avatars. In August 2009, Second Life users logged more than 40
million hours. Clearly, I was going to the wrong places.
I called Mario Gerosa, the owner of Synthtravels, a virtual travel
agency that gave tours of online worlds. Given what I’d seen so far,
I’d figured he was a sleaze whose “red light” tours of SL were his
most popular. He was, instead, the Milanese editor of Architectural
Digest Italy who has written three books on virtual worlds and organized and curated an RL Florence exhibition of art generated in
SL. The bulk of his clients, surprisingly, were companies considering opening a Second Life presence. Nearly every business now
tries to connect with consumers and enhance brand awareness on
websites and Facebook. Why not reach out on SL, where marketers can take advantage of the ultimate interactive technology?
“Second Life is going to be the big thing,” Gerosa said. “It is
going to be more and more professional, more serious. Art, education, business”— already, hundreds of RL schools, bands, nonprofits, politicians, corporations, television shows, magazines,
car companies, and governments have an SL presence —“we will
have more and more of these things. Maybe the newspapers will
talk less about them, but they will be more concentrated in Second
Life. Until last year, we were just talking about how Second Life is
for sex, things the newspapers and magazines like to talk about.”
Guilty. But Forbes had suggested in 2007, just six months after an article about Second Life’s extraordinary growth, that the
virtual world wasn’t a viable place to do business after all, and
American Apparel, the first RL retailer with an in-world presence, ultimately closed its SL doors. Still, Gerosa suggested that
SL offered the potential for businesses to move from RL to SL
entirely — once the world was ready for the transition.
“We’re on the threshold of the next technological revolution,”
Merrill Johnson, associate dean of the liberal arts college at the
University of New Orleans, assured me. In mid-2008, he orchestrated the building of SL campuses for UNO — my graduate
alma mater — as well as Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana University, and Southern University at New Orleans with a grant he’d
gotten from the Louisiana Board of Regents. “Right now we’re
at about the same place with 3-D web as we were with the internet in about 1994. Back then [the internet] was still a little bit
of an iffy proposition for most people, who were a little bit unsure about what this new medium offered, and a little bit unsure
about whether it was worth spending your time on, and whether
it was safe.” He was the first — though hardly the last — to point
out to me Gartner Research’s report that by 2011, 80 percent of
regular internet users will have a second life (though not necessarily in Second Life — there are dozens of virtual worlds).
“Seriously?” I asked Johnson. “Are you saying that some people are dragging their feet, but eventually everyone will have to
be on it?”
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “Yes. We will get to this equilibrium, this middle ground, whereby 3-D web will become a
normal part of our existence. We’ll all have our avatars running
around out there.” Which could preclude our bodies running
around out here. Johnson laid out a scenario in which my avatar could have my exact measurements and go to a store to try
on a sweater with the manufacturer’s exact measurements. He
was right that if that technology existed, the SL shopping experience would be far superior to the current 2-D web one; I could
see exactly how the sweater would fit me in RL. In that future,
I probably would stop going to stores entirely. I would have already were online clothes shopping as reliable as online book
shopping, which I do all the time. SL would be faster! Easier!
Involving less chitchat with salespeople!
“Second Life is just going to further the already extreme trend
toward isolationism,” my friend Dan complained when I described the possible new order to him over the phone. He lives
twenty-five hundred miles away, and we communicate far more
often than would have been possible at any other time in history,
by a long shot. “Physical isolation,” he clarified. No one ever argues that we’re not more in touch than ever. The concern among
people like him, people like me, people who neither enjoy nor
excel at utilizing the latest technological advances, people who
have always had a strong need for tactile interaction, is that we’re
doing less actual touching — of our conversation partners, of the
sand on the shore that real waves lap against.
Since fall 2008, Dentyne has been running a “Make Face
Time” campaign—selling gum by advertising physical interaction with other people. Even ten years ago, when I was in college, the evolution of instant messaging kept us in front of our
dorm-room computers and out of the commons. Ditto, often,
for Google’s chat application and my o;ce conference room today. Or, as Castronova has put it, somewhat more terrifyingly,
“My guess is that the impact on the real world really is going to
involve folks disappearing from reality in a lot of places where
we see them.” Though it sounds extreme, it’s already, to some
extent, what’s happening. Advertising face time sounds absurd,
but most of us would be liars if we didn’t admit that Dentyne’s
message was aimed, at least a little — and justifiably — at us.
I ASKED LISA REIN to meet me in a coffee shop with her laptop to better show me where we were all going to disappear to.
“People just don’t get it yet,” she said. She’s a tech consultant,
teacher, and believer. As I watched, she teleported to her SL
land, for which she pays twenty-eight real-life dollars a month: a
green, waterfront knoll with some chairs and video screens on it.
(When I cooed, “You have waterfront property,” she responded,
“It’s all waterfront property. Everybody wants waterfront prop-