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Virtual Insanity

Second Life promises a second identity, the ultimate escape in imitation, a life within a life. But, as in the first, this life is loaded with money-hungry locusts.

At the end of December, the Front National (FN) the most prominent French far-right party – advertised the opening of its new headquarters in Second Life, an online universe in which anyone can create avatars, objects, and buildings. The extremists did not find much sympathy there. According to American journalist Wagner James Au, „after the Front National took root, at least two groups, antiFN and SL Left Unity, rose to oppose them. They had placards and T-shirts, and billboards on the land of sympathetic neighbours, all making plain that FN‘s arrival in Second Life was distinctly unwelcome.“

Second Life allows users to create objects and deeply interact with the virtual environment and that includes destroying other objects. As could be expected, the demonstrations quickly took a rather hostile turn. First there were gunshots, which escalated to explosions and constant gunfire, and then „one enterprising insurrectionist created a pig grenade, fixed it to a flying saucer, and sent several whirling into Front National headquarters, where they’d explode in a starburst of porcine shrapnel,“ remembers Wagner James Au. The fights went on for a week until, on the 15th of January, the entire FN building had disappeared.

At first glance, this would seem like great news: in the virtual world, no one supports extremists and people from all over the world unite to kick them out! Although the Front did not actively canvass votes in SL, they did receive much free publicity. The story was featured in numerous newspapers in France and many other countries.

Public Relations

This is what Second Life is all about: public relations. On January 27th, American Second Life usergroup Netroots organised a protest against the war in Iraq. According to the coordinators, avatars from 7 different countries joined the demonstration. That seems great, if it weren’t for the fact that merely 120 people showed up. The protest was only a way to show some support for a real-world demonstration, not an event in itself.

In December 2006, the Spanish charity organization Mensajeros de la Paz („The Messengers of Peace“) used Second Life to raise funds for their cause. They created a virtual homeless character holding a sign asking people for their money. After a week, the homeless avatar had raised about 30 euros, which is far from overwhelming. But as their representative said, „the main goal is not only the money, but people‘s awareness.“ One thing is clear: whether they come from the virtual residents or from real world entities, the vast majority of events in Second Life are in fact PR operations in disguise.

On January 29th, Sweden announced, to the surprise of many, that it intended to open the first ever virtual embassy in Second Life. The move did not come from the Swedish Foreign Ministry but from the Swedish Institute, a promotional institution. In fact, the so-called embassy does not offer visas or any official service; its purpose is to inform Second Life residents on Sweden and to give the country a modern image.

Big business

If Sweden is the first country to be represented in Second Life, many corporations have already held meetings or opened outlets there. Following the example of such major firms as IBM or Adidas, the Dutch bank group ABN opened a branch in Second Life in December 2006. It does not yet offer any banking service, only “financial advice.“ Since October 2006, the reputable British news agency Reuters has a permanent bureau in Second Life. During the World Economic Forum of Davos, Switzerland, the Reuters reporter managed to complete an online interview of the CEOs of EasyJet and Skype as well as several other high profile executives.

The German press group Axel Springer went even one step further. Since December 2006, they published a tabloid exclusively in Second Life, dubbed The AvaStar. Surely, if there are journalists then there must be something to report? There isn’t much, really. The AvaStar does not sell very well. In contrast to the feverish business and PR activity, Second Life has a surprisingly few users. Over 3 million users signed up, but according to the Guardian only 100 000 are considered active users and spend a significant amount of time in the virtual world.

In February, Second Life editor Linden Lab announced on its website that, for the first time, 30 000 users were connected at the same time. But given that the acreage of Second Life is greater than the city of Munich, it must have felt a bit empty. These figures only show that the corporate presence in Second Life is not about the creation of a virtual market. Corporations open stores and hold events in the virtual world because Second Life offers them an easy way to get media coverage for products that would otherwise be ignored.

Focus on the users

They can achieve this because Linden Lab has managed to get many journalists to write about Second Life. The key factor is the in-game money. Second Life uses “real money“, in the sense that there is an exchange rate between in-game and real world currency. In May 2006, Second Life resident Anshe Cheung was on the cover of Business Week for being „Second Life‘s First Millionaire“. Though Cheung comes from Germany, her company is based in China; it creates and sells virtual property in SL, and already employs 23 people. But a quick look at the official SL statistics shows that less than a thousand SL residents earn more than 100 euros a month and that only about a dozen earns more than 1000 euros per month.

There is no doubt that Linden Lab is excellent at managing its own image. When a rather mean parody of Second Life - called Get a First Life - was put online, the company did not try to shut down the website, they officially gave it their authorization. This surprising move is meant to show everyone how humorous they are, which, in turn, attracts more users.

But the hype will not last forever. Ironically, the Reuters correspondent in Second Life recently published an interview announcing the end of it. According to consulting firm Gartner Group, Second Life is nearing what they call the „Peak of Inflated Expectations,“ which means that a backlash can be expected soon.

According to this theory, Linden Lab hopes to be bought by a larger company before the buzz collapses. So, for the moment, Second Life residents are not Linden‘s customers. They are its product. As for the potential buyers, the Gartner Group analyst Steven Prentice suggests that „Google would be top of the tree“. The idea is not far-fetched, since the search-engine giant recently bought an in-game advertising firm, Adscape.

But it has to happen fast, because the residents are getting increasingly frustrated with both the poor quality of the hardware (the game can get very slow) and the constant invasion of PR marketeers. If Linden Lab wants Second Life to keep its promises, it should focus more on its residents and less on the corporations. At the end of February, the so-called Second Life Liberation Army bombed the virtual stores of Reebok and American Apparel, asking for more control of the residents over the virtual world. It may soon become a world full of marketers trying to sell their products to empty rooms.

Author: Martin Lafréchoux

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