Digital Life

Visiting the 'Second Life' World: Virtual Hype?

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Recently, Federal Judge Richard Posner made an appearance in Second Life, the online community with its own economy, to discuss matters of individual rights with some of the community's members.

Other guests to Second Life have included Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, National Security analyst Thomas P.M. Barnett, and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

To some analysts, the question is, why are these public figures willing to give their time to answering questions in a virtual reality game? It may have something to do with the hype.

The community's creators say the site has more than 2 million members, but that overstates the reality. In fact, many members who come to try out the game leave, never to return again.

Second Life is an online world in which people create animated characters, or avatars, meant to represent themselves. It's an enormous world with streams, forests, oceans and discos. But you don't need an airplane for travel: Avatars can fly.

The world has a currency — the Linden — backed by real dollars. Avatars can buy themselves clothes, homes, entertainment, and interact with others.

Mark Glaser the editor of PBS's online blog Media Shift, says that at any given hour, there are usually less than 20,000 people inside Second Life. Still, it's getting a lot of attention. The news service Reuters opened up a virtual bureau there with a real reporter.

People are making their real-world livings by selling virtual clothing, food, and real estate. And Starwood Hotels and Resorts has opened a virtual hotel.

Virtual appearances in Second Life have generated a real world business for Giff Constable, Vice President of Electric Sheep Company. The 35-person startup helps other companies create social events inside Second Life.

For example, they produced a recent appearance by musician Ben Folds for Sony. Constable believes this is just the beginning.

"Right now everybody has email," Constable says. "You know, 10 years ago, Ithink a lot of people would have found that a surprising thought. I think 10 years from now, everyone is going to have an avatar."

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