CHICAGO, Aug. 26, 2007 -- Two men dressed in furry rabbit costumes danced the nightaway. A scantily underclad female vampire gleefully played dominatrixto a male vampire who obediently sat on the floor and mischievouslysnarled at her. A man wearing retractable wings showed off his stuff,while another in a see-through top went around spanking people with awooden paddle.
"It's just like being online at a party," said Marsha Ellstrom as sheobserved the scene Saturday night at the Second Life CommunityConvention's "Leather and Lace" Masquerade Ball here in Chicago.
Ellstrom, who sells jewelry in Second Life -- an online virtual world -- under thename Mhaijik Guillaume, was talking about the range of characters andbehaviors on display. But the party was business as usual for thegrowing virtual world company in more ways than one.
You see, the ball here last night -- just like Second Life, and justlike this conference, which runs through the weekend -- was partpleasure, but also part business. No excess was spared, but neitherwas any marketing opportunity.
The ball, for example, had an official sponsor -- Eros, the adultcompany that sells sex products on Second Life. When entering, guestsreceived a free Jenna Jameson porn DVD -- compliments of Jenna herself,the ball's organizer said. And once inside, they had the opportunity topurchase jewelry or learn about the numerous companies whose businesscards and company displays littered the sides of the dance hall.
Though business and pleasure coexist, it became clear that Second Lifemeans different things to people depending on whether they liveprimarily in the business or social side of things. Both groups wantedto communicate, but the goal of that communication differed sharply.
For those looking to network business connections and spreadtheir business cards, Second Life is about connecting people withconsumer products, whether real or virtual, and about creatingcommunities of consumers that can stir hype for a product.
But for those who seek the social experience -- the captive audiencefor the businessmen and businesswomen here -- talked of their second life as away to expand on their real-world hobbies or, more likely, a way tolead an alternate life, to be and do what they cannot or will not inthe real world.
"Imagine a world where you look like you want to, and your clothesalways fit," said Bob Ryals, a.k.a. Xerses Goff, as he wore a blackand gold-trimmed pirate costume last night. "It lets you expresssomething that you may not feel comfortable with, another side ofyou."
And so there are musicians like Kourosh Dini, known as Kourosh Eusebioin Second Life, who have full time jobs during the day (Dini is adoctor), and who see their second life as an extension of their first, anopportunity to connect their leisure activity with a larger audience.
And then there are those who use the platform to do what they willnot, or cannot, in the real world -- Like the woman who uses Second Lifeto have sex with her husband, except in their fantasy world he, too, isa woman.
To be sure, all is not well for Second Life. People here liked to citethat there are more than nine million registered users, but critics point outthat this number is inflated, and that only 450,000 people logged onin the month of July.
And it is unclear how virtual worlds like Second Life can truly be asprofitable as the tech-savvy businessmen here are betting they willbe. Only 145 people earned more than $5,000 on Second Life in themonth of July. (Such business questions will be explored in anotherarticle 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 LindenLabs, the company that owns the platform. Linden Labs was a principalfinancial sponsor.
For people who lack the social skills, good looks, and life of luxurythey crave, Second Life is a way to satisfy their urges. And ofcourse, if their urges are more illicit and best kept private, virtualworlds provide that outlet, too.
And so whether Second Life itself survives is perhaps beside thepoint. There is a small but growing demand for an alternate onlineworld to which people can escape, and many other similar alternateuniverses exist or will crop up to fill that demand.
Shoshana Epsilon is a software department manager by day but a SecondLife portrait artist by night, spending she says, with a guiltygiggle, 20 hours a week on the virtual world. "The kids get veryhungry sometimes," Epsilon, who declined to give her real name, saysof her 7 and 10-year old boys.
She admits to being "a terrible photographer in real life," but shedoes 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 herreal home, and then enters her second, virtual home, and sits amidstthe foliage that grows on her property and the birds that chirp aroundher.
"Sometimes, when I just need a quiet time away from the realworld, I go there," she says.
Giff Constable knows such a desire for some real connection andrelaxation well. He is trying to profit off of it as a softwaremanager for the Electric Sheep Company, which helps real-worldcompanies establish a presence in Second Life.
"Part of this is about people wanting to make connections that aren'tnecessarily 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 otherpeople, something she has trouble doing in the real world, whereproblems and insecurities become more exposed in real interpersonalinteractions.
"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-cladSecond Lifers made their way to the evening's ball, many peoplewearing Chicago Bears jerseys, fresh from the Bears game at SoldiersField Saturday night or the fantasy football conference also at the hotelthis weekend, stood and stared at the spectacle.
Most of them said they had never heard of Second Life, and they didnot 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 hasdiscouraged a wealthy and gregarious friend from using it because, hetold him, "You don't need it right now," because his "first world" friends andexperiences are enough.
Whether Second Life and other virtual worlds can extend themselvesbeyond the often-eccentric, always-colorful personalities here thisweekend, will determine how much money the army of business-cardwielding techies here will profit from it all.
It may not happen during this generation. But for today's youth, goingonto a virtual world will be as normal and mainstream as logging ontothe Web, speculates Rafi Santo, who works on educational initiativesin Second Life's teen grid where only people ages 13 to 17 areallowed.
"Ten years ago, how many kids did you know that had cellphones? ... Today, how many kids do you know that don't text 1,000 timesa 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.