Second Life Gets 'Real' at Conference

Two men dressed in furry rabbit costumes danced the night away. A scantily underclad female vampire gleefully played dominatrix to a male vampire who obediently sat on the floor and mischievously snarled at her. A man wearing retractable wings showed off his stuff, while another in a see-through top went around spanking people with a wooden paddle.

"It's just like being online at a party," said Marsha Ellstrom as she observed the scene Saturday night at the Second Life Community Convention's "Leather and Lace" Masquerade Ball here in Chicago.

Ellstrom, who sells jewelry in Second Life -- an online virtual world -- under the name Mhaijik Guillaume, was talking about the range of characters and behaviors on display. But the party was business as usual for the growing virtual world company in more ways than one.

You see, the ball here last night -- just like Second Life, and just like this conference, which runs through the weekend -- was part pleasure, but also part business. No excess was spared, but neither was any marketing opportunity.

The ball, for example, had an official sponsor -- Eros, the adult company that sells sex products on Second Life. When entering, guests received a free Jenna Jameson porn DVD -- compliments of Jenna herself, the ball's organizer said. And once inside, they had the opportunity to purchase jewelry or learn about the numerous companies whose business cards and company displays littered the sides of the dance hall.

Though business and pleasure coexist, it became clear that Second Life means different things to people depending on whether they live primarily in the business or social side of things. Both groups wanted to communicate, but the goal of that communication differed sharply.

For those looking to network business connections and spread their business cards, Second Life is about connecting people with consumer products, whether real or virtual, and about creating communities of consumers that can stir hype for a product.

But for those who seek the social experience -- the captive audience for the businessmen and businesswomen here -- talked of their second life as a way to expand on their real-world hobbies or, more likely, a way to lead an alternate life, to be and do what they cannot or will not in the real world.

"Imagine a world where you look like you want to, and your clothes always fit," said Bob Ryals, a.k.a. Xerses Goff, as he wore a black and gold-trimmed pirate costume last night. "It lets you express something that you may not feel comfortable with, another side of you."

And so there are musicians like Kourosh Dini, known as Kourosh Eusebio in Second Life, who have full time jobs during the day (Dini is a doctor), and who see their second life as an extension of their first, an opportunity to connect their leisure activity with a larger audience.

And then there are those who use the platform to do what they will not, or cannot, in the real world -- Like the woman who uses Second Life to have sex with her husband, except in their fantasy world he, too, is a woman.

To be sure, all is not well for Second Life. People here liked to cite that there are more than nine million registered users, but critics point out that this number is inflated, and that only 450,000 people logged on in the month of July.

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