The first to inhabit any new frontier are the pioneers, the early adopters. But it never takes long for the commercial interests to follow suit, seeing opportunity in the form of a space uncluttered by competitors. All businesses instinctively desire to be at the top of the capitalist food chain, to be the biggest power on the high street. The web itself has become the latest incarnation of the strip mall; in the last decade every business with the wherewithal and impetus to do so has established a web presence for itself.
But the web itself, as we keep being told, is a platform for content, no longer the content itself. Furthermore, there are whole new worlds opening up in virtual space; some are localised (games played on a single machine, for example), but others are technically ubiquitous, open to anyone from any machine, and defined by their ability to host thousands of players at once – the MMPORPGs like World of Warcraft, for example. I mentioned a little while ago that the advertising people are already looking at ways to populate and hence monetise these environments.
But a breed apart from the RPGs is Second Life. As its name implies, SL is a complete world where gameplay, although common, is only part of the appeal. SL users have an avatar that they can design and alter themselves. When logged in, they can wander around the world, meeting other SL users in a variety of environments. But it’s more than a glorified chatroom; all the environments, the buildings, the events, the architecture, everything, is created from scratch by the users themselves. One user, an ex-games developer, has actually constructed a working ecosystem on her virtual island.
Obviously some have more experience and skill at these tasks than others, and this has led to a genuine economy starting to take form, based around the world’s currency, Linden Dollars, which are already convertable into ‘real world’ cash, and vice versa. There are people who make enough Lindens in SL, by creating in-world content and selling it to others, that they are able to quit their jobs in meatspace and make a living entirely in the virtual world. There have even been lawsuits over dodgy land deals.
All this money sloshing around was bound to be noticed by the retail giants sooner or later. First past the post would seem to be clothing retailer American Apparel, who have opened up a virtual store in Second Life. (Link blagged from Steve Rubel) A.A. already have a chain of stores across the globe, but now they have a foothold on a virtual planet, too. It will surely be very little time before others follow suit. How successful they are remains to be seen; it is my guess that SL users, especially the pioneers, who will resent these new arrivals. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the same tricks of the trade will work in virtual worlds. New business models, modes of advertising and so on will have to be developed, probably through trial and error.
Furthermore, I think this will create a development and complexification of the SL economy. For instance, when a company decide to set up store in SL, they will have to construct their buildings, avatars for their staff, their products, and so on. Unless they have an SL boffin on staff already, they’re going to have to outsource the work. A whole slew of construction companies will start to take form in SL – and if the virtual mirrors the real as one would imagine it will (certainly at first), there will be top-grade architects and cowboy construction firms, plus everything in between.
Once the store is built, it’ll need to be staffed, just like a real store. A real store left open but unattended would be burgled and vandalised, and the same would be true in SL. It might be possible to write ‘scripted’ avatars to perform this function, but their limited intelligence would become an open invitation to thieves and scammers, and the more anarchic kind of coder who sees anything that someone else has written as a challenge to overcome. Bottom line, the stores will need real staff; avatars being controlled in realtime by someone in meatspace.
So all of a sudden, it’ll be possible to telecommute to a retail sales job, or to be a builder without any tools or hardware except your computer and your brain. But also to be a shoplifter from the comfort of your swivelchair, or an anti-capitalist demonstator without facing real police batons (though virtual ones are sure to come along quite quickly). In a very short time indeed, SL might flesh out into a fairly accurate reflection of the real world, from a sociological, political and economic point of view at least.
If you had suggested that ten years ago, people would have scoffed at you and told you to join a science fiction writing workshop. But to suggest it now seems almost mundane, a given. The real world is changing, but it is also beginning to clone itself, to replicate different possible iterations of itself. There will be more versions of the Second Life meme, we can be sure of that, and each will have a different set of basic rules, some more restricted, some more anarchic. There will be virtual politics, virtual love, virtual art. There may even be virtual wars, within the worlds and between them. Because where ever we go as humans, real or virtual, we inevitably take our humanity with us, the good and the bad, inseperable.