10 min read

How Should You Look When Doing Business In Second Life?

Avatars are among the most fascinating elements of Second Life. In the real world, how you dress and wear your hair makes a statement to the people you meet. The same thing is true in Second Life; how people look says something about what they think of themselves, and what they want other people to think of them. In Second Life, of course, everything about your appearance is customizable: Hair, clothes, body shape, and even gender and species. This past week and a half, I've been focused on p

Avatars are among the most fascinating elements of Second Life. In the real world, how you dress and wear your hair makes a statement to the people you meet. The same thing is true in Second Life; how people look says something about what they think of themselves, and what they want other people to think of them. In Second Life, of course, everything about your appearance is customizable: Hair, clothes, body shape, and even gender and species. This past week and a half, I've been focused on people doing real-world business in Second Life, and it's got me thinking about how they present themselves.

Last night, I had nervous energy to burn, and I spent a couple of hours customizing my avatar, Ziggy Figaro, making him look less like a soap-opera heartthrob and more like the guy I see in the mirror every morning brushing my teeth.

Here are some of my random observations about businesspeople's avatars in Second Life. But first, a disclaimer -- these are observations, not prescriptions. I'm not interested in setting myself up as the Second Life Business Etiquette Police.

On the other hand, if you're getting started in Second Life for business, I hope these observations help you make a good first impression, until you've been in-world long enough to make up the rules for yourself.

Let's get started:

Mitch Kapor, chairman of Linden Lab, PC pioneer, and inventor of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, has an avie that looks like he does in real life -- even down to the luau shirts that are sort of a trademark for him, as he noted at his keynote at the Life 2.0 conference on Monday.

Here's how he looked getting ready for the keynote:

Mitch Kapor gets ready for his talk at the Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

He said something very true: If you're dealing with people in Second Life who know you from real life, you want to look like yourself. That comment was probably the instigation for my wanting to make Ziggy Figaro look like me; when I'm dealing with people in SL, I'm not hiding my RL identity or role-playing.

There's nothing wrong with being anonymous and role-playing in Second Life. But they require different avatar appearances and behavior than business in SL does -- just like our personal lives in the real world require different clothing and behavior than work. Plenty of successful businesspeople in the real world are also amateur athletes; they don't wear their bicycle shorts and helmets around the office.

When a real-life company comes into Second Life, it's customary for the head guy -- and I am talking about men here -- to get an avatar that looks just like he does in real life. It's one of the indicators of real-life status in Second Life: If your avatar looks like your real-world self, you're conveying the impression you're someone who matters in the real world. But the opposite is not true; plenty of people who matter in the real world have off-the-shelf Second Life avatars, or fanciful ones.

Developers in Second Life seem to go for the ninja look with a suit. If you see a male humanoid avatar wearing a suit and tie, with one or two longswords strapped to his back, you know that guy's an developer.

Real-life women often prefer to present themselves as men in Second Life. They tell me they get subjected to fewer sexual advances, and general hassles, that way.

On the other hand, many women's avatars are absolutely gorgeous bombshells, like movie stars.

Other women choose drab avatars, barely altered from the default avies that Linden lets you choose from when you sign up. Often, the businesswomen wearing the default avies clothe them in business suits with skirts, and add fox ears, wings or a fluffy tail to complete the ensemble.

Many businesspeople in Second Life have alternate accounts, or "alts," for recreation, and they don't associate their real-life identities with the alts. They want the freedom to explore Second Life without getting their business reputations tangled up with what they're doing. Sometimes they just want to relax in Second Life without getting hit with instant messages from their business associates.

I have an alt, but I don't use it. I want to be seen as a part of the SL community, not just a drive-by journalist. So if I'm exploring or clubbing in SL, I do it as Ziggy Figaro.

A beautiful fantasy avatar is always appropriate. This killer robot showed up at the Life 2.0 conference. I don't know who he is in real life; in Second Life, he's Benjamin Linden. The last name indicates he works for Linden Lab. I think the avatar may be based on the Shrike, from the science-fiction novels The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.

Benjamin Linden attends the Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

Up until yesterday, my Ziggy Figaro avatar was something I bought off-the-shelf from Naughty Designs and customized very slightly.

It was fun going around looking like a leading man for a couple of months -- Ziggy Figaro looked far better than Mitch Wagner ever did. But I began to be uncomfortable with it. I felt like I didn't earn it.

In real life, I'm fat. Looking great in Second Life feels like cheating. This is a personal, esthetic choice, not a moral choice I'm imposing on anybody else. How you make your Second Life avatar look is your business.

I did my best to make Ziggyy look like me, but there's one thing I intentionally didn't make realistic. Ziggy's body type is still significantly different from my own real-life body. Ziggy Figaro is beefy, but he is much leaner than I am in real life.

I tried to approximate my body type in-world, but it just looked terrible. I think there's a certain fudge factor involved -- since most humanoid avies in SL look like underwear models, an ordinary fat-guy avie will look, by comparison, like an obese freak.

Or, at least, that's what I'm telling myself.

Here's the before and after pix.

My Second Life avatar, Ziggy Figaro, before

Ziggy Figaro after

The glasses are similar to my real-world specs. I felt like part of the effort to make Ziggy look like me should involve giving him glasses like the ones I wear in real life. My real-life glasses seem like part of my face. I didn't feel like my clothes are part of me, though; Ziggy will continue to dress better than I do in real life.

I bought the glasses at PrimOptic. Like my real-life glasses, my Second Life glasses can change color and opacity at the click of a mouse. And, like my real-life glasses, they give me the power to detect other people around me even when I can't see them, and fly higher than 220 meters.

If you want to change your appearance in Second Life, there's several ways you can go. You can buy something off-the-shelf; that's perfectly acceptable. Look for "skins" in the search tools. Naughty Design, where I bought my previous skin, has some great selections. There's plenty of other good skin shops around.

You can change your shape and features yourself. Second Life has, literally, about 100 controls in the client for altering your appearance, governing features like the shape of the head, the length and width of the torso, length of arms and legs, size of hands, width and distance between eyes, bags under the eyes, hair length in a half-dozen different parts of the head, and even the width and depth of the cleft between your lips and nose. That's the way I made the current Ziggy Figaro.

The best way to customize your appearance is to have a photograph or drawing of who you want to look like in front of you, and then keep referring back and forth between the photo and your avie as you make adjustments. That way, you can get it right even if you're, like me, not a visual artist; it doesn't require any special artistic skill. Tateru Ninu, who writes for the blog Second Life Insider, gave me that advice when I first started in Second Life. I started out with the photo you see at the top of this blog post, and then my wife came into my office and started making suggestions on how to alter Ziggy. She knows my face better than I do, she spends more time looking at it than I do. (Poor woman.)

You can save the appearance settings, and have a different body, face and hair for different occasions. Have an avie that looks like your real-life self for business, and another one that's tall, willowy and pale for vampire role-playing. (I messed up saving my original appearance -- alas, the original, studly Ziggy Figaro is gone forever. Or, at least, until I get the time and inclination to recreate him.)

You can also hire someone to create a custom avatar for you. This is Dobbs Fredriksson, the avatar for Jon Erickson, the editorial director of Dr. Dobb's Journal, which is published by the same company that puts out InformationWeek. I've never met Jon, but here's his picture; the avie looks just like him, doesn't it? It was created by Rockwell Maltz, of Made Men. He does great work, but be ready to pay.

Dobbs Fredrikkson in Second Life

Dobbs has a blue-pencil behind his ear; my colleague John Jainschigg of DDJ (a/k/a John Zhaoying in SL) created the pencil.

You'll notice, by the way, that businesspeople often choose Second Life names that sound like their RL names, either explicitly or just in a kinda-sorta way: Jainschigg/Zhaoying, Dobbs Fredriksson/Jon Erickson. I didn't go for that when I signed up; maybe I would have if I'd thought of it. When you sign up for Second Life, you choose your name when you create the account; Linden Lab gives you a list of last names to choose from, and lets you pick whatever first name you want, within limits. Linden Lab occasionally retires names from the list, and adds new ones; I'm keeping an eye out for Wagner to show up and when it does, I'm grabbing it.

I'll leave you with some screen captures from the Life 2.0 conference. Bear in mind all these avatars are there to learn about business and development in Second Life; they'll give you an idea of the range of choices. To enlarge the images for closer examination, click them, then click the "all sizes" link directly above the image.

This is one of the panels at the conference:

Panel at the Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

Audience shots:

The Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

The Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

I'm pretty sure that's Kurt Vonnegut on the T-shirt of the guy sitting next to me. I'm in the brown suit with the matching fedora. It's my old avatar, of course.

The Life 2.0 Conference in Second Life

The crowd to watch Mitch Kapor's keynote at the Life 2.0 conference in Second Life

This is Philip Linden, the avatar of Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale.

Philip Rosedale's avatar delivers a keynote at the Life 2.0 conference

How do you look in Second Life? Why did you choose that appearance? If you're not in Second Life, how do you think you'd like to look?