Rafting companies have feelings too!

I’m always slightly annoyed by friend requests from people that I don’t know at all, but it’s especially annoying when they aren’t even people really. In various social venues, especially on Twitter, I’ve gotten used to being followed by, or getting friend requests from, or whatever, various obvious spammers, who are pushing some website or product or fuzzy “brand”, and who don’t actually know me at all and aren’t interested in me except as a pair of generic eyeballs, and aren’t presenting themselves as people, but just as URLs leading to advertising pages. I automatically reject these, and if I’m in a grumpy enough mood I also block them (or the equivalent, if any, on non-Twitter sites).

RAFTWET

The other day on SL Bloggers, I got a friend request from RAFTWET Jewell, a name I was pretty sure I’d never heard before. I went to her page on the site, and found an ad (with URL and toll-free number) for some California rafting-trip company, and a bunch of search-engine fodder keywords (“Rivers, Oceans, Waterfalls, Streams, Water, Rafting, Paddling, Extreme Sports”).

I nearly dismissed this with a sigh as the arrival of spamming on Ning, but when I read a bit further down the page I saw that there had been some attempt to put a real personality behind the self-described “company-placed avatar”. There were some personal notes (although sometimes using “I” and sometimes “we” in a rather confusing way), some talk about a love for dancing and having fun learning to make videos. So rather than just ignoring the friend request and looking for some Ning equivalent of blocking, I left what I hope was a polite message on their comment thread:

Thanks for the friend request; unfortunately I don’t really make friends with corporate avatars who exist only to sell me things. :) If any of you nameless people behind RAFTWET would ever like to talk, drop me a line!

I thought that was sort of friendly, and that I might even get a followup from someone with a name not directly related to the company. But that’s not what happened!

Instead Ms. Jewell posted this on my comment wall:

i want to apologize for my friend request. i did not mean to intrude. i am one avie, one person. i have never hidden the fact that i work for the rafting industry in california. its in my profile and in all the blogs that i do.

in the rl world, i work w/ some of the most creative artists and musicians in our lifestyle division and most of them are on the my front page of myspace. i came to educate about rivers and recreation in california, but as i became part of the sl community, i wanted to do more.

economic conditions have hurt and are threatening the life and soul of this place, so i want to try to help as many businesses and people here to thrive and prosper. then they will stay and keep creating.

i am now a builder w/ a little psy store on the mainland. i sell my sculptures. vendors that use my store use it for free. contact me to talk if you want, but you could have ignored me… your comments hurt… they really did. but i cant let you think im hurting ppl here. thank you for listening; i leave you in peace.

And this on her own:

sigh… one avie, one person (not nameless, just need privacy from avies who hurt others) … not sure why she didnt just ignore me…
but, it really hurt my feelings.
only thing im “selling” is awareness of world wide river conservation and clean recreation.
its in my profile, my blogs, too… never hid that fact.
i leave you in peace and wish you well in all life.

Now I certainly hadn’t intended to hurt any real live person! So I replied:

I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize there was a single person to be hurt behind the AV. :) Somewhere on one of your sites that I read (I can’t find it now of course) I got the impression that there were multiple people behind the AV, sort of “whoever Marketing has assigned to Second Life this month” sort of thing. If you really are a single person, I apologize deeply for having hurt you, and would love to talk to you one-on-one inworld sometime.

Still, though, isn’t it sort of odd to be a “corporate AV”? I mean, if you had a new opportunity and changed jobs tomorrow, wouldn’t there still be a “RAFTWET Jewell” in SL, placed by the same company but with someone else behind her? I would feel strange friending a company rather than a person that way. :) I hope you can at least partly understand that feeling; I’m sure I’m not the only person that feels that way. It’s no reflection at all on you personally, or anything that you’ve said or done; it’s the whole notion of being friends with a “company AV” that feels odd. From a marketing point of view, I think the notion of a “company AV” taking part in social spaces is a mistake; it would be better for each employee to have their own personal AV and be social in that context. Time will tell if I’m right. :)

I’m somewhat puzzled about the nature of your company: are you a for-profit enterprise that sells river trips in California (as the ad at the top of your profile suggests), or are you a group committed to river conservation? I’d be interested in hearing more about that.

And apologies again for any unintended hurt I may have caused.

I don’t have a reply back from her yet, but I hope to, and I hope we can come to an understanding that fixes any hurt feelings on both sides.

Am I just strange that I find the idea of interacting with a “company-place avatar”, whose name is the name of their company, pretty weird? Or do other people feel that way as well? I mean, I can see a place for a company-identified AV functioning in a support or information role inworld, but the idea of being “friends” with PepsiCo Darkstone or CocaCola Poppy or something just seems wrong.

Someone acting so officially and explicitly on behalf of a corporation would be under all sorts of odd constraints (could PepsiCo Darkstone ever admit to drinking anything but Pepsi?); it would be hard to know whether to take their statements as coming from a real person, or from the corporate mission statement. It would be really awkward to interact socially with someone when (and no offense to RAFTWET personally here) you’d be constantly thinking “do they really believe what they’re saying here, or are they just being paid to say it?”, “do they really like that outfit, or was it designed by their marketing department?”. And if the person changes jobs someday, am I going to have to get to know them all over again?

I dunno, maybe it’s just me, and this kind of thing is the Future of Socially Aware Marketing. What do y’all think?

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16 Responses

  1. Wow, very interesting and complicated to be sure. Every point you’ve raised is valid to be sure. Personally, I agree and would think a person using a company AV would be sharply constrained and forced/pressured to compartmentalize their av to largely reflect company-speak company-action, whatever form that might take in this “spin-free” world of Web 2.0. Although, I tend to think alot of marketing spin exists still, but it’s of a different form that I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s a concerted effort on the part of companies to sound and appear authentic and less contrived, but I think most are trying to straddle the line between shaping/pushing their own message and allowing it to be shaped virally. In any case, neither is right or wrong and none of this is easy or simple. As for friending a company av and the person behind it, I tend to think that I would react the same way and have the same questions. Thinking about it some more, it all seems to come down to intention and authenticity (and this applies even to the authenticity of a persona some have created, if not divulging the private life of the person behind the persona)…why are we interacting with others, why do we behave the way we do, what are our desired outcomes? I have to say, it sounds as if this corporate av presents herself authentically, which I greatly admire. She’s made clear who she is and why she’s inworld. And I guess I wonder in terms of thinking about it more, what would be the difference between friending a Pepsi corporate av and friending a Linden av? In both cases, they bring with them a corporate message. In both cases, either one could leave the company. Is it possible that those of us in SL who work/collaborate with fashion designers, or clubs, or charitable causes, or other inworld projects are also representing an institution and the same types of questions might apply there? I don’t know…my gut agrees with your view and tends to think there’s a different mindset or intention (again) between a corporate AV and a personal AV who also happens to have an inworld job…but the degree of that difference, I’m not really sure (other than I’m not a huge fan of telemarketers, inworld or in RL). Very very interesting blog (always), post and difficult questions! :)

  2. …I have to add, though, that the name of this particular company RAFTWET kinda cracks me up. It does reflect the “still spin” marketing of Web 2.0 just in the name alone “WET”. Apparently sex sells even in terms of creating environmental awareness. But then again look at what Angelina Jolie did by bringing her megawatt sex appeal to bear on human rights causes? Spin free reality or virtuality? Nah. But that’s universal…still just had to mention the chuckle I got from the company name.

  3. Ooh, that comparison to friending a Linden AV is interesting! I do have a couple of Lindens on my Friends list; in both cases it was because we actually encountered each other inworld (one at a ballet performance and one at an open meeting) and interacted, and I had no qualms about it. I haven’t thought about how I’d feel if I got a friend request from some Linden I’d never heard of on some social networking site. Probably I would be confused. :)

  4. Oh gosh and another comment…I thought your message to her was very very polite, indeed, and nothing that should have caused any type of hurt feelings.

  5. I see your point Dale and I do agree that the avatar is better tied to a person rather than a corporation.

    I have to disagree with Michele though. Your initial IM to her was kind of snarky probably because you didn’t think there was a single person behind that avatar. Which kind of proves your point I guess. If the friend request was from Suzy Q Avatar who happens to work for SLERHJTREA Corporation you might have been more willing to add her. Adding what appeared to be a corporate bot as a “friend” is kind of strange.

  6. Yeah, it’s funny; if I read my initial comment as being addressed to some corporate function (which is what I thought I was talking to), I see it as polite and positive; but if I read it as addressed to a particular person it is kind of snarky. Which is funny in a way, because of course when I talk to a corporation there IS a single person at the other end reading it. But I guess it’s that since corporations don’t have feelings themselves, I don’t expect the person at the other end to take what I say personally. But RAFTWET, despite being a company avatar, definitely did take it seriously.

    I can’t imagine myself what it would be like to go around the grid trying to be the official AV of a company, and at the same time being myself, going to dance clubs, etc. But at least now I know that there are apparently such people out there. :) So I can be careful not to step on their toes, even as I continue to suspect that this is not a Huge Win as a marketing idea…

  7. Hey, now you’ve hurt *our* feelings! We don’t really want to be *your” friend either!!!!!!!
    Signed…
    PepsiCo Darkstone and CocaCola Poppy

  8. Well, at least that simplifies things… :)

  9. Interesting that you are having a conversation with an avatar who is both an individual and a corporate persona, in a sense. About 2 weeks ago Gwyneth LLewellyn posted an essay by Extropia DaSilva on the person or people behind avatars. DaSilva was discussing the possibility of a given avatar outliving the person(s) who created the avatar. She cites classic characters such as Tom Sawyer, Homer Simpson, and Indiana Jones. Raftwet Jewell appears to be an individual – very much so. But I’m not completed convinced that combining an individual personality with a corporate message will fail with marketing.
    http://gwynethllewelyn.net/2008/12/24/%E2%80%98virals%E2%80%99-and-%E2%80%98definitives%E2%80%99-in-second-life%C2%AE-an-essay-by-extropia-dasilva/

  10. Thanks for the reference, Ahuva! Extropia D’s essays always look fascinating but I never have time to read them thoroughly. :)

    The main reason I think it’ll fail is because it creeps me out (that’s a technical term). But maybe I’m unusual that way. How do YOU (Ahuva) or you (anyone else reading this) feel about it? Does hanging out with someone in SL whose name and identity are bound to a company seem perfectly normal? Fun? …

  11. I recognize that technical term “creeps me out”. :) I use technical terms all the time as well – “ick” being one of my favs.

    I think that there are instances where I would have no problem being with an av who is linked very obviously to a specific company. Is it normal? well, maybe not so common at this time. could it be fun? sure, why not? if i’m at a corporate function inworld, am I any less “me”? I had to wear a label with my real name and a message – but I think that i was still “fun”. (let me know if you need references). I realize that I am dodging the issue a bit, since EVERYONE was from the same company.

    When we held the fund raiser for CRY America at the Crown and Pearl back in December we had a rep from CRY attending. She was very nice, interesting and she is on my friends list. What’s the big deal? She simply wears her affiliation openly instead of covertly. Would I want a world populated with thousands of marketing reps? Probably not. But that’s because there will always be some people who are obnoxious. That’s true whether or not they are associated with a company or simply selling themselves.

  12. Yeah, fair enough. But was that CRY rep named “CryAmerica Moleno”, or was she named “Judy Molena”, with a “CRY America Rep” tag over her name? For some reason it seems to make a big difference to me.

    When someone’s actually named for their company (with the assumption that if they changed jobs they’d also change names, and someone else would be running the AV with the old name), I feel much odder than if someone’s just a person who (right now) happens to work for, or even be representing, that company.

    I don’t know if that makes any sense or not… :)

  13. The only company avs I know are one from the CNN iReport team and they are lovely, but even so it is weird – they are not friends in the same way others are – there is always a barrier, a line you can’t cross as an av wearing a company uniform and that just makes us acquaintances rather than friends.

  14. Yeah, well put; I think that’s the same feeling that I have. They may be lovely people (or, I find myself saying, “it may be a lovely person running the AV”), but talking to a Resident that’s explicitly identified as representing, or in some sense *being*, a company is just odd; there is as you say some hard-to-describe feeling of a barrier.

    I don’t feel that with Lindens. Maybe because, even if they have “Linden” in their name, they each have their individual *first* name, and you never have the feeling that tomorrow you might talk to that same Resident but find a very different personality there. Or something. :)

  15. Late to the fray, here, just catching up with friends’ blogs…but it’s interesting to see how RL companies are trying to figure out all this ‘social networking’ and ‘virtual world’ stuff.

    I actually ran into RAFTWET tangentially when I gave someone a LM to the old Reverie store that used to sit on her land and she IMed to tell me she couldn’t find the Reverrie AO and she seemed to be in someone’s house.

    Based on the fact the house itself is a fairly generic construct and there isn’t really any information about this rafting business (not even an out of world URL you can go to) I don’t think RAFTWET has figured out this whole corporate marketing spin as yet. I do think if you are planning to represent yourself as a ‘corporate avatar’ (whatever that means) that you’d better grow a thicker skin and do it fast. I think her response was fairly dramatic considering she’s representing some RL corporation somewhere. Is that how the company wants to be represented in this brave new world?

    The topic of how companies want their employees to deal with outsiders is always an interesting one. I think when we deal with so-and-so SunMicrosystems we all know we’re dealing with an employee of Sun, and we can tailor our engagement with them accordingly. We can assume if they log in with that avatar, they’re on company business, and what we choose to say to them will likely have a different tone than what we’d say to someone who wasn’t strongly affiliated with a company.

    Just for the record – I own RL and SL companies; ‘I’ am not a ‘corporate avatar’, since ‘I’ pre-existed before any of my companies and plan to continue to exist irregardless of my companies’ futures. My RL and SL identities are by now pretty firmly linked, and I have a standing rule that if you want to talk to ‘corporate Shenlei’, you need to authenticate your RL identity with me. Otherwise, I assume you’re approaching me socially and that will determine the level, if any, of conversation we have.

    That said, I pretty much always accept friendship requests as long as I don’t get spammed to death. It’s not worth it to me getting all verklempt and making a scene about ‘how I don’t accept friend requests from strangers’. You can always just remove them at a later date with minimal drama ;)

    ~Shenlei

  16. Yeah, I’m guessing that W.E.T. is a small company that hasn’t really thought through the whole “corporate AV” thing in detail, and that RAFTWET herself is really mostly an individual, except when she’s being the company, and it’s sort of hard to tell which is when. Hence my accidentally hurting her feelings. :)

    I don’t mind friend requests from strangers in general (although I don’t always accept them; sending out Solstice cards is hard enough already!), but getting one from what I thought was a corporation was weird enough that I was moved to reply.

    (Accepting a friendship in Ning is sort of automatically more spammy than accepting one in SL, since not only does your Ning friends list get cluttered up, but it also by default shows you various happenings related to your friends, so if there are lots of people you don’t actually know on your friends list, there’s lots of extra stuff in that event view as well. Assuming I’m thinking of Ning and not some other random SocNet software. :) )

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