SAN FRANCISCO — Anything pretty much goes in online virtual worlds. Identities are nebulous. Online characters known as avatars chat it up, gamble or even have sex at first sight.
Increasingly though, these online zones like "Second Life" are also becoming places where commerce is happening. Big companies such as IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. use these graphics-rich sites to conduct meetings among far-flung employees and to show customers graphical representations of ideas and products.
Now, in hopes of capturing the power of this new platform while avoiding potentially embarrassing incidents, IBM is taking the unusual step of establishing official guidelines for its more than 5,000 employees who inhabit "Second Life" and other online universes.
IBM appears to be the first corporation to create rules governing virtual worlds. The move has critics, who say that mandating behavior for the so-called "metaverse" is unlikely to reform impish avatars. They also question why IBM would add a layer of buttoned-down bureaucracy to this relatively rollicking corner of the Internet.
IBM executives counter that having a code of conduct is akin to a corporate stamp of approval, encouraging workers to explore more than 100 worlds IBM collectively calls the "3D Internet."
The Armonk, N.Y.-based tech company also has a financial incentive: It hopes to make money advising corporate clients that craft business strategies for virtual worlds. IBM has built a virtual retail center in "Second Life" for Circuit City Stores Inc. and used the site to re-create the action at Wimbledon.
"The 3D Internet will have a big impact on business, on IBM and on our clients, and the only way to figure it out is to use it," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a retired IBM technical executive and now an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Intel also is drafting a tip sheet and plans to offer a voluntary course this year for employees who use blogs, social media sites and virtual worlds.
About 150 Intel workers conduct business meetings in "Second Life." The chip maker recently purchased the last name "Intel" for employees' "Second Life" avatars, said Gina Bovara, Intel marketing specialist.
"For those employees who may be hesitant, guidelines can provide the encouragement and Intel philosophy they need to actually dive in and start anticipating," said Bovara, who maintains Intel's "Second Life" mailing list.
IBM's rules — which apply to "Second Life," "Entropia Universe," "Forterra," There.com and other worlds — are logical extensions of the real world: Don't discuss intellectual property with unauthorized people. Don't discriminate or harass.
Guidelines also include a 21st-century version of the Golden Rule: "Be a good 3D Netizen."
Other rules are unique to the metaverse, which requires users to create animated avatars with distinct appearances, personalities and gestures. "Second Life," owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, has more than 8 million avatars; most look human, but many take the form of chipmunks, zombies or fantastic beasts.
IBM, whose 20th century employees were parodied as corporate cogs in matching navy suits, doesn't have an avatar dress code. But guidelines suggest being "especially sensitive to the appropriateness of your avatar or persona's appearance when you are meeting with IBM clients or conducting IBM business."
Rules caution workers who have multiple avatars or frequently change their avatar's appearance. It's common to have numerous avatars — similar to having multiple e-mail addresses for work and personal use.
"Building a reputation of trust within a virtual world represents a commitment to be truthful and accountable with fellow digital citizens," IBM states. "Dramatically altering, splitting or abandoning your digital persona may be a violation of that trust. ... In the case of a digital persona used for IBM business purposes, it may violate your obligations to IBM."
The guidelines shouldn't sound heavy-handed, and it's unclear whether workers who violate them could be disciplined, said Sandy Kearney, global director of IBM's 3D Internet initiatives. Instead, she said, rules encourage ethical behavior in worlds where people often act out rapacious or rude fantasies.
"We don't want it to be the Wild West," Kearney said. "I use the metaphor of nation building: If you have a problem, you need embassies, ambassadors, governance and government."
But other business experts say IBM's guidelines may come off as stodgy — the stereotype that Big Blue largely shook in recent years.
"I'm just not sure it's necessary," said Reuben Steiger, founder of Millions of Us, a Sausalito-based consulting firm that helps companies operate in virtual worlds. "Companies that don't bother with guidelines aren't flying blind — the regular rules automatically extend to virtual worlds."
So far, it doesn't appear the guidelines have stifled IBMers' creativity. IBM's "metaverse evangelist," British computer scientist Ian Hughes, is a minor celebrity in "Second Life." His avatar, clearly associated with IBM, is a wicked-looking robot with dreadlocks and named "epredator Potato."
"We want it to stay an exciting place," Wladawsky-Berger said. "We don't want to be sheriff."
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