China, Zynga and the Growing Clout of Digital Communication

Honda-factory-riot-police-006 I began Pixels and Policy as a way of exploring my thoughts
about digital communication as a potentially transformative medium on the
global stage. Around the same time as I began writing Pixels and Policy, way
back in August 2009, tens of thousands of brave citizen activists in Iran stood
up to a regime universally regarded as brutally repressive, violent and theocratic.
Within days of Iran’s
rigged election, the governing powers enacted strict limitations on the flow of

Though much of their fight took place in city streets and town
squares, the rest of the world came to know Iranian protest figures like Neda Agha-Soltan
and Mir-Hossein Moussavi chiefly through their creative use of digital
communication sources as a platform for civic protest. Western news outlets couldn’t
get enough of how the pro-democracy “Green Revolution” mobilized disparate groups
of protesters through online social media like Twitter. Less reported was their
widespread use of virtual social media like Second Life and Facebook, where
communication could carry on unencumbered by the heavy hand of Iranian security

Nearly one year on from my first article about Iran, both
Pixels and Policy and the digital communication landscape have changed
markedly. Without noticing it at the time, Pixels and Policy moved from serving
as a space for compelling original analysis of digital communication on the
world stage to serving as a sort of sub-par news aggregator for virtual worlds.
Pixels and Policy also became uninteresting to read along the way, as my
interactions with readers illuminated. Now I hope to correct course and get Pixels and Policy back to what it once was and should be.

During this same time, the business models and motivations
of social media and virtual communities shifted. Most of this change can be
considered a move away from the “Linden Lab Model,” an increasingly perilous system
built on the idea that virtual world platforms should grow with real-world business
partnerships in mind, with individual players a secondary concern. This is the manner
of thinking that brought about XStreetSL, Second Life Enteprise, and a brief but
much-hyped series of misguided public-private partnerships.

I increasingly see the virtual world community shifting towards
the “Zynga Model” of revenue generation. This involves scrapping preconceptions
about ever-expanding graphical immersion in favor of building small, low-overhead
games that attract a wide base of casual-but-paying players. As Zynga proves,
people are willing to shell out large amounts of money to play even simple
games, with the biggest spenders pumping in over $10,000 each. Using this
model, Zynga expanded rapidly and currently enjoys a company valuation in the

What’s more, Zynga is prospering in the same area where
companies built on the “Second Life Model” failed: lucrative real-world
corporate partnerships. Walk into a 7-11 in the United States and you’re likely to
see Zynga. 7-11 recently partnered with the social games developer to brand its
Big Gulps and hot dogs with the iconography of FarmVille and Mafia Wars, two of
Facebook’s most popular (and profitable) social games. This is territory Second
Life and its doppelgangers never penetrated, and the absence shows in the wake
of Linden Lab’s massive layoffs.

The landscape of virtual communication is changing, and not
just in the business world. Perhaps inspired by the power of the Internet in
airing the grievances of the Green Revolution, striking factory workers in
have turned to cheap cell phone and Internet communication as a means of
spreading their protest against Honda
. After being denied a raise by Honda,
hundreds of Chinese factory laborers posted their grievances on message boards
and through cell phone text messages. Video of Honda managers abusing employees
surfaced on YouTube.

Now China
is in the midst of a roiling labor dispute unlike any seen in the past two
decades. What’s more, after encouraging the expansion of cell phone and
Internet technology through the mainland, the Chinese government in Beijing may not be able
to quash this uprising with a quick round of censorship. As in Iran and
everywhere else, the Internet is a fluid medium, easily bending around corners and
snaking under firewalls. The power of digital communication is increasingly
coming to bear on regimes that lust after total information control.

I look forward to taking a closer look at what digital
communication means for developing countries, taking time to focus on emerging
issues in China and Africa, as well as developments in the industrialized
West. Pixels and Policy is going through a transition right now, away from the
news aggregation (which flopped) and towards the type of analytical,
speculative writing that encourages people to discuss and debate trends in
digital communication and public policy.

I look forward to producing more content for our regular
readers, as well as gaining new readers and winning back those who may have
turned away from Pixels and Policy’s turn to the tabloid. Though Pixels and
Policy is no longer specific to Second Life (there’s so much more out there to
explore, especially in the realm of international policy), I hope from time to
time to produce pieces that look at Linden Lab’s business model, its future,
and where virtual platforms are going in the future.


One thought on “China, Zynga and the Growing Clout of Digital Communication”

  1. RE: Zynga, SL, and marketing
    Linden Lab never really saw a priority in advertising Second Life to the mass audience. then again, Second Life isn’t the pyramid scheme that Zynga’s games are skirting. 😉

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