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.

And it is unclear how virtual worlds like Second Life can truly be as profitable as the tech-savvy businessmen here are betting they will be. Only 145 people earned more than $5,000 on Second Life in the month of July. (Such business questions will be explored in another article on Monday.)

The third annual conference, which organizers said had more than 800 attendees, was put together by an enterprising group of Second Life users, not Linden Labs, the company that owns the platform. Linden Labs was a principal financial sponsor.

For people who lack the social skills, good looks, and life of luxury they crave, Second Life is a way to satisfy their urges. And of course, if their urges are more illicit and best kept private, virtual worlds provide that outlet, too.

And so whether Second Life itself survives is perhaps beside the point. There is a small but growing demand for an alternate online world to which people can escape, and many other similar alternate universes exist or will crop up to fill that demand.

Shoshana Epsilon is a software department manager by day but a Second Life portrait artist by night, spending she says, with a guilty giggle, 20 hours a week on the virtual world. "The kids get very hungry sometimes," Epsilon, who declined to give her real name, says of her 7 and 10-year old boys.

She admits to being "a terrible photographer in real life," but she does it avidly in her Second Life, making about $50 a month.

And what does she do after a stressful day at work? She goes to her real home, and then enters her second, virtual home, and sits amidst the foliage that grows on her property and the birds that chirp around her.

"Sometimes, when I just need a quiet time away from the real world, I go there," she says.

Giff Constable knows such a desire for some real connection and relaxation well. He is trying to profit off of it as a software manager for the Electric Sheep Company, which helps real-world companies establish a presence in Second Life.

"Part of this is about people wanting to make connections that aren't necessarily easy for them to make [in the real world]," says Constable, whose Second Life name is Forseti Svarog.

He said he knows a single mother who uses the platform to meet other people, something she has trouble doing in the real world, where problems and insecurities become more exposed in real interpersonal interactions.

"Second Life lets you do whatever you want, and be young forever, gorgeous," adds Nancy Schenkein, who helped organized this conference, and as Baccara Rhodes was one of the earliest members of Second Life.

But econd Life has yet to catch on with many mainstream Americans.

In the lobby of the Chicago Hilton hotel, as leather-and-lace-clad Second Lifers made their way to the evening's ball, many people wearing Chicago Bears jerseys, fresh from the Bears game at Soldiers Field Saturday night or the fantasy football conference also at the hotel this weekend, stood and stared at the spectacle.

Most of them said they had never heard of Second Life, and they did not seem particularly eager to join the community.

"Second Life isn't for everybody, right now," says Constable.

Just as the platform is great for the single mother he knows, he says he has discouraged a wealthy and gregarious friend from using it because, he told him, "You don't need it right now," because his "first world" friends and experiences are enough.

Whether Second Life and other virtual worlds can extend themselves beyond the often-eccentric, always-colorful personalities here this weekend, will determine how much money the army of business-card wielding techies here will profit from it all.

It may not happen during this generation. But for today's youth, going onto a virtual world will be as normal and mainstream as logging onto the Web, speculates Rafi Santo, who works on educational initiatives in Second Life's teen grid where only people ages 13 to 17 are allowed.

"Ten years ago, how many kids did you know that had cell phones? ... Today, how many kids do you know that don't text 1,000 times a day, that don't have MySpace?" he asks.

"It's going to age in. That's how it's going to come to fruition," he says.