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  • Italians Get a Second Life
    You can learn about Italy from the comfort of your own home, thanks to virtual worlds
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    You don't have to go to Italy to go to Italy anymore. Thanks to the virtual world known as Second Life, anyone with an Internet connection can visit the motherland, practice the language, or meet other Italians and Italophiles. Nearly 500,000 Second Life residents logged in during a given week in November 2007. Although most are American, those in other countries are starting to catch on, too. Italy is beginning to pay attention to this three-dimensional virtual world that has its own economy, stock market, and leaders.

    Residents or those who sign up for Second Life, which was created by Linden Lab, first choose a name and create an avatar, an online persona that can look like anything from the girl next door to an animal such as a fox. I, for instance, have a female avatar with long, dark, hair wearing jeans and a purple sweater. My avatar is similar to the real me. But others prefer to go incognito or try on different personalities in the virtual world. Avatars, known as residents, buy and sell virtual property (with Second Life currency known as Linden dollars), build stores and bars and run these businesses, buy virtual clothing, and meet other avatars. Universities are offering courses through the virtual world and some people think Second Life - and others like it such as There.com, which caters to a younger crowd - are going to change business and the world as we know it in the near future. Some have even predicted that all Web sites will eventually move to a platform that has three-dimensional capabilities that will make things like online shopping seem ever more like shopping in the real world.

    American economists have been speculating for the past year about whether Second Life's virtual economy would ever spur movement in the real economy. An announcement by one resident who claimed to be the first virtual millionaire and a scandal that caused one of the stock markets to shut down temporarily and a run on the virtual banks had experts and residents pondering Second Life's future and relevance. Some are convinced Second Life is the future, and others think we're overestimating its power. In the meantime, folks around the world, including Italy, were starting to see the potential of communities such as Second Life, and they wanted in on the action.

    Members who enter Second Life and search “Italy” find a slew of results, including one for an Italian resort. There, your avatar can head to a romantic beach or seek out traditional Web sites with information on travel in Italy. One Second Life island called Napoli boasts an introduction to Capri and other real world sites near Naples. But Ischia, the island that my family calls home and neighbors Capri, is noticeably missing from the lineup.

    In any event, the marketing potential of the virtual world is not lost on Italians. Second Life has received lots of attention from the media because large companies and universities are creating entire islands or stores to attract virtual clients, who they hope will be moved to visit an online or traditional bricks and mortar store, where they can purchase real goods for their real selves. Recently, Italian designer Giorgio Armani tried his hand at the virtual world by opening an Armani store in Second Life. Reportedly, the famous designer joked that “he could finally be in two places at once.”

    Avatars will find a gray and black Armani shop typical of the real thing with stacks of clothes in neat piles and rows. The style is all clean lines and contemporary accents. It's chic and sophisticated, exactly what you would expect from one of the world's classic designers. Of course, my avatar could not figure out how to actually enter the store - or perhaps, it's closed on Sundays. All I know is that my avatar walked into the glass and bumped her head more than once. Since Second Life regulars are relatively few in number and others of us can't figure out how to be our virtual selves, the jury is still out on the 3-D site's usefulness to marketers. Still, marketing experts are encouraging companies to get their feet wet and see what happens or risk getting left out in the cold.

    Activism, on the other hand, already seems to be working in Second Life. Italians, who are known for their sciopero or labor strikes, have even been getting their avatars to join them in the picket lines. In September, avatars protested and picketed IBM's virtual real estate on behalf of employees of IBM Italy, who were peeved about the possibility of losing their performance bonuses. Members of the trade union Rappresentanze Sindacali Unitarie (R.S.U.) organized a one-day job action that had avatars carrying signs and expressing their disillusion.

    Apparently, the protest worked. IBM Italy and the union reached an agreement that included performance bonuses from 2007 to 2010 and had the company paying into a national health insurance fund, according to an article on Local Tech Wire. Andrea Pontremoli, the top executive at IBM Italia, resigned a few weeks later, according to the article. Although the company denied the protest had anything to do with it, rumors spread across the Internet that indeed his departure was linked to the labor dispute. Some virtual world observers said that this strike will probably lead to others and could help create a whole new negotiation system.

    Second Life isn't all business. People primarily are drawn to the virtual world because they'd like to meet others. They think of Second Life as a 3-D chat room. For those interested in Italy or Italians, it is the perfect place for a cultural exchange. At Italian Campus Classes on Second Life, according to a recent press release, your avatar - and in essence you - can learn the Italian language. Part of a partnership with Scuola Leonardo da Vinci and the consulting firm Sigmasei, the program promises to delight anyone with an interest in the Italian language.

    Whether you're thinking about visiting Italy virtually or in reality, learning more about an Italian designer, or picking up some new vocabulary, virtual worlds might be able to give you a hand. One thing is certain: The real world is getting ever smaller as a result of technology. It's virtually unbelievable.

    For more information on all things Italian, visit www.francescadimeglio.com.

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