There is a media frenzy over Second Life, the synthetic world (previous posts). Wired published in its October issue a "Travel Guide" to SL and announced the opening of their SL space where "all manner of festivities, lectues and events" will take place. The Economist published a major report earlier in the month. The Observer embedded a reporter for a weeklong trip and devoted two full pages to it. The Swiss Sunday paper Il Caffé publishes a weekly SL column. The BBC recreates music festivals on a virtual island. CNet set up a 3D replica in SL of its office building in San Francisco and plans to have its reporters conduct interviews and host events there. Reuters opened a news bureau with a full-time correspondent, Adam Pasick, who moves in the virtual space as avatar Adam Reuters, featuring a press badge around his neck (image right). The Reuters SL page even charts the Linden-US$ exchange rate (the Linden is the virtual world's own currency). The list could go on.
Corporations are also there: American Apparel, Adidas, IBM, Wells Fargo, carmakers Nissan and Scion, and many others, have set up a presence in SL (mainly with the help of the same two "virtual world consultancies", Million Of Us and the Electric Sheep, who get paid real dollars to set up the virtual stuff). And the musicians: Duran Duran and rapper Talib Kweli and Suzanne Vega are among those who have played virtual gigs there. And the politicians: the former governor of Virginia, Marc Warner, who was until recently considered a potential presidential candidate (he said he wont' run), was the first to give an interview in SL. And dozens of schools: Harvard's Berkman Center offers live law classes in SL, for example. And of course blogs such as New World Notes, SecondLife Insider, Podcast.com and Business Communicators of SL "cover" Second Life with real depth (what I mean is: almost as they would cover real life).
Something, clearly, is happening there. "I'm struck by the insane seriousness of this place", writes the Observer reporter. If you're not clear where "there" is: SL is a synthetic world, a 3D online simulation where you "walk" (slower) or "teleport" (faster) around in the shape of an avatar - a computer representation of actual people, in lifelike form - and can interact (through messaging) with others, buy property and build buildings, shop, listen to music and much more. It's not a game. There are no warfighters nor "levels" to overcome. To get there, you go to secondlife.com and download a piece of software. You enter through Orientation Island, where you can get acquainted with the interface, then start roaming the world - or, if you feel you need more assistance, seek out a mentor. It's free as long as you only want to "walk" around; you have to pay to buy local currency (the Linden) or to buy land (so you can build, invite your friends over, set up a shop, or resell).
The synthetic world looks like this (the screenshot is from the Wired story, and shows only a very tiny part of SL):
And this is a very partial map of SL (the green dots are active avatars - people that are logged in; the pink stars are events; and teh green squares with a yellow dot are "telehubs"), it looks very much like a real-world map:
Yes, many people wonder "who has time for all this". But many others have the time, enjoy it, meet friends, create digital goods - clothes or jewelry for the avatars, built virtual real estate - that they then sell for real money (the Linden can be exchanged for real dollars; the Observer writes that more than 3000 residents already earn real money, and that "the richest avatar owns a property empire worth US$ 250'000 and employs 17 real-life people"; the current GDP of SL is estimated at about 600'000 US$ a day, but beware the taxman). How many are the "residents" of SL? Total population as I write stands at 1'203'213. That's however the total of all those who have signed up since the SL inception, three years ago. In reality at any given time there are just a few thousand people online (6460 right now, 499'223 that have logged in at least once in the last two months). According to Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, the median age of the users (median meaning that half of them are above that) is 31, females account for 36% of them but for 44% of usage hours.
SL is basically a very malleable environment where residents can do (create) whatever they want. In many ways, it is increasingly shadowing the real world and starting to impact it (for a pretty amazing example, check out how the borough of Queens, NY, used SL to get advice on the redevelopment of Landing Lights Park; check out also the Democracy Island workshops; and read what doctor Peter Yellowlees, a schizophrenia expert, is doing there). And most of it is the product of the imagination and the work of its users. Because Linden Lab, the company behind it, only established some protocols and then stayed out of the way, letting the "locals" build. Robert Scoble, who looks at it from a techie perspective, says that Second Life is an operating system:
You can store files there. You can script things (there's a whole API). In fact, it's a platform. You can build a video game inside of second life. Or a music store. Or a dance studio. Or a city. Or a helicopter. Or a video screen that plays whatever content you want. Or fountain that spits blood. Or, pretty much anything you can dream up.
Including experimenting. Most of what's done now in SL is about experimenting - the BBC concerts and the CNet offices and the Scion virtual cars (and my own exploring). Not only because it still takes pretty powerful hardware to participate and the software is not perfect either: glitches and tech troubles are a fact of (second) life. I know companies that are asking themselves that very question: should we get involved? Send our people in there? Buy an island? (Current price: about 1500 US$, plus monthly maintenance fees - running the servers - of US$ 195.) The current media frenzy is interesting: SL has been a geek thing for a couple of years; now the media have discovered it, are hyping it, and businesses want a presence (it feels like when they "had" to have a website ten years ago) and as a result the number of residents is skyrocketing, and the number of SL-related press releases is growing even faster (and a PR consultancy, needless to say, has opened a SL branch, too). That doesn't detract from the potential for Second Life (or similar synthetic worlds) to become a new kind of interface to information and for interactions, to be the next platform (to use Robert's word), to develop into a 360-degrees 3D experience.
UPDATE 20 nov 06: David Kirkpatrick of Fortune magazine seems to agree:
Second Life may be more important, longterm, than even this much publicity would suggest. That's because what it really may represent is an alternative vision for how to interact with information and communicate over the Internet. Yes it's cartoony, but one of the great things about Second LIfe is that whenever you are doing anything, you can see the other people who are nearby as well. This brings a dimension of social life - so elemental to how we live our lives offline - to the Internet in a way that up to now the Web has not. In Second Life everything you do is done in a social space, though you can get privacy if you want. (...) Looking at Second Life makes me realize just how much the Web, wonderful and useful as it is, still mimics a print model.