"People often become leaders here even though they've never had any ability to lead anything in their real life," says Maressa Orzack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who studies computer addiction. Fantastical online communities, she says, allow dormant or undeveloped parts of a user's real personality to bloom. They allow us to become our best (or sometimes our worst) selves, whether that means having the prettiest eyes or the biggest muscles, or taking on the most world-changing activity.
Nonprofits, environmental and otherwise, are finding SL to be a fertile recruiting ground. In the past year, Mia Farrow, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, has lectured on Darfur here; the American Cancer Society's virtual walkathon raised $40,000 -- less than a real walkathon, but substantial nonetheless. The real-life Friends of the Urban Forest, a San Francisco–based group, maintains an SL headquarters as well, and partnered with SL's creator, Linden Lab, to green both worlds. For every virtual tree sold, a real one is planted in an urban neighborhood. Since the program debuted last May, 125 have been sold through SL, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all real trees planted by the group last year.
So far, however, Friends of the Urban Forest's real trees seem to have fared better than their virtual ones. According to Profoky Neva, an SL environmentalist I met on one of my visits, many of those virtual trees have withered; they were programmed to need attention. "Nobody came to water them," he writes.
In fact, and perhaps fortunately, SL's environment is nearly as fragile as ours; though a perfect world is possible, people wind up replicating RL environmental problems. There's no master planning, and in places, the Second Life landscape is as overdeveloped as the Las Vegas Strip. A kind of electronic traffic called lag is an annoyance: The more that people build in one spot, the slower the program runs; Linden Lab is constantly working to upgrade Second Life to accommodate demand. Littering is a problem here too: At Friends of the Urban Forest, for instance, someone dumped a sports car to rust in the grass, and stray advertisements litter the boardwalk.
Frustrated by the deterioration of the SL environment, Neva started the SL Public Land Preserve, a virtual, communally owned land trust. "It's to keep green areas here, to try to have a hedge against the overdeveloped, commercialized ugly stuff," he writes. Neva's RL self lives in New York City, surrounded by commercialization, but it was SL that flipped his activist switch. "I've learned an awful lot being here about what goes into urban planning," he writes. "I would never have thought about these issues if I hadn't become a virtual land baron."
It takes real time and brain space to craft and protect these electronic environments, which raises the question: Why bother?
"People are living in the virtual world," explains Orzack. "To them, it's real." The average SL user spends an impressive 40 hours a month "inworld," as it's called, and although some may retreat to the fantasy world because their RL skills are lacking, their obsession with virtual living doesn't necessarily mean they don't care about real-world issues. The Annenberg study reported that a stunning 43 percent of online community members say they "feel as strongly about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities," and 20.3 percent participate at least once a year in offline activity that mirrors their online endeavors.
The danger, it seems, is that some will remain more concerned about SL's environment than about the real one. The real person behind Neva is not involved in any sort of environmental activism. But other Second Life activists find a way to harness the energy of both worlds. Aki Clutterbuck is a virtual volunteer for Friends of the Urban Forest, and she's building a networking center here called Silva Mura, where users can exchange information about RL and SL events at a kiosk called the Green Spot. In real life, she's a graphic designer and runs an eco-minded Web site, www.thegreenindividual.org . For people like her, SL environmentalism isn't a replacement for RL work but an augmentation of it; it's activism unfettered by the laws of physics.
Of course, there are some SL activities that just can't be replicated in real life. Goodman lives sustainably in both worlds, and with two small kids and a full-time job he has little time for hobbies. Online, he makes time for dancing. "If I didn't go dancing on SL, I couldn't go dancing at all," he says. "The thing is, the person who dances as my avatar is better at those things than I am -- he can tango."