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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Baker, Chris
Date published: February 22, 2012
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

In 2006, before James Cameron popularized the term "avatar" with sexy blue cartoons, and before tweet and google were everyday verbs, there existed a burgeoning online adult world called Red Light Center. And in the same way and Facebook have digitized shopping and conversation, Red Light Center has digitized sex.

Red Light Center is a part of Utherverse, an interconnected network of more than 80,000 virtual worlds. Utherverse is like The Matrix, only users voluntarily choose the blue pill. Millions of people lead complex lives in this simulated universe. Users create and customize an avatar, which becomes their identity within the various Utherverse worlds. Based on the notorious prostitution district in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Red Light Center was the first and most popular of these worlds, currently boasting more than 10 million active users.

In Red Light Center, like in real life, users can go to clubs, get drunk, have sex and even smoke weed. "It's similar to Second Life, except it's much more adult-themed," said Brian Shuster, creator of Utherverse. And from Friday, Feb. 24 to Sunday, Feb. 26, Red Light Center is hosting Utherverse's first Adult Entertainment Virtual Convention.

The event will be hosted in a virtual convention center designed by Red Light Center staff and is free to all users. Those who wish to sign up for $20 a month, however, can become VIPs and can access additional functions, including voice chatting with other people, getting naked and having cyber sex.

Like nearly every lucrative venture on the web, Red Light Center offers adult entertainment. It combines the social interactivity of Second Life with the eroticism of Adult Friend Finder and the ambiguity of any given "comments" section. Shuster has a history creating profitable innovations for the online adult entertainment industry. He began developing business models for the Internet in the early 1990s, finding various ways to make the web financially viable. His most successful (and most loathed) innovation: pop-up ads.

Shuster has made a career in Internet development and adult entertainment, two industries, he claimed, that are highly codependent. "Without porn, the Internet would be years behind where it is now technologically," Shuster said. "Heck, the only thing making any money on the Internet in the beginning was adult entertainment. It was the only thing generating real web traffic."

And while the Internet user base has expanded beyond a relative handful of girlfriend-less nerds over the past two decades, porn continues to have a major presence on the web. According to neu- roscientist Ogi Ogas' book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships (Penguin Group, 2012), roughly 13 percent of all web searches are for erotic content.

Shuster's virtual world capitalizes on the libido-driven nature of the web, but he claims it's also a place to meet real people. The interactive component nurtures "real" relationships. According to Shuster, nearly 1,000 virtual weddings are held in Utherverse every year. Users book a chapel and invite friends to come celebrate their online (and legal) union. But the adult components of the world are its greatest allure.

Aside from the subject matter, the convention is, for lack of a better word, pretty conventional. Multiple showrooms feature vendors hawking products in ornate booths. Speakers discuss business ventures and celebrities host seminars. Attendees hang out, mingle, and even drink and dance in the lounge. They can flirt with porn stars, browse unlimited erotica and purchase toys kinky enough to make Larry Flynt blush. But the entire event takes place online.

"People are embarrassed to go to these things in the real world," Shuster said. "This reduces the anxiety and embarrassment without losing the element of human interaction."

The convention booked real-life adult film stars such as Aurora Snow, Sabrina Deep and Samantha Mack to come address the convention about their careers. Other speakers include Helly Mae Hellfire: The Pornstar DJ and comedian Patrick Maliha. For some, the Utherverse programmers helped design look-alike avatars. Many, however, designed their own. "Some of the top-talent porn stars are avid gamers," Shuster noted. They looked forward to creating themselves in a virtual world.

Red Light Center's Adult Entertainment Virtual Convention opens to vendors on Feb. 24 and to the public on Saturday, Feb. 25. Advance registration is available on the convention's website, adultvirtual

-Chris Baker

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