Remember the first time you heard about Twitter? Your initial reaction might have been “I don’t care what people have for lunch.” What about Second Life? “Who cares about nerds with weird avatars wasting their time in a virtual world?”

When new platforms are introduced to us, we often underestimate their real value. Or we fall for it and wake up months later “What was I thinking?”

That’s my current dilemma: I’m not sure what category fits Empire Avenue.

What is Empire Avenue?

Empire Avenue is a social game. As a beginning user you’re valued at a set share price of around $9 “Eaves” (the Empire Avenue currency), and your value increases as others purchase your shares, as you are more involved on social platforms, and also participate on the Empire Avenue platform, unlocking features and getting dividends from virtual goods or ownership in other members.

Empire Avenue was founded in 2009 but started to get real attention on the Social Web just a month ago when many early adopters started to join. While Klout only measures interactions on Facebook and Twitter, Empire Avenue paints a more holistic, social picture by connecting accounts to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook Pages and YouTube.

Another navel-gazing fad?

Let’s face it: Many social platforms have turned into high school popularity contests. Brands and people are busy gaming the system to have a lot of followers, “likes” and “friends”. What they tend to forget is that popularity doesn’t equal influence. It’s a very loose link, as loose as the tooth I just pulled out my 6-year old daughter’s mouth. And, Kathy Sierra makes a very good point, commenting on David Armano’s blog:

“I do not think these are purely harmless pursuits for precisely that reason: our focus and attention is zero-sum unless everything we do is directly in service of the same goals. But for too many of us, focusing on building OUR social currency comes at the direct expense of other things we could be doing that would be far more useful (and ultimately desirable) for our users.”

An opportunity for brands?

Many companies have joined Empire Avenue so far: IntelCareer Builder, Lincoln, Alcatel, AT&T – just to name a few. I can see the benefits: You find influencers and evaluate their behavior. You can reward people when they buy the shares of your company. You can engage in conversations with influencers. You can leverage the API to tie their data into your existing CRM system.

Strong arguments to join the game but the questions remain (as it always should be the real question when joining a social platform): Will participation in this tool increase the likelihood for people to change behavior? They might just buy your shares because they want to win the game, not because they want to buy your product.

Brands: Let’s wait

As always: You need to have your digital house in order, deliver the best, most user-friendly site out there, an engaging Facebook experience and a valuable Twitter stream. And be a worthwhile presence on other social platforms that meet your business needs. Once you feel comfortable and deliver solid ROI on all your chosen platforms, you can start experimenting with Empire Avenue.

You should join

While I don’t see the immediate benefit for brands to join now, I believe you should join as an individual today. Set up your profile, explore the site and all the functionalities. Form your own opinion. Nobody knows yet if Empire Avenue will turn into Twitter or Second Life. You make the call.

And, once you joined, make sure to say hi.