Just over 25 years ago author William Gibson, in his cyberpunk-pioneering novel Neuromancer, described an online virtual world that was populated with “console cowboys.” Over the decade that followed other similar tales of virtual reality built on the theme of rogue hackers, who would meet up to pull nefarious deeds against massive corporate entities.
Flash forward to the modern day and the virtual communities that were once only fiction have long since arrived, but rather than becoming meeting grounds for hackers, cowboys and digital gangsters, these have become worlds of wonder for gaming and social interaction.
Among the most popular digital world is Linden Labs’ Second Life, and while the site attracts plenty of savvy computer users, don’t expect to find a cyberpunk sprawl populated by hackers roaming the virtual streets. Instead you’re more likely to find a colorful land, where users spend real world money to buy virtual world property.
This Internet-based virtual world launched in 2003 and it can be best described as a 3D environment in which users can move about via an avatar – a digital representation of themselves. Within the world of Second Life (sometimes called the “Metaverse” after the virtual world from the novel Snowcrash) residents (in-game populace) can explore, meet, social and even create and trade items – all virtual of course. With more than 13 million registered accounts, Second Life has a population rivaling a small country. And instead of plotting capers or heists the world’s tech-savvy residents are using it for career advancement, including networking and even job interviews.
Of course a few misconceptions about online communities need to be cleared up. First and most importantly, Second Life isn’t really a game. On the surface it could be seen as very similar to true online role-playing games such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft, but appearances aside Second Life lacks the structure of those games. It has no points, no quests, and no monsters to battle.
Instead Second Life opens new possibilities for real-time communication between multiple parties. And unlike traditional phone calls or even Web chat, there is the added benefit of incorporating a visual element that can be viewed by all parties at the same time. The downside is that chat and instant messaging isn’t entirely secure, as all communication goes through Linden Lab servers; however, the possibilities for communication are there.
Additionally, in-world communities and events such as the recent Dr. Dobb’s Life20.net event are good places for users to meet one another.
Recently I wrote a piece for IT World on how Second Life could be used by IT professionals to advance their careers. Virtual worlds, including Second Life, have the promise of career advancement, where users can meet with like-minded individuals and even use in-world tools for recruiting and job interviews.
In fact, in recent years this virtual community has attracted real world businesses including Cisco Systems who has used Second Life as a recruiting tool. The company is heavily involved in the virtual world and is part of the Second Life Corporate Business Council, a group of 30-40 companies using Second Life for business purposes.