At the start of the year, Barry Collins (news editor at PC Pro magazine) published an interesting piece on how he had recently revisited Second Life having three years earlier found it to be packed full of folk doing lots of things including having lots of virtual sex, only to find that the place was now virtually deserted. Except, that is, in those areas where people can have virtual sex of course, which were as busy as ever.
Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon took issue with this image of Second Life being some kind of dirty virtual world where sex is the driving force. While admitting that there is indeed an 'adults-only continent within the Second Life landscape where you have to be age-verified in order to participate and where sexual activity does take place, he was pretty damn keen to point out that sex is not the main focus of the Second Life population. Talking to PC Pro Kingdon insists that only "about 6 percent of the regions in Second Life are zoned adult" and claims that it is "very average in terms of the prevalence of adult content" as a whole.
When I was researching my book Being Virtual there was no doubt that Second Life was a huge landscape covering a virtual area bigger than that of New York. When you consider that New York has been the largest city in the US since 1790 and has, I am reliably informed, a population exceeding 8 million all stuffed into a 332 square mile footprint. Second Life has only been around since 2003 but has a population of 18 million (or one million if you measure in terms of numbers logging in during the last month or two rather than total membership) and covers more than 500 virtual square miles.
Kingdon reckons it is the layout of the virtual world, with a combination of large land masses which are in the minority and small islands which make up the majority of the populated area of Second Life, that accounts for the perceived predominance of adult activity. The adult continent, Zindra, is one of the big mainland areas and the adult activity is concentrated within in, giving the wrong impression to those who may pay a fleeting visit to the virtual landscape. He also blamed the poor search tools available to Second Life inhabitants for giving a false impression that much of the place, apart from 'bonking central' AKA Zindra, is empty. "We haven't been as effective as we'd like in building search tools... that make it possible for people to find the people, places and things that might be relevant to them" he told PC Pro.
That's as maybe, but whenever I visit Second Life I have to admit that I have no trouble finding adult content. Indeed, it's rather hard to avoid much of the time. Certainly virtual sex is not just limited to one particular part of the world, and if you'll excuse the rude pun you will find it popping up all over the place.
I would concur that perhaps sex was not the driving force of Second Life in the early days, although relationship building and an escape into fantasy do often lead down the adult content route. However, the big companies are no longer issuing press releases or shouting about using the place as business meeting venue from the rooftops. And while there can be no arguing that real business is what many come to the virtual world for, with some 250,000 virtual items being created every day and a healthy trading economy continues to develop, to suggest that the pleasure side of the coin is not important strikes me as doing a rather good impression of an ostrich.