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A virtual me? I'll second that

By CNN's Kristie Lu Stout
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- There I was, flying high about hilltops and gardens, decked out in a red tunic and black stilettos.

Well it wasn't actually me; it was my digital double or "avatar" Kristie LeShelle. And she was defying gravity in the weird 3-D world that is Second Life.

Second Life -- otherwise known simply as "SL" -- is the much-hyped online environment that has pushed social networking into three dimensions, the deliberate objective of its mastermind Philip Rosedale and his company Linden Lab.

"The intention behind Second Life was to create a world not just where a bunch of people were connected together in some way," says Rosedale from his real world HQ in San Francisco.

"But a world in which everything was built by us, by the people who were there in a kind of Lego block sort of way to rebuild the laws of physics."

It is enormous, and unless you know where you want to go, sometimes difficult to navigate. It's full of oceans, gardens, shops, and discos -- 100 square miles of fun, and expanding rapidly.

It has its own currency, the Linden dollar (roughly L$270 to the greenback), with Linden Lab making money mainly by charging a monthly fee for the land its members own -- turning Rosedale into the virtual king of a growing virtual empire.

My avatar meets Rosedale's on a mountain top in Svarga -- a place that looks like an island, spectacular in its colors and creation.

We communicate by text, similar to instant messaging, our avatars pounding away on invisible keyboards. Our expressions and movements are limited, and the graphics are somewhat clunky.

But one can see clearly that Rosedale's SL doppelganger is sporting spiky hair, tattoos, a handlebar mustache and a tight "Rocky Horror Picture Show" T-shirt -- nothing like the relatively fresh-faced, real-life version.

I ask him about how I look.

He's polite but -- reading between the lines -- disappointed.

"You look great! Though comparatively, this would be considered a no frills approach," Rosedale's avatar says.

"Our residents pull out all the stops when personalizing their look, and I think you'd be quite surprised with the creativity and level of detail they achieve."

Second Life claims over two million residents, but has about 250,000 regular visitors. In reality there are around 20,000 users logged on at any one time.

And what do most of them get up to?

"Shopping for any of the tens of thousand of in-world objects is a perennial favorite, as is attending music events, dance clubs and any number of social activities," Rosedale's avatar says.

There is also a slightly seedier pastime for many residents. A quick search for the most popular places, and the list is filled with strip clubs, escort services and other red light district activities.

As for Rosedale, he says he likes to explore new destinations and see what Second Lifers are doing.

What some are doing is making money.

The business buzz around Second Life is big with many major names rushing in.

A quick list: Starwood Hotels and Resorts opened a virtual hotel, rapper Jay-Z played a concert, IBM has made a virtual real-time replica of the Australian Open and Reuters news agency has a presence.

Even carmakers have joined the fray. A virtual version of the Scion -- the latest vehicle from Toyota Motor Sales -- is available to the Second Lifers for a few hundred Lindens.

Though Second Life is getting crowded with big name brands, there's still room for budding businesses.

"There are probably hundreds or thousands of people that would call this their full time job actually. The SL economy, at this point is about $9 million a month user to user, goods and services," real-life Rosedale says.

Possibly the best known Second Life entrepreneur is Anshe Chung, a virtual property tycoon who made it on the cover of "BusinessWeek" last year.

Anshe boasts that she is the first virtual world millionaire, amassing her fortune selling and leasing property.

We meet at her offices -- our avatars at least -- and I ask her for her advice for wannabe SL entrepreneurs.

Live in Second Life for two months before doing anything and do your homework, she tells me.

Anshe is a success. And that has also made her a target for abuse. During a recent forum she was subjected to a "griefing" attack when a torrent of pixilated male genitalia rained upon her.

The short-lived attack over, Anshe continued with the conference. The prank hurt not just Anshe but also Ailin Graef, the woman behind the avatar of Anshe -- a mother and former teacher.

The makers of Second Life condemn such acts, and Rosedale insists his creation is a force for good.

"Through history we have seen that as technology has enabled people to be better connected for there to be more transparency, more openness, more rapid communication between individuals, that has always been a force for social good," he says.

Wielding this powerful tool, what do I do?

I learn how to fly. I buy a virtual car. And I hold court with the virtual king.

In this ultimate fantasy world, anything can happen.

But will I go back?

Probably not. I have enough dramas in the real world.

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