling architecture and interior decoration services for virtual world premises and many more variations on that theme.

And if you're sitting there thinking, yes, but virtual worlds aren't real, then think about this: neither is money. Money has no intrinsic value. It's only value lies in the fact that we all agree to use it as money. The moment you or I or the bank stop doing so, those notes and coins become worthless. Reality is what we make it.

There's a loose consensus among digital media commentators that news organisations need to focus on getting their content out to where audiences congregate, rather than relying on audiences being attracted to their websites. There are audiences aplenty in virtual worlds.