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Big Brother Second Life: Post Mortem

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And so, with Gideon Television's eviction from the house, Big Brother in Second Life is over for the YesButNoButYes team. The remaining contestants will continue until the winner is crowned on Jan 4th. I want to let all YBNBY SL readers that our official endorsement passes on to TheDiva Rockin, so if you can, please stop by and vote for her in the next week. And if you ask nicely, she may take her top off and pole dance for you. She promised YesButNo a rusty shack on her otherwise idyllic paradise island if she wins.

Judging from some of the comments I've read, some of you can breathe a sigh of relief as we return to our usual fair of humor and pop culture, but I wanted to take the opportunity to post one final set of thoughts from my own perspective on what Endemol got right - or wrong - with their attempt to translate a real world phenomenon into a virtual landscape.

It's going to be long and self-indulgent, so only click the link if you're both a Second Life aficionado AND glutton for punishment.

The Secret Origin of Gideon Television

First of all, a little background and an admission. Gideon Television started writing dispatches from Second Life quite a while ago, both here and on his own site, and while it's always been a niche subject for us, they've been a blast to publish.

What I don't think I've ever officially acknowledged (and probably won't again) is that, yes as some of you probably guessed, I AM Gideon Television.

Gideon was created as an exercise in character generation. With so much buzz about building "places" in Second Life - an Aloft Hotel, a Pontiac Island, a base for a marketing company, there had been little talk of the concept of building personas, creating three dimensional characters to inhabit that landscape. And so Gideon Television was born, a gonzo journalist ripped straight from the pages of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which I happened to be reading at the time. But Gideon is more than just Hunter, and owes an equal debt to comic writers Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison. (Gideon borrows his look for the former's gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his name from the latter's Gideon Stargrave).

Gideon was also an exploration of instant celebrity - could naming a character a "Superstar™" and acting like it was a fact, really make it happen? (Also exploring themes Grant Morrison is fascinated with, namely the blur between fantasy becoming reality). And, in a curious piece of karma, this was a thought inspired by the instant celebrity in England of the various winners and losers of - you guessed it - Big Brother, people who continue to be famous for nothing more than being famous.

In the course of his adventures so far, Gideon's road trip has taken him through the seedier side of SL - gambling, prostitution, guns, drugs, TV evangelists, betrayal - and while I could never hope to capture the genius of Thompson in my writing, Gideon's approach has always been abrasive, self-centered, and above all, fatalistic.

Big Brother is Watching

When Endemol announced they were bringing Big Brother to Second Life, it almost seemed like a crime NOT to apply. While I never expected to get through, the fact that the franchise had at least partly inspired the character felt like fate tugging at me.

The first step in the process was to amend my SL profile to reflect my desire to be picked. I'd already decided, for better or worse, to stay true to Gideon's personality, to be as acerbic and annoying in my application materials as I could., After all, positioning yourself as a potential bad guy is a common strategy for reality television, and I lay a bet on the possibility that most profiles would be written in a much more optimistic tone. Here's how it appeared, complete with a photograph of myself nuzzling gently at Big Brother's boobs:

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Gideon Television, Superstar™, Second Life's first gonzo journalist. Trying to get into BB to bring a sharp dose of reality to the touchy-feely avatars that sicken me daily. One week in a glass box with me and they'll be screaming for a grid reboot.

Don't believe me? http://www.gideontelevision.com/blog

To this day, I'm not sure if Endemol actually bothered to check out my site to see what they were letting themselves in for, but from a list of 300, I was shortlisted along with 59 others, and asked to submit a final email with my "motivation" and what I would do with the grand prize - an island in Second Life to do with what I wanted.

At this point, I started to frequent the Big Brother island, and got to meet quite a few of the 60, including some who would make it through to the final. Reading their profiles and talking to them clearly pointed to the fact that most of them were overwhelmingly upbeat about SL and this opportunity - optimists who loved the friendly, creative spirit of the world, filled with positivity, and with big philanthropic plans for the island. Clearly, for Gideon to stand out, all he had to do was be himself. More importantly, I realized that the female to male ratio was overwhelmingly in my favor, so to get through I just had to position myself as an alternative to the other male candidates.

And then I met Simon Walsh, a minor celebrity in Second Life as a man who is struggling bravely against the ravages of Cerebral Palsy, who is using the platform to finally free his mind from the constraints his rebellious body places on him. I need to say right here, that I have nothing but admiration for him and the other disabled Second Lifers. It must truly be a liberating experience to fly across the landscape and be able to finally be on an equal physical level with all those around you. It was a moving story, and if anyone deserved a place in the house, he did (although the day after I was evicted, he wheeled himself out on his own accord, for what reason I have no idea)

So, clearly, Simon was the guy I had to beat. Or rather, Gideon had to beat. And luckily, Gideon's personality had much fewer qualms about using this to his advantage than I may have. Here's the email I wrote:

What's in a name?

Parents have always named their children for the potential they see. Presidential names, royal names, artistic names. Jackson named his son Prince. The Big Brother avatar is named King Ventura.

From inception, my full nom de plume has always been an attempt to determine destiny:

"Gideon Television, Superstar™"

And so, with Big Brother Second Life, comes the opportunity to confirm that vision to the unwashed masses that stumble across the Land of Linden.

Have you read many emails from potential housemates that talk about long dreamed-of projects to be fulfilled with the island prize after personal struggle? Visions of courage, hope and charity, testaments to the human spirit over adversity?

Does it matter? Do you really care what I'll do with the land if I win? A learning center? A public debate forum? A casino? A whorehouse? A giant statue of myself, towering over the landscape of Second Life, a new Colossus of Rhodes?

In the end, Big Brother isn't the make-a-wish foundation. It's beating the rest, by any means possible. It's about the true attributes that separate us from the animals - lying, cheating, begging, tricking, all with a winning smile - natural selection for the 21st century. And to the winner, come the TRUE spoils - fame. Like the others in the countless shows across the World , that person becomes a Superstar, even if it's - as Bowie said "just for one day".

Choose me - I'll be your bad guy.

Clearly, it worked. Five days before the competition was to start, I received notification that I was one of the 15. But was that really what I wanted?

Corporate America shuns Gideon Television

It's been a difficult time for me recently. For the first time in over ten years, I've been "between jobs", and December was to be a month of job hunting, freelance consulting, and recharging before the New Year. 8 hours a day in the Big Brother house, for up to 35 days, was going to place a massive strain on my earning potential, and so I decided the only way that I could afford to enter - that is, enter to try and win - would be to get a corporate sponsor. The final prize was not nearly enough incentive - even if winning was a sure thing, hour for hour it would have been more cost effective to work a daily shift in my local Starbucks and use that to buy an island (value around $2000).

And so I spent a frantic week milking every contact I had to try to find a corporation who'd value a package I created. I'd become a corporate shill, wearing branded clothes, displaying a branded title, I would spend my time in the house building branded items, I would pimp the sponsor to any and all interviewers who met me, and I would devote all the banner space on YBNBY (probably around 750,000 impressions) to that brand. And all for less that most agencies charge for the production of a set of banner ads.

I got very close - three or four household names were all showing a lot of interest right up until I entered the house, but ultimately it wasn't to be, not so much because they didn't see the value, but more because 5 days just isn't enough time for nervous marketing departments to make decisions.

Or maybe they actually did their research, and realized the truth - that Gideon Television was hardly the best spokesperson a brand could wish for.

So, by the time I entered the house on Friday, my strategy had changed. I just couldn't afford to win. In fact, I couldn't afford to stay in longer than a week. Gideon's entry into the house was to be a brief shining moment of semi-stardom - a week of sarcasm haranguing and cynicism, during which I would do anything BUT campaign for votes, followed by a big bang exit. Giving me the one thing I really wanted - a footnote on my resume that could mean the difference between being remembered and not being remembered by a future employer. Besides, how many people can claim they were actually a contestant on THE Big Brother, whatever the medium.

As it turned out, not getting a sponsor was the best thing that could have happened to me, because I would have had a lot of explaining to do.

Big Brother begins, the blogosphere yawns

I started blogging here - as Gideon - from the time I entered the house on December 1st - expecting the Endemol PR machine to go into overdrive, saturating the press with coverage, working with reality TV sites to bring in fans, pitching their story to all the SL blogs. After all, despite many of you yawning, it seems like the perfect platform for a story - a hot trend (Second Life) combined with what must be, along with Pop Idol, one of the biggest and most lucrative reality TV franchises ever created.

So let's measure how many blog posts, from the 62.2 million that Technorati track daily, talked about Big Brother in Second Life:

("Second Life" Big Brother)


Less than 15 posts a day. Or, for some perspective about one fifteenth of the posts that appeared over the same period talking about "Unicorns". If you actually take out all the posts I made (which are included on that graph), ones another houseguest made, and some that our friends posted in support, the fact is there has been less written about Big Brother Second Life during the competition than at any other time since it was announced.

Reuters came to the island and interviewed Warda Kawabata, but the piece never came out (which is more than can be said of Warda, who exited along with me yesterday). Most of the Second Life press stayed largely silent. Moreover, even those rabid fans of the Big Brother franchise were seemingly unaware that it even existed.

How Endemol dropped the ball

At one point, a student called Molly came to interview me in the house, for a class paper she was writing. I hope she reads this, because this is really a text book example of the way to take a good idea and fall at the final hurdle.

On the face of it, the people behind Big Brother had done their homework. The island is a perfect build for what they needed - clean, functional, representative of the brand. All houseguests wore devices that constantly monitored them in the house, and which worked almost flawlessly - impressive. And while visitors often complained they didn't know how to vote, overall the mechanics were in place. As a competitor I would have enjoyed it a lot more if those elements from the US version of the show had been present - houseguests choosing candidates for elimination, Heads of Household, power of veto, secret alliances, a diary room - but the fact is, none of this is relevant .... if no-one is paying attention.

Endemol forgot the most important factor in the success of Big Brother - community access. Sure, you could visit the set, but I counted probably no more than a few hundred visitors a day, and as the days went on, it was clear that a lot of them were returning friends. And in a week when the Second Life search function went down, it spelt complete disaster.

So what could Endemol have done differently?

Gideon Television saves Big Brother

A five point plan for success that may have given this the tipping point it needed.

1. Make it easier to follow the story. The fact is, logging into SL, going to the island, watching the thing unfold live is a pain in the ass. I suspect more people were following my diaries than ever bothered to come to the island. Starwood realized this when they built the Aloft, and created a blog to allow web browsers to experience the build as it unfolded. So next time, build a blog, embed a journalist, tell the story of the house as it happens, make each houseguest keep a daily diary. Create official Flickr sets for photos. Allow anyone to upload snaps, and comments. Create a discussion. Publish transcripts of every conversation that takes place in the house. In other words, let the community get involved from home, rather than just watch passively from behind a glass wall. This isn't TV.

2. Make people CARE about the story. Big Brother isn't about the house, it's about the houseguests. Here in the US some of these have crossed over into pop culture - Chicken George, Dr. Will, Chilltown. Every good reality producer knows that the show rules are just a setting for character conflict. The Amazing Race isn't about a race - the damn show resets itself almost every week. What keeps you interested is the contestants, the ones you love, the ones you love to hate. Yet even today, on the Big Brother Second Life website, lonely photos of the contestants remain unadorned by biographies. Make people care about the people, not the house, because that's where the drama is.

3. Reach out to those who will evangelize. There really was a built-in audience for this program that could have been better engaged - those who love Second Life, and those who love Big Brother. Next time, officially invite podcasters into the house, give them interviews and soundbites from the contestants, allow bloggers one day's access to the house in advance to write it up. Send personal letters to every Big Brother fan club in every country asking them along. Create buzz amongst alpha adopters, and then let that small army do the legwork of getting the word out.

4. Once you engage people, keep them engaged. Anyone who visited the Big Brother island could join a group that would allow them to be sent messages. Yet it was never really utilized while I was there. Once you know you have an audience who care, keep them engaged. Daily updates, bulletins of special events, rss feeds, email blasts. Again, so much of this was being left to the houseguests themselves, Endemol should be paying us all.

5. Leverage your influence. If this had been pulled together by a group of SL residents, it would be easy to just congratulate them on a job well done. But this was Endemol, who presumably have links with most major media outlets in the world. So, where was Channel 4 from England? Where was Julie Chen? Where was the celebrity visit from Dr. Will? Any one of these would have taken the competition to another level in terms of popular interest.

And in the end, the love you make....

Of course, it's easy to criticize. Overall, I think this was still an important moment. More than just a brand jumping on the latest trend to sell another packet of soap, this was an attempt by an entertainment franchise to address the challenge of the growing unimportance of television in our lives, and to explore ways to bring their program to a different audience. We'll continue to see a lot more of this in the future, not least from Endemol, who also own the franchise for Extreme Makeover Home Edition. I suspect that that franchise would do even better in Second Life - get a group of SL builders together, give them an island, a worthy charity that needs a base, and seven days to build a Second Life base for them. Could be huge.

Hmmm - maybe I better go brush up on my building skills. After all, even Extreme Makeover needs the cantankerous one on the crew.

In the meantime, Gideon Television will continue his exploration of Second Life. And in the New Year, I'll be working as a creative consultant with crayon, to help other companies avoid some of the mistakes Endemol made.

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6 Comments

nice post scara. sounds like the early outting was a blessing in disguise.

said animike on December 10, 2006 12:20 AM.

Well done. Seems like a worthwhile experiment, which could lead to more YesBut fun in Second Life.

I'm gonna go vote for the Diva, now. We could use that rusty shack.

said Jellio on December 10, 2006 9:27 AM.

Is that like a rusty trombone?

said John on December 10, 2006 2:35 PM.

Life (even Second Life) is more of an adventure when it doesn't turn out the way you expected.

And there's nothing like a bloody suicide to make the producers sit up and see how different this is.

said Miss Cellania on December 11, 2006 10:10 AM.

I've been to the BB / SL island - almost every day to visit housemate friends. I've never watched BB on television a day in my life. But yet the SL verion of it FELT wrong. Whomever put this together CLEARLY had no concept of what SL *really* is or how to work with it.

Gideon has hit the nail on the head with this one. The only thing I can hope is that the BB folks read this - and make some changes ... fast.

said Lynette Radio on December 12, 2006 9:42 AM.

This post has been the most interesting Second Life-related piece I've seen. I'm discovering that I enjoy SL the same way I enjoy the NBA.

I love reading about pro basketball -- trade rumors, draft strategy, coaches on the chopping block, box scores -- but I rarely (if ever) actually watch games anymore.

I haven't done anything in Second Life besides dress up my character, and haven't logged in since before Thanksgiving. Partly to blame is my slow laptop (over the years I've accumulated four laptops, none of which can handle SL). But I still find the whole place fascinating. Scaramouch, now that Gideon's secret identity has been revealed, can he become the Ralph Nader of Second Life? Going around, telling people how they could have done better?

Also, on a barely related note, I read a quote the other day that said, "Brands who aren't embracing Second Life will soon suffer in obsolescence." That's the kind of bullshit that will lead to hundreds of ill-advised SL marketing adventures.

said aquaman on December 13, 2006 1:04 PM.
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