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Your Second Life is Ready
Residents of one of the Internet's most populous virtual worlds shop, attend class—even run businesses. Soon you may do the same.

By Annalee Newitz | September 2006

Nick Kaloterakis

Second Life founder Philip Rosedale—in avatar form

An SL account is free; Linden Lab makes money selling land, on which users can keep the things they build. With residents building everything themselves, Linden Lab’s 100 or so employees are less world-creators than they are world-enablers. They have to maintain an environment that people want to be part of, which means a few ground rules. Residents who engage in harassment or destructive behavior can be kicked out of SL, and civic complaints are aired in regular town-hall meetings with Linden staff (held in SL, of course).

To spur development early on, Linden Lab offered financial incentives in Linden dollars to residents who created areas that became popular destinations. This laid the groundwork for SL’s now-thriving economy, which currently has an annual gross domestic product of $64 million (U.S. dollars). Residents buy and sell Linden dollars for real money (Linden takes a small cut of all currency exchanges) and can do a brisk business peddling everything from developed real estate to exotic body parts for residents who don’t want to design their own. There are at least 3,000 entrepreneurs making $20,000 or more a year on SL businesses; BusinessWeek devoted a recent cover story to Anshe Chung, who earns hundreds of thousands of (actual) dollars as SL’s biggest real-estate mogul.

Residents retain the intellectual-property rights to the things they build, even though the code stays on Linden’s servers. Ren Reynolds, a writer and consultant who analyzes virtual worlds, believes the strength of Second Life is that it combines almost limitless creativity with ownership. “It’s a hotbed of capitalism without restraint,” he says.

The next version of Second Life will be seamlessly integrated with the Web, making it easier for real-world businesses to sell items through SL. For example, a retailer like L.L. Bean could have a “door” to an SL store on its Web site, inviting people to jump from 2-D browsing into a 3-D saunter around, where an avatar with your exact mea­surements could try on clothes for you. Or a consumer-electronics company could offer in-person technical support from an avatar who had a precise 3-D replica of, say, that new digital camera you couldn’t figure out, and could show you which button you needed to push. As the wall between the Web and Second Life grows thinner, having an SL account might become as common as having an e-mail address.

Coffee Dates and Classes
For now, residents use SL mostly as a way of broadening their social lives. If you’re accustomed to talking with friends in chat rooms or instant messaging, jumping into SL is like moving from radio to television. Suddenly, your chats are enhanced with body language and atmosphere. Instead of emoticons, your avatar’s face displays basic emotions that you can choose from an onscreen menu. There are places to mingle with other residents: in hobby areas, dance clubs and at special in-world events. There’s also a thriving singles scene. Some meet for SL coffee dates before taking it into the real world, while others prefer purely vir­tual flings. (You can buy a naked body for your avatar if you want to try an adventure on the “adult-only” islands.)

Rosedale says the next frontier for SL is work, not play. In the past year, several companies have built replicas of their conference rooms in SL so that far-flung employees can meet and exchange information, and even collaboratively build prototypes of real-world projects. A company called Electric Sheep recently began selling its services as a kind of virtual architecture firm. Corporations and universities pay Electric Sheep to create office buildings in SL for meetings, events and special projects. Working in SL will only become more appealing as graphics become more detailed and SL adds voice chat, eliminating the keyboard-and-bubbles bit.

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