A Real Second Lifer

Hanging out in virtual worlds is a strange pastime for someone who still clips out newspaper articles. I’m just old enough to regard print as the all-powerful medium, and just young enough to be beguiled by three-dimensional online avatars who teleport to exotic locations at the click of a button.

That’s where Wendy Maslow comes in. By day, I’m a senior writer at Adweek. But by night, I am this avatar babe with a flower in her hair who stumbles her way through a brave new world called Second Life.

Just last week, Maslow experienced real-life humiliation by getting shut out of a virtual fashion show put on by NBC Universal’s iVillage, as part of a marketing effort called “Girls Night Out.” Maslow just didn’t get her technical act together in time. First, she had to download yet another new version of the software, which SL owner Linden Labs seems to spit out every two weeks or so. Then, she had to deal with that dreaded HUD—short for a “heads up display.”

Without this device, Maslow can’t teleport to these fun iVillage events where you discover strange new places, like Pixel Dolls—a fashion store—or meet “in-world” characters like fashion designer caLLie cLine, or Stroker Serpentine, who owns Stroker’s Toyz store and Eros Island. By the time Maslow worked it out, the event was full. She was forced to watch it on digital TV.

Dealing with the HUD brings back even more painful memories. When Maslow arrives at the trendy iVillage loft for an event, she must click on a pink champagne bottle and then click again to accept the HUD. Then she must attach it to her avatar. That’s where things get tricky.

The first iVillage event Maslow attended in December, which involved shopping, she inadvertently attached a copy of the book The Art of SL by Torley Linden (who writes the official Linden blog for SL) to her head instead of the HUD. Maslow walked around this way for two weeks before she figured out how to detach an object. She never did learn if other in-world avatars could see the book as well.

Which brings me to the story of how I got my avatar in the first place. I have the privilege of using an avatar created by the virtual design company Electric Sheep. I got it when researching a story about Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ marketing effort for its new hotel brand Aloft, which was launched in SL. (Electric Sheep built the virtual Aloft.) No doubt about it, Maslow is a good-looking avatar. If she had been created by me, I would still be working on how to dress her even as I crashed her into buildings and landed her in the bushes.

In short, SL is damn hard to use. It’s like trying to learn a foreign language on deadline. And if you invest the necessary time to figure things out, you risk becoming hooked. By the way, how are your text-messaging skills? If they are practically non-existent, like mine, then SL may seem even more daunting. When I covered my first event, I found myself multitasking between watching events unfold in SL and simultaneously Googling “lol,” which can mean “laugh out loud” or “lots of love.” Communication takes place through instant messages, and the pace is fast and furious.

There is no end to the tales of Maslow’s in-world flops. Consider what happened at another iVillage event when avatars listened to Stroker talk about the sex industry in SL. When she asked a fellow avatar to teach her to dance, Maslow was told to piss off in virtual lingo. Maybe she needs to work on her approach.

And it’s not just the technology that’s complicated. There are real-life married people who are wedded to different avatars online. Cross-dressing and changing genders are common. (Fortune senior editor David Kirkpatrick briefly tried a 20-year-old female avatar.) Some even like to dress as animals. I shudder to think about Maslow trying cyber sex. The result would likely be a pixel disaster.

Maybe Maslow will learn how to drive a car next. Things improved dramatically when in-world fashion designer cLine took Maslow under her wing at a Pontiac event last week. Pontiac decided to release its new G8 car in SL before doing so officially in Detroit. There Maslow was, eyeing the car and actually sipping champagne. (When Maslow took a drink, I paused to sample the glass of Merlot I had next to my computer. It’s no fun if only your avatar drinks.) Then cLine sent Maslow a program to dance and she started to boogie.

I’m not sure if this car business will fully catch on in SL, but I’m game to let the Pontiac folks teach Maslow how to drive. Right now, teleporting is the closest thing those of us who grew up with Star Trek will ever get to “beam me up, Scotty.”(Unless there’s something else out there I’m missing? Do tell!) Could there be an in-world William Shatner Priceline.com ad in our future? Or vice versa. Shatner is filmed in SL for a TV spot. Priceless.

Imagine the marketing possibilities. I suggested to Linda Boff, iVillage’s chief marketing officer, that she should get Oprah for an in world book club session on “Girls’ Night Out.” The buzz alone for the iVillage brand would be huge. Boff’s response? “Can I hire you?” she asked. Hmmm. Maybe Maslow’s adventures could open future doors for me.

Interest in SL is not limited to marketers alone. The swearing-in ceremony of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was carried in SL. Harvard University law professor Charles Nesson taught a class in SL last fall. And Sweden recently said it has opened an embassy in-world.

SL isn’t the only virtual world out there, but right now it’s considered the most sophisticated. But that could change at any second. Cyworld—think a three-dimensional version of MySpace or Facebook—is hot in Korea. Spore, from the creator of Sims, promises to take users on an “epic journey from the origin and creation of life through the development of civilization … and into the deepest reaches of outer space.” Now that sounds intriguing. Pure game lovers can always fight monsters and go on quests in World of Warcraft.

This may all sound a bit bizarre, but that’s not stopping me. I’ve managed to convince my editors that blogging about marketing schemes in SL and other virtual worlds could make for good copy. The fact that SL was a topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year didn’t hurt my case. So look for future periodic reports at www.adfreak.com.

Did I mention that I’m hooked?