The Magazine

Get a (Second) Life!

The avatars are coming.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The typical RL newspaper story about SL is some variation of "Look Who's Joined Second Life?" Over the months, that blank has been filled by an increasingly odd coterie of groups: Microsoft, H&R Block, NASA, NOAA, Santa Clara University, the Swedish Embassy. Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson taught a class last year inside SL. In June, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it had given $550,000 to the University of Southern California for the express purpose of staging events in Second Life. Jonathan Fanton, the foundation's president, has his own avatar: "Jonathan MacFound."

Corporate America has stampeded into Second Life. Companies--ranging from the NBA and Sun Microsystems to Nissan and Reuters--have set up their own elaborate islands. Coldwell Banker, for instance, has an in-world headquarters where they rent virtual houses. Some companies have been more imaginative in their approach. When the Starwood hotel group was planning a new chain, Aloft, they created a virtual prototype and solicited advice from residents, using Second Life as an elaborate focus group.

IBM has a massive, in-world corporate headquarters which spreads over multiple islands. Fortune reported in January that 3,000 IBM employees had created avatars (including CEO Sam Palmisano) and that 300 of them were "routinely conducting company business" inside Second Life.

It's unclear what that business is. In fact, it's unclear why any of these corporations are in Second Life, other than to be able to say they are in Second Life. The temp agency Manpower bought an island in July. Their press release is indicative of the thinking behind such forays:

Manpower Island is a place where job seekers, employers and entrepreneurs can come together in an interactive forum to learn about and explore the World of Virtual Work, share ideas and identify new opportunities in traditional and non-traditional meeting spaces ranging from an amphitheater to a relaxing spot on the virtual beach.

At the convention in Chicago, a spokesman from Coca-Cola attempted to justify the company's huge Second Life "Virtual Thirst" campaign, whose curious motto is, "We believe that even avatars get thirsty." In the course of explaining Coke's SL experience, he claimed that "it certainly wasn't about selling cans of soda" before adding, just a few seconds later, that "when it comes down to it, this is about selling product."

This confusion hardly matters. A cottage industry of SL developers has sprung up to happily accept the money corporations are eager to spend shaping their islands and building their virtual headquarters. Sibley Verbeck is CEO of the Electric Sheep Company (wittily named for the Philip K. Dick novel about androids), the most successful of these design firms. His company employs 50 RL people, who work almost entirely inside Second Life. As Verbeck told Wired magazine recently, "We have basically not made any sales calls. We would like to. But we can hardly keep up with the Fortune 500 companies that are contacting us."

Yet these businesses seem to be chasing ghosts. As the Wired story noted, in June the most popular location in Second Life was Money Island, which gives away Linden dollars to people taking surveys. It had a visitation index of 136,000 (the higher the score, the more heavily visited the SL destination). An adult property, Sexy Beach, scored 133,000. The Sears store in IBM's vast complex scored 281. Coca-Cola's Virtual Thirst pavilions scored 27. That's not an anomaly. On a random day in August, 5 of the top 15 destinations were adult islands and four were "free money" islands. None was a corporate property, few of which even managed a score above 2,000.

So who is playing Second Life? Most of the time, walking around Second Life is like touring Las Vegas after the rapture. At any given moment, only 30,000 to 45,000 residents are logged on. Spread out over 700 square kilometers, that gives the SL world a population density close to South Carolina's. There are lots of modern, glass buildings and tree-filled parks. There are beaches everywhere you turn. But mostly the world is deserted. When you do find people, they're young and beautiful. There are no old folks in Second Life; no fat people, either. The typical SL gathering looks something like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, only with extra fetish gear.