Real life–online

SecondLife.com takes Net communities one step beyond

The line between the real world and the virtual one keeps getting harder to draw. Early Internet successes such as BlackPlanet.com (www.blackplanet.com), which launched in 1999, offered users a portal to connect with each other via similarities that people found in the real world, such as taste in music, film, careers, sports, and culture. It still does–BlackPlanet.com’s Website boasts more than 15 million members.

But something different is evolving from the BlackPlanet, YouTube, and MySpace phenomena. Instead of portals, companies are introducing entire worlds to Web users. Take Second Life (www.secondlife.com), the offspring of San Francisco-based Linden Lab: When a user logs on to Second Life, they literally click on for a chance at becoming virtually reborn. Think MySpace meets The Sims. Users are digitally transformed into virtual characters known as avatars. The site offers two different types of accounts–basic and premium–with an annual premium account starting at $6 a month. A Second Lifer can choose how an avatar will look (they can choose skin color, for example), buy property, and design and construct the world as they want to see it within their own respective imaginations. And because Second Life has a unit of currency–the Linden Dollar (at press time 1 USD equals about 186 Lindens), a user also has the opportunity to take real-world ideas and transform them into virtual products that they can sell.

“It may sound kind of strange, but when you create a parallel universe, people really buy into it,” says Lawrence Ross, a director and consumer strategist for the Minnesota-based Iconoculture, a consumer trend research company. “There are a lot of [real] eyeballs there; they will respond to advertising.”

The buzz behind Second Life has inspired Nissan to set up a car dealership inside the digital universe. Volunteers for presidential candidate John Edwards have set up a campaign office. Even the government of Sweden signed on recently to create a virtual embassy.

African Americans are starting to become part of the Second Life population adds Ross: “It’s billed as an escape, but it’s an escape that can be profitable. Start looking for [companies] to create products that fit the African American market.”

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