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At their marks: Giant snails gather at the starting gate.

There’s Gold in Them Digital Hills

The promise of a new virtual world spurs hope—and hype

By Chet Hardin

She appears through the gray wall of a partially rendered mansion and sashays toward me. Our bodies are gray geometrics, oddly naked forms over which textures and colors begin to appear. First, our skins—mine sallow, hers a dark chestnut. Our clothes next, appearing piecemeal, then quickly: her skirt and fishnets, my sunglasses, her blouse. She stops walking and watches as I slowly render into existence in front of her.

“You’re fine,” she says, flirting.

“Thanks,” I say as my hair, the last of my physical appointments, settles into place.

She is a small, vacuous-looking girl dressed in tight clothes that cling to her large chest and violin-shaped hips. Her shock of hair remains stubbornly unrendered and moves within a harsh, angular outline. I involuntarily shift my stance wide and place my hands on my hips.

“What language?” she asks. I tell her that I speak English. She seems disappointed, somehow, although nothing about her appearance has changed. Her face is still frozen in that thoughtless expression of blissful confidence.

“Just English,” I add, apologetically.

Not to worry, she says, she is French, but can speak English, too. There is an awkward pause as I scan the façade of the virtual brothel that has now snapped into appearance. I can hear the virtual ocean behind us lapping against the virtual beach. Her hair finally realizes itself in a thick black mop that hangs as though underwater, coded into the digital breeze.

Brethren Redgrave, a taller, slim girl in a naughty schoolgirl mini, joins us. She is co-owner of the Lone Wolves bordello and cyber-madam to 10 girls.

“Hi Simon,” Redgrave says. In Second Life, the virtual world owned and operated by Linden Lab, my name is Simon Ochs. Or, more specifically, Simon Ochs is the name I have given my avatar, the little cartoon-like representation of my inworld presence.

“Can we help you with something?” Redgrave asks, licking a large, pink lollipop. My avatar pantomimes typing on a keyboard—the indication of speaking in Second Life—as I tell her that I am a reporter curious about the virtual world’s culture of cybersex.

Paris in the virtual springtime: Simon Ochs (aka Chet Hardin) visits the virtual Effiel Tower.

“That’s cool!” she says, adding that she would be happy for a bit of the attention the press has lavished on Second Life over the past few months. “We need the publicitie!”

It’s difficult to understand Second Life, the virtual world built on a grid of digital “land” eight times the size of Manhattan, if you think of it as a game. It is not a game: There is no goal to Second Life, no winning or losing, no teams, no levels, none of the trappings that one would readily associate with game play. Instead, think of Second Life as an environment. It is another world, with rolling hills, oceans, islands, clouds, the sun and stars. It is a world with its own thriving economy, private-property rights, and millions of residents.

The world’s creator, Linden Lab, designed the free client software that users need to download in order to interact, and stores the binary atoms of Second Life on its thousands of servers. Practically everything else inworld—the games, the goals, the buildings, the interactions, the clothes—is defined, designed, constructed and owned by the residents. Linden Lab provides the natural elements, and the people provide the rest.

Redgrave is a newbie to Second Life. She tells me through an instant message, the main form of communication in Second Life, that she is an economics student in the Netherlands. She joined at the beginning of this year, drawn by stories of the virtual world’s booming economy and tales of easy fortunes made that dominate the media’s coverage of Second Life. “I started when i sow someone becoming a miljonair on tv :),” Redgrave says. “Even mine teachers sow it at school.”

The millionaire Redgrave is referring to is Ailin Graef. Known inworld as Anshe Chung, Graef is the most lauded of all the success stories of Second Life. Last year, the Chinese teacher-housewife, who lives in Germany, made history when she announced that through her virtual-land empire she had accrued a real-world wealth of more than $1 million. She built her empire by buying land from Linden Lab (current rates run $1,675 for a 16-acre “region”) and then turning around and reselling or renting the space. She is the most successful land baron in a field of hundreds of competitors.

The relatively stable economy of Second Life is based on the Linden, the inworld currency. A user can buy Lindens from LindeX, the official currency exchange, or from about a half dozen other exchange companies, at the rate of roughly $4 to 1,000 Lindens. Last year, Second Life’s Gross Domestic Product topped $150 million. That’s larger than that of a dozen of the real world’s poorest countries.

All that real-world money flying around has, of course, attracted the attention of corporate America. Pontiac has bought land, and so has Microsoft. Circuit City and Sears have both opened showcase stores. Universal Pictures, in part of its ad campaign for the new film Smokin’ Aces, set up an inworld game in which users run around and pretend to be assassins. Reuters opened a bureau inside Second Life, with a full-time reporter covering the beat of the virtual realm. American Apparel, W Hotels, Toyota, Adidas, Sun Micro Systems, CBS, NBC (and the list goes on and on) have all bought in to some degree and invested time and money in Second Life.

The chief executive of IBM, Sam Palmisano, announced last November that his company is set to launch a $10 million incubator in Second Life for new businesses. In an article in Fortune magazine, he echoed many in the established business world by prophesying that Second Life will become the “next phase of the Internet’s evolution.”

Mark Wallace watches all of this interest with guarded optimism. He has been following the inworld activity of Second Life, and the business world’s response, over the past couple years as Walker Spaight, the managing editor of muckraking inworld publication Second Life Herald. The Herald, Wallace boasts, is the most colorful of all the inworld publications (and yes, there are a few), with a large staff of paid freelance writers who cover all angles of the Second Life experience.

“We have done a lot of interviews with griefers [people who get a kick out of creating inworld havoc],” Wallace says. “We have done a lot of Mafia stories in the past. We do a lot of sports stories. Lately, we have done a lot of stories about real-world corporations coming into Second Life, and how residents haven’t always reacted too favorably to that.”

He sees corporate America’s interest in the virtual realm as a promising development. MTV’s new virtual attraction, Virtual Laguna Beach, Wallace says, “is an incredibly important development. MTV is reaching people just when they are developing their ideas about what is the right way to communicate with the rest of the world, what is the right way to interact with their peers. It is an incredibly influential brand. And to have Virtual Laguna Beach out there, on television [in promos], is pretty amazing.”

The attraction of Second Life, Wallace believes, is the ability it affords its users to express themselves.

“That power of expression is exponentially greater than what you can achieve with a flat Web page,” he says. “You take a 3D form that is whatever you like, whether it is humanoid, or a furry, or a robot, or a what-have-you, and you have a greater range of expression. The fact that this place enables such a range of self- expression is exciting to a bunch of people.”

“It is just an extension of what we already do online,” Wallace adds. “It just pushes it out to another dimension.”

Who wants to race giant snails? RacerX Gullwing has got the game for you.

I come to a landing on a platform hovering 150 meters above the land of Montmarte, the home of the Snail Races. The owner and creator of the races, RacerX Gullwing, a large rabbit distinguished by his top hat and suit coat, is busy preparing the racetrack. He waves a cane at a snowman, and seemingly from every direction, large, flat prims (building blocks in Second Life), still gray, still rendering texture and color, hurl past me and drop from above, extending the platform further out into the open air. The size has now easily quadrupled. A few people wander around and chitchat as Gullwing attends to his work. In a half-hour, the race will be on.

Since I am early, and I have time to kill, I try on my new leather jacket. Not bad—it’s a biker jacket, nothing I would wear in RL (real life), but it was free. I switch the tint of my sunglasses from violet to black, and, for full effect, I switch the color of my eyes from realistic fawn to a glowing red.

The sky goes dark, and the stars come out. A deep fog rolls over the platform. The racers have climbed into their giant snail vehicles and are lined up at the starting gate. I join a few other spectators on the bleachers and watch as streams of bubbles float from the mouths of these massive racing snails.

The race is a confusing contortion of the lumbering snail bodies. They run, leap and maneuver tight turns on a track that must have logic to it, but at the moment, is lost on me. I try to take a virtual picture, and my computer freezes. I am kicked out.

I panic. The race is still going on, but I am missing it. I load Second Life back up as quickly as I can, but it takes so long.

The login screen tells me that 22,000 other people are inworld right now—which is about average.

Four minutes pass, and I watch as my avatar reappears and makes his way back to the racetrack just in time to see the winning snail skid across the finish line. The sky fills up with purple, green, red and yellow fireworks exploding in celebration.

Gullwing (a 46-year-old computer programmer living in California) says that he started the races back in 2004. At the time, he says, he was living in his brother’s house, not doing much, and got involved in Second Life at his brother’s suggestion. His brother figured that maybe if he learned to script (build) in Second Life, it might lead to real work. There were stories circulating at the time of people making their livings in the virtual realms. So Gullwing gave it a shot.

His first creation was a giant snail. That led to more giant snails, which eventually led to racing them. The first races were land races; later came the floating racetrack. The races became more popular, and now he holds them every Saturday.

Gullwing says he makes very little money off the snails. But what it has done for him is draw the attention of those corporations moving inworld to his scripting abilities.

“I work for one of those big corporations,” Gullwing says in an instant message. “I write them scripts and help build demos for there clients . . . this place is getting a lot of big name companys and they really don’t have a clue how it’s done in here. Well maybe a clue, but they don’t want to learn to script really. Simpler to pay some one thats been here a while.”

So now, he says, he charges $20 an hour. To build in Second Life. And he is as busy as he wants to be.

The hype surrounding Second Life during the last half of 2006 was pretty hysterical. The augurs of cyberdom claimed to foresee the inevitable transition to the 3D Web, and with it the coming of a bold, virtual world first described in vivid detail by Neil Stephenson in his already-classic 1992 novel Snow Crash. In it, Stephenson painted a not-too-distant future in which a virtual world, known as the metaverse, exists that is as populated and as complex as the world around us. And Second Life was the harbinger of this coming metaverse. The proof? Second Life’s burgeoning population.

Linden Lab boasts that during 2006, Second Life’s population more than tripled, from less than 1 million residents to more than 3 million. And that amazing growth quickly became a popular theme in the business media. Every week, articles about Second Life trumpeted every little venture: the new corporate presence, the first inworld film, the first politician’s speech, the first musical performance by a celebrity.

In December 2006, at the fever pitch of the hype, Clay Shirky, a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, partially as a reaction to the media-driven hysteria, published an article at Valleywag.com titled “A Story Too Good to Check,” in which he argued, basically, that everyone talking about Second Life needed to take a deep breath.

His point was that Second Life, though interesting, was nothing revolutionary, and that it certainly wasn’t as popular as everyone was saying it was. He argued that the number of residents claimed by Linden Lab was specious. And his reasoning was simple: Linden Lab counts anyone who starts an account in Second Life and logs in, even once, as a resident.

“Someone who tries a social service once and bails isn’t really a user any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream and walks out is a customer,” Shirky wrote. “So here’s my question—how many return users are there?” The answer was simple to discover: Linden Lab makes that information readily available.

Of all accounts started, after 60 days, Linden Lab retains only a third.

Is anyone who logs in once in 60 days a resident? Shirky asked. How about someone who logs in every 30 days: Are they a resident? That would make the population 670,303. How about the number who logged at least once a week? That number is 296,907—one tenth of the total number Linden claims as residents.

Shirky went on to speculate that Second Life is simply a “ ‘Try Me’ virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users,” he wrote, “most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use.”

Though Linden Lab’s numbers are a little misleading, Shirky lays the blame for this hype at the feet of the business press who took a statistic that he refers to as “evocative but meaningless” and ran with it.

Shirky guesses that in six to nine months, there will be some interesting roundups, when the businesses who jumped into Second Life during the gold-rush months of 2006 look at their investments, their gains and losses, and the real promise of the virtual commerce materializes.

“That is the story that will be told later,” Shirky says. “But it is clear that at least some businesses are going in partially based on wrong population figures.”

And the numbers aren’t the only issue Shirky has with Second Life. There is a steep learning curve, and a practical level of wealth by the users is necessitated. A high-speed Internet connection is absolutely necessary. A computer with a good graphics card and a fast processor doesn’t hurt. Once inworld, it takes a little practice to learn how to control your avatar. Newbies are easily spotted by their inability to walk in a straight line. The software itself is glitchy and clunky. When large groups of avatars gather in one area, the world can slow down to a frustrating stutter. The chances of the software freezing are pretty good.

And even without considering the technical aspects (and say you have mastered the art of walking all over again), what’s the point? Second Life isn’t a game, insomuch as there is no engineered purpose, no goals, no scoring, no real rules (other than some base physical laws and behavioral expectations). For the casual user, Second Life can seem like just too much, too confusing and too pointless to attempt to master.

This leads Shirky to question the value of a virtual environment altogether.

“Is it just a question of execution, or is there a philosophical problem with virtual worlds?” he asks. “Or to put it another way: Is 3D another video phone?”

“We have been promised each and every year since 1964 that this will be the breakout year for video phones,” Shirky says. “And, in fact, they turn out to be not a terribly good idea. Not in their execution, but in their basic conception. And that is my position, not a very fashionable position, but what is wrong with virtual worlds is closer to what is wrong with video phones. . . . They are not a general-purpose tool.”

What we are witnessing with Second Life, Shirky says, is the birth of a collection of niche applications, nothing more.

“You can actually help cure people of agoraphobia by exposing them to virtual heights,” Shirky says. Burn victims, during the incredibly painful process of acid bathing, can be shown virtual images of ice worlds, which has been proven to have a self-anesthetizing affect.

Engineers are looking at the same shared artifacts; architects use virtual fly-throughs to check the traffic flow of buildings. One user, Luciftias Neurocam, a neurosciences professor from Pennsylvania, has created his own ecosytem, with the hopes of publishing his data in a paper on dynamic systems.

“There is a cool, cool list of these niches’ uses,” Shirky says. “Sex and games is one of the niches that often works in one of these environments. But I think that the claims of generality are basically push-driven. And what I am actually afraid of is that the cool stuff is being lost in the assumption that this is all on the way to some general-purpose metaverse.”

The niches in Second Life seem endless—games, casinos, role-playing, online courses, nonprofit organizing, scientific research, and on and on—to make an exhaustive list of them would be impossible. But, of course, Redgrave’s niche appears to be one of the largest (surprise, surprise).

She leads me through the rooms where she and her girls ply their trade, beds and sex toys scattered about. She takes me up into the mansion’s skybox, a room of windows that hovers 600 meters above the “Earth.” The room, she says, is completely private. No one can see it and no one can overhear your conversations. It is where she will bring her high-end clients, once she gets some.

She tells me that she charges the going rate for sex in Second Life: L$800 for 30 minutes, L$1,500 for an hour. She says that she had made about L$4,000 ($16) in the past three weeks, spending a couple hours a day inworld.

Sex in Second Life essentially boils down to two people (or three, or four, etc.) watching and manipulating cartoon porn and commenting on the way it makes them feel. Horny, usually.

The success and quality of inworld sex, Redgrave says, really depends on the escort’s imagination. “You need to keep the costumer interester so do roleplay. You need to show him you like what you 2 are doing. And ofcors the people that come to you also like to watch the naked avatars :).”

I ask her what she thinks it is about Second Life that is so attractive.

“Thats easy :),” Redgrave says. “Its an escape that you have from your real life. Like alot of people that i meet are like 40 lonely in real. They wanna have fun be popular for once and they come here.”

“Its a strange world this second life,” she adds, “still need to get used to alot of things. Ooh yes i meet new people see new places every day. Some expiriances are good some bad. But altogetter its a great world.”

As I am flying away from the mansion, as an afterthought, I instant message Redgrave to ask her how old she is. It is an odd question in Second Life. Everyone looks so fake, so idealized that age isn’t really ever considered. Most avatars look nothing like the people controlling them, and that is the point.

“I gotta ask, you Brethren,” I type, “how old are you?”

“i have to say i am 18,” Redgrave writes back. “In sl i’m not alouwt to say mine real age. or i might get bannd :)”

“Really? Banned?” I ask.

“Yess cos you have to be 18 or older to play the game :),” she says. “so i’l be abol to tel you the truf at 4 july.”

chardin@metroland.net


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