Virtually the same as normal

Many are turning to Second Life just as it starts to mirror the real world

Those who have not yet heard about Second Life, the online virtual world, can't have read a newspaper for the past six months. Since May, when Business Week splashed the story of Anshe Chung, an in-world entrepreneur who dominates Second Life's virtual real-estate market, all branches of the UK media have featured specials outlining the machinations of this playground of the imagination. Now Reuters has set up its own Second Life bureau, promising to break stories from the virtual frontiers.

The media orgy was predictable. Here is a world that exists only on a rack of web servers in California. Yet more than half a million people (a population that's growing furiously) log on for more than a week per month, on average. Could anything do more to confirm our fears of technology disconnecting us from reality?

At present, between $300,000 and $400,000 is spent every day in Second Life, in the form of Linden dollars, exchangeable privately, or on the LindeX, at a rate of roughly $300 to US$1. Residents use primitive cubes, or "prims", to recreate everything from grand pianos to Grand Central Station on land they have either rented from virtual real-estate owners or purchased from Linden Lab, Second Life's creators.

Second Life is not a game. One can "play" it, sure, but this is creative play, and there is no defined goal. Rather, Second Life is a space, much like the web space, whose contours create their own terms of engagement.

Conversing with other players in-world is like hooking up with friends on the web. The difference is that you can see them, or rather their online representations, or "avatars", boosting the potential for communication. But more importantly, unlike with other virtual communications spaces, you can also see the people you are not talking to in Second Life.

Although web forums and blogs do a great deal to bring communities of geographically isolated enthusiasts together, they still segregate those individuals within specific interest groups. If you've found your forum of knitting enthusiasts, there is no reason for you to join the locomotives message board. But Second Life looks more like a city than the web. As Linden Lab's chief technical officer, Cory Ondrejka, has observed, this means that although it still brings mutual enthusiasts together across real-world distance, it also makes them rub up against enthusiasts of different stripes.

This, together with Second Life's novel intellectual property rules, which let users retain the right to exploit their in-world creations commercially, is what contributes to the virtual world's accelerated pace of innovation and its booming economy. But the real world may catch up soon. Although there is no way to die in Second Life, the US Congress is looking into ways to introduce life's other certainty - taxes.