Thursday, 4 April 2013

Why the "Awesome Philippines" Island in Second Life is not so awesome

Earlier this month, I did a little machinima tour of the new "Awesome Philippines" island in Second Life, an effort of the Philippines Department of Tourism to spur youth travel to la Perla del Mar.  The Secretary of Tourism Joseph ''Ace'' Durano does seem to get the value of virtual worlds as participatory media. From their press release:
The Internet, virtual worlds like Second Life and social media are powerful platforms today. In particular, the Web 2.0 world puts the power directly in the hands of the consumers.... As much as it is about showcasing some of the amazing destinations the Philippines has to offer, it is also about youth participation. As a tourism board, we recognize the value of engaging young people online and we embrace co-creation alliances with our guests.
While this is I think the right approach, how they seem to be building their Second Life presence seems to contradict this stated goal.  In fact, it's actually an old school, top-down model of marketing that misses the opportunities presented by virtual worlds to engage their target audience.
It appears to me that the people behind the "Awesome Philippines" campaign fell victim to a corporate 101 mistake with their virtual world project: if you build it, they will come. A few years ago in Second Life, many corporations spent millions on fancy 3D re-creations of their headquarters, storefronts, and showrooms and just expected thousands of avatars to flock their just because it was there. Those efforts, not surprisingly, failed.
They didn't get this important truth about Second Life: The power of SL is not just its 3D immersive environments, it's the transnational, transmedia communities that interact there.
"Awesome Philippines" island has virtual scuba diving, virtual surfing, and pretty views of Mount Mayon and the Chocolate Hills... and that's it. After about 15-30 minutes of zipping around the island, you are done.  If your stated goal is to get people to plan a trip to the Philippines its unclear on how this virtual build is going to facilitate that.
You know how you serve that goal:empower the people who love and care about the Philippines who are already in Second Life. And there are hundreds and hundreds of those people: over 600 registered users logging in from the Philippines. Plus there are who knows how many other diaspora Filipinos like me and others who hold a special place in their heart for the islands. 
Check out to the right a picture a few of the many active "Pinoy" and "Filipino" groups in SL. Filipinos hold their holiday parties, create beautiful Filipino fashions, and do all of the stuff we do offline, just with our avatars.
If the Philippine Department of Tourism really wants to showcase how amazing the Philippines is, it should call upon its richest asset -- it's people. Bring in the Filipino musicians, singers, artists, designers, programmers, comedians, poets, scholars and others who are the best advertising for the country we have to offer.  Some random ideas:
·                 An "Awesome Philippines" Machinima Challenge:  Hold a contest asking Second Life residents to create a short machinima film describing what to them makes the Philippines such a special place to visit, using the existing island or other places in SL as the set.
·                 Regular Filipino Fiestas:  Invite visitors to come experience what a filipino festival or holiday party is all about, including music, handicrafts, speakers, food, and drink.  Focus on a different locale each time, showing the amazing diversity of the 7,000 islands.
·                 Artist Showcases and Live Talks: You can easily bring into SL some of the rich arts and crafts from the Philippines, and have those artists come and speak about their work!  That's something that  leverages the multi-modal and synchronous affordances of virtual worlds in ways that the web and other technologies can not.
In short, put the power to spread your message into the hands of the Pinoy... even if they happen to be pixelated Pinoy.  Now THAT would be truly awesome.