465,003,915 That is how many aggregate subscribers are claimed by 44 of the top self-proclaimed virtual worlds.443,230,979That is the entire population of Mexico, the United States and Canada.We are all accustomed to the early stages of any technology when individual companies attempt to set the rules and language that will be used for the ensuing battles. There have been expensive fights over simple things like rather to call the aggregation of ISDN B-channels ‘MLPP’ or ‘Bonding’, IP telephony vs IP-PBXs, and so on. There are very tangible benefits to defining the market you are going to compete in. This is Law 5, the Law of Focus, in the classic marketing work The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout, “The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.”This is still going on in the virtual world sector, as every platform with an avatar calls themselves a ‘virtual world’, and attempts to define the rest of the market around their paradigm. What typically follows this Cambrian explosion of platforms and competing technologies (and semantics) is that there is a ‘great rationalization’ (a ‘KT Period‘, to mix my periods/eras/eons/epochs). This space is rapidly becoming ripe for it’s own.When I was adding up the numbers of virtual world subscribers, one thing that was immediately evident was that there is no common denominator for how platforms reported their users, or traffic, or economies. Since this is still an early market without a common language, each company is reporting whatever statistics make their platform look more attractive to potential end-users and content companies. As the old saw goes….’Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics’.The next step in the maturation of this market, if it wants to grow beyond it’s current size, is for the industry to agree on two things:1) There needs to be an agreed common taxonomy of virtual worlds. You can slice and dice the market by 2D vs. 3D, web-based vs. client software, apples vs. oranges, but we need to find a common set of language by which to differentiate the QQ and Cyworlds from the ActiveWorlds and Kanevas from the Metaplaces and Toontowns. Until then, you have emoticon-on-steroids avatar chat in IM and Social Networking sites being compared apples to apples with narrative driven virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Runescape. It’s not apples and apples at that point, it’s apples and orangutans. 2) There needs to be a common market index. There are some very good starts at databases to track the virtual world platforms, but where they are currently deficient is in capturing and analyzing the key metrics for this industry, as Gartner Group and others do for the networking industry. Until we get to a common set of metrics by which we measure these platforms, we can’t accurately compare them or determine their real measures of success. This is a critical piece as we see more traditional advertisers step into the virtual arena, as you can rest assured that they will want rigorous statistics as to the degree of impact of their advertising message. Go ask the advergaming companies if you don’t believe me.Once we get to the common semantic understanding and a common denominator for metricizing these platforms, then we can get down to the real business of rationalizing them against one another with the goal being heterosis, resulting in fewer platforms of the best possible offspring with the best attributes of each.When we have fewer platforms with better attributes, then non-early-adopter individuals and companies can evaluate which platform(s) is best for the application, without the present concern of investing large amounts of time and money on one of the many virtual world species that doesn’t make the evolutionary cut.