A Whole New Virtual World

Media companies make 3D connections on Second Life and beyond

It is, for many people, the ultimate fantasy: register on a virtual 3D community Website, create a custom avatar representation of yourself, and interact—or simply act out—in a virtual world.

Since June 2003, when Linden Labs introduced the online game Second Life, such fantasy spots have garnered increasing media attention and user interest. At present, Second Life boasts more than 4.4 million registered users, making it the largest virtual world.

Several media companies are now getting into their own fantasy: trying to find money that may be available in such places. The hunt for the next social Internet phenomenon has led the likes of NBC, CBS and its cable outfit Showtime to build bulwarks in Second Life. Others, like MTV Networks and Telepictures’ The Tyra Banks Show, have joined with existing firms to build virtual worlds or affiliate with others with a less permissive reputation than Second Life.

Since its launch, much ink has been devoted to Second Life. Along with speculation over how many of its users regularly roam through its neighborhoods, there remains the question of which neighborhoods are most frequented. Sex clubs abound on Second Life’s mature areas, and there are “violence-permitted areas,” all of which speaks to the all-access appeal of buying into a virtual life.

Media companies are hoping to tap into more-upscale areas on the site. Linden Labs charges $1,650 upfront and $295 per month for a “virtual acre island” on Second Life.

The media-built areas include an island for Showtime’s The L Word, a virtual Rockefeller Christmas tree with lighting ceremony from NBC, and a virtual game, Smokin’ Aces, provided by the network.

Unfortunately, Second Life’s freewheeling nature has caused problems for some professional entities hoping to benefit from the site’s cachet. Two weeks ago, John Edwards’ campaign headquarters in Second Life was, according to his campaign blog, attacked by “a feces-spewing obscenity” and a “photoshopped picture of John in blackface.”


Other media companies have taken their virtual business elsewhere.

Last September, Viacom’s MTV introduced a 3D world called Virtual LagunaBeach, which was based on the reality series. The so-called social metaverse was quickly joined by a sibling community called Virtual Hills.

Since they launched, Virtual Hills and LagunaBeach have attracted more than 502,000 registered users with an average age of 20. “These communities will take our audience beyond passive consumption to active engagement with our content and with marketers’ messages,” says an MTV spokesperson.

MTV has worked hard to integrate itself and its sponsors into its virtual worlds. Under the theory that consumers are moving away from traditional advertising models, the company pushes for users to hold up their Cingular phones and “drink” Pepsi. More than 12,000 sodas have been dispensed from vending machines in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach.

The company also heavily promotes its own products on the site. Last month, an online event for the band KoRn’s MTV Unplugged CD was attended by avatars of two of the band’s members.

MTV isn’t the only Viacom company testing the 3D waters. Last month, MTV sister network Nickelodeon introduced its own community, Nicktropolis. In just over a month, the site has had 1 million unique visitors, according to the company, perhaps luring the same core audience that made Neopets so popular.

Last month, Tyra Banks took another approach and opened up a “virtual studio” within a virtual world called Music Lounge created by a company called Doppelganger.

Second Life is obviously popular,” explains Telepictures President Hilary Estey McLoughlin, “but we thought [Doppelganger] would be a safer place and we would be better-protected.”

The company has yet to figure out how to monetize the new studio but so far has declared it a success. “We see it as a great way to brand the show in a whole new way,” says Estey McLoughlin.

Since the Virtual Studio was introduced, the Doppelganger user base has reportedly quadrupled. If it continues to do well, Telepictures is looking to bring some of its other brands, like Ellen or TMZ, into a 3D world. In the meantime, the company is enjoying the exposure.

Virtual Studio threw a 10th-anniversary bash for Tyra Banks’ Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover. “All the avatars were in swimsuits,” says Estey McLoughlin, “and you know it was a success because everyone ended up in the hot tub.”