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Second Life Being Hailed As Next MySpace

Posted by SIM on February 11, 2007

Second Life is being hailed as the next MySpace
By Cary Darling
February 10, 2007

So I show up, first time in the place, and this fox is speaking to me.

Not talking here about the way-old-school slang for a beautiful woman but something closer to Animal Planet than the Playboy Channel. Bushy tail. Canine features. The works.

Can’t remember exactly what the conversation was — a mere exchange of passing pleasantries before it walked off — but the whole thing left an unsettling feeling, like this could really get weird. Like I’d fallen through the looking glass and Alice definitely wasn’t living here anymore.

That’s because it was my first foray into Second Life (SL), the buzzed-about and controversial online role-playing and social-networking site that’s being hailed as the next YouTube, the next thing to bedazzle the tech-savvy and befuddle the technophobes.

Sort of a combination of MySpace, “The Sims” and Monopoly with the three-dimensional touch of “Star Trek’s” holodecks and the video game “World of Warcraft,” Second Life is not a competitive pursuit — even though it’s technically what’s called a “massively multiplayer online game” — as much as an alternative state.

Users choose a fictional name and create an avatar, an animated version of themselves that can walk, run and dance, and then are dropped into a landscape where they interact with others’ avatars, including those of real-life friends who are also “in world,” buy or sell Second Life land, set up businesses, build houses, buy clothes, work a job, go bar-hopping, make art and, yes, even some NC-17 activities.

It’s free to join but potentially expensive — in the site’s made-up Linden dollars or in real currency — if you want a super kickin’ SL lifestyle. Just like real life.

And if that doesn’t sound all that much different from everyone’s first life, it’s their life buffed to perfection. You can be whomever — or whatever — you want. You can fly. You can teleport. No taxes. No politicians. No war. No terror. No war on terror.

But there is plenty of hype.

Hatched in 2000 by a San Francisco company called Linden Lab, which didn’t make the site publicly accessible until 2003, Second Life includes eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar and Amazon.com pioneer Jeff Bezos as backers.

Major companies and organizations — from Dell and MTV to the American Cancer Society — are flocking to the site to set up “islands,” worlds within the world dedicated to their products.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sun Microsystems have held news conferences in Second Life. Reuters news agency even has a reporter “embedded” in Second Life full time.

Although most of the site’s 2 million-plus residents conduct their commerce in Linden dollars, some are raking in real money.

Last fall, Linden Lab Chief Executive Philip Rosedale estimated that $1.5 million (in actual currency) changes hands through Second Life monthly. In November, a German woman named Ailin Graef — known on the site as Anshe Chung — reportedly became the site’s first real-life millionaire, buying and selling Second Life real estate.

Brains behind project

Second Life is the brainstorm of Rosedale, 38, a former chief technology officer at RealNetworks who helped develop the streaming technology that is the lifeblood of Second Life.

“He had a great idea: to create a collaborative online space where people could do things together,” says Linden Lab marketing director Catherine Smith. “I don’t think anyone knew how it would evolve.”

Adam Pasick, dubbed “the Reuters Second Life bureau chief,” has been stationed in-world since October. “There are a lot of smart, creative people in Second Life,” he said. “Some are there to start a business, some are here to create art or write software, and some are in it for purely the social nature.”

Potential downside

For all the glowing talk about community, sharing and a bright, shiny, happy future — an anarcho-libertarian paradise of unfettered creativity and commerce — there’s a potential downside to Second Life. As the world becomes more populated — and subsequently moves away from being just a high-tech monkey bar for early adopters — it can become more prone to crime, hacking and inappropriate behavior, just like real life.

Second Life is no less susceptible to the same elements that have haunted the Internet since its inception — people not being who they say they are — than the often-criticized MySpace. Meanwhile, in September, Linden Lab’s system was hacked into, forcing the company to contact the FBI and mandate that all residents change their passwords. There also have been cases of online harassment, called “griefing.”

On top of that, the government may start to take a closer look at the tax responsibility of those making money on so-called “unreal estate” through sites like Second Life. Economist Daniel Miller, whose congressional Joint Economic Committee has been investigating virtual gaming since October, is due to deliver a report early this year. “Congressional and IRS interest in this issue is simply a matter of time,” he was quoted as saying in The Weekly Standard.

“If you take money out of Second Life, then you’re responsible for claiming that income, like eBay,” says Linden Lab’s Catherine Smith.

Pasick, the Reuters reporter, points out that the site has been the victim of more mundane issues.

“As with any new technology, there are a fair amount of glitches,” he says. “The whole grid will go down periodically. That’s been compounded by the fact that it’s growing so quickly. … I get the sense they’re constantly putting out fires to keep the thing running.

“It’s not very user-friendly, and for those who aren’t technologically savvy, or their graphic card isn’t up to speed, they may just get confused and never come back.”

For now, though, there’s not a lot of bad news for Second Life. With a virtual land mass four times the size of Manhattan but with only 2 million inhabitants — and with generally around 20,000 online at one time — there’s room for growth. Many “islands” are empty, real estate just waiting to be bought, traded or populated.

Certainly, there seems to be a lot of smiles at the privately held Linden Lab. Profit figures aren’t released, but Rosedale told the Chicago Tribune, “We’re very close to profitable. The business itself, on an operating basis, is very profitable.”

Too real

But some things never change.

As I maneuvered from island to island, group to group, it became clear that it can be just as difficult to make contact with someone in Second Life as in the world of flesh and blood. It could mean stumbling across two women having a rapt discussion in French who obviously don’t want to be bothered — “Bon, tu le veux, mon secret?” (OK, you want it, my secret?) one says to the other, who replies excitedly, “Ouiiii.”

Or it could mean observing the painful, halting throes of a virtual guy trying to strike up a conversation with a virtual woman sitting on a virtual bench.

“Can I take this seat, miss?” he says.

“No law against sitting is there,” she responds, the testiness oozing through the typing on the screen.

His avatar plants himself at the other end of the bench.

Long, awkward pause.

“Now I’m thinking I overreacted,” she finally says, perhaps offering a tender olive branch of tentative conversation.

He says nothing.

They continue to sit next to each other in uncomfortable silence.

Just like real life.

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