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Thursday, 27 November 2008

Metaverse Mod Squad in SL London

I greatly admire people who start their own businesses in real life, and to have the initiative to start a business that is unique, creating a service that will very soon become essential and greatly in demand, is truly inspirational.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting avatar Twig Tomorrow (Amy Pritchard in real life) who is the Chief Executive Officer of a real life company called Metaverse Mod Squad (MMS).

The Metaverse Mod Squad have crossed the real life/virtual world barrier and set up an office in SL London. I asked Twig to tell me exactly what the Mod Squad is all about. She told me ‘Well our catchy catch phrase is that we are an avatar staffing firm for virtual worlds.’ She continued ‘But essentially we provide content moderation and community management, specializing in 3D spaces.

By coincidence I had come across the Moderators (or Mods) a few months ago when I covered a story of a street parade in the Warner Bros Gossip Girl sim. The Mods were doing a great job looking after both the sim and the SL residents. I asked Twig if clients like Warner Bros hired her company solely to set the sims up for them. She said ‘We come in at various stages of projects. We do quite a bit of pre-launch consulting in the virtual world space so that it is developed from the get go with an eye towards engaging users.’ She told me ‘But projects such as Gossip Girl here in SL, we came in after launch and changed things quite a bit to stress the community aspects of a space like this. Brand management is also a very important part of what we do.’
Twig told me ‘We are in worlds 24/7 interacting with users and customers. We convey our client's story to their fans/users/customers and in turn report back on trends, issues, likes, dislikes, etc.’ she continued ‘It is valuable information for our clients and in turn we are positioned to best tell their story and convey their message. You know, we formed MMS as a company to specifically address these concerns in a 3D space. I am an attorney, and so is our COO (Chief Operating Officer), but the majority of our management team has their roots in online moderation.’ Twig said ‘But it is SO much different in chat rooms and message boards, as opposed to interacting with a virtual person. The people that work in this space have to be clever, fun, smart, level headed and tireless - All at once!’
I ask Twig how do they go about protecting and regulating their clients brands in the 3D worlds, she said ‘We have technical tools that make the first level of management pretty easy, for instance a word filter can edit out language that would have a negative affect on the site and others. From there it is a bit like a camp counselor. We facilitate activities that tell the brand's story, but don't entirely dictate how fans use the space. If somebody is acting up, they are talked to. If they need a short time out, then we are able to do that. The last possible resort is removing them from the experience entirely. People populate communities because they have a common interest and that feeling of being a part of a group really works well to enhance a brand image.’

I asked Twig how many people were involved in her company, she told me ‘We have 6 employees and around 60 to 75 contractors. My guess is that will more than double in 2009, so much is going on in virtual worlds! And populating them with people - companies are finally realizing that that is the key to success, not necessarily spending every last dime on a beautiful space. Just having a friendly greeter when you first sign up, makes a really big difference.’ The contractors are the Moderators and Twig explained that they are ‘The people that interact with users, educate, promote the community, protect the brand, facilitate fun, and keep everything safe.’ She said ‘We hire people that are passionate about specific projects. We hire people that already believe in and love virtual worlds. We hire people that love working with children. We hire people that are specifically suited to certain subjects.’
Twig told me ‘For example, Harry Potter is one of our projects and we have hired FANATICS of the book and movie series. They are perfect because they know every word written and can really dig into discussions and keep it safe and fun for our client. If *I* had to jump in there, I would be clueless!’ Twig invited one of her Moderators over to meet me, and an avatar named London MetaverseModSquad teleported into the office. Easily recognisable in her smart Mod outfit, London’s job includes being a greeter for newbies, giving them clothes, showing them how to run their avatars and making introductions to other residents, as well as inviting them to events. London said ‘it's important to make them feel welcome.’ We all agreed that we remembered being new and how difficult it all was. So someone on hand like Moderator London to greet you would have been such a luxury.

I asked Twig whose idea it had been to start the company in the first place and she told me ‘Mine - But, I couldn't have started it by myself. I have co-founders that really pulled it together and were willing to do so. Mike Pinkerton, our COO, who I actually met here in SL. Susie South, our Chief Moderator and Pam Taggart, our Operations Manager. All of them took a huge leap of faith and we did it together.
In fact, Twig told me that ‘at the time Gossip Girl was launched, and in fact still now, there was no company that specialized in 3D moderation. We were recommended by a site developer who knew of us, which started a dialogue. That was literally 3 weeks after company formation. We were scrambling!’

I wanted to know if there were any other companies that give a similar service to the MMS. Twig said ‘No. There isn't anybody that does what we do, specifically. Mike is an attorney as well and we really are able to navigate community, social, design and regulations quite well. There are some moderation companies that I believe by accident work a bit in the space, but certainly not to the level of what we do.’ Twig continued ‘We attend all the virtual world conferences and we are the lonely staffing and service providers!’

I asked Twig how she had decided the London sim would be the best location for her virtual office, she told me ‘Well, when I was thinking about a name and look and theme for a standard MMS avatar, I really liked the "mod" theme, so I sort of went with it. Since London was the hub of the 60s mod culture, I looked for virtual offices here. Just did a search and landed on their doorstep. I have seen lots of changes here in the last year - it is a terrific sim.’

And we are really pleased to have Twig and her team working in virtual London, I have experienced first hand how the Moderators work at the Gossip Girl sim, and they make sure everyone is happy, looking after new avatars and generally making the sim a fun place to be. There are an awful lot of Gossip Girl fans who are loyal to the sim, and it’s all thanks to the brand Gossip Girl theme that Twig and her staff have created there.

Linden Labs have also taken an interest in Twig and her team, they have been invited to take part in ‘Second Life View’, with the Lindens flying them to real life San Francisco and joining a small panel of people to give their different perspectives of the virtual world.

I would like to thank Twig for giving me such an interesting insight into her company and the wonderful work they do.

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