Morgan Clendaniel ambles around the ghost town that is Second Life in search of the digital frontier (and a cheap penis).
"Dude, did you lose your dick?"That is the first thing anyone says to me in Second Life. I am standing naked in a bordello, conspicuously lacking the cartoonish satyr-like genitalia sported by the other male patrons. I have come here with visions of a place where I will no longer be hindered by the chafing constraints of our physical world. Here, I can fly, I can walk through cities wielding a giant sword, I can be the kind of guy who goes to sex clubs. But first, apparently, I have to find a penis.As it turns out, they don't come standard and they don't come cheap. In Second Life, unless you want to look like a standard-issue avatar, you have to buy modifications to your physical appearance using Linden dollars, the in-world currency (right now a little less than $5 will get you 1,000 Linden dollars, 200 of which will get you a rudimentary penis). Not wanting to pay through the nose for something that should already be attached to my body, I decide to finance my phallus by turning to some underground activity. I head to one of Second Life's many casinos for a game of high-stakes poker, and swiftly lose all my money. Sure, the French girl with a garter belt and enormous breasts sitting next to me makes it hard to focus, but she is nothing compared to the man with little green fairies flying around his head. They are quite distracting.In most places in Second Life, your avatar can fly. Here I am floating over a recreation of a Danish village. Complete with free bicycles.It's only been a few hours and Second Life is already a bit of a letdown. Of course it's thrilling to buy a helicopter for less than a dollar, but I feel oddly constrained here. I don't have a penis, which means no virtual sex, and feeling broke is a feeling I'd like to escape from, not to.And I'm not the only one having problems. Since San Francisco-based Linden Lab launched it in 2003, Second Life has enjoyed enormous growth, and has been widely heralded as the future of the internet. More recently, though, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Several major real world businesses set up shop in Second Life last year, but some companies have since quietly pulled out, perhaps noticing the same trend I did: a less-than-critical mass of Second Lifers pretty much everywhere I went. And even though $1 million changes hands daily in Second Life, the economy-judging from my difficulty finding an affordable penis-appears to be less a new way for businesses to reach their consumers, and more of a way for people with a little skill at using Second Life's programming code to make a few quick bucks in the cock market.I don't find such an entrepreneur, though, instead copping my organ from a kindly vendor who has made a variety of sex-related body parts available for free. I am finally a virtual man, and I'm bored out of my mind.I stopped by the poorly-designed and conspicuously empty Second Life headquarters of of John Edwards's campaign.So is this the future? Since it launched, Second Life has been hailed as a glimpse of how we will someday interact, shop, and even live. With email and online shopping now commonplace, virtual worlds are the new cutting edge of online business and buzz. "In many ways, Second Life is the next step of the internet," says Jeska Dzwigalski, a community manager with Linden. "[In the future], having a virtual presence will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones or email addresses or a web page is today. It's the evolution of the internet." Right now there are almost 9 million accounts, but at even at peak times (4 p.m. Eastern-presumably, the most avid users don't have jobs) there are only 40,000 users logged on. That means the future of the internet is only grabbing enough people to fill a baseball stadium. While that number has been slowly growing, think about this: If just a little under 1 million users have logged in during the last 30 days, that means there are 8 million others who tried Second Life and haven't felt any need to come back.The paradox of a virtual world is that it adds human interaction to the online experience, while at the same time making sure you never have to actually interact with anyone. Now, instead of merely buying a book on a website, you can browse a virtual bookstore along side other virtual patrons, without ever leaving your home. This logic-that you'd want to give up both the speed of online shopping and the social experience of actually shopping, that you'd want to spend time in a bookstore but not actually go to one-is depressing, to say the least. From there, it's a small step to buying only virtual clothes for your virtual self while you sit at home in your underwear (which some people no doubt already do). The only thing you can't get here is real-life sustenance, but with enough restaurants that deliver, you could conceivably never log out. What a future it could be.I stumbled upon this eerie pirate ship just a stone's throw away from an area dedicated to raising awareness about Darfur.Of course, the idea of a virtual world that regular people can wire into is an old trope of science fiction, from William Gibson's seminal book Neuromancer to the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix. Modern online worlds like Second Life are greatly inspired by Neal Stephenson's bestselling 1992 book Snow Crash-where the now-universal term "avatar" was first popularized-which features a fully realized virtual world, called the metaverse (it also has cyborg dogs, so you get the idea). Second Life's version of the "metaverse" is slightly less functional than Stephenson's. Still, it's the biggest, most mainstream step toward a true virtual world operating parallel to our own.Many people expected the possibilities of this virtual world to be embraced: a recent Harvard class took place in Second Life, Reuters has a news bureau and a reporter there, and some companies have even started using it as a way for employees in different locations to have staff meetings. Just recently, Second Life launched new code that allows users with microphones to really talk to each other, instead of just typing. And as more and more people become willing to convert their money to Linden dollars, businesses have been rushing to join in. Last year, the The New York Times noted that Second Life was "fast becoming a three-dimensional test bed for corporate marketers," and Linden Labs has picked up high-profile investors like Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and eBay's Pierre Omidyar.But businesses in Second Life aren't doing very well. Many are eating the losses of paying designers to create lavish headquarters for them, and leaving altogether. Dzwigalski says that businesses are simply going about it the wrong way: "Businesses that have done it really well have worked with the community to build a place where people come and interact with each other. The problem happens when you just throw up that building and expect everyone to come just because you're there. Some of the confusion is people exploring a new space and not knowing how to use it as a tool to extend their brand."This is a sculpture of a giant cat. Things like this are not uncommon.American Apparel opened a Second Life store last year-selling virtual versions of their real-world clothes-to much fanfare. The store is now deserted, and you can't find it in Second Life's search function, but you can still visit, and see the padlocked doors (to protect their leftover virtual inventory?). American Apparel released a statement saying simply that it felt its time was up.Businesses are shuttering in Second Life, it seems, because no one is using them. There were never any employees at stores like Dell and Reebok when I visited, nor were there any customers. But that wasn't that shocking because, for the most part, there seems to be no one in Second Life at all.As with other kinds of anonymous web activity, here you'll find the bulk of people in the thousands of areas devoted to virtual sex. "That's the nature of being human, more than the technology," says Dzwigalski. "Whenever you get people together, they're going to form relationships." Officially, the number of users in "mature" areas is around 5 percent, she says, but this seems hard to believe. Nearly 40 percent of the most popular user-rated places in Second Life are rated "mature," and, frankly, virtual sex is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a virtual world.This island replicates Gor, a world depicted in a series of fantasy novels in which all women serve as sex slaves. The residents don't appreciate it when you don't dress the part.Second Life sex, meanwhile, doesn't fail to impress. Avatars can do impressively acrobatic things to each other, and a new industry, known as teledildonics, has sprung up: sex toys that can be programmed to corres-pond in real life to what is happening to your avatar online. But unenhanced virtual sex is much simpler. It involves clicking on small, ball-shaped buttons that then animate your avatar. You might click on a blue ball, labeled, say, "man on top," causing your avatar to assume the position and thrust excitedly. Hopefully, at the same time, a lovely female avatar has clicked on the corresponding pink ball, and is there to complete the act-if not, you'll just hump the floor for a while. I imagine that while their avatars go at it, the two players are privately messaging each other with content that's more exciting than the image of two naked animated people. I say "imagine" because there never seemed to be any available women for me to try it out with; perhaps sex in Second Life is more real than I could hope for.Certainly sex isn't the only draw in Second Life. I notice five avatars having a wonderful conversation while walking through a masterly recreation of a quaint Danish village, and devout Second Life users passionately defend the nonsexual parts of their world. "It's a social networking site, just like MySpace or Facebook, only far more interesting," says a strapping avatar named Odin Flanagan, whom I meet while lounging on the side of a volcano. "I've had political discussions, typing about issues with people all over the world." Granted, he's chatting to a female avatar he met while she was dancing for Linden-dollar tips at a club ("A dancer, not a stripper," she makes clear). When I ask her why she doesn't just meet people in real life, I get the verbal equivalent of a withering stare: "Have you ever been to Oklahoma?"Here I am, the proud owner of a new, comically large, constantly erect penis.Having put my more prurient interest aside, I continue to explore the rest of the vast archipelago that is Second Life. To get from one "island" to another, you search for what kind of island you're looking for-"sex" turns up thousands of options, of course; other words, far fewer. I decide to ride a train, I smoke some virtual marijuana from Flanagan that makes my avatar fall over every third toke (a virtual mushroom, meanwhile, has no effect), I sit atop a strange copy of the statue David, I visit a biker strip club through which a bald eagle flies every three minutes, I try unsuccessfully to pilot a go-kart, I windsurf, I watch a near-riot as only three members of a Kiss cover band show up for their scheduled concert. My interactions consist, for the most part, of the bare minimum of conversation, and when they do, it's often like reading your little sister's unintelligible text messages. Something fun and social must be happening in Second Life, but it certainly isn't happening where I am.I stumble onto a Japanese-themed island, standing out among the costumed samurai in my standard-issue jeans and white T-shirt, when a young Japanese girl in a short skirt begins swordfighting with me. She is a member of a "clan" that gathers to practice Second Life swordfighting techniques, she says. She defeats me mercilessly a few times before taking pity on me with a lengthy tutorial. I am totally engrossed, but when our lesson is over, I am left sitting on the couch, having spent two hours in the dark fake swordfighting with a strange person who may have been (but probably was not) a very hot Japanese girl.The padlocked American Apparel has been removed from Second Life's search engine.I'm no Luddite. I'll happily send an email to avoid a phone call. I play computer games online. But something about this seems off. It's one thing to hang out in your perfect fantasy world, but it's strange to walk into someone else's and make yourself comfortable. Second Life is the ideal place for people like the little samurai girl who want to live out a fantasy that is totally unfeasible in the real world, and it gives them their fantasy in a magical, often breathtaking way. But don't count on a time when you'll actually go to the virtual world for things you can find right outside your door. For one thing, in the real world, penises are free.