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1/26/2007
04:56 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Second Life's First Celebrity

Second Life has produced one authentic celebrity so far: Anshe Chung, who claims a financial worth of $1 million real-life, American dollars for creating and selling virtual goods and services. I interviewed her for two hours yesterday evening in Second Life, and woke up this morning with a new appreciation of how slippery identity and reality is in Second Life.

Second Life has produced one authentic celebrity so far: Anshe Chung, who claims a financial worth of $1 million real-life, American dollars for creating and selling virtual goods and services. I interviewed her for two hours yesterday evening in Second Life, and woke up this morning with a new appreciation of how slippery identity and reality is in Second Life.

Also, how the environment seems to be saturated with sex. I'm not seeking it out. It actually makes me uncomfortable, but it keeps jumping out at me.

For starters, just who was I interviewing in our in-game, instant-message exchange? According to Wikipedia, "Anshe Chung is the main avatar (online personality) of Ailin Graef in the online world Second Life.". I'm pretty sure that's who I was interviewing yesterday.

But I'm not 100% sure. I didn't ask. That sounds dumb of me, but, immersed in the Second Life environment, it didn't seem all that important. After all, I could see who I was talking to: An attractive, thoroughly modern, young Chinese woman, with artfully arranged, wild hair, wearing tight blue jeans, a camisole, and brightly colored platform sandals. She looked real to me, my mind automatically edited out the fact that she was a crude cartoon character.

It might not have been Graef, though. Might have been her husband, Guntram Graef, or any of the employees of her business, Anshe Chung Studios. Do any of them use the Anshe Chung account? I don't know. Like I said, I didn't ask. I was in the moment, in the game, playing the role of journalist Ziggy Figaro (that's the name of my avatar) interviewing Anshe Chung.

Update, 9:30 pm: Anshe Chung wrote me an e-mail to take issue with this, and several other statements in this blog post. Read about it here: "The First Celebrity Of Second Life Says She Was Misquoted"

Identity is a tricky thing in Second Life. The two other avatars I interviewed, Tateru Nino and Dirjha Summers, would only give me skimpy information about the real people they represented. Tateru Nino wouldn't tell me his or her true gender, and Dirjha Summers wouldn't tell me which city she lives in. Of course, neither would tell me their real names.

Now let's take the question of Anshe Chung's fortune. She announced two months ago that her assets amount to more than $1 million. According a report from my colleague, Tom Claburn, Anshe's holdings "include 36 square kilometers of imaginary land, several million Linden dollars (the Second Life currency), virtual stores, and virtual stock investments in Second Life companies. The estimate of her net worth reflects the current exchange rate for Linden dollars and the price for virtual goods in U.S. currency."

In other words, she's claiming real-world wealth based on virtual assets. Be careful, Anshe, that's exactly how lots of people holding dotcom stocks got burned last time around.

Now let's talk about sex. Sex seems to saturate new Internet technologies. I started covering the Internet full-time around 1995, and very quickly got involved in coverage of some of the earliest efforts to censor Internet pornography, when really all I wanted to write about was the fledgling businesses on the Internet. But even my e-commerce coverage had a blue tint to it, because one of the earliest successful Internet businesses was a company called Playboy Enterprises.

In 2002, I set out to write an article about this newly mainstream phenomenon called "blogging" for a local San Diego newspaper, and discovered that one of the most popular blogs in San Diego was for a great-looking young guy who lived in a house with several great-looking young women, where every room, including bedrooms and bathrooms, had an always-on Webcam. I walked away from writing that article, I just wasn't comfortable with the direction the subject matter had taken.

And now I find that Second Life is a pretty sexualized environment. I mentioned earlier how I was surprised to find that my first in-game interview in Second Life, with Dirjha Summers, ended up being with a virtual exotic dancer in the bar where she danced.

And how does this connect to Anshe? Well, the self-described "tech gossip rag" Valleywag has made a crusade out of debunking Second Life hype,, and ran a recent item pointing to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald exposing Anshe Chung's "seedy past". It appears that she used to engage in cybersex, and received Linden Dollars for it. So Anshe and I ended up discussing that a bit, when I would have much preferred to leave it alone. I didn't get into tech journalism to write about sex.

We also discussed the attacks against Anshe by "griefers" (in-game practical jokers), including one highly visible attack that took place during a CNET interview, which resulted in Chung's business filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice in an effort to suppress video recordings of the attack.

P.S. After writing the preceding, I did a phone interview with Nick Ducheneaut and Bob Moore, both researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center, who are avid online gamers themselves, and study gaming and its effect on society for PARC. I mentioned the extent to which I perceive Second Life is about sex -- and how I'm uncomfortable with that -- and they said yes, but (1) It's really no more about sex than the Internet as a whole is, or real life for that matter (2) You mostly have to seek out sex on the Internet, but Second Life is more disorganized and so it jumps out at you and (3) A lot of the sexual venues and apparatuses in Second Life aren't used. In other words, it looks like there's more sex in SL than there actually is.

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