I have no idea how I ended up loitering on the rooftop of a burger stand called Hot Beef Injection. But that’s where I find myself on a Tuesday afternoon with a skater girl named Tripper Tapioca. Behind me, a giant waffle spins slowly on a fixed axis — landmark signage for the local diner. Across the street sits a fenced-in skate park of wooden ramps and elevated beam-like railings that’s adjacent to Stizzy’s Skateshop, an urban-style boutique selling boards, T-shirts, and customized BMX bikes. This is Zephyr Heights (links in red indicate a location in Second Life) , a 65,536-square-meter island where motorcycles rev like cyberpunk coyotes, the movie theater has a fully stocked candy counter but an empty marquee, and the locals try to attract a specific genus of tourist with the slogan: “Zephyr Heights — We aim to remove the stick from your ass.”
RAVE NEW WORLD: The view from Zephyr Heights
Tapioca co-owns all of this. In fact, the pale-skinned skate-punk in laced-up boots, knee-length pants, and dark sunglasses helped develop this barren land mass into a “grungy suburban” milieu in just six months: the motorcycles, the waffle house, even Stizzy’s, a street-style store hawking her personal skateboard brand. Actually, this self-described “generally quiet” girl is one of the best-known skate-park designers and board vendors in the world.
In this world, that is.
This is Second Life (SL), a three-dimensional virtual environment created by Linden Lab, a seven-year-old San Francisco–based company. In this pixelated alternate world — a mainland surrounded by islands that spans more than 42,000 acres in real-world scale, bigger than metropolitan Boston — account holders aren’t users, they’re “residents.” In this world, you can fly. You can “teleport.” You can’t drown. You do not age. You can have an awkward version of cyber-sex. You can tailor your “avatar,” an endlessly customizable 3-D representation of your Second Life self, in any imaginable shape. You can be an emerald dragon, a horned devil baby, a furry fox, or a lumbering gingerbread man. But most avatars you’ll encounter are idealized human shapes. And in this world, real people spend real money (yes, actual US dollars) on make-believe skate boards, T-shirts, and islands like Zephyr Heights, which cost $1250 US Dollars to purchase from Linden Lab with a USD $195 monthly maintenance fee — possessions that can’t be ridden, worn, or visited outside a computer screen.
Beyond this world, in real life — a/k/a what Second Lifers refer to as “meatspace,” where your body is made of flesh, not bytes — Tapioca says she’s Diane Falco, an 18-year-old living in New Jersey. She spends most days as her Vans-wearing, faux-hawk-preening, alter-ego avatar, hanging out and building things in her home base of Zephyr Heights. Falco, who’s out of high school, sells boards for $300 Linden Dollars a piece. She says they earn her between $50,000 and $70,000 weekly in the fluctuating fictional currency, which as of last Tuesday was trading at approximately $308 Lindens (L) to every US dollar. On average, that grosses Falco a real-world income of between USD $162 and USD $227 every seven days, the equivalent of a part-time job. And since she still lives at home with her parents, Second Life functions as Falco’s office.
Founded by Philip Rosedale, former vice-president and CTO of RealNetworks, Second Life was intended to replicate a “metaverse,” as described in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash. It is often likened to the six-million-plus member Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) World of Warcraft (a fantasy role-playing challenge involving elves, orcs, and monster-slaying). The main similarity between the two 3-D realms is that the animated figures featured in both aren’t preprogrammed; they’re powered by people logged on to the same network. Beyond that, Second Life is markedly different from its metaverse counterparts. Like the virtual-life game The Sims, there are no stated objectives. Attacking other people, rather than advancing you, can get you evicted. And the environment (dance clubs, casinos, sex dens, mansions, castles, restaurants, modern homes, conference centers) is constructed entirely by its 300,000-plus residents, a number that’s tripled just since January.
Real-world institutions have recently recognized Second Life’s potential. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos is a Linden Lab investor. Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has an island similar to Falco’s, and holds conferences in Second Life. This past winter, MTV staged an avatar fashion show that was rebroadcast on its broadband network MTV Overdrive. And in May, BBC Radio 1 simulcasted a weekend music festival of acts like Gnarls Barkley, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand, from real-world Scotland to SL; that same month, Twentieth Century Fox organized an “in-world” red-carpet premiere of X-Men 3: The Last Stand for avatars. And Major League Baseball has an ESPN-simulcast in the works, co-sponsored by Budweiser.