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Move over MySpace, Gaia Online is here

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By the middle of last year, it was attracting half a million unique visitors monthly; fast forward to last month, and that number is two million. It’s not a traditional MMO like World of Warcraft; it’s not a social game like There; it doesn’t originate from Europe like Habbo Hotel or from Asia like Cyworld. You haven’t heard of it partly because the San Jose company has kept a low profile.

Another reason you’re still likely in the dark: it’s primarily designed for teens. But with online worlds all sizes and styles poised for an explosion, you’ll almost certainly hear a lot more about it soon.

It’s called Gaia Online, and as a guy on a giant crane behind us tore down the giant Web 2.0 conference banner in Moscone West, I had a chance to sit down with CEO Craig Sherman— formerly COO with, and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Benchmark Capital, a main funder of Gaia— for a furious round of questioning. How did Gaia grow so large so quickly so stealthily?

“The world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens.”

That’s the way Sherman and his team prefer to characterize Gaia, the brainchild of Studio XD, a comic art firm which gave the site its anime-influenced look. Gaia’s online world aspect (which launches in a separate Java-powered window) is a series of virtual towns where Gaian avatars can socialize (up to 100 in a single space), with apartments they can own, and treasures they can find. (No combat, however.) It’s just that 10% of total user activity takes place in the world itself.

Gaia’s Many Experience Channels

The world is just a conduit to the larger activity on Gaia, says Sherman: in addition, there are website arenas where users can upload and rate each other’s artwork and other content (7-10% total activity), or play multiplayer Flash mini-games with group chat (10-15% total activity.) The largest cohort of activity (wholly 30%) takes place in the Gaia forums, and here’s where the truly staggering numbers come in: Averaging a million posts a day and a billion posts so far, Gaia’s message boards (with topics running the gamut from pop culture to politics) is second only to Yahoo in popularity.

Gold for Activity

A unique innovation is the way the company distributes its virtual gold currency: instead of selling it for real money (as with There) or allowing its trade on the open market (as with Second Life), Gaians are automatically given gold for participation: You get gold for posting on the Forums, for riding events, for uploading content, for exploring the world. Subscribers are rewarded for engaging in Gaia, in other words— and the reward incents them to engage in Gaia even more.

Gold for Auction

With the gold, Gaia subscribers can buy items, clothing, and accessories for their avatars, some sold by the company, but most of it sold via Gaian-to-Gaian auction. (They estimate some 52,000 auctions are completed every day.)

What pays in Gaia, however, stays in Gaia: the company strongly discourages real money trading, and works with Ebay to curtail it. That’s not to say Gaian treasures haven’t been sold online. “One item sold for $6000,” says Sherman. “Wonderful to tell you, but bad for what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Gold— for Gaia Interactive, Inc.

Instead of monthly subscriptions, Gaia Online sells “rare items”— treasures, fantastically cool fashion accessories for player avatars, and so on— two offered a month for $2.50 each. Subscribers buy them via credit card, Pay Pay, cellphone—or cash on the barrel. (“We employ someone full time whose job is getting dollars and quarters” out of envelopes kids send them, Sherman notes.)

… but first, a world for our sponsors

The company’s other revenue source are ad campaigns created to run within the world of Gaia. Before launching these, Sherman says, they solicited subscriber feedback, to find out which potential advertisers they wanted to see in the world— and which they didn’t. (Cool fashion brands got the majority nod; big American auto companies, however, didn’t.)

Staffers work with advertisers to create, not passive billboards, but an extended immersive experience. Gaia’s campaign for New Line Cinema’s fantasy adventure The Last Mimzy, for example, challenged their users to accomplish a series of tasks in order to get their own special Gaian-only Mimzy (a super-intelligent bunny). Hundreds of thousands of these Mimzyies were given out—meaning some 10-20% of their total user base jumped through the hoops to win the advertiser’s prize. (By contrast, when Nissan began giving away virtual versions of their cars in Second Life, far less than 1% of Residents took them up on the offer.)

The Secret to Gaia’s Success

Craig Sherman has been thinking what the value-proposition of his site in the era of MySpace or Facebook. “In a world where teens are constantly branding and packaging themselves” on sites like those, he points out, “Gaia is where you get away from it all.”

Whether that remains the case when the competition reaches full roil remains to be seen, but for now, the Gaia seems destined to keep growing.

The Gaia Numbers: Demographics and Usage Patterns as of April 2007

300,000 log in daily, according to the company; average unique visit is two hours a day.

Average concurrency: 64,000 users. Maximum: 86,738.

85% of users are based in the US

10% are English-speaking but non-US (with 5% a nebulous Other)

Breakdown by gender: 55% Girls – 45% Boys

About 20% of subscribers put up their real life photo in their avatar profile.

Number of Gaia gold “millionaires”, as of last week: 1385

Images courtesy Gaia Online.

120 Responses to “Move over MySpace, Gaia Online is here”

  1. Amanda

    Comparing Myspace and Gaia is horrible, even though (sadly) a lot of Gaia-users also have accounts on Myspace.

    As for the half-nude pictures: I personally have only seen pictures of people in the GeeDee (GD, General Discussion) and even there I’ve only seen good, clothed people.

    It’s a sad truth to say that Gaia’s being overrun by people who only care about getting the expensive items. (Not to say I don’t want a CoCo…) Luckily, most of the “noobs” stay in the Chatterbox, so they can be avoided.

    And as for the Roleplaying, I just hope the mega-literate users don’t give up on Gaia. It just wouldn’t be the same without them.

  2. Karen

    I’ve only been on Gaia for about a year, but I must say that it is one of the best sites I have ever been to. Honestly, I don’t think Myspace was the best comparison, since many of us Gaians are extremely anti-Myspace. I myself am 13 [Lol. I’m really young. O:], and can honestly say that I do NOT post half-nude pictures of myself as some of the people have said; I do care about my comments though.

    And on a side note: Re-releasing some of the older donation items would be nice. It’s nearly impossible to get them now.

  3. Jay Clyde

    I have been on gaia for 3 and a half years now. At first, it was fun. When there were full users. Now, the site is over run. The forums are clogged, every item that is published it aimed at pleasing the masses. Too many users spend hours just to get gold for items and to make the perfect and expensive avatar. I am a gaia millionare, to be truthful. It almost makes me sad to think about. If you had joined this site years ago, you would have seen it as a great place to chat. Now a days, I say don’t even join. Find something better to do with your life. Read a book, learn to draw. Do more productive things. Gaia is built on fake money and kids who are attention whores, I’m sorry to say it. The roleplayers died out a while ago, all there is left is semi-literate kids with only sex and money on their minds. Gaia also needs a way to deal with their underage joiners, it’s a serious problem. Just to put this out there, I am 20. I have been on this site since I was 17, and even as I got older it pleased me. I wish gaia would go back. And gain some sense in the items it puts out. This article also claims gaia is free of labels. Hell, it’s full of them. Girls putting pictures of themselves half nude in their signatures, it happens here too. And it ruined the nice community chat site gaia once was.

  4. RPing is not as much of a dead art as you may think. If you go into the bars/inn’s sure, but my home forum is breedables and changing pets (user-drawn growing pets) and although you can get yourself some really shiny arts many of the shops have very interative Role-plays.

    I’ve been running my shop for 3 years, and some of the RP’s with the older members have been running for almost just as long. Can’t forget guilds either. =D

    Gaia =/= MySpace

    Gaia is not a popularity contest, nobody cares how many friends you have or how many people comment in your profile. And of course, If you post suggestive pictures of yourself your almost guaranteed to be flamed and made fun of. We are very much an anti-MySpace site. ;D

  5. I agree with alot of the statements above about the forums being downplayed. I also think that there should have been at least SOME observance on the RPing that happens in gaia. Role playing is a major part of ALOT of gaians. I admit, the literacy of the RPers has drasticly declined, because there are so many younger children and people who make role play situations out of immature things, but there is still alot of passionate RPers out there that go on gaia mainly because of that.

    Gaia is defenatly a place I’d call ‘home’ in a sense. Just like it said in the interview, It really is a place where i can ‘get away from it all’

    As for people addressing it as being just like myspace, I highly beg to differ!
    My space is a place that bases everything off of appearance and popularity. It’s a very ‘shallow’ website, if you will, and gaia is alot more then just a social gathering, it’s an actual community with various things to do, and has way more depth then a website like myspace.

  6. Mizzie

    What an interesting write up.

    I’ve been on Gaia since mid-03, although I did not become active in the forums until November/December and I must say I’m sorely disappointed with where the site is going.

    The administration and backing behind Gaia Online is digging itself into a mighty hole by turning the main focus of the site onto younger teens when clearly the focus in the past has been on older teens and twenty somethings. Those of use who were the backbone of the site are slowly getting more and more turned off by the way the Gaia is being commercialized [for teens and kids] and ignoring the users as they age.

    I rarely log on anymore although my net worth is somewhere in the double-digit millions because I’m frankly perturbed by the downward spiral. Gaia will continue to grow and grow and despite the fact that in this day and age when the internet and forums are being used by such a wide base of demographics–they choose to focus on one and ignore the others.

  7. Ashori

    I’ve been on Gaia since December 2003, and I do admit, it has changed A LOT since then. And sadly, yes, the noobs that are in there now makes the place seem more like a child day care than how it was back in December. I’ve seen many people leave, most of them the older members that have been around since 2003-2004, and most of it is due what Gaia is now, and of course whatever life is throwing at them.

    It’s not just for teens, however. I’ve seen and talked to many adults on there, and they have just as much fun chatting, exchanging, playing games, etc. like the “younger generation.” It’s pretty much a hangout for anyone on the Internet with an interest in interactive games, anime, and everything else Gaia offers.

    Gaia’s very entertaining as well. I don’t think I ever had so much fun on a website before I came here, not even on Neopets. I love playing the games, and made many friends via chatting on the message boards and sometimes through random PMs. I believe it’s just as much fun as it was in 2003, if not more. The events are entertaining (albeit annoying with some of the waiting periods they tend to have), the story lines make me laugh, the quests are something different, and I’m still waiting for the battle system and the tattoo shop they proposed awhile ago. Also several of the items they accidently realeased in the wishlist system, like the contact lenses, and some new things to do with those game items that clog up our inventories.

    I recommend going there and giving it a shot. Play for a month, and you’ll see how much fun it can be.

  8. I’ve been on Gaia for about two years now, and I think it’s one of the best interactive sites out there. I hang out in the Breedable/Changeable Pets section of the Mini Shops forum, and everyone there that I’ve met is awesome. I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat ^^

  9. Gaia is amazing. I have been on the site for almost three and a half years. Although more and more younger people have been signing up for it, I know for a fact that many Gaians are adults. I’ve been to the Gaia Panel at the Anime Expo two years in a row, and last year, they had to force people out of the room it was so crowded.

    Basically, people who say that Gaia isn’t big or won’t be big are foolish to think this.

    I have met the admnistrators, including the founder, and I am positive they won’t get in over their heads when it comes to either advertising or competing with other major sites such as MySpace or Yahoo.

  10. Roserain

    As a Gaian myself (3 years now), it’s interesting to see an actual piece about it. Though the forums really are the heart of Gaia. The games are there, yes, as well as the items and purchasing power of designing a unique avatar, it really is the people that keep you coming back. Different ages, from different places, all unique ideas and talents; it’s basically the best part of high school or college: a place to meet interesting people and the chance to express yourself completely.
    It’s wonderful, if you haven’t looked into the site, please do so. Look me up, I’ll be more than happy to show you around.

  11. I’ve been on Gaia for over 3 years, it’s a lot of fun. Its a nice place to met other artists and have a way to chat with people across the country

  12. I disagree with many comments about idiots everywhere on the site. There are certain forums that have been lost (Such the General Discussion and Chatterbox), but the generalization that it is all 12 year olds is a little extreme. Noobishness can come from anyone at any age.

    Gaia is great if you know where to go. Of course there are idiots, but you get them everywhere online.

  13. Nessa

    i luv gaia
    im on all the time
    i even got some of my friends to join so now they’re addicted too
    i always wondered why people never heard of it…its so much better than habbo and everyones heard of that
    gaia rox ^_^

  14. lanablade

    I’ve been on Gaia since less than six months after it opened. I’m increasingly disgusted with how ‘kiddy’ and ‘give us your money’ oriented it’s becoming. The movie ‘quests’ are irritating, the inane 12 year olds flooding the boards are painfully omnipresent, and the developers love of doing anything to avoid giving us what they’ve been promising us for years (new layouts instead of a battle system, anyone?) are driving down the respect anyone over the age of 14 has for the site. Somewhere along the line, Gaia lost sight of what it was to begin with. A community of people who like anime and video games, most over the age of 18. The developers stopped listening to the actual people on the site and are now focused on getting more money any way they can. It’s sad, but Gaia is going the way of Neopets. Soon it’ll be so ‘popular’ it’ll be unusable.

  15. I’ve been a member since 2k4, and, like Nuo and others, have become increasingly irritated at “noobs” flooding Gaia. Which, I might add, may be the reason for Gaia implementing the age restriction, with people under 13, I think it was, being suspended until they turn that age so their accounts are reactivated.

    I’m also disappointed in the growing numbers of dishonesty and snobbery in Gaia, especially among some (not all) wealthy Gaians and the occasional mod.

    As for the other for the other 40% of time use, I don’t believe lurking, PMs, vending in the Marketplace, Avatar changes, etc. were put in those statistics.

  16. Crazael on gaia (with variations)

    i’m pretty sure i know what people do with the rest of that time… and i’m pretty sure its not entirely within the ToS

  17. princessMeep

    Nuo on Gaia, don’t get your hopes up. The mods & admins have said before that the old donation items/monthly collectables are not going to be re-released. (While we’re on the subject, the Kistune Mask isn’t really that old. The Portable Headphones, now those are old.)

  18. Really interesting. Was wondering about how people spend their time in Gaia – all the activities you mention add up to between 57-65% (minigames, forums etc etc)of time spent in Gaia…so what do they actually spend the remaining 35-43% of their time doing?

  19. Nuo on Gaia

    I have been with gaia since 2k4 and I, too, have been loathe about the increase of “noobish” characters. Once the battle system comes out this will become more of a problem than ever and many older members will probally quit. Despite this, though, I will remain faithful to a site that has done so much without asking that much from it’s users. Congrats, Derrick Liu, and good luck to another year.

    (oh and btw I would REALLY like it if they’d make quests to get older items like the Kitsune Mask)

  20. Gaia is the best website ive been on so far!
    Unlike Habbo, you don’t have to pay to have fun and can still carry on without the donation items, and even if you don’t pay real money for them, you can still buy them on the market.
    I think Gaia’s a whole new way of exploring the internet.

  21. I saw Craig speak about Gaia on a panel at the Web 2.0 Expo in April. Apparently, this marked the first time that Gaia had spoken out about their site at an industry event.

    While I haven’t had the time to sign up and take a look first-hand, I’m mightily impressed by all the stats and figures that Gaia has posted so far. The sense of community that they’ve cultivated reminds me of the early days of AOL and MUDs, when role-players like myself had a vast text-based community of friends to connect with and adventures to hold.

    The popularity of Gaia goes to show, in my view, that text is a long way from dead.

  22. For a customizable avatar based forum system, not much other than your time – there’s an open source phpBB mod called Nulavatar or something like that that sets it up fairly easily. I’ve seen quite a few of these spring up and die fairly quickly, and a few that seem to have a bit of staying power. Nothing that appears to have a userbase anywhere near that of Gaia’s though.

  23. Can anyone advise on what would the initial development costs for a RPG of this sort …..even if we were to consider more economical options like incorporating freeware and outsourcing as options ……

  24. Vergessen Held

    Unfortunately, with popularity comes a great deal of frustration. I joined back in October of 2003 and enjoyed the Chatterbox and General Discussion areas of the site. Now, however, you’ve got a whole lot more children who act too immature to hold a discussion.

    As for the person who says it’s as lame as MySpace, I can only be irritated with a remark like that. MySpace has become a site where you whore out your identity and make as many e-friends as possible to get publicity whereas Gaia Online is about discussion amongst its members. There ARE people out there that treat it like MySpace, but that’s a minority. Try actually participating in the community before you make your judgment, which is something you clearly didn’t.

  25. As a longtime member of Gaia and general web geek, it’s really interesting to see Craig’s view on it (since he doesn’t seem to want to come chat with us in the forums :( ). I agree with Mimi that the forum aspect is being downplayed a lot here, since it is what the site was originally based on and is still the main part for most members.

    I’m also a little sad to see the way it’s been solidly branded by the CEO as a hangout for kids – originally Gaia was populated by mainly role players and artists, probably acquaintances of the original team of creators from other popular forums at the time, and the average age was quite a bit higher than it is now.

    I suppose it’s to be expected in a website based around very cute avatars, especially with anime becoming more popular amongst kids these days, but I hope Gaia doesn’t get to a point where it’s marketing and producing features solely for a much younger audience.

  26. I rather like this article, even though the forum participation is downplayed a lot. That’s actually the major part of the site – the games etc. are really just fodder. Fun fodder, I admit, but the forums and avatars are the main parts of the site. You really can’t make a comparison to MySpace, as they are two very different types of sites. Wait.. I meant to say ‘COMPLETELY different’.

    I’m really happy about the new Gaia Cinemas, though! The PSAs from the 50’s are hilarious!

    But I digress… the speed at which Gaia is growing really is phenomenal, and the community itself is a lot of fun.

  27. Interesting writeup. I’ve always wondered why Gaia goes unnoticed, and why aren’t more people innovating on the whole text based RPG area of the web- its a huge one.

    While we’re on the subject of online communities, GigaOM should do a piece covering 4chan & /b/.

  28. Gaia is a fascinating story but its just one of at least 6 casual immersive worlds that have more than 2m UU/mth in the US. All of them are aimed at kids. If you’re interested, I’ve listed the six I know of and broken them down at the Lightspeed Blog. Click on my name in this comment to read it.

  29. sheasie

    i just tried it. considering it’s about as lame as myspace (on every level), and absolutely not innovative (just like myspace), it will likely get massively financed, and sold a major media conglomerate for a billion dollars.

    • if you can ignore the trolls and the kiddies trying to cyber, it’s a pretty cool site. been on it since I was in highschool and 5 years later I’ve come back. good place to ask for advice anon and collect custom art. clicking around for 20 minutes for enough gold to buy a professional drawing of my own original character done by someone i’ve never met? bad ass :)