If you believe the results of a study by those chaps over at the USC-Annenberg School Centre for the Digital Future, the answer to the question posed in this blog posting title is 43% of Americans. That is the number of people who took part in the survey, were already a member of a virtual community and who said that the virtual world is just as important as the real one.

The fact that the 2007 Digital Future Project reveals that 20.3% of virtual community members take actions offline at least once per year that are related to that online community, and that such online participation leads directly to social activism. Indeed, the survey suggests that 64.9% of those participating in social causes online are involved in causes that were new to them before that online participation started, with 43.7% participating more since they joined an online community. Some of the other statistics are, perhaps, less surprising: 56.6% login every day, 70.4% interact with other members while logged in (would be a pretty dull online community if they didn’t, although the figures also suggest that 29.6% must be confirmed lurkers of course.)

The same survey also found that people are finding ever more friends online, reporting that on average we meet 4.65 friends online who we have never met in person in the real world, and 1.6 people that we do end up meeting IRL. This is a growing trend, more than double the figure from the first Digital Future Project survey back in 2000. No doubt along the way such things as Web 2.0, social networking and blogs have all played a part, and DaniWeb is a great example of a growing virtual community itself.

As someone who has spent most of his online life (one that stretches back into the pre-web days of FidoNet bulletin boards in Europe, Usenet and online conferencing communities such as The Well in the US and Cix in the UK, and who even gets a section in the seminal tome ‘The Virtual Community’ by Howard Rheingold dedicated pretty much to his role in this, you might find it surprising that I am posting a blog entry that is going to cast doubt on whether this is a good thing.

Cards on the table time, obviously I am not against virtual communities and see them as a good thing, an important thing even. There is a validity to online friendships and relationships, and a value to the communities that foster them. However, a virtual world should never be mistaken for the real world, no matter how real the relationships that develop within it may seem. And the catalyst for my indignation, the reason I am writing this, is Second Life. Or more specifically the importance that is being heaped upon it by seemingly every serious media outlet which really should know better.

A colleague of mine was recently approached by a BBC researcher here in the UK, asking for help from someone who uses Second Life to walk them through this very important environment, this burgeoning virtual economy. Being a sensible chap, he edits a large B2B online publication, my colleague advised them that nobody uses it, they play it. He hit the nail on the head, because Second Life is a game, a highly immersive one without doubt (and yes I do have a personality there) but it is not real life. Yet businesses are investing real money to open virtual shops and sell their brand within this playscape, and this includes big multi-nationals as well as the small fry. I know of one marketing company that has not only set up shop, but advertised and employed virtual staff earning real wages.

People buy and sell within Second Life, using pretend money that carries a real world value (you can buy and sell your Linden Dollars to make real world cash) and as I write this I see that yesterday alone a total of $656,309 worth of real money was spent. So it certainly a huge money making machine, but that still doesn’t make it any more important to the real world than playing a game of The Sims.

An argument is often put forward that says it is not a game, that it has importance because it is the ‘new web’ and this argument is supported by spurious claims that you can video conference, partake in ecommerce transactions, chat, interact on a social and business level like nowhere else. Well, actually, perhaps not too spurious because it is like nowhere else to do these things: it is slower, more cumbersome and ultimately unrewarding when compared with dedicated, real world solutions.

I think the World Development Movement has got it about right with its newly released ‘death counter’ within Second Life that records the number of children who have died as a result of preventable global poverty since Second Life was founded. The figure stood at over 36 million as I wrote this. Call the WDM spoil-sports, call me a killjoy, but the truth is you cannot escape the real world no matter how hard you try to immerse yourself in an imaginary one.

That’s the difference between DaniWeb and other online social communities where the real world is part of our very being, and the likes of Second Life which exist to create an alternative.

Well I have some news for you Second Lifers, running away from reality does not prevent it from happening, it just delays the inevitable. Indeed, my advice would be not to get a second life, but to make the most of your first one…

As Editorial Director and Managing Analyst with IT Security Thing I am putting more than two decades of consulting experience into providing opinionated insight regarding the security threat landscape for IT security professionals. As an Editorial Fellow with Dennis Publishing, I bring more than two decades of writing experience across the technology industry into publications such as Alphr, IT Pro and (in good old fashioned print) PC Pro. I also write for SC Magazine UK and Infosecurity, as well as The Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Along the way I have been honoured with a Technology Journalist of the Year award, and three Information Security Journalist of the Year awards. Most humbling, though, was the Enigma Award for 'lifetime contribution to IT security journalism' bestowed on me in 2011.

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