Last week I attended an information evening at Cisco’s new technology centre in Rolle, Vaud in Switzerland and, not for the first time, I heard that I should give Second Life a try. This time I was moved to action, partly because I’m intrigued but mostly because I still don’t have an answer to a basic question: What can I do in Second Life, a busy virtual world, that I can’t do in my real world – what could possibly make it worth the time and trouble?

The name gives rise to a joke that is wearing thin, about people who love Second Life needing to get a real life. Behind that lies true puzzlement on the part of all the over-worked, worn-out, stressed people I meet every day. Why would you want to spend time doing this?

The only way to find out is to try it. Here goes.

  1. I go to Second Life’s web site, a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass door, for you older folks. Reading the fine print, it is free (wow, hadn’t occurred to me they might charge!), there are 31,000 other people online at the moment and over $1 million was spent in the last 24 hours, which on a per capita basis counting those online corresponds pretty much to what I spent in the grocery store last night. So far, so good.
  2. I register. My first surprise is that they suggest I join a community right away. Forget about desert islands. I’m expected to be sociable.
  3. I have to select a name, with my second name selected from a list. My first worry is that I won’t remember it. After all, I learned my first, or rather real, last name when I was tiny and my brain was still spongelike. I opt for Alter on the basis that I’ve always wanted to see what it feels like to be at the beginning of the alphabet. First name: I’m now Aaba, figuring that I might want to be a famous novelist and stores always stock books alphabetically, with the Wallaces at the back of the shop. This is why I haven’t written a bestseller yet.
  4. Ha! They ask for a real birthdate. This virtual world has a thin veneer of reality.
  5. Hmm, now they want my real name, country, etc, and I find the urge to fantasy almost too great – I’m tempted to say I’m Jordan Hodler from Bulgaria for some reason. I resist the temptation. And now they want me to upgrade and pay some real money, which lets me buy land and start a business right away. Would you do that in a new country? I wouldn’t. I select “skip it.”
  6. I’m signed in, downloaded the necessary software and –

– it feels like getting off the boat in a foreign country. I remember arriving in Paris, France for the first time, on the train, and seeing houses and factories whizz by and even their doors looked foreign. Same reaction.

But I quickly discovered that there are some unpleasant similarities to real life. I ran into a download and update problem and ended up with an error message twice. My phone rang, messages popped up on the screen, I typed in the wrong password and, exasperated, thought “later.”

I could imagine trying to find a nice glass of wine in a cool corner with a view of waves. I might try that. I might contact these people for help, but they want real dollars and I think I should get to sniff a Linden bill and hold it up to the light first.

Then again, I’m not yet convinced.

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