The difference between Real Life and Second Life is that you can have your fantasy lifestyle for less cash up front. The fact that you can't touch anything seems to be trumped by the fact that you can own it - which is evidently what matters most.
So this is idealised Platonic capitalism. Everything exists as a stylised version of itself, including the people, and the nominal $Linden Dollar, which is the local currency. According to Linden Labs, which is Second Life's governing corporation, Linden Dollars are valueless. This is odd because Linden Labs is happy to allow a currency exchange, where you can both buy and sell Linden Dollars for real dollars. At a rate of roughly L$250 to US$1 it has an uncanny near-parity with the Japanese Yen, and is far more valuable than Indian and Indonesian currency.
But without food to buy and other essentials to pay for, there's nothing to spend Lindens on, except virtual untouchable luxury. So the banality rules the content to an excruciating degree, because there's really very little to do in Second Life except make money, look beautiful and cultivate a lifestyle.
Most residents dress as if they're starring in Ken and Barbie Go Clubbing. Wings and sparkles are popular. Male avatars often opt for urban beefcake bling, or gird their bulging loins with DestructoBot fantasy armour. Female avatars are a long-legged fashion show of sex `n shopping stylings. Occasionally there's a nod to RenFaire pseudo-witchery or scifi and fantasy fandom. In the self-styled areas of the damned, you'll find vampire wannabes and sword mistresses parading around biting and slashing at each other, or at the occasional graduate of the in-game school for aspiring Jedi.
But there's a creepy sense of regurgitated Hollywood about all of these efforts. This is Libertarian California on Silicon, and it's not a surprise that one of the things you can buy is live virtual sex from a live virtual escort service. Even stranger is the extent to which residents seem to have internalised the real life suburban shopping experience. Shopping is open 24/7, and is mostly impersonal, so you don't have to talk to anyone while you do it, and no one has to talk to you. But go into any virtual mall, and the visual language will seem instantly familiar. Virtual companies have virtual logos with virtual graphic design of frighteningly lifelike pseudo-familiarity.
In a sense, we've been here before. Second Life is oddly reminiscent of AOL circa 1997 - a supposedly family-friendly walled garden that was popular with perverts and no-hopers, while outside of the not-so-sanitised chatrooms the web was fermenting its way towards the most original collaborative effort in history.
The parallels are hard to miss. When AOL started it had a captive audience tied to a simplistic but functional and - for a while - a surprisingly effective social networking environment. Even though the death spasms of AOL's first few incarnations took a good long while, it was eventually wiped off the face of the Earth by an open protocol called HTML.
Readers of a certain age will remember that before the web was asphalted over to make way for shopping carts and PayPal, it was born in an explosive riot of quirkiness. During the web's earliest years, business wasn't quite sure what to make of tens of thousands of people putting up pages about whatever the hell interested them, just because they could.
That was then. Now everyone realise that Second Life is not the web, because the features that made the web so interesting - open access, reliability, transparency, low cost of entry, and ease of use - are missing. And other features - specifically a generation's worth of consumer capitalist Pavlovian conditioning - have become more obvious.
This has created some revealing distortions. For example - Ginko, which is a virtual bank. In time-honoured Ponzi fashion, Ginko promised to pay returns of more than 40% a year. (Yes - that's 40%.) Many, many residents paid money into Ginko. As of early August, Ginko was refusing to honour instant withdrawals and had set up a withdrawal queue. Bizarrely, new deposits continue to be made, even though Ginko's owner - known in-game as Nicholas Portocarrero - made it clear in a recent interview that the money may never be returned.
Pixeleen Mistral: when will you publish an accounting of your "investments"?
Nicholas Portocarrero: Never
Pixeleen Mistral: i see
Pixeleen Mistral: because you can't? or because it would tend to implicate you?
Nicholas Portocarrero: Because it was never part of the deal
Pixeleen Mistral: so the deal was people give you money and you might give some back, maybe?
Nicholas Portocarrero: The deal was, you loan me some money. I'll pay you interest and do my best to pay you back. I cannot pay 25% of everything back all at once. So the loan might need to be restructured, so that it is no longer in the form of an account balance. Accountholders are not shareholders and no disclosure agreement was agreed to.
Pixeleen Mistral: why did you make promises that you were very unlikely to keep? this whole thing looks like a long running scam
Nicholas Portocarrero: I understand
So far, so Wall Street Credit Crunch. But just like the real thing, what's interesting is the extent to which it succeeded in making its two owners rich. In Linden terms, total deposits were around L$200 million - worth an impressive $800,000 in real money. As a virtual bank Ginko was unregulated, and although there are rumours of class-action suits, and the certainty that Ponzi schemes are illegal, it's going to be interesting to see if Second Life scamming can translate to real world criminal convictions.
Ginko is symptomatic of Second Life's fundamental flaw, which is that Linden Labs notoriously doesn't care what happens to residents. Linden has taken no position on Ginko, and doesn't seem interested in anything that happens in-game as long as it keeps collecting its virtual feudal tithes from virtual land rentals, uploads, and currency exchange.
Another example - after a high-profile FBI visit, a recent Linden Edict banned virtual gambling. It did this overnight, killing hundreds of high-turnover virtual businesses instantly. The ethics of gambling may be debatable, but destroying a significant sector of the local economy without warning isn't an effective way to make your customers loyal to you.
So the tragedy of Linden Labs is that the same capitalist spirit that sucks the humanity out of the Second Life experience by trying to reduce most interactions to $Linden whoring and shopping is also responsible for Linden's lamentable reputation.
Second Life could be fun, and it could be creative. There's some good art to be found, some decent live music that can be piped in via a useful streaming media feature, and one or two locations have beaten the gravitational pull of mall-sprawl to become geuninely interesting.
But with a Second Life island costing $1800, plus a monthly rental of $250, both paid for with real money, it's just too damn expensive for most people to put much into it. Linden's rapacious love of lucre and its inability to work and play smoothly with its residents is rooted in its inability to let go of land, money, transaction fees, and server software. The guiding ethic isn't fun or art, it's naked virtual predatory capitalism, desperately trying to sell you a bridge before it collapses. Like other monopolies, Linden Labs thinks and acts like a feudal barony with a PR office.
And so the half life of Second Life is already well advanced. The novelty value of the space is disappearing, and so is user interest. There may be eight million people signed up, but at most probably only a hundred thousand or so are regular paying customers.
A handful of businesses are doing very well, but most aren't. A handful of real life marketers have made an impact, but most haven't, and the marketing community has been reduced to impressive maybe-what-if justifications for continuing to push Second Life as a valid promotional tool.
Ironically, it's the disconnect between real and virtual money that creates problems. Second Life could be a good forum for virtual stores selling real objects, or for real stores selling cheap virtual land. If everyone and anyone could link in their own servers and add their own worlds, it would be a much more interesting space.
But in it its current state, introducing reality into Second Life, in the form of real money and tangible goods, creates instant cognitive dissonance. There's something very sleek and stylised about this alienation from the real world, as it tries to loft money making into a perfectly abstract disconnected activity. But just as in real life, the promise of Ultimate Success is based on mythology, not reality.
Second Life will financially disenfranchise most of its users as reliably as any other market will. The cost vs the benefits of Second Life are skewed firmly towards making a profit for Linden Labs. Compared to the web, where the cost of entry is very much lower and the potential benefits very much higher, Second Life has little to offer someone looking for a steady income.
What it offers instead is a kind of virtual doll's house. You can put up a house, fill it with furniture, and act out fantasies with heavily accessorised bendy pseudo-people. You can run a store and sell play things for play money. You can dress up in your sexy virtual Ken, virtual Barbie, and virtual cartoon character outfits and go out for the night on the virtual town, where the drinks won't hurt you and strangers are always not quite there.
Although Linden Labs seem fond of references to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, the most revealing comparison is to an older novel by Philip K. Dick. Like all feudal business models, the Linden approach is based on farming its customers instead of serving them.
In Linden World, it's the customers who are the electric sheep, trained to accumulate, shop and spend on cue like performing animals.
It's lucky it's so distant from Real Life, or we'd all be in trouble.