Founded by Philip Rosedale, former vice-president and CTO of RealNetworks, Second Life was intended to replicate a “metaverse,” as described in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. It is often likened to the six-million-plus member Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) World of Warcraft (a fantasy role-playing challenge involving elves, orcs, and monster-slaying). The main similarity between the two 3-D realms is that the animated figures featured in both aren’t preprogrammed; they’re powered by people logged on to the same network. Beyond that, Second Life is markedly different from its metaverse counterparts. Like the virtual-life game The Sims, there are no stated objectives. Attacking other people, rather than advancing you, can get you evicted. And the environment (dance clubs, casinos, sex dens, mansions, castles, restaurants, modern homes, conference centers) is constructed entirely by its 300,000-plus residents, a number that’s tripled just since January.
Real-world institutions have recently recognized Second Life’s potential. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos is a Linden Lab investor. Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has an island similar to Falco’s, and holds conferences in Second Life. This past winter, MTV staged an avatar fashion show that was rebroadcast on its broadband network MTV Overdrive. And in May, BBC Radio 1 simulcasted a weekend music festival of acts like Gnarls Barkley, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand, from real-world Scotland to SL; that same month, Twentieth Century Fox organized an “in-world” red-carpet premiere of X-Men 3: The Last Stand for avatars. And Major League Baseball has an ESPN-simulcast in the works, co-sponsored by Budweiser.
Real-world retail is also sensing a ground-floor business opportunity, since fashion is one of SL’s biggest industries. Hipster-thread brand American Apparel (AA) recently opened a fully functional store in Second Life, selling virtual clothing to avatars (a fleece track jacket goes for about $300L — the same price as one of Tripper’s skateboards — or a about a dollar), complete with dressing-room headshots of AA founder Dov Charney and AA-characteristic décor like an orgasm-faced-girl photo triptych.
MEETING THE NATIVES: Gateaux and Tapioca in Zephyr Heights, an island inside Second Life
Major record labels, too, are making their way into the SL-scape. In late May, Warner Brothers Records (WBR) chose to forego the now-traditional MySpace record-streaming release route, opting instead to debut New York–based singer-pianist Regina Spektor ’s album Begin to Hope, by holding a listening party exclusively in Second Life. “It took a couple of e-mails to explain even to publicity what this actually was,” says Ethan Kaplan, director of technology at WBR, who was originally a Beta tester for Second Life and helped oversee the Regina Spektor project. “Still, they’re like, ‘You mean people spend all their time in a virtual world and they’re spending real money?’ ”
Yes, they are: during June, $5.3 million US Dollars exchanged hands among residents in Second Life. In addition, each resident pays Linden Lab $9.95 in monthly account fees; quarterly accounts cost $22.50, and an annual membership runs for $72. (You can sign up for a free account, but basic-account holders don’t receive a weekly stipend of $500L and can’t own land.)