Second life: The A-Z guide

Some would call it a virtual sanctuary for those who can't cope with the real world. But it is the hot topic at this year's Davos conference. Simon Usborne takes the tour

A is for Avatar

To join the virtual world that is Second Life (SL), "residents" must first create an avatar - a graphical representation of themselves. Most stay human and use the range of clothing, hair style and body shape options that most closely match their own. Others morph into robots, animals or mythical creatures. Inevitably most users "sex up" their appearances. SL's creator, Philip Rosedale, appears in a figure-hugging black t-shirt adorned with an enormous pair of lips and a leather chaps that reveal a snazzy pair of multi-coloured briefs.

B is for Building

Once you've created your avatar and explored the brave new SL world, you start making things. Everything in the 3-D world is made up of prims - the building blocks of SL. There are grass prims, clothing prims, and prims that make up buildings. Using a complex set of tools, users "rez" prims into objects.

C is for Camping Job

There's money to be made in SL and the easiest way to earn a few dollars - or Linden Dollars (see Dollars, Linden) - is to "camp". Camping jobs usually involve no more than hanging around, or even just sitting in a specific area in exchange for 10-20 Linden Dollars per hour.

D is for Dollars, Linden

SL has its own economy and currency - the Linden Dollar (L$), named after Linden Labs, SL's creator (see Linden). Residents can earn money by doing jobs, selling goods or services through virtual businesses, holding events or playing games. Money even grows on trees - established residents make donations for "newbies" to get started, or businesses plant money trees outside their premises to attract customers. Residents can buy Linden Dollars through the LindeX Currency Exchange, where the exchange rate yesterday stood at 267.1L$ to the US dollar. Those who make virtual money, can exchange it back for real money (see Millionaire).

E is for Estates

Residents who build can collaborate with like-minded users and create estates. These "gated enclosures" are regions that often have a particular set of rules, such as banned users or even the position of the Sun (in SL everything can be changed).

F is for Fashion

As SL has developed residents have become more conscious about the appearance of their avatars and have developed new ways to personalise them. Inventive hackers have tweaked the software to allow residents to adopt realistic skin and get tattoos. Other enterprising residents have developed ways to "build" new hair and shoes using prims - the SL building block (see Building).

G is for Griefing

Residents who bother or harass other people are called griefers and in doing so they violate SL "community standards". One recent example involved the sudden appearance of giant pink virtual penises - or "griefing genitalia", as they became known - which began hovering over several locations in SL. The regularly abusive are sent to prison, where they sit in a cornfield and are made to watch 1950s public service announcements.

H is for Help Island

"Newbie" residents being griefed or struggling with prims and Linden Dollars can visit Help Island at any time, where established residents volunteer as mentors and answer questions.

I is for IBM

The computer giant is one of a growing group of businesses to cash in on SL, where virtual dollars can be exchanged for the real thing (see Dollars, Linden). Last month IBM built 12 new islands in SL, where clients and the public can visit special projects, including a partnership with the US electronic retailer Circuit City. Together they have opened a virtual shop where potential real-world customers can view products. The firms have also experimented with an interactive home theatre, where residents can recreate their living rooms and choose the best TV to fit. One island includes a social area for 900 IBM residents and company alumni to swap ideas.

J is for Jimmy Carr

On 3 February the comic and TV presenter will give a stand-up routine simultaneously to a live audience at London Venue, and a crowd in SL. His performance will be filmed and impersonated in real time by a Jimmy Carr avatar. Just 100 people who win tickets given away in a competition on Carr's Myspace website will get to see the gig - half in the real world and half in SL.

K is for Kermit Quirk

Quirk (real name Nathan Keir) is a purple gecko with a shock of green hair. He became one of the stars of SL in 2004 when he invented Tringo, a cross between Tetris and bingo. Tringo is played throughout SL in casinos, nightclubs and special gaming rooms. Players gather around game units, which Quirk sells for $15,000 (about 56 real dollars). Residents keep intellectual property rights of anything they create in SL, so Quirk makes money and hit the big time last year when Tringo was licensed for the Game Boy Advance.

L is for Linden Lab

Named after the San Francisco street where the company was founded in 1999, Linden Lab is the company that created SL. The company's CEO, Philip Rosedale, first dreamt up the idea of a virtual world in 1991 (when it was called Linden World). Technology finally caught up and his dream became a virtual reality in 2003, when SL was launched.

M is for Millionaire

Nicknamed the "Rockefeller of Second Life", Anshe Chung (real name Ailin Graef) is a virtual property tycoon making real money. Last year she became the first SL resident to amass a $1m dollar fortune and makes an estimated $150,000 a year from her in-world real-estate business. Last May she appeared on the cover of Business Week and is credited with bringing millions of dollars in trade to SL, where she owns Dreamland, an entire continent. Resident in Germany, her company, Anshe Studios Ltd, employs more than 25 staff in her native China.

N is for Newsnight

Last year, the Newsnight business correspondent Paul Mason did a report on SL that was broadcast inside the virtual world. Mason and the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman both appeared as versions of themselves and at one point Paxman's avatar danced on the Newsnight desk.

O is for OI, Orientation Island

It takes a while to get the hang of virtual life, but help is at hand to ease you in your second existence. There are tutorials to teach you how to make money, fly, and get on with the community. And a special building offers a host of freebies - houses, cars, clothes - to get you on your way. Once you have done the tutorials, you teleport to the mainland. But you can never go back.

P is for Population

SL boasts a population of 2.92 million but a closer look at the figures suggest a large proportion of visitors to the site create their avatar and leave. In the last week, more than 320,000 people have logged in and there are an estimated 100,000 regular users. Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale recently estimated "churn" (the number of users who don't use SL in any meaningful way) stands at about 90 per cent.

Q is for Quality Assurance

With so many people living alternate lives in SL, the complex virtual world is often vulnerable to bugs that can slow "play" to a crawl. Residents report problems to the SL quality assurance team, who list known bugs and try to keep the SL running.

R is for Reuters

The esteemed news agency raised eyebrows last October when it opened a virtual bureau in SL. The company's chief executive Tom Glocer joined the SL community in its early days. Glocer dispatched Adam Reuters to head up the virtual bureau. He is actually the Reuters media correspondent Adam Pasick and looks uncannily like his avatar, which includes a press pass. The top story on the Reuters SL News Centre website yesterday was an exclusive interview with the Easy tycoon Stelios Haji-Ioannou at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

S is for Sex

Some way into the SL community convention held in San Francisco last August a speaker stepped up the podium and introduced himself. "My name is Serpentine Stroker, and I am a pervert." Stroker, who is famous for creating avatar genitals and saucy animations is one SL entrepreneur who knows that sex sells even in the virtual world. Virtual prostitutes sell virtual sex to residents, who pay in Linden Dollars.

T is for Tax

As enterprising residents find ways to make real money in SL (see Millionaire), it was perhaps inevitable that virtual trading would prick the ears of the tax man. Last October the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress announced it would investigate the amount of commerce taking place in virtual worlds like SL. Money taken out of the game is taxable, but the Internal Revenue Service will decide whether it deserves a share of thefunds that remain virtual.

U is for Usability Island

The American software firm Useful Technology plans to build Usability Island to take advantage of the crowds circulating SL. The company wants virtual passers-by to enter booths on the island and test its software in exchange for Linden Dollars.

V is for Virtual Record

The Russian-American singer Regina Spektor became the first singer to release a virtual record last June when her fourth album Begin to Hope went on sale at the Regina Spektor Listening Loft a week before real-world fans could get their hands on it.

W is for Weekend, Big

Last year BBC Radio 1 "rented" a tropical island in SL. While real people attended the station's One Big Weekend event in Dundee, a crowd of virtual pop fans gathered on the island. As Franz Ferdinand, Pink and the Arctic Monkeys entertained the Dundee audience, the sound was put to a virtual performance in SL The event was hosted by an avatar of the DJ Chris Moyles.

X is for X-Men

Last May the Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox streamed live clips and extended trailers for X-Men: The Last Stand to a special SL screening during the Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered. The event included a video message by, who plays Kittie Pryde in the movie.

Y is for Yellow Arrow

Described as "a kind of geographical blogging", the Yellow Arrow project aims to offer city dwellers an alternative tour of their environment. Anyone with something to point out can go online and buy a special yellow arrow sticker and place it at the site. The arrows include a mobile phone number, which passers-by can text to receive information.

Z is for Zymurgy

Before you create your avatar, you have to choose a name, and you can't change it. You get to enter any first name, but your second must be chosen from a list. The list changes but appears to include a sprinkling of celebrities (Blumenthal, Attenborough, Soderbergh) and some quirky offerings, including Widdershins, Fadoodle and Zymurgy.

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