News is slow in August.
My congregation was thrilled, and for whatever reason, church was packed this morning.
Here's the text. Considering the fact that I very foolishly let my "reporter-gard" down completely, I thought it came out pretty well.
People Do Business, Shop With Virtual Dollars, Even Worship in Internet-Based World
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Assistant Business Editor
Members of a local Unitarian Universalist church know their senior minister as Christine Robinson. In her second life, she is Cathryn Cleanslate.
Albuquerque marketer Reid Givens calls his digital persona Reid Delaid.
And local software designer Lynne Whitehorn-Umphres assumes the name CoyoteAngel Dimsum in her virtual existence.
Each has taken up residency in an Internet-based realm called Second Life— a world of three-dimensional graphic design that imitates real life and has attracted 9 million users worldwide.
SecondLife.com, created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in 2003, offers a virtual society designed completely by its resident members. Members appear on-screen as animated representations of themselves, called avatars. They work, shop, play, dance— do practically anything they
can, or can't, do in this life. They even marry other avatars.
"It's fascinating how like real life it is," says Robinson, who has presided over a virtual wedding.
Second Life has also become a venue for business, networking and education. Even the University of New Mexico has property there, intending to expand its distance-learning capabilities.
International corporations like IBM, as well as small entrepreneurs, use the site to market their products and sell their wares— both virtual and real.
In one 24-hour period at the end of last week, Second Life residents had spent a little more than $1 million (yes, that's real money) on virtual purchases or activities.
The site has made national headlines recently due to its popularity. Last week, a Wall Street Journal story titled "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" wrote about concerns that users were neglecting their First Life to spend time with their Second Life.
That doesn't appear to be the case with Robinson, Whitehorse-Umphres and Givens— all appear to use it to enhance their real life.
Business opportunities are ultimately why Whitehorse-Umphres became a resident. Not only has she begun helping her spouse set up a jewelry store in Second Life, she also intends to begin her own high-tech, money-making venture.
Givens uses it as a continuing education tool— attending virtual meetings with others of similar professions to talk shop.
And Robinson says having a virtual church in Second Life gives her a chance to connect with a broader audience.
"We're basically in the business of helping people discuss their spiritual life," Robinson said of the church, "and this was just another way to do that."
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life is an example of how the site works. It holds regular virtual services and has built a sanctuary on virtual property it purchased.
A three-dimensional visual wonder created by a UU artist, the church offers attending avatars cushioned seating, a flaming chalice, stone pulpit, lush plants and a waterfall flowing over rock walls.
Robinson found the church through a search engine on Second Life once she became a resident in the spring. On sabbatical from the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, she began ministering to the online congregation.
"They had worship services that were as real and as meaningful as anything I've felt in real life," she said.
Personally, Robinson says she has spent money for the virtual collection plate and has bought materials to make a virtual necklace for her avatar.
Be prepared to pay
Second Life has its own economy, based on the Linden currency, and real money gets exchanged. Roughly 275 Lindens ($L), which buy Second Life goods and services, can be bought with one real dollar ($US).
Registering for residency is free— if all you want is to exist and move about. Just create an avatar name and password, and you're in. A 3D graphics card, high-speed processor and broadband connection are helpful, too.
But, as in real life, property costs money, and if your goal is to start a business, own a home, or do anything of permanence, be prepared to pay.
Multinational corporations have gotten involved.
Pontiac and Nissan both have car dealerships in Second Life, and Nissan offers avatars a test-track to try out their driving skills on virtual cars; Coca-Cola recently launched a Hollywood-style premier there; and Microsoft has begun conducting interviews with the avatars of software engineers for real-world jobs, according to a recent segment on National Public Radio.
Avatars buy and sell everything from virtual sneakers at a store created by Nike, to textures for their hair and skin (avatars may have scales or horns, for example, as opposed to just looking human), to planes, and, yes, even sex. All are graphic renderings that can be used or worn or carried by avatars.
Software designer Whitehorn-Umphres is pursuing a job creating computer programs specifically for virtual technology.
She is also helping her spouse, Albuquerque jeweler Dana Whitehorn-Umphres, set up a gallery there.
The shop would allow avatars to try on virtual models of jewelry that exists in this world. An avatar could then purchase the graphically depicted item for wear online or a person might click an accompanying link allowing them to buy the real thing for the big bucks in this world.
Either way, Dana makes money.
"For people who are actual entrepreneurs, it's a brilliant environment to try this out," Lynne said.
Way of the future?
Futurist Lowell Catlett, a dean at New Mexico State University, has been speaking around the state about virtual worlds.
He says technologies like Second Life afford businesses one of the first living labs where social behavior can be watched and studied in real time.
Coldwell Banker earlier this year established an office in the virtual world, built more than 500 homes for sale and even purchased a helicopter to give avatars aerial tours of the subdivision.
Michael Wilsher, qualifying broker for the Rio Rancho offices of Coldwell Banker, has been encouraging his sellers— as recently as August— to create their own avatars and start networking and selling through the virtual land.
"I tell my agents, 'Guys, don't wait til everybody's doing it. Do it now. It's a no-brainer.' ''
"Yes, a lot of it is for fun," he says, "but people are actually buying things, and people actually make decisions (in Second Life)."
Second Life is also proving beneficial for education.
UNM's New Media and Extended Learning Department is interested in using the online environment to improve distance learning, says its director, Debby Knotts.
The department obtained property in Second Life through a national entity called the New Media Consortium, which bought an entire island in the virtual world for its members. UNM's plot sits adjacent to the Center for Digital Storytelling, Knotts said, though no UNM building exists yet.
Givens, who works in Albuquerque, uses Second Life more for continuing education than as a money-maker. He just became employed with a marketing company called MindSpace and says he attends a meeting called Coffee with Crayon developed by the marketing company Crayon.
The online forum attracts people in his profession nationwide.
"Everybody just talks shop," says Givens, who adds he also attends an occasional concert through a nightclub in Second Life.
"It is a tool," Givens says of the virtual world. "It's not going to revolutionize business and marketing, but it is going to have an impact. How much depends in part on the goal of the company."
By the numbers
Number of residents on SecondLife.com
Number of people in-world in a recent seven-day period
Amount spent in a 24-hour period