Haven't heard of Second Life? It's a 3-D virtual world built by users or "residents" worldwide. Imagine the video game World of Warcraft, but no game, just a cyber-community evolving in ways both similar and different from the real world.

The best way for me to describe Second Life is if you watch the news clip from Australian Broadcasting News above. Just press play.
The creations of this world, including island mansions, stores, fantasy theme parks, virtual lectures, films, and cocktail parties, are designed by the registered users or "residents." Users navigate these creations by way of their avatars, communicating with each other by way of text or Internet-relayed voice. They barter over products, trade ideas, flirt at concerts, and yes, even get married. Can anyone say "time displacement"?

Of course, like many online frontiers such as MySpace, the initial use is by independent citizens....

...that is until corporations, institutions, and political operatives figure out how to turn the new cyber-frontier to their own advantage. Just witness the change in content, style, and "feel" once MySpace was taken over by NewsCorp. After elites grab hold of new forms of cyberspace, what often happens is that the independent "grassroots" content is subverted by the same old product advertising and political messages that dominate traditional media contexts. It's a trend that media researchers call "massification."

Case in point, check out the latest political campaign strategy being used by the Dems to promote their first 100 hours of legislation in the House. From InternetNews.com:

As the 110th Congress performed its first-day rituals Thursday, California Rep. George Miller temporarily left his first life on the floor of the U.S. House to conduct a Second Life press conference. Using the popular virtual world site as a forum to promote the new majority Democrats' "100 Hours" of legislation, Miller called for a bill with strong network neutrality provisions. "If it weren't for [Democrats] we wouldn't have won the temporary victory with the AT&T-BellSouth merger," Miller said. "The question is are these forms of communication going to be fully available to everyone?" Democrats are expected to introduce new network neutrality bills in the next few weeks. Rep Miller, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, also threw his support behind legislation that would require Congress to post on the Internet any bill at least 72 hours before a vote. The Internet posting would also have to include any "earmarks," the controversial funding method for lawmakers' favorite projects, attached to the legislation. Unlike the current three-day rule, the 72 Online rule would apply even in the final week of a congressional session, when the worst abuses of approving legislation and earmarks often occur.

So who exactly is living in Second Life? My colleague at AU Larry Gillick has this to add:

While it's true that more than 2 million *accounts* have been created in SL, no one (seriously - no one) who knows anything about SL, including the Lindens of Linden Labs, says these numbers actually represent distinct real life people. Many accounts represent "alts" - alternative accounts for regular users. Others represent folks who tried SL and decided to not return. A vast number are free, unverified accounts.

In the past 60 days, 844,310 people have logged-in to SL. World of Warcraft, another VR/gaming environment, is reported to have more than seven million active participants. SL is actually quite sparsely populated, with mere thousands of people online at any one time. Just prior to the new year, Second Life crossed the 20k barrier for the first time - 20,000+ simultaneous users. Here's a link

And here's a link to a story on the numbers by NPR's Marketplace.