Don't Believe In Google's 'My World'

Wednesday Sep 26th 2007 by Mike Elgan
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Speculation about Google’s potential new virtual world is a case study in how rumors build in the overheated echo chamber of the Internet.

Everybody's talking about Google's secret "My World" project, a cross between the virtual environment Second Life, and the social network Facebook.

Like Second Life, “My World” would let you create a cute, cartoonish avatar version of yourself, build and furnish a virtual home, play games, see the avatars of and chat with friends, and see lots of virtual advertising. But instead of a fictional virtual space, “My World” would use the real world – via Google Earth.

Sounds awesome. Unfortunately, what we know about the “My World” project is made up from what Google might call a "mashup" of sketchy facts, speculation and wishful thinking. Let's have a look.

Facts

Exhibit A: A MacRumors post from someone claiming to be an Arizona State University (ASU) student links to two screenshots of a survey. The screens appear to show a selection process for students to take part in the beta testing of a secret "new product" named or code-named "My World" from a "major Internet company" that will be "publicly launched later this year." The survey asks, "Are you into 3D modeling, videogaming, etc. Do you have a virtual avatar?" It asks if students how much time they spend on major social networking sites. Another question asks if they have a Gmail account and, if not, would they be willing to use one. Google is not named, but has existing and extensive projects and relationships with ASU.

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Exhibit B: GigaOM blogged the following on January 26: "Sources in China say that Google has teamed up with a Chinese company to develop the 'virtual people' or avatars." The blog also reported that "Our sources say that Google is working with a team of engineers who used to be key developers for There.com." (There.com is a virtual environment like Second Life.)

Exhibit C: The blog Techcrunch reported September 21 that "industry luminaries" met at the Googleplex recently to talk about the "Facebook issue." The post said Google would announce November 5 a new set of APIs that would enable developers to "leverage Google's social graph data" (starting with Google's social network, Orkut).

So these are the facts. None are conclusive. One is based on a single anonymous post. Two are based purely on the unnamed sources of two blogs.

There’s no evidence that these “facts” are true, or even related in any way.

Speculation and Wishful Thinking

Google has developed or acquired a huge portfolio of companies, products and services in recent years, including AdScape, an in-game advertising company; Dodgeball, a Maps-oriented cell phone social networking service; Sketchup, a tool for building 3-D objects on top of Google Earth; Socialstream, a Carnegie Mellon University research project sponsored by Google designed to extend Orkut personal content to other social networks.

Because Google controls all these projects, the wild-eyed speculation is that Google will combine some or all of them into a giant new service. For example, the ASU “My World” project might involve leveraging Google Earth to serve as the virtual environment for people to build homes and objects using Sketchup, which will be tied into Socialstream and Orkut, accessible on your phone via Dodgeball and all paid for by Adscape ad revenues.

But it’s all just guesswork.

Next page: It gets pretty strange...

This is the problem with predicting Google projects. The company has its fingers in so many pies that it's spectacularly easy to imagine that they're going to tie them all together into a massive, futuristic, all-encompassing monster product.

What happens is that one anonymous rumor message-board post combined with two blog posts based on unnamed sources inspires hundreds of bloggers to speculate. Conventional news sources pick up the chatter and report it as “news,” and, before you know it, the whole thing seems real. But it’s really just a speculation echo chamber.

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And there's also some aspects of this grand vision that don't make sense:

• Google has never combined large numbers of disparate services into one mega-product. Sure, they integrated AdSense into Blogger, and Talk into Gmail. But these are very different from the speculative “My World” vision of three, four, five or more acquired products into one seamless environment. Google tends to be very limited and conservative with product integrations.

• In the summer of 2006, GigaOM said that Google Earth & Maps director John Hanke "flat-out denied that his team was working on avatar-oriented projects."

• The whole thing revolves around cute, cartoonish avatars. When's the last time Google did anything cute and cartoonish?

• What would be the benefit or appeal of using Google Earth -- a representation of the real world -- as the virtual environment in which avatars roam free? Would other people build a home where your real home is and where you would want your virtual house? Would people roam around in the Google Earth equivalent of their real towns, homes, schools and workplaces and, if so, what are the privacy implications? Social networks like MySpace and Facebook are already frequented by stalkers and pedophiles. What would be the advantage of a social network that identifies members’ by where they live, work and hang out?

Read the “news” about Google’s big “My World” project, but with skepticism. The truth is that we don’t know what Google is working on.

You can believe that Google is building a giant social virtual environment constructed from a half dozen Google properties. But be aware that as of right now, “My World” is built almost entirely out of sketchy facts, speculation and wishful thinking.

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