How can something that is virtual be real? Over 6 million people
apparently find no problem with the concept as they socialize, create, build,
and become willing advertising test dummies in a not-quite make believe world
called "Second Life."
Anyone much over the age of forty is probably going to have trouble with the
concept of Second
Life and with the idea that it is being discussed in a space normally dedicated
to issues of real estate and mortgages. We will try our best to explain the
concept and hope that gradually our reasons for looking at what must be called
a real estate phenomenon will become obvious.
Second Life describes itself as "a 30D virtual world entirely built and
owned by its residents." The website was opened in 2003 and now has, as
was noted above, 6,240,591 residents or registered users. This number appears
to be growing exponentially, it increased 100,000 in a little more than a week
after our first visit, and every time we have entered this strange new world
there have been between 25,000 and 30,000 others there with us.
One can become a Second Life resident for free although using most of its tools
and services requires a premium membership that costs $9.95 per month (less
if you pay annually or quarterly.) As you register you must create an Avatar
or alter ego which explores the virtual world for you. First you pick a first
name and then select a last name from a list of several hundred rather esoteric
choices. Provided it isn't a duplicate name, Basilford Fimicoloud is born.
At this point you also pick from an array of a dozen stock characters ranging
from a fuzzy figure which looks like Bugs Bunny's girlfriend to quite
scary male and female Goths. These can later be customized in all different
The basic currency of Second Life is the Linden Dollar and
it has real value, at the time of this article trading at around 266 Linden
Dollars to the U.S. dollar. This currency can be used to buy goods, services,
and land and can be converted to real money at various exchange sites. There
is a thriving economy in Second Life with dozens of people earning an income
by designing and selling things to other Second Lifers not to mention acquiring
and selling virtual real estate.
The site is layered like an onion and it would probably take months to explore
all of its regions, utilities, quirks, and ramifications. We have spent a bit
of time on the site but will continue to explore and bring you along on the
trip. Since this will be an in-the-moment travelogue we apologize for any disorganization
in the narrative and will probably say "whoops" more than usual as we come to
understand the virtual world better.
Once we registered and logged in we were teleported to "Orientation Island"
where we learned to navigate our Avatar through the landscape. Moving this creation
around is not as easy as it looks and we found our self frequently losing the
path. All around us were other Avatar's, most of who seemed to be having
as much trouble navigating as we were. Each was labeled with name and sometimes
with a description of its current activity (busy, altering appearance). This
seems to be an etiquette thing to explain why that Avatar might be ignoring
you if you stop to chat. And that is another lesson of the island; how to communicate.
That part at least is easy; it is just like an on-line chat. We could "listen
in" on people chatting around us. Most of the dialogue seemed pretty inane
but again, it may be age betraying us.
The Avatar also learns to fly. Watch this one. We managed to fly right off
of the Island, couldn't get back and had to log out and start over.
At another training spot we learned to change the Avatar's appearance.
We were quite pleased with the off-the-rack Mrs. Bugs we had adopted on entry
but somehow managed to lose her ears, all of her animal features and fur, and
a neat torch we had acquired along the way. In fact we had a totally bald, nude
department store mannequin. We managed to get her some clothes and hair but
ended up with a 1960's Barbie. It is a little embarrassing to march her
through this brave new world of cutting edge inhabitants.
Once the lessons are learned, one can leave Orientation Island, and the choices
are unlimited. There are dozens and dozens of regions to visit. Some appear
to be private and many are labeled "mature" but we were able to
access everything we attempted and saw nothing that wasn't PG rated.
The first region to which we were transported was fairly busy with a dozen
or so people standing around chatting or changing their appearance. We struck
out toward a long palazzo studded with shops. Always wanted a tiny heart-shaped
tattoo for the small of your back? This is the place to get one for your Avatar.
At least that is a little useful; we are still trying to figure out why one
would use hard-earned Linden dollars to purchase five pieces of virtual gum
from a sidewalk gumball machine.
In a quick visit to a resident sector of the site we found dozens of groups
with varying numbers of members. There were, for example, at least a half dozen
yachting sites where members appear to own or to create virtual boats to sail
and even hold races; there were sites/groups for sci-fi enthusiasts and dozens
of other interests.
But, what does this again, have to do with real estate? Well,
in addition to a lot of social interaction, Second Life is really a total economic
empire which includes real property. We will attempt to get a handle on the
growing Second Life economy and let you know where it might be going.