IBM Guidelines Govern Virtual Employees

The Associated Press
Thursday, July 26, 2007; 7:01 PM

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," 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."

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