Make no mistake: MySpace is old news, YouTube is beginning its slide out of the headlines, Yahoo is over the hill, Flickr never stood a chance. Second Life is the hot online destination, the next cultural obsession, soon to be a household name.

Second Life is an online world; the visuals will remind you of online games, but there’s no gameplay, just an enormous open-ended space designed for endless exploration and creativity. I can’t describe it in a few words; visit the Second Life web site, read this article about its background and features, and look through this online tour from Wired Magazine.

It’s possible to begin exploring Second Life with a free account but if it’s interesting at all you will quickly find yourself wanting to have a monthly subscription, possibly even putting more real money in to buy the currency used online. If you have an addictive personality, you do not want to go anywhere near Second Life, because the defining characteristic of this world is that it’s big, already filled with things to see and do in quantities that defy description, and growing by leaps and bounds.

What are the signs that it will turn into a cultural obsession? Its growth is off the charts. The media is starting to focus on it relentlessly. It is designed to facilitate creative additions by members and the world has many creative people in it, meaning an explosion of cool things is appearing online right now.

Big companies are funding serious efforts to participate in the online world. Sun Microsystems held an in-world press conference to announce its space in Second Life and its plans for an ongoing presence. The followup interview with Sun executives was held by CNET News in its own Second Life space; CNET plans to hold interviews with execs from other companies with Second Life sites (Wells Fargo Bank, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Sony, and many more to follow). Reuters has opened a news bureau in Second Life. Adidas is selling clothes. Starwood Hotels has built a virtual version of the hotel chain it plans to open in the real world soon. BBC1 has already held concerts displayed in the virtual world but featuring the music of bands playing live in the real world. Duran Duran was the first band to announce its own space where it would perform routinely and you can expect more to follow. Congress has begun investigating how to tax transactions involving virtual objects in Second Life. UC Berkeley just had a seminar on using Second Life for education and collaborative research. The list goes on and on.

Neal Stephenson’s wildly entertaining book Snow Crash is being brought to life – perhaps an early version, but a fascinating one that promises to absorb a lot of our copious free time in the next few years.

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