I'm a homeless guy, but without all the smelly craziness

Second Life, the virtual place-cum-economy, has attracted a lot of attention lately. From winning $11 million in financing from an intriguing group of investors to arguments about the meaning of a second life, the service is a hothouse for social experimentation.

Second Life is a place generated by microprocessors and built by people. The service, a massively multiplayer economic and social system (heck, let's just call it a MMESS), has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks. I've beenSecond Life will be around for a long time, because it is malleable enough to support all sorts of crazy human projects. on the system since the beta period and now keep an avatar that is homeless in the burgeoning economy—$182,666 has changed hands today as of this writing.

Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, recently raised $11 million in venture funding from Globespan Capital Partners, Mitch Kapor, Pierre Omidyar and  Jeff Bezos (the latter three are individuals who have had some small success in their first lives). Bloggers, including Dave Winer, Robert Scoble and Halley Suitt, among others, are debating the viability of the scriptable virtual environment as a development platform and social system. Halley wonders if Second Lifers, who spend dozens of hours a month online, even have first lives. John Battelle's FM Media has launched a Second Life sales office, accepting advertising fees in Linden dollars that can be converted into U.S. dollars.

That the Second Life interface is scriptable and incredibly malleable is very cool. You only have to hang out in there for a few hours to learn how much of the virtual world is literally conjoured out of nothingness by members. It's not quite an OS, as Scoble argues, because the environment is more like a channel on the television—World of Warcraft is another channel—one with some limits that come with being an application. It does, however, threaten to break out into a lot of interesting emanations built on the Second Life scripting language, which has many of the same qualities as JavaScript, in that it relies on the presence of the Linden-made kernel residing on the client device. It's cool. Really, though I'll admit you have to see it to grok it.

So, what I want to ask, since I've been ranting about the failure of the damn-the-economic-imperative-and-pass-the-heavy-water-we're-all-in-this-for-the-fun ethos, is does the Second Life business model have a future?

Linden Labs really did something clever: It built a place that people pay to have exist. And on top of that, it facilitates transactions, taking a cut when someone converts the currency of Second Life into U.S. dollars—there are plans for German and Japanese versions, but you can imagine a day when Linden may have cornered the market on foreign exchange because it is the online place people "go" to conduct business. I think you have to squint your eyes painfully to see that vision, because there will never be one place everyone goes, but you get the point, Second Life is a viable economic venue.

Unlike so much that is Web 2.0, there's nothing aerie faerie about Second Life, except the ideas of individual members, some of whom have waxed rhapsodic about building a better world in there. The place is all about money. My avatar has been told by more than a dozen people that Second Life will be better than the first one, despite the economic imperative to participate in what Linden Labs describes as "An online society within a 3D world where you can explore, build, socialize, and participate in their own economy." We're meat, folks. I appreciate, though, the fact that these people recognize that the virtual connections they make can be founded on different criteria for value.

It is all about value, economic and social, contrary to the arguments of zealots who say the economy is not about money anymore. In Second Life, everyone who is building—and a few non-builders like me—are paying for the place we go to exist. At least $6.00 a month, which I do because I recognize that if I continue with the free account I'll eventually login to find the "place" gone. Would I miss it? Not like my kids would miss World of Warcraft, which is intrinsically purposeful, but it would be regrettable to see all the hard work others have put into the Second Life world vanish. Of course, we're talking about a place that vanishes when the power goes out or a hard drive crashes somewhere in the matrix of hosted systems Linden Labs must use.

To test the meaning of Second Life, I went against the grain. Surprise, surprise. Basically, instead of signing up with a character ready to build stuff or be an online performer (a lot of second lives seem to be involved in the sex trade), I made an avatar, Homeless Hermes, who is homeless. During the beta period, when I had a different avatar, I had a "home," a house I built with my own fingers out at the edge of the world. I even made a little lake.

But, as with a house in the physical world (IRL, for those of you who insist on that affectation that distinguishes between worlds rather than recognizing that all human technology is a way of extending the human world into new realms), the house in Second Life was like an anchor. I had to go there all the time and it always needed work. Some damn fools kept building things on my property and just leaving them there, like it was a junk yard. Goddamn kids these days.

It was just too much hassle and I don't see why I would want my second life to be about the same striving and profit that my first is; that said, I have ideas about how to make real money with Second Life. I quit the service, because it was just another place where the amount of money and stuff you had was the primary social cue people used to judge others.

When I rejoined Second Life last summer, because I remained deeply intrigued with the place, I created Homeless Hermes, who would go and sit in people's houses and on their land, just waiting. And when someone would show up, creeping around me like they would a stranger they found in their physical yards—you could see them not wanting to be rude, but being all the same kinds of possessive you see in people everywhere, all the time—I'd give them some Linden money. It made people nervous.

Now, Homeless Hermes sits on a hilltop or beside something, a lake or a public courtyard. People come by, see the user name and tell me how sorry they are that I don't have a home. Why? It's an interesting question from the sociological perspective. It's as though there's something wrong about not having a virtual manor or sex shop or furniture store.  It's very middle class, very staid in the way economic stigma is attached to a failure to get to work. The mature sections of Second Life are a veritable orgy, the pinnacle of youthful middle-class fantasy.

One of these days, I'm going to modify my avatar by creating some really shabby clothes (you can't script a bad smell, though I could, I suppose animate stink lines like those that surrounded Pigpen in Peanuts), maybe even by animating him to gesticulate wildly and curse a lot at invisible authority figures, but for now I just sit and talk to people when they come by.  Then I give them feedback on their avatar, which costs me money. No one has ever left feedback on Homeless Hermes, because, I surmise, just like the physical world, homelessness makes people uneasy, perhaps because my avatar is a reminder that their virtual homes might not be there someday.

Which is why, I think, that Second Life will persist. The membership is investing heavily in the place, building a kind of infinite clubhouse that all the kids in the neighborhood want to preserve. That so many transactions take place only adds to the profit potential. Pierre Omidyar's investment is a clear sign that he sees another opportunity to extract a small share of many transactions from making a venue for interaction. Second Life will be around for a long time, because it is malleable enough to support all sorts of crazy human projects.