At the beginning of this year I blogged about the amazing work that Adam Pasick was doing with Reuters in Second Life, the virtual 3D world.

Now, here in Dublin at the IFRA conference, we were presented with another fascinating story of media doing business in SecondLife. Rowan Barnett, Editor-in-Chief of Avastar, a virtual newspaper in SecondLife, is one of the people behind this successful virtual newspaper which aims to “give the residents of Second Life a voice”.

If you think about it, virtual worlds like SecondLife are becoming graphic alternatives to the world wide web and here may lie the basis for the future of a “second web”. It boggles the mind. People are using SecondLife because they can re-invent themselves, have fun, build new relationships but also make business. It’s a completely user generated world — almost everything from the hair on your avatar’s head to the scenery and environment of SecondLife is generated by the game’s inhabitants.

Don’t be too concerned with the fact that the graphics are pretty average and the system slow. In the near future where processors and graphic cards are super powerful and the internet lightening fast, the power of virtual worlds like SecondLife will really come to the fore.

SecondLife’s newspaper
The Avatar, a product of Germany’s Bild.de, is a free sheet wholly focused on producing news about SecondLife for its residents. Barnett claims that around 100,000 copies of Avatar are now distributed daily via vendors throughout the game. The daily paper has about 36 pages of news, entertainment and fashion content just like any real-world publication. There’s somewhat of an irony about having a “print” newspaper in a virtual digital world.

Barnett has his own virtual office and the Avatar’s editorial staff, based in Germany and elsewhere in the world, meet in their virtual conference room on the publication’s SecondLife island to discuss the day’s stories and put the publication together. The Avastar also pays some of their staff partially in Linden dollars to allow them to spend in the game.

But although Avastar is a virtual newspaper, it’s covering real events. Events that occur in a virtual world are still real events even if they are only concerned about issues in Second Life. Sometimes these spill over to issue in the real world. An example of this is when the newspaper covered a street protest against the Iraq invasion by some of the game’s virtual inhabitants… visualise SecondLife avatars walking the streets with placards. A virtual protest, about a real issue.

Barnett reminded us that SecondLife is only at the beginning, but could even eventually be bigger than the world wide web itself in the future. The virtual world has around 10,5-million registered users, although only 560,000 are active.

It’s not just playplay. SecondLife has its own economy based on its own currency, the Linden dollar. SecondLife generates a daily turnover, says Barnett, of around US$1,300,000 daily. Media companies that have presences in SecondLife include CNN, Sky News, UK’s Channel 4 Radio and Reuters. More than 5,000 employees at IBM are all represented by avatars in the game. Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, BMW all have presences and have all launched cars in the game at some stage. Celebrities such as 50cent, Bruce Willis have all made appearances in Second Life and had some interaction with it.

The Avatar has attracted advertising from companies like Vodafone and Sony Ericsson, but they are not yet making substantial revenue. But this is an experiment, says Barnett, it’s not about making money at this stage.

SecondLife will probably be only be one of many virtual worlds that will be part of our future. According to Gartner, 80% of internet users will have a Secondlife… but not necessarily in Second Life. Perhaps a weakness of investing too heavily in building up a business in SecondLife is that the whole platform is privately owned and could be changed or removed at the whim of the creators.

Says Barnett: “These virtual worlds are going to explode, and are moving more towards a world of realism. It’s not a craze or a bubble, but a test laboratory for the future of the internet and a decisive step for the Metaverse.”

I guess another exciting development will be when virtual worlds like SecondLife are fully searchable and integrated into search engines like Google. Your search results will be interspersed with stuff from the World Wide Web and stuff from virtual worlds? Maybe that’s when virtual worlds like Second Life will start appealing to a more mainstream audience?

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