Second Life: A Virtual World of Real Money

As more and more people invest in alter egos to live a pseudo life online in Linden Labs' latest creation, Richard Morris investigates the potential of Second Life's cyberspace and the motivations of many corporate brands to join the international virtual world.

At the Archan Free Sex Community it helps if you are in the mood for a good time. If you are, and especially if you take all your clothes off, it can be very amiable indeed. After visiting the area in a tight white T-shirt, black jeans, and Cuban-heeled boots I was accosted five times in as many seconds by slender, skimpily dressed women making provocative remarks. And it was only ten o’clock in the morning.

Virtual world, real money

You may or may not have realised by now that I am in cyberspace, more specifically in an online world called Second Life, created by the San Francisco-based company, Linden Labs. In this cyber world, users can build and buy property, get jobs, create the latest fashions for their ‘avatar’ (the digital 3D alter ego which represents them online) chat, listen to music and make friends. Almost anything is possible in Second Life. Violence, however, is not tolerated and nor is drugs abuse, even if guns can be openly traded. It is then largely the residents’ responsibility to police their world.

Second Life is a place where novices can feel as awkward as acne-prone teenagers at a school disco, but most users believe they are pioneering the biggest technological breakthrough since the innovation of the World Wide Web. Many people also predict that this parallel universe, which began in 2003, will become the biggest social networking phenomenon to hatch out of cyberspace. Once the preserve of geeks alone, it is attracting mainstream interest with over 1.2 million avatars and has a growth rate of 20 per cent a month. Linden even claims that as many as 10,000 people can be online at any time, although you can be hard pressed sometimes to find another human in such a vast space that expands as quickly as its users create it.

An economy powered by the Linden dollar, a currency that can also be converted into US dollars, allows creators even more control over their virtual world. You can decide if you want your Second Life virtual creations to be copied, modified or sold, while a boom in the property market turns in healthy profits for investors. Linden says that the total value of land and other deals this year will reach around US$60m. The fast-rising top-ten entrepreneurs are turning over profits of around US$200,000 a year.

Big brands in a virtual world

Understandably, big brands are now realizing the worth of populating the Second Life universe. Online consumers who aspire to the newest gadgets and gimmicks can escape into their imaginations and later translate that desire in the virtual world into purchases in the real world’s marketplace.

The headlong rush of actual companies into so-called 3D countries mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research tool in the early 1980s and 1990s to become a commercial proposition – but not without complaints from purists, and from the father of the web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, that the medium’s innocence would be lost.

The Internet is now the fastest growing advertising medium, as traditional forms of marketing such as television commercials and print advertising face a slow-down in revenue. These early ventures into virtual worlds could be the next frontier in the blurring of advertising and entertainment.

Philip Rosedale, chief executive of Linden Labs, said that until this year he had only received a few queries from real world companies expressing an interest in dipping their toes into his world’s pixellated water. There are now more thanfifty companies working on projects, and dozens more are considering them. Among those already enjoying Second Life are companies as diverse as Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Sun Microsystems, Nissan, Adidas and Penguin Publishing. Even the BBC has rented an island, on which it held parties and broadcast music last summer.

Not to be left out, Pontiac Cars is buying a 64-acre ‘island’ for a one-off sum of US$5000 and a monthly maintenance fee of US$780. For its new campaign built around the Pontiac Solstice GXP, they will stage car races and host virtual concerts at the Pontiac Garage music stage in Times Square. The car company also plans to invite the entire Second Life population to submit ideas for how they would create a ‘car culture’ on the island in the assumption that as the virtual planet grows, a culture of car lovers will develop there.

The arrival of a Reuters reporter on the Second Life scene has also attracted media attention for the news agency. As its marketing boundaries expand ever further, the reporter will investigate stories in the virtual world and bring them back to its real newsroom. The lure of such a move is obvious. Beginning a marketing campaign in any captive virtual world is relatively inexpensive, compared with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that companies spend on glossy forms of media.

It’s not just the commercial brands who are keen to join, either. Big political parties are already on the Second Life stump, with senators from the US Republican Party and Democrats frequently appearing and giving interviews. Britain, though, is yet to follow suit. There is talk, however, of MEPs from UKIP buying an island to plan campaigns for next year’s Council elections in this sometimes bizarre environment.

Not in my (virtual) back yard

All this attention has made some Second Life purists anxious that their paradise will never be the same; they liken its development to a huge housing estate springing up in the middle of a peaceful English country village.

‘Hopefully this is just a phase, but it was nicer at the beginning when there were half a million residents. I would hate to see it spoiled by overdevelopment,’ says ‘Simpledorf Brickworks’ – who, ironically, is a real-life builder and developer from Birmingham. So what’s the attraction of Second Life for him?

‘What I like about Second Life right now is that there’s no pressure to buy or do anything. You can just lay back and do nothing and though this doesn’t sound exactly riveting, it calms my nerves. It’s rather like watching a video of a sunset. I would hate for that to change and this alternative world to become another world of violence and indifference. I think the way Linden Labs is doing things is a great example of steady, controlled growth. You pay for what you want to do, and that’s why it’s so successful.’

However, just as large corporations tend to eclipse small, family businesses, just as the mega-brands make the physical world such a uniform place, so it seems likely that the same could happen in this virtual paradise. That’s not an argument that Rosedale accepts. ‘It is a fear that comes from the real world and will not be borne out in Second Life. In the physical world there is finite space, and big brands can buy up much of it, but in Second Life, we simply allocate more virtual space which makes even more islands available. It means that there are no economies of scale for large businesses. If it ever became a necessity, Linden Labs could become a regulator and break up monopolies.’

In Rosedale’s view there is no upper limit to what can be done in Second Life, just as there is no limit to what any one person can imagine.

Maybe Rosedale is right, for the time being at least, but still the brands keep coming. Reuben Steiger, previously an Evangelist for Linden Lab, went on to found Millions of Us, a marketing and brand-building company established solely to market clients on Second Life.

Steiger devotes most of his time to planning advertising campaigns for clients such as Toyota, which has been giving away free virtual models of its Scion brand to anyone who wants to drive them.

‘Second Life is perfect for creating experiences around a brand,’ admits Steiger. ‘We don’t think that conventional advertising will be very prevalent because it would be badly received culturally. Advertising in Second Life is not about trapping people but about captivating and stimulating them. A good campaign costs about $200,000, of which only a very small part is property leases. Most of the money goes on paying the designers to create great virtual campaigns.’

A Second Life is just a click away

Some analysts are cautious with their predications on how far and how fast Second Life will grow. Steve Rubel, a marketing and public relations commentator who runs the website Micro Persuasion, has found that year-on-year visits to Second Life are up 219 per cent, yet a deeper dig into the numbers reveals that the site is a late bloomer.

‘Traffic only began to rise with all the recent press coverage. And it’s unclear whether they’re converting visitors into actual residents who participate. Second Life is a great place to test out marketing campaigns – if the fit is right but I remain sceptical that Second Life will grow at the same pace that podcasting, blogs and other forms of social media have done, because of the hurdles involved. Not only are there download and processing requirements, but there is also a cost if you want to do more than just explore. This may keep Second Life from growing further.’

There is no much less caution from Mitch Kapor, the lionised inventor of the Lotus spreadsheet, an invention that played a huge role in the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, and now chairman of Linden Labs. According to Kapor, spending part of your day in a virtual world will become commonplace and absolutely normal. But hasn’t all this been tried before?

It certainly has, but the decade-old ideal of having a remote intelligent lifestyle on a computer screen failed previously on a number of issues: technology costs were high, servers kept crashing, and there was an absence of people wanting to look like a surgically enhanced porn star.

Over the last ten years, technology and culture have undergone huge changes and although Second Life’s spread is limited by access to high-speed Internet connections and software that is sometimes challenging to master, Kapor, now chairman of Linden Labs, says the site is comparable to the public’s interest in the PC. He firmly believes that his company may even be accelerating the ‘social evolution of humanity.’

This is a bold statement for what, in relative terms, is such a new virtual world. And yet, maybe he’s right. In Second Life, the user and participant in the virtual world has far more control over what happens than many human beings have in the real world. Now the future really does lie in our hands. Your second life is, after all, only a mouse click away.