Thursday, November 29, 2007

What is real anyway?

At work yesterday I attended a seminar on virtual worlds (Second Life, etc.) and the business opportunities they are creating. The presenter, reacting to the bewildered stares in the room, likened it to the early days of the Internet: few could understand how anyone was going to make money online.

I think I get that, and I think I can see the natural evolution. We used to conduct commerce in the real world for real goods, and when faced with the opportunity to conduct commerce in cyberspace for real goods, we were puzzled and resistant and then leaders like Amazon and EBay showed us how it could be done. Now, it's strange to stand up in front of a room of twenty-somethings and tell them about how just 15 years ago we had conference after conference obsessed with questions of whether or not the corporate world could actually make a profit on the web.

Now, it's questions of the viability of commerce in cyberspace for virtual goods. There is virtual money, backed by real money, which means that many business needs are still valid, plus all of the variations that unregulated virtual worlds bring, like can you be taxed in the real world on making profits in the virtual world with virtual money, or only when you convert your virtual money back to real money? (Which I assume must happen at some point, if you are one of the growing number who make a living off of their virtual world businesses. After all, virtual money doesn't pay rent in the real world or buy real groceries for the sustenance of living bodies. Unless your landlord and grocer are also willing to barter real life goods for virtual currency? My head hurts if I think about this too long.)

I was annoyed that some of the audience members seemed unable to grasp the simplest concept. Note that I was likely one of the oldest in the room, and one of the few not in an accountant or in a similar financial role. (Maybe they are too literal?) One kept asking, "But the land isn't really land, is it?" No, honey. And the world wide web isn't really a shimmering web of silken strings hanging out in space with your website domain sitting neatly at its IP address.


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