I have no idea how I ended up loitering on the rooftop of a burger stand called Hot Beef Injection. But that’s where I find myself on a Tuesday afternoon with a skater girl named Tripper Tapioca. Behind me, a giant waffle spins slowly on a fixed axis — landmark signage for the local diner. Across the street sits a fenced-in skate park of wooden ramps and elevated beam-like railings that’s adjacent to Stizzy’s Skateshop, an urban-style boutique selling boards, T-shirts, and customized BMX bikes. This is Zephyr Heights (links in red indicate a location in Second Life) , a 65,536-square-meter island where motorcycles rev like cyberpunk coyotes, the movie theater has a fully stocked candy counter but an empty marquee, and the locals try to attract a specific genus of tourist with the slogan: “Zephyr Heights — We aim to remove the stick from your ass.”
RAVE NEW WORLD: The view from Zephyr Heights
Tapioca co-owns all of this. In fact, the pale-skinned skate-punk in laced-up boots, knee-length pants, and dark sunglasses helped develop this barren land mass into a “grungy suburban” milieu in just six months: the motorcycles, the waffle house, even Stizzy’s, a street-style store hawking her personal skateboard brand. Actually, this self-described “generally quiet” girl is one of the best-known skate-park designers and board vendors in the world.
In this world, that is.
This is Second Life (SL), a three-dimensional virtual environment created by Linden Lab, a seven-year-old San Francisco–based company. In this pixelated alternate world — a mainland surrounded by islands that spans more than 42,000 acres in real-world scale, bigger than metropolitan Boston — account holders aren’t users, they’re “residents.” In this world, you can fly. You can “teleport.” You can’t drown. You do not age. You can have an awkward version of cyber-sex. You can tailor your “avatar,” an endlessly customizable 3-D representation of your Second Life self, in any imaginable shape. You can be an emerald dragon, a horned devil baby, a furry fox, or a lumbering gingerbread man. But most avatars you’ll encounter are idealized human shapes. And in this world, real people spend real money (yes, actual US dollars) on make-believe skate boards, T-shirts, and islands like Zephyr Heights, which cost $1250 US Dollars to purchase from Linden Lab with a USD $195 monthly maintenance fee — possessions that can’t be ridden, worn, or visited outside a computer screen.
Beyond this world, in real life — a/k/a what Second Lifers refer to as “meatspace,” where your body is made of flesh, not bytes — Tapioca says she’s Diane Falco, an 18-year-old living in New Jersey. She spends most days as her Vans-wearing, faux-hawk-preening, alter-ego avatar, hanging out and building things in her home base of Zephyr Heights. Falco, who’s out of high school, sells boards for $300 Linden Dollars a piece. She says they earn her between $50,000 and $70,000 weekly in the fluctuating fictional currency, which as of last Tuesday was trading at approximately $308 Lindens (L) to every US dollar. On average, that grosses Falco a real-world income of between USD $162 and USD $227 every seven days, the equivalent of a part-time job. And since she still lives at home with her parents, Second Life functions as Falco’s office.