Celebrating one year, 3,000 members, 70,000 posts, 12,000 friendships

ASN-6On Saturday September 20th, Avatar Social Network (ASN) celebrates its first birthday and is holding a party in Second Life. It comes pretty close to marking my first month of involvement in ASN, so what better time to take another look, and also chat to Arkad Baxton, ASN’s founder about the past year and what may lie ahead?

As I noted in my first piece about it, ASN was established to provide a social hub where users of virtual worlds and games – not just SL – can interact with one another in a wide variety of ways: post comments and pictures to a common feed, write blog articles,  discuss topics on the forums, post videos and photos to their own walls and to albums, create their own pages and feeds, create groups to promote and share creativity, in-world activities and so on – and generally have fun.

ASN's founder, Arkad Baxton
ASN’s founder, Arkad Baxton

Since starting up in September 2013, ASN has enjoyed steady growth as people have discovered it, although over the past few months the growth in sign-ups has increased somewhat dramatically, passing quickly through both the 2,000 and the 3,000 mark and continuing to rise. But why set-up a social network in the first place? Second Life, World of Warcraft, many OpenSim virtual worlds, and so on, have forums where users can interact, and some have supporting social networks (SL for example has the SL feeds, Moolto, SL Friends…), so why start another?

“I get that question a lot actually,” Arkad says in reply. “People using virtual worlds and games like World of Warcraft and so on did not have a social network environment where they could freely interact with one another as their preferred avatar or character. Nor did they have a place where they could discuss their various interests in different worlds and games. The social networks and forums they did have were focused just on individual platforms. So I decided to try to make a place where people can freely make friends and share content no matter what their main interest in games or virtual worlds.”

Given the current rate of sign-up, ASN has certainly garnered a lot of interest among a widespread audience, which has in turn generated a core of active users who use the service daily, blogging, interacting through the feeds, groups and pages, and sharing their content. Indeed, such was the popularity of the site at the time of my joining (when membership was just touching 2,000), the service was actually showing signs of strain, and I wondered how it would handle future loads. I needn’t have worried.

When it was announced that ASN would be down for a couple of days during an server upgrade, rather than groan, members responded by helping to develop the site's maintenance banner
When it was announced that ASN would be down for a couple of days during a server upgrade, members responded by helping to develop the site’s maintenance banner

ASN has a development roadmap in place, which is constantly being refined, updated and acted upon. Proof of this came a few days after my original article, when ASN’s ISP moved the service to bigger, faster and more robust servers. At the same time additional back-end services were introduced, including the use of SSL / HTTPS for more secure connections between users’ computers and the ASN servers.

An interesting aspect of ASN’s roadmap is that it is not being defined solely by the ASN team and their service provider. Feedback, ideas and input is openly sought from ASN members, both through the website’s feedback page, and through direct discussions with Arkad himself.

“Feedback has had a huge impact on the changes we make,” he notes during our chat. “Our feedback page lets people add their ideas and thoughts. Others can vote on them to show us how strong the demand is for specific ideas or suggestions, and our team is reviewing and evaluating them as we go. Obviously, we can’t please everyone, but we always listen to the members.”

Nor is the roadmap and listening to feedback confined to the core website; in my first article on ASN, I made an entirely personal aside about the level of access the Android app requests of a device. This was not a direct critique of the application or any suggestion that the app is doing anything untoward; merely that as a non-technical person, i felt the app exceeded the level of access to my device I was comfortable in giving.

On reading the article, Arkad contacted me to enquire what could be done to redress this, his view being that if I felt this way, others may as well, so it would be good to try to amend things if possible. As a result, and alongside the development of an iOS version of the app, a possible revisit to the Android app could be on the cards (the app is already undergoing an overhaul so it works more smoothly with the more secure servers).

Of course, the development of the service requires funding, so I asked Arkad how that is managed. “The primary revenue for the site is coming from advertising at the moment,” he replied. “That being said, there are various investors involved, so the finances are somewhat diversified, and we are hoping to add to the revenue stream by offering additional paid services down the road.”

Meeting with Arkad at the party venue in SL
Meeting with Arkad at the party venue in SL

One of the criticisms from outside of ASN is that there is so much anonymity involved – not so much where users are concerned, but in how the site is operated. ASN is owned by a virtual company, AP Holdings; while this may well be a Second Life company traded on SL Capital Exchange, it is still virtual and the only name associated with it is that of an avatar.

“ASN is a website structured to give people the freedom to be known purely as their preferred avatar or game character, and we promote the fact that no real-life information need be given or shared in order to use the service,” Arkad says in addressing this criticism. “We’ve simply tried to demonstrate this in a ‘show by doing’ approach. However, I do recognise that trust in a service is important, and we will soon be providing information on the actual company behind ASN and we will then continue to publish information related to it as the growth of the website demands.”

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Dipping into the Avatar Social Network

ASN-6Avatar Social Network (ASN) has been growing steadily since its inception in the latter half of 2013, and is being seen by many users of virtual worlds as both an alternative to Facebook and things like the SL Feeds, and as a useful extension to their social media presence, positioning it alongside their use of existing social media services.

Strawberry Singh was one of the more recent SL users to comment on the service, and her blog post, coupled with a reminder of ASN’s existence from Mona Eberhardt, prompted me to take the look at it that I’d told myself I would back in July, when I first happened across the site.

ASN, which is operators by Second life user Arkad Baxton of AP Holdings describes itself as a social network for users of virtual worlds and games, which “gives back to its members and rewards all activity on the website while asking for no real life information from its members.” The site invites members to “share, like, comment contents, post their blog articles, create and build their own groups, discuss topics on the forums upload photos, videos, create their own individual fan page with its separated feed, play games, chat and more.”

The standard log-in page for the Avatar Social Network site
The standard log-in page for the Avatar Social Network site (click images for full size)

Overall, the site’s set-up appears to be along the lines of Avatars United (remember that?) or Moolto, Second Friends. or 2ndHub (with which ASN appears to have the most in common, although 2nd Friends currently appears to be largely inactive).

Since opening in September 2013, the site has been gradually refined and improved, addressing various issues and perceived shortfalls. At the same time, it has been gaining popularly among users from Second Life and other virtual worlds. Today, there are getting on for some 2,000 users (a number I’m sure will be surpassed in a short amount of time given the frequency of sign-ups), all of whom seem to be fairly active. The site itself has a fairly clean, easy-on-the-eye design, and fairly straightforward navigation.

Signing-up is simple enough; there’s a registration page which makes no call for people to provide real life information. You don’t necessarily have to provide your SL / VW avatar name – it’s entirely up to you as to how you define yourself, although using your avatar’s name and image obviously makes sense from a social connections standpoint. The log-in page also includes Twitter and Facebook links, so I assume you can access the site using verification from these services, rather than signing-up via the form – I opted to go the sign-up route.

The ASN main page, sans advertising
The ASN main page, sans advertising

Once signed-up and verified via e-mail, you are taken to the main page, which is split into three main sections – the central feed column, including service announcements which appear at the top; information on those who have recently signed-up, or whom you may wish to friend through the service to the left, and information on recent forum and blog posts, etc., on the right, all of which include various links (e.g. to the forum post in question or to the poster in the case of the forum links, for example, or to people’s profile pages in the case of the friending suggestions and new joiners.

A menu bar at the top of the site provides access to public areas and also to your own incoming message centre (Friends requests, messages, notifications) and profile / personal feed link.

The Community option in the menu provides access to the core elements of the site – blog pages, forums, groups (think SL groups), pages (think FB pages), ads for in-world employment opportunities, gifts, and so on.

The Media option provides access to photos and videos uploaded to the site. Videos can be uploaded from your computer or imported from YouTube or Vimeo (other services pending), while photos can be organised into albums, which in turn can have privacy options set against them (do you want them visible to everyone, friends, etc., who do you want to be able to comment on them, etc.).

Clicking on a photo in an album will display it in a window similar in style to Flickr, and with various sharing options (Twitter, Facebook, G+ etc). I’ve not yet found a way of disabling the share options (if they can be disabled) for those who want to keep their images to the ASN site.

Photos can be displayed in a pop-up window, somethat mindful of Flickr, with a space to the right where comments can be recorded.
Photos can be displayed in a pop-up window, somewhat mindful of Flickr, with a space to the right where comments can be recorded.

The Games option on the menu allows you to amuse yourself playing various games (some of which require Adobe shockwave), while the Info option takes you to various pages with further information related to the site – including the Rules (!), and the About page.

Down at the bottom of the site is the chat bar and its options. This can be toggled on / off via the icon on the extreme right, and provides options which allow you to access any public chat rooms which may be running and / or set-up your own public or private chat room, initiate direct messaging with a friend logged-in to ASN (just pull up the list of friends logged-in on the right of the bar) and set your availability (or otherwise) for chats.

Continue reading “Dipping into the Avatar Social Network”