Most avatars in Second Life are either GQ and Vogue-inspired beauties or sci-fi inspired fantasy characters. In either case, it's safe to say they bear very little resemblance to the SL members tapping away at their keyboards.
But I guess that's the point of having a Second Life.
I have terrible fashion sense and haven't read a sci-fi book since grade school. So when it came time to design my avatar and visit Second Life, my only real option was to go another direction. Let's just say I dressed down:
My avatar's name is Reality Maximus. Which resulted in the unintentionally hilarious bonus of forcing anyone who wanted to speak to me to utter words rarely heard in the fantasy world of Second Life: "Hello, Reality!"
As it turns out, aside from the impossible perfection of most avatars, much of the rest of Second Life is disappointingly similar to real life. In order to earn Linden Dollars (the in-world currency used to buy better clothes, helicopters, and essentials like a better skin tone), avatars must perform virtual labour.
You can mop floors in a shopping mall:
Do hard time crushing stones:
Or even participate in a fashion show:
You may wonder why someone would pay me anything, even "pretend" dollars, to participate in a fashion show. Here's how a large portion of the Second Life economy works:
- Much like the rest of the online world, the prosperity of SL merchants and land-owners is tied to the number of visitors they can attract.
- By paying members Linden Dollars to hang around and in many cases do literally nothing, the sponsor's area of SL "appears" to be a popular destination to members viewing the traffic map used to navigate the SL world.
- Bigger crowds attract more visitors and ultimately more revenue for the sponsor.
- The opportunity to "earn" Linden Dollars and buy new stuff whets the user's appetite for consuming more and more virtual bling.
- Eventually, the user might commit real world dollars to buy more Linden Dollars to pimp their avatar with the really good stuff and everybody wins(?).
- In other words, it functions much like the real-world economy.
As a result, and especially to a newbie like myself, exploring Second Life can become nothing but one big lunchbag letdown after another. You consult the navigation map, find a "popular" spot where you think something cool must be happening, only to find a bunch of zombies accumulating Linden dollars while their owners are away from the keyboard packing lunch for the kids.
Sponsors seem to have made the assumption that having beautiful avatars lounging about will create a positive impression of their "brand." And in a world where almost everyone is beautiful and exotic, that's not necessarily a bad bet. But it's an easy system to subvert. One popular club offered spots to earn Linden Dollars right outside the club entrance, thinking that sexy dancers at the doorway might encourage visitors to venture into the club. Until Reality creeps in.
Let's just say the club was a little slower than usual that night.
Relying on the big brand names to deliver a worthwhile experience doesn't seem to help. American Apparel went so far as to render a virtual chain and padlock to announce the closing of its venture into SL. Another retailer took a simpler approach and conjured up a large paper bag to hide their online folly.
But it's not all disappointment and loneliness in Second Life. There are places with an active social scene and the anonymity of the avatars encourages people to chat freely.
Here's Reality Maximus at the dance club:
And hanging out at the beach:
But the really interesting parts of SL seem to be the out of the way spots frequented by regulars, who use the world as a virtual StarBucks to get caught up on each others' lives. One group of line dancing enthusiasts was particularly welcoming:
As I traveled through Second Life, the question I got asked most often was "why did you make your avatar look like that?" The assumption seemed to be that if you could choose your physical appearance (as you can in SL), you would never choose to be anything but perfect and beautiful. It's your Second Life, after all.
At first, I tried to explain that I had been working on my avatar for quite a while and spent a lot of time in front of the mirror trying to get it just right. That didn't seem to satisfy anyone, and the conversation usually turned into this weird parallel universe where people assumed I must be good looking in real life if I chose to make my avatar so dumpy in SL. All of which begs the question: what should people who are actually good looking in real life do with their avatars in Second Life?
In the end, I had no real answer, other than to ask in response "why did you make your avatar look like that?"
The really interesting part for me was that I found I attracted a lot of attention everywhere I went. In a world of boring perfection, I stood out as something different. And maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere for marketers who want to jump on the SL bandwagon… maybe "different" is more interesting than "better"… maybe a different online experience with your brand is better than creating a perfect replica of your real-world brand… minus the black socks and sandals, of course.
Flush with my new-found expertise on all things Second Life, I decided to give a little something back to the community. When you first join Second Life, having fine-tuned the beauty of your avatar and taken a bit of a newbie training course, the first place everyone "lands" is Orientation Island. There are usually a few SL veteran here to kindly answer any questions you may have. And so that's where I figured my talents were best put to use.
In hindsight, if you've just spent a good couple of hours downloading software, setting up your account and creating your perfect fantasy body, maybe being greeted by a chain-smoking guy in shorts shorts and a wet t-shirt wouldn't quite live up to your hopes and dreams for a Second Life.
But that's Reality.
Note: We’ve re-published article as part of a series of the most popular pieces from our former blog (BrandCanadaBlog). We can’t promise all the links will work, and some of the references may be a bit dated, but we think the examples and insights are still valid.
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