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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When I first arrived at registration for the convention in Chicago, there were about 70 young, hip, multiethnic twenty-somethings, all smartly dressed, standing in line. For a moment I was shocked at how much SLers looked like their avatars. It turned out I was in the wrong place--this was the registration for a local graduate school's open house. The SL crowd was somewhat different. There were a handful of Asians and perhaps a dozen African Americans; the rest of the 900 or so convention goers were white. There were nearly as many women as men, and the average age appeared to be early- to mid-40s. There looked to be more people in their 50s than in their 20s. And without delving too much into matters of body mass index, there was very little physiological correlation with the average avatar. On the whole, the gathering looked not unlike a Howard Dean rally, circa 2003.

It is impossible to get perfect data on residents because avatars are never deleted, even if they have been abandoned by players who have left the game. What we do know is this:

* Linden Lab reports that the number of unique residents as of July 2007 was 5.7 million; roughly 75 percent are male and 25 percent are female (in the RL, that is).

* Fewer than 475,000 residents have logged onto Second Life in the last two weeks.

* 18- to 24-year-old users make up 26 percent of Second Lifers; 25- to 34-year-olds are 38 percent; 35- to 44-year-olds are 22 percent; and 45 and above are 12 percent.

* The older age groups leave a disproportionate footprint, with the 35-and-overs accounting for 45 percent of the hours spent in Second Life.

This seems a much smaller and older pool of people than one might expect. Part of this, of course, is the appeal of Second Life--it lets you be something other than who you really are. For instance, LaraZ, the retired professor, started out in SL by entering her avatar in a modeling contest for a virtual fashion designer. She won, and now she spends her days working for the designer (no longer as a model, but as an in-world event planner).

Others have found second careers, too. Linden Lab's metrics show that in August, 42,691 users had positive SL income. The vast majority made less than $50. But in each of the last four months, over 1,600 users have earned between $200 and $500; just over 100 users have pulled in more than $5,000 per month.

The most famous of these is "Anshe Chung." She is the avatar of a German woman named Ailin Graef. A Chinese-born language teacher, Graef began working in Second Life as an escort. She invested the Lindens she made in virtual real estate: buying islands, developing them, and then renting out the space. Graef made news in 2006 when she announced that her SL land and cash holdings exceeded $1 million. BusinessWeek put her--or rather her Anshe Chung avatar--on their cover.

Graef later incorporated her business as Anshe Chung Studios. The government of China accorded the company special status as a high-tech enterprise, and it established its corporate headquarters in Hubei. Anshe Chung Studios now employs 60 workers who spend their time developing land inside Second Life. (Graef is such a big wheel in the SL universe that when the Linden market dipped, she threatened to create her own currency. She probably has the ability to destroy the SL economy if she were to flood the market with Lindens or land.)

You can see why reporters and corporate honchos and foundation presidents get excited: Second Life looks and feels like the future. Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale doesn't undersell this point. Rosedale, a 39-year-old, blond, good-looking former physics major from U.C. San Diego, is an alpha-nerd, a little like Val Kilmer's character from the 1985 classic Real Genius. In 2006, Rosedale told Wired, "I'm not building a game. I'm building a new country." At the Chicago convention he was only slightly less expansive. People "don't appreciate sometimes how big this thing is going to become," he said. "This is something that everybody on earth is going to use. . . . [Second Life] is bigger than the web."

It's possible that Rosedale is both right and wrong. The inescapable problem with Second Life's theory of inevitability is the fact that the vast majority of people who try SL walk away from it. Wired reports that 85 percent of the avatars which have been created have been abandoned. At the conference, Sibley Verbeck claimed that the number was 90 percent and stated flatly that the platform won't be successful if this ratio persists. It's difficult to think of a world-changing innovation that was discarded by 90 percent of its early adopters.

But SL is the first successful manifestation of an idea known among futurists as the "metaverse." The metaverse concept--a virtual world inhabited by real people--was pioneered in science fiction novels, notably William Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's 1992 Snow Crash. The first intellectual treatment of the metaverse came in the form of David Gelernter's 1992 book Mirror Worlds. Here is Gelernter describing it: "The software model of your city, once it's set up, will be available (like a public park) to however many people are interested. .  .  . Each visitor will zoom in and pan around and roam through the model as he chooses." His mirror world is a nearly perfect description of SL.

Metaverse enthusiasts predict that Second Life--or something like it--will replace the web browser as the way we interface with the Internet. (A thoughtful essay in MIT Technology Review makes the case that Second Life's nearest metaverse competitor might actually be Google Earth.) Perhaps. The more pressing question is whether or not the metaverse will compete with the real one. Rosedale believes it will. "There will be a tipping point where Second Life starts taking time away" from real life and the normal Internet, he told the residents in Chicago.

His keynote address to the SLCC, like the rest of the conference, was simulcast into the virtual world. (At one point, I sat in a room in Chicago listening to a panel while, on my laptop, my avatar sat in a park inside Second Life listening to the same audiostream.) It makes you wonder why, if these people believe so deeply in the metaverse, they needed to come to Chicago at all.

The metaverse has its temptations. People don't grow old in Second Life; they're always young and thin and fabulous. Death, literally, does not exist. In Second Life an avatar doesn't disappear from the records just because the resident who owned it has died. Perhaps the most curious practice to emerge in Second Life is the establishment of virtual memorials for dead friends. The SLCC program featured short tributes to the departed, many of which gave coordinates for the little pretend monuments erected to them. In memory of an avatar known as "tr0n Rich," one resident wrote, "Tr0n, you have touched my heart incredibly. I had grown to love you in a way I have never known. You were a very loved man and partner. You may be gone from RL but you will never be forgotten."

"Gone from RL" may be the most inadequate euphemism ever offered for the mortal condition. But its clumsiness hints at why first life will always be more important than Second.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.