There's been a bit of traffic on Conchango's blogs and email lists looking at Second Life. I don’t have a login there and I'm not planning on getting one soon: I don't have the time and none of my friends are on it.
I've been through more than one "online virtual community" since I first spent large amounts of time in IRC in 1993. Online communities need only two things to function:
The first is a sense that you are contributing something that is valued by the other participants. For example, writing blog posts that other people comment upon, or creating objects in Second Life's metaverse.
The second is human contact. Communication with other real human beings. Even those of us who shun Eastenders and office gossip like to know what our friends are up to. Human drama, even petty melodrama, will always be a feature of online communities, because it's part of human nature to get worked up about who said what to whom. Or as Freud put it, "man has two basic needs: work and love"
It's when we feel involved with real people, and that we have worked to add a contribution that we emotionally reject the notion that a virtual community is "unimportant" and "not as real" as the real world. The BBC reported recently that "Virtual communities are as important as their real-world counterparts, many members of online communities believe". I suspect that there are false assumptions at work in this supposed dichotomy. If you had asked someone in the early days of the telephone (circa 1900) if the friends that they spoke to on the phone were as important to them as the friends that they met face-to-face, you'd just get a funny look. Do you have friends with whom you exchange texts, and then friends whom you meet at the pub? Most likely you exchange texts with them prior to meeting them at the pub. People do that on email, IM, blogs and wikis too now. And why not? Communication by any medium is just communication, nothing radical.
Yet the "real" vs. "unreal" question today with regards "online communication" is supposed to be perfectly valid. Of my friends, the intersection of those that I "speak to" online and those that I "speak to" in person is near total. The ones not in the intersection are on the one hand a few refuseniks who can't be bothered to log in and read blogs or send email, and a few far-flung friends of friends online, where I have not yet had the opportunity to visit their corner of the globe. To me and to many others it's a total non-issue.
Using anonymity – or rather, assuming a pseudonym is beneficial to some people online. I'm sure that many do try to lead a double life for a while with various degrees of success. I think that most don't keep it up in the long term. What’s changed also in the last 10 years or so is that whereas very few people meet socially over the phone for the first time, this is common on mediums such as blogs with friends and friends-of-friends lists that facilitate meeting.
Cyberspace was defined by Bruce Sterling as "the `place` where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. _The_place_between_ the phones. The indefinate place _out_there_, where the two of you, human beings, actually meet and communicate.".
Which lead to the retort: "There's no "there" there." Hence ongoing attempts to make it more "immersive". Making something that looks just like real life may be "immersive", but it's also a bit naïve to assume that the most immersive medium is the "best" mode of communication. I'm sure Second Life has its uses, but email, text messaging and blogs have been immensely successful, not because they model real life exactly, but because they are well suited to some kinds of communication.
If I had to describe Second Life to my 1992 IRC-using self, I'd call it "A MUD with really good graphics instead of text, and live sound.". To which my old self could probably have asked "Is that all the improvement you get in 13 years?" So it's interesting that environments like Second Life and World of Warcraft seem to be at present at some inflection point of quality and of number of people using them, where they expand to a wider audience than before, and network effects come into play leaving a few winners of the competition.
But ultimately it's another way to connect people to people, should you choose to be connected.