August 18, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
A virtual world's real-world conference
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The occasion is the second annual Second Life Community Convention, or SLCC, a three-day event that will draw crowds of "Second Life" players and developers to San Francisco for informal discussions and networking, a series of moderated panels and a day of focused workshops. The conference, which starts Friday, will mark the first time most in attendance will have a chance to see what their compatriots look like in the (real) flesh.
"I'm seeing lots of people that I know online for the first time (off-line)," said Kimberly Rufer-Bach, who runs The Magicians, a leading third-party developer of "Second Life" projects. "I'm also getting a lot of my contractors together in one place...so getting together in person will be a big party."
"Second Life" is an open-ended virtual world with hundreds of thousands of users. In it, players can fly, wear fantastical outfits, build nearly anything they can imagine and participate in a sophisticated economy with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of transactions conducted each week. Unlike most other virtual worlds and online games, nearly all of the content in "Second Life" is created by its users.
During the event at San Francisco's Cowell Theater, attendees will be able to choose from panels on topics including building businesses in "Second Life"; sex and relationships in the virtual world; building "Second Life" brands; and educational opportunities.
It's not clear how many people will attend SLCC, but it's certain to be in the hundreds. And to Philip Rosedale, CEO of "Second Life" publisher Linden Lab, which has around 100 employees, that's an astonishing fact.
"I just think it's amazing that we've got so many people coming," Rosedale said. "There will be probably four times as many people coming to this thing as work at Linden Lab. To have a real user-created user convention which we really didn't create" will be great.
Indeed, while Linden Lab is SLCC's biggest financial sponsor, the event was planned by members of the "Second Life" user community.
Still, to Rosedale and the many others from Linden Lab who will be in attendance during the three days, the event is a rare opportunity to interact directly with their virtual world's users rather than through digital means such as message boards, blogs and in-world communication.
Discussing real-world gripes
"We're so hard-core about learning things from people using 'Second Life,'" Rosedale said. "They're the ones creating the content. There's such a diversity of things going on in 'Second Life' that when you get an opportunity to talk to people in a different context...you learn things you couldn't get from reading things online that people are saying."
Sure to attract notice are discussions between members of Linden Lab and the user community over several "Second Life" issues that have recently raised red flags.
Among those are what some see as too-frequent software updates that often result in unexpected broken features and the ongoing perception that the "Second Life" user interface is unwieldy. Also at issue: a recent outcry over Linden Lab's decision to shut down its official user forums--a move the company made because it said it has had to devote heavy resources to maintaining the forums, and that there are now a plethora of user-run options.
"I'm...interested in seeing how people are going to respond to (the forums' shutdown)," said Arlene Ciroula, 43, a "Second Life" user who recently started a virtual consulting business for other "Second Life" businesspeople. "It is not clear to me that what they're doing is going to continue to give them a sense of what the residents are concerned about."
Linden Lab says it plans to communicate directly with users via its new official blog and is counting on the community continuing broader discussions on forums hosted on many other "Second Life"-related Web sites.
"I think SLCC is going to bring a lot of issues to the foreground, and people are going to go back and blog about it," said Eric Rice, a blogger who writes about "Second Life," among other topics. "I think (Linden Lab is) going to have to listen and respond to these things."
For some, the SLCC has been circled in red as one of the highlights of a busy year of technology-related conferences.
"I think this conference has passed South by Southwest as far as pre-conference excitement," Rice said.
And for some, the SLCC is a chance to see what happens when the work of innovative entrepreneurs begins to mature.
"I've been a huge, big, enthusiastic advocate of what 'Second Life' has been trying to do since the beginning," said Mitch Kapor, the inventor of Lotus 1-2-3 and a Linden Lab board member. "It's so exciting when something that people have been working on for a long time starts to take off."
Kapor also said he is looking forward to seeing so many Second Lifers in real life.
"Bringing that community together face-to-face is a kind of milestone," Kapor said. "It's a kind of celebration...and as a fan and supporter, I want to be part of that celebration. I want to touch the flesh and see the community face-to-face."
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