My 15-year-old daughter Samantha obliterated any line between virtual and real long ago. At age 4, her first action-heroine was Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. She vaulted our sofa to mimic the same game moves her media-critic dad was playing addictively in the new 3D technology. A decade later, the generational divide remains. I am the dweeby gadget-fiend who gets dazzled by digital, and she regards tech as an assumed part of the environment, a tool, a mere means to an end. Kids!
And that end is the real job of a teenager - establishing an identity. I throw a next-gen AJAX app like Flip.com at her and she fumes over the interface and initial bugs but still gets a three-page scrapbook of family and friends up in no time. Sam appreciates the fancy tech, polished feel, and highfalutin brands and all. Yet she quickly recognizes that it doesn't really serve her online aims. "I prefer MySpace, because it doesn't require so much effort to make it work, and you have more of an opportunity to write about who you are."
If Web 3.0 is going to be about merging real and virtual worlds, and investing more of our selves online, then Sam and her teen posse are already there. "MySpace is practically my life," she says. How many hours a week is she online, I ask her naively. "How many hours are there in a week?" she parries. Online vs. offline is a moot distinction. The Web isn't always on so much as always around her. She does homework in a virtual study hall, with an IM window of 110 friends and pop-ups notifying her of who is "here" and who has gone "away" (or will BRB, i.e., "be right back").
MySpace is a dynamic communications hub for Sam, her personal storefront in the ego-economy of virtu-real teen world. Her page is always on the screen, with messages and new pictures and posts flying in and out in real time. "If I didn't have MySpace, I would be s-o-o-o bored." And disconnected. While her Mom and I worry over her page's global reach, Sam just dismisses the anonymous messages from strangers and focuses on how MySpace works for her very locally. In a large public school, it helps her stake out selfhood in the real world and meet her peers. "People in school I didn't know say,'Hey, I saw your MySpace.'"
How would a marketer get into Sam's world? Take a look at ModtheSims2.com, where these teens appropriate big brands on their own terms. Users make and swap branded clothes and objects to incorporate into the biggest virtual world for teens, The Sims 2 game. Sam clothes her Sims in user-made versions of Vera Wang, Abercrombie, and Versace. Why interrupt and "advertise" around their virtual worlds when you can offer the tools for building them? And take it from me: Better that Versace give Sam a virtual prom dress than Dad buy her a real one.