Many virtual worlds, from Club Penguin to Second Life, combine the best of social networking and immersive gaming to create a great user experience. One of the most interesting aspects of the result is that it requires focus (a fact, which can even be used for pain management using a VR environment).
The experience requires relatively undivided attention and is synchronous (participants need to be logged in at the same time). This is radically different from current forms of social networking. The typical teen is a member of 3-5 social networks and in an evening session has many browser windows and IM sessions going at the same time. This type of asynchronous multi-tasking would lead to a pretty terrible experience in a virtual world or an immersive game.
Like with MMOs, this dynamic is likely to lead to users being active members of far fewer virtual worlds. This battle for users’ attention tends to push more towards hits than the existing model, which, given the proliferation of vertical social networking sites and social infrastructure, is starting to approximate a Long Tail distribution. This has some significant implications about the economics of this market segment.
Social networking experiments requiring synchronicity, e.g., Dodgeball, have met with little success. It is therefore interesting to imagine the extent to which virtual worlds can scale from a usage standpoint without adding significant asynchronous capabilities, e.g., strategy-driven avatars, mobile-controlled avatars and others, which would allow a user to stay connected to the virtual world w/o consuming as much user cycles as being logged into the world would require. Some of the most relevant lessons are, alas, not culturally portable (Cyworld, for example, whose success if the US is not going to be a slam dunk).
Certainly an interesting space to watch closely.