Second Life (and why you care)

FAQ about Linden Labs' metaworld

Feeling a little left behind in the storm of Second Life happenings? Here are some answers that will catch you up to the potentials of Linden Labs' virtual economy.

What is Second Life?

Second Life is a virtual environment in which avatars -- visual representations of users or "residents" -- can interact. If you're familiar with The Sims, it's superficially similar, since it's less a game with goals than a venue for socializing. However, Second Life is radically different in one important way: The entire world -- attractions, objects, events -- is created and owned by the residents.

Haven't I heard this thing also called Linden? What is Linden?

You may have seen Second Life referred to as SL or, occasionally, Linden. The company developing and hosting SL is Linden Lab -- God, nature and government to Second Life, as its residents note (some with dismay, about which more in a minute).

Why should I care?

Because where there's ownership, there's potential for commerce. For starters.

Why would anyone spend time in Second Life?

Why does anyone have hobbies? World of Warcraft has been compared to golf as a work-bonding event, and plenty of Net users over the years have participated in newsgroups, chats and discussion boards. In that context, Second Life is something of a diversion (since avatars, belongings and real estate can be endlessly upgraded, adorned and personalized), as well as a venue for cultural events such as talks and concerts.

And don't underestimate the pull for many people of simply gathering. As we mentioned, SL is a bit like The Sims, in that the point of the exercise is simply to create and interact; there's no game and no goal. The Sims titles are, of course, some of the most successful of all time.

Irony alert: Second Life launched in 2003, not long after the release of The Sims Online -- a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) version of the popular title. Most observers perceived SL to be at a competitive disadvantage, as The Sims had a remarkable lead in name recognition. So what happened? Three things: barrier to entry (though there is a free trial version of The Sims Online; monthly membership is US$10), open-ended play and (again) ownership of virtual creations.

And so Linden Dollars are the play money in this play world?

They're certainly the currency within Second Life, but Linden Dollars (L$) can be bought and sold -- for "first-world" currency -- at several online exchanges. In other words, not only can you spend U.S. dollars to buy Linden dollars (in case there was something you wanted to purchase for use inside SL), if you earn Linden dollars you can cash them in for U.S. dollars. The exchange rate fluctuates around the region of L$300 to US$1; at the end of the first week in January 2007, the Linden currency market (the Lindex) closed at 269.8. Rates are to some extent moderated and adjusted by Linden Labs, though SL's terms of service stipulate that the currency can't be redeemable for value from Linden Lab itself.

So it's just talk, walk and consume?

No. Second Life has hosted several cultural events (concerts, talks, debates). It has a number of gaming areas. And an Indiana university economics professor has been awarded a US$240,000 MacArthur Foundation grant to develop and study a Shakespeare-themed area in the world. The Reuters news service has opened up an SL bureau documenting business, technical and cultural developments within the world.

Two million people do this?!

That's what Linden Lab says, though as of early 2007 journalists, such as Clay Shirky, were giving that number increased scrutiny. According to Linden's own information, as of last week, there were 2,371,468 uniquely named avatars with the right to log into the system, trade currency and so forth. More than a third, or 844,310, had logged in within the last 60 days, and 225,954 had logged within the last seven days.

Second Life participants are, by the way, required to be 18 or older. A second version, Teen Second Life, is restricted to residents aged 13-17.

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