TCS Daily

Our Population Problem, According to John D. Troglodite

By John Tabin - October 25, 2007 12:00 AM

"It's a 'metaverse' -- an online social network inside a virtual world." So explains a character on last night's CSI:NY, in which the plucky sleuths of the New York Crime Lab must use Second Life -- the metaverse in question -- to track down a killer.

CBS and its co-sponsor, Cisco, have launched a large marketing tie-in in Second Life, where a new region is dedicated to CSI:NY merchandise -- virtual merchandise, that is -- and a role playing game based on the show. (Viewers of last night's show may be happy to discover that the irritating "White Rabbit" character is now lying dead on a virtual autopsy table.) What has corporations interested enough to put down roots in Second Life? That would be the nearly 3.4 billion Linden Dollars in circulation. Named for Linden Lab, the San Francisco company that created Second Life, the Linden Dollar is the in-world currency, and it represents real money; the going rate against the US Dollar is around L$270 to $1, which makes Second Life a $12.6 million mini-economy.

What are people doing with all that money? The same thing they would in real life: buying clothes, shoes, land, houses, cars, hairstyles, and genitals (more on that last one in a minute). Second Life users operate through avatars, animated characters that walk through the virtual world and represent the real people controlling them. Avatars come in every shape, from characters that look very similar to the people behind them to animals, children, and mythical creatures. People will pay to make their avatars look the way they want them to. And they'll pay to put down roots in the metaverse, building their own houses and paying rent to landowners, who in turn pay $1,675 for an island and $295 a month in maintenance costs to Linden Lab. There is currently more than 480 square miles worth of land in Second Life.

Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale is given to extravagant pronouncements about the future of Second Life. "This is something that everybody on earth is going to use... [Second Life] is bigger than the web," Rosedale declared at the third annual Second Life Community Convention in Chicago this summer. Some analysts are buying it: The technology consulting firm Gartner, Inc. predicts that 80 percent of Internet users will be in some sort of metaverse by 2011.

A lot will have to happen in the next four years to make that true. There have been somewhere around 10 million accounts created in Second Life, but only 1.4 million have been active in the past 60 days. The vast majority of users give up after trying it. recently named Second Life one of the internet's "5 Worst Websites," noting that

"it's notoriously slow to load (it runs on free software you have to download) and difficult to navigate, even with a broadband connection. You interact in the space through an avatar, but creating and personalizing this animated representation of yourself is tedious. Movements feel clunky and there can be a terrible lag. As on many sites, there's a learning curve for novices, but Second Life's is simply too steep."

There is a lot of truth to this. So who really enjoys Second Life? The people who are building it, for one. If you have the tech savvy to design virtual buildings or write scripts that run virtual clocks, you can while away the hours like a kid with the ultimate tinker-toy set.

Another set of satisfied Second Life enthusiasts might be called the virtual hedonists. Many users find themselves identifying with their avatars -- getting uncomfortable if someone stands too close, for instance. This helps explain why some of the most popular locations in Second Life are given over to what might be termed interactive pornography -- animated avatars having sex with each other. This is where the store-bought genitalia comes in; avatars start Second Life with only the equipment of a Barbie or Ken doll. There are virtual orgy rooms that look like a demented cross between Toy Story and Caligula, and they're usually crowded. There are even prostitutes; Ailin Graef, who's avatar "Anshe Chung" appeared on the cover of BusinessWeek when she announced in 2006 that her land and cash holdings in Second Life exceeded $1 million, began building her empire by working as an escort.

If you're not into virtual creation or virtual sex, though, the options narrow. There are dance clubs, but when they're crowded all the animation and music becomes technically taxing (this is where the aforementioned "terrible lag" comes in). There are a few role-playing games, including the CSI:NY tie-in, but they often take quite an effort to get involved in. "Its rare to find something in Second Life that really Just Works," notes one reviewer for Reuters (which, believe it or not, has a small Second Life bureau).

And there are discussions -- think of a chatroom, but with a graphical representation of the "room" part -- but they're scheduled somewhat infrequently (as with nearly everything that happens in Second Life, it's up to users themselves to organize them). And a large number of them are given over to discussion of Second Life itself; in recent weeks, for example, there was a discussion of whether Second Life could function as a closed economy and a debate about whether child avatars are appropriate. It's not that there couldn't be a lot to do; classes or panel discussions that transcend geography seem like an obvious fit, and the University of Southern California received a $550,000 MacArthur Foundation grant in June for the express purpose of staging events in Second Life. But much of the potential simply remains untapped.

Part of the problem is that the Second Life population is still relatively small; there are rarely more 45,000 users logged on at a given time, which makes most in-world areas almost deserted. And that brings us to a central paradox of Second Life's growth. Most users won't stick around as long as they can't find anything to do -- and there won't be much to do as long as users don't stick around to create it. Can the Second Life metaverse get over that hump and live up to the hype? It remains an open question.

John Tabin is a writer in Bowie, Maryland. His Second Life avatar is "JohnD Troglodite."


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