Until recently, I thought "second life" referred to one of those places the Bible says we'll go after we depart this life.
Now I know it's a virtual place, a vast collection of electrons on computers all over the world and, more to the point, a state of mind and a place for adventure, romance, business and just plain fun for millions of users.
My editor made me do it. I never would have given Second Life (SL) a second look had she not asked me to write a story about it. I considered myself too old and too serious to dive into something I imagined was designed for twentysomethings looking for virtual sex.
I had two fears. One was that in SL I would be persuaded to reveal -- maybe even invent -- secrets about myself that would horrify my neighbors, jeopardize my marriage and cost me my job.
My second fear was that I'd get utterly consumed by the experience. I'm already at the ragged edge of addiction to e-mail and ordinary Web surfing, and I didn't want to find myself up at 3 a.m. navigating my avatar through cyberspace.
So I posed that time-worn question to my editor: Where's the corporate IT angle in this? Wouldn't she rather I wrote a story like "How to Replace Windows with Linux on 1,000 Servers Without Breaking a Sweat," or "The Top 10 Ways to Sort a VSAM File"?
But Bill Gates and others have appeared at respectable IT conferences via Second Life, and HP has conducted job interviews in its virtual offices, so there must be something there, she said. Just do it, and we'll figure out the angles later.
MONDAY: Square One
So I did it. I started with some background reading. Yes, there is virtual sex in SL, I learned, but that's not the main point for most users. And I was shocked to learn that you can, and many people do, spend real money in SL.
When I went to Secondlife.com, the type was so small I couldn't read it without enlarging it two times in Firefox. So it was designed for twentysomethings, after all!
I signed up and downloaded the client software. I declined to use my non-virtual credit card to buy the virtual currency called Linden dollars (after SL's creator, Linden Research) , and I declined to buy a headset and mike, which is what you need if you want to talk to your fellow residents rather than type to them.
I was presented a longish list of last names from which to choose. You can then pick any first name, so I became Icon Silverspar. I was assigned a plain vanilla avatar by default, based on gender, but apparently nearly everyone but me changes theirs.
Newbies are required to start out doing four simple tutorial exercises in a place called Orientation Island. Well, three were simple and one was impossible. I finally had to call a colleague for assistance, which I hated to do.
I spent a lot of time stuck on this beginning step, and it was quite frustrating -- a little like trying to get Microsoft Word to stop doing those annoying autoformatting things.
But even at this beginning stage, I had my first emotional experience in the virtual world. The pretty young female Asian avatar of a woman who said she was Chinese stopped to say hello. We exchanged a few pleasantries until my (real) telephone rang. When I came back to my PC five minutes later, she had shouted, in apparent frustration, "PLEASE TALK TO ME!" I apologized, and I meant it, but by then, she had walked away.
I had inadvertently dissed this nice woman -- or at least I think she was a woman -- and I felt bad about it. But it was a good reminder of something that I guess I knew but had not really thought about: Behind the two-dimensional avatars on my screen were real human beings.