Great. Another world where I can’t afford beachside real estate. Welcome to Second Life, the hugely hyped online social-networking cosmos/geekapalooza where players have unlimited freedom to shape the virtual world around them, and redesign themselves at will. They--that is, the animated versions of themselves, their “avatars"--can buy and sell real estate, start their own businesses, create art, discuss literature, go to movies and concerts. Second Life is a separate graphical reality, a “metaverse” limited only by the imagination.
All of which sounds quite promising--Plato’s Republic at the speed of broadband--except that this brave new world of human potential is 98% stupid, overrun with sex clubs, discos, casinos, yard sales, tragic architecture and more shopping malls than the San Fernando Valley. More Sin City than SimCity. Far from being the real world perfected, Second Life comes off as a zoo of its players’ collective debaucheries. And it mocks all attempts to take it seriously. For example, when a volunteer for the John Edwards campaign set up an office in SL, he failed to notice the adult goods emporium next door. Is this what happens when you wiki reality?
A little background: Second Life is the creation of Linden Lab in San Francisco, which opened up the website four years ago. Players--about a million logged on last month, many of them not drunk--pursue their happiness on about 139 square miles spread over three continents and thousands of tiny islands. The SL world has a sky, a horizon, a night and day. Times passes. Like a typical console game--for instance, Grand Theft Auto--SL is a 3-D world in which objects and surroundings move in relation to the player. You see other players and they, in their avatar-centric view, see you. The environment is rendered in rough, low-resolution digital textures, for now. In 10 years, SL will likely have the silky verisimilitude of Hollywood CGI.
Joining SL is free, but to own property you have to pay a $9.95 monthly fee plus land-use costs proportional to your acreage (yes, even if you are from Orange County). Got your eye on that little parcel on the coast of the Southern Continent? The coin of the realm is Linden dollars, which you can buy from the almighty Linden Godhead with your credit card, at a rate of about 270 Linden dollars per $1.
Residents are free to build whatever they want on their land: ski resort, dungeon, big-box mall. To fly the skies of SL--did I mention your avatar can fly?--is to appreciate the wisdom of zoning regulations. It’s like Monopoly on mescaline.
Sound weird? Believe me, it is. Whatever its potential might be (the future of telecommuting?), SL is mostly a fantastically elaborate chat room where players go to dance, hang out on nude beaches and otherwise live their fantasy lives. There are almost no fat or unattractive avatars wandering around SL. Most of the females are large-breasted hotties, most of the men have torsos like Roman cuirasses.
I can’t even begin to hint at the polymorphous perversity available in Second Life, but the most popular place, at the moment I check, is Naughty Neva’s Free Sex Orgy Room, where virtual sex workers pole-dance and lure customers into back rooms.
Surprisingly, the Real World wants in in the worst way. In February, Sweden became the first country to open an embassy in Second Life. And Toyota debuted its new Scion models, aimed at Generation D, in an SL press event. The month before, the Sundance Film Festival held a screening of the documentary “Strange Culture” in SL. At about the same time, Arianna Huffington and other participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos participated in an SL event intoning the possibilities of the new virtual frontier. In short, all the cool kids are playing it. To keep up with these doings, Reuters and other news organizations have opened their own virtual SL bureaus. Whatever.
In my week in Second Life, I had the usual newbie problems, some funny, some not. After I went ice-skating, I couldn’t turn off the ice-skating animation, so my avatar performed involuntary triple salchows and double axels everywhere he went for the next day or so. Perhaps not coincidentally, I was later propositioned by a gay avatar, behind whom, I discovered, was a 55-year-old father of four on the down low. But mostly I just walked through this world with my virtual mouth hanging open. It’s staggering, really, to ponder all the work and creativity poured into SL by what are, actually, its consumers. This kind of mass volunteerism is the power behind what author Don Tapscott calls “wikinomics,” collaboration on an astronomical scale, a la Wikipedia. My question is a simple one: Is Second Life the best use of collective genius when the material world is so unfinished?
If you had the drive and the imagination--not to mention the absurd amount of free time--to create a business or design a product, why wouldn’t you do it in real space? If you could find friends and brainstorm good ideas and fuel a love affair, why wouldn’t you do it in the here and now? Come back from Second Life, people. First Life needs you.