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In 2003, Wagner James Au was a young freelance writer in the Bay Area covering massive multiplayer games like The Sims Online for Salon and Wired. During that time he got an assignment to review a new virtual-world game called Second Life, made by a company called Linden Lab. He started poking around this nascent digital world and, soon after, met the developers, who made him an interesting offer to embed as a reporter inside the game. Au had complete editorial freedom to cover everything Second Life, including weird goings-on, harassment, and cybercrime. Eventually, Au wrote one of the definitive books on the game, The Making of Second Life: Notes From the New World. He still exhaustively covers developments in Second Life on his blog, New World Notes, the longest-running metaverse news site. One of his most recent posts is about Russian Second Lifers who run digital businesses in the game, and are now trying to escape sanctions by fleeing the country.
Au is, in short, one of the few people with a real historical perspective on, and lived experience in, metaverse communities. Since Facebook rebranded as Meta, the idea of the metaverse has been consumed by a kind of ahistorical hype cycle. Brands are flooding into the space and people are issuing broad proclamations about what a virtual world is supposed to look like. There are also plenty who are dismissing the metaverse as “something nobody asked for,” but as Au’s experience shows, there are millions of people who’ve been dutifully cultivating and thriving in digital worlds for decades now.
Au is a sharp observer of this space and, to some degree, an advocate for digital worlds. But he’s also a journalist and a critic. He offers a hopeful look at the promise of metaverse communities but also pulls no punches talking about the ways in which craven actors threaten to bring the whole experiment down. I found his answers about Meta’s forays into the metaverse to be especially worthwhile.
Charlie Warzel: People talk all the time about the metaverse as if it’s this new thing that Facebook is trying to bring into existence. There are people like yourself who’ve been documenting metaverse communities for decades. How big is Second Life right now?
Warzel: When the idea of an immersive virtual internet is bandied about, people tend to make huge assumptions. What did you learn walking the Second Life beat as a reporter?
Au: Two big things. First, if you give a user community powerful enough creator tools, what they create in these worlds will be far more interesting than anything a major company can officially create. In terms of the culture of a metaverse environment and the community’s experiences in a place like Second Life, that’s remained true since 2003.
Second, I’ve learned that, as humans, we take all of the big challenges of real life and the complex social structures of the physical world and they get re-created in weird ways in a digital, social space. Racism, for example, is an enduring issue and an interesting one in these worlds. There are very basic questions: If you can change your avatar to anything at all, what race would you choose? And are there any rules governing representation? Then there are issues of discrimination and harassment. In Second Life these issues create ongoing controversy, and Meta will have to deal with it in whatever they’re building. Racism doesn’t go away, no matter the avatars people choose. People talk a lot about how these worlds allow you to be freer than in the physical world but there’s a flipside where people can sometimes be worse in these spaces because people feel freer to be assholes. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing necessarily—these are simply just challenges that exist in these virtual worlds.
Warzel: I’d love to hear a bit more about the way users always build more interesting things than companies. I think that’s true across a lot of social media, too. Twitter is probably the best example with the way users actually created a lot of the conventions like retweets organically, and then the platform had to scramble to code them in. What are some good examples of surprising things you’ve seen people do in Second Life?
Au: One of my favorites is a mathematician who built a house that exists beyond three dimensions—a home shaped like a tesseract, a four-dimensional hypercube. If you walked through their house it would keep just regenerating in interesting ways and you’d walk through it eternally. It’s mind melting. No game company would ever come up with that. And that was early on in the game. One of the first people I met in Second Life was a woman who’d built this mansion by the ocean. We started talking and she casually mentioned that she was homeless in real life. She had built this Second Life home while squatting in an abandoned apartment in Vancouver. She had a background working with computers and had cobbled together an internet connection and she built this Second Life life as an escape in real life. It was an example for me of what is possible if you have people from different lived experiences and you give them the tools to build things. What happens will surprise you.
Warzel: A reason I’m asking is because I think that Second Life has a stigma for people who don’t know much about it. But something I try to keep in mind when writing about online communities is that they’re (usually) filled with real, complex people. They’re not just weird introverts or shut-ins or people trying to escape reality.
Au: Part of the prejudiced reaction toward Second Life comes from the name. And I think Linden Labs knew they were opening themselves up to that criticism of people escaping reality. But as you know, with experiences online it’s always unpredictable. Something I’ve seen that’s fascinating is that a lot of Second Life users seem to try to build things they see on television. There have been so many people who’ve tried to re-create the Kardashians’ aesthetic—the fashion, the big glitzy houses. People will try to re-create things that are familiar but out of their reach. But that’s just one crowd—you have the previously mentioned mathematician using it as a place for, essentially, a physics experiment. The homeless woman I talked about, she now builds things in the virtual world professionally—it has turned into a real-life career for her.
What is also overlooked is that very early on Second Life integrated with the real-world economy so people could make a real living making content for the game. Philip Rosenadale, one of the creators of Second Life, has mentioned that there are are 1,600 Second Life users who earn $10,000 or more a year selling virtual content. I know a few people on the high end who are making millions. And it’s not just Second Life; this is all happening now in Roblox and Fortnite and other places, too.
Warzel: I’m not surprised that Second Life has a vibrant economy, but what is surprising is that it has lasted so long without feeling obsolete. What is the reason people haven’t left the platform? Is it just the time and energy they’ve invested? Or is there something else about the platform that keeps them engaged in Second Life?
Au: The investment is important. So many Second Life users have been there for 10, 15, close to 20 years. They’ve spent thousands of dollars on virtual content. They have friends—hell, I have friends and people I’ve known there since 2003. But the behavior varies. Some monthly users will be less active—they’ll log in to check in on the community or visit a favorite spot to see if things have changed. There’s some virtual migration. A lot of people are now spending time in VRChat, another online virtual-reality platform with a lot of similarities. So when I say there are 600,000 monthly active users, that doesn’t mean they are glued to the platform. They may log in for an hour to Second Life but find they’re spending more time in VRChat. A lot of people use the chat platform Discord to organize with their friends, and they jump from one platform to another if there’s a specific event or party or something worth doing.
Warzel: Oh, that’s really interesting. I like the idea that Discord is kind of like the TV Guide and each platform is a different channel and people just switch back and forth depending on what’s on.
Au: I think this is what Mark Zuckerberg and other would-be Metaverse builders right now are missing. It’s not the platform that matters as much as the community that is built around it. Rarely do communities have extreme loyalty to these platforms. If they don’t feel they’re being engaged with on a fair level, they take their friends and they get the hell out.
Warzel: What’s an example of not being engaged with on a fair level?
Au: Let’s take Meta’s Horizon Worlds virtual-reality platform. They launched with very limited creation tools and monetization tools and just very little effort to create a community there. I follow this stuff very closely and from what I hear and see, there’s not a huge community team working there with people from Meta who are trying to foster community. Now, this is something Linden Lab did very early on with Second Life. They created and inculcated a culture of creativity and free expression and respect for users’ anonymity. Linden Lab knew these things can’t be imposed hierarchically—you need people on the ground with avatars engaging with the community. I’m seeing hundreds of thousands of people in Horizon trying the platform and leaving, and it’s because the community is treated as some technicality on the way to platform adoption, as opposed to a new society and a new social context. There’s no small-town feel with Horizon, like there was when people were first coming into Second Life.
Warzel: How does that community cultivation work in practice? I’m imagining, like, Second Life employees as greeters, welcoming people into the space—but am I way off base? That sounds hokey.
Au: No, you’re right to a degree. There are greeters! And they are sometimes volunteers. Early in Second Life there were also large social, community projects. Philip Rosedale supposedly had the vision of Second Life while at the Burning Man festival and one of the first events they had in the game was a Burning Man recreation in 2003, and that helped set the pace and tone of what the community would be like. There was a heavy emphasis on serendipity and free-form engagement in the world. That might sound dumb but it’s actually profound. It takes so much work and community management and creating clear guidelines and tone setting among the user base to create that environment. And they were successful enough to attract a diverse crowd that had gamers but also people like the mathematician and hippies and people from all walks [of life].
Warzel: In one sense, it is obviously unsurprising that Facebook, or Meta, would struggle to foster healthy communities. It makes total sense that the company would be so monomaniacally focused on growth that they would fall down [on] or take for granted the difficult work of cultivating community. And yet I’m still taken aback at just how little they seem to have learned from past platform iterations.
Au: Also surprising is that Meta’s metaverse team has some Second Life employees on it, like Linden Labs’ former CTO. Another is the former Linden Lab employee Jim Purbrick. Right before Meta rolled out Horizon, he was warning the Meta team about needing guidelines for harassment on the platform, and it seems like the company kind of ignored him. And, of course, we’ve seen some well-documented examples of a woman being sexually assaulted on their platform. [In November 2021, a beta tester reported that she had been groped by a stranger in Horizon Worlds.] There are a lot of issues with rolling out a new platform that anyone with any metaverse experience could anticipate, but it seems Meta is throwing money at the problem without throwing much wisdom at it.
Warzel: Thanks in large part to Facebook, we’re in the middle of a huge metaverse hype cycle right now. How does all this feel to you? Is it frustrating to deal with all the misconceptions and people who want to write the future without studying the past?
Au: Honestly, overall it’s exciting. Because I feel like I saw the promise of these worlds early on and how wonderful and transformative they could be. But also, this metaverse hype wave is so similar to 2008. Everything’s being repeated now—the same news stories, the same assumptions, the same mistakes. During the 2008 hype, the tech was not ready for a mass market. Today, it has become a mass-market phenomenon with Roblox and Fortnite and other platforms. I think there are upwards of half a billion people who are now active users on a broadly defined metaverse platform. It’s the things I’ve envisioned coming to being. That’s exciting in some respects.
Warzel: What are the mistakes you see being repeated?
Au: Definitely the harassment issues. But there’s also the constant stories of, So-and-so company created a store in the metaverse! This happened a lot between 2006 and 2008—you had Intel, IBM, American Apparel, Nissan, and NBC who all created spaces in Second Life. Brands made mistakes then and they’re making them now. The first was that, in 2008, Second Life’s user base was not big enough to really support that type of effort. Second, these brands are assuming that they are relevant in a virtual-world context. Remember, this is a world where you can fly and instantiate things from nothingness. Nissan or IBM opening a store there isn’t very exciting. And so you have tens of millions of dollars being spent on these headquarters and a dozen people walk around them, get bored, and leave.
Back then, people saw those brand failures and concluded that the metaverse isn’t real or ready for primetime. I fear that might happen again. But the problem is not the users. It’s these companies not meeting these metaverse communities halfway. They’re bumbling their way into the community instead of finding ways to fit inside the community and make use of the platform to bring the magic to life.
Warzel: Earlier you mentioned how humans tend to re-create old social structures and problems in digital worlds. Something I’ve found kind of crushing is the lack of imagination from companies and actors in this space. You can literally build any possible vision of the future you want, detached from the laws of physics and reality, and you have Meta and others saying, Let’s do virtual meetings! You have people focused on trying to parcel up metaverse land and sell people predatory mortgages. Does that bother you like it bothers me?
Au: I find it mostly hilarious because most, if not all, of those things are destined to fail and lose people a lot of money. People focusing on the ways to turn a quick buck will miss the opportunity. Where I like to look is toward younger generations. What Gen Z is doing in metaverse spaces is what the early Second Life users [were] doing, but on a far, far more massive scale. They don’t consider re-creating the real-life tropes to be as meaningful as adults and brands do. What people don’t realize about younger metaverse users is that it’s not about re-creating a second space. The virtual space is real enough. When you watch people on Twitch playing Fortnite, they’re blowing each other up and talking about politics or geopolitics or issues in popular culture, whatever. The virtual-world experience is an interaction point, but it’s tightly integrated to real life. That’s what we’re going to see more with this metaverse generation, if we want to call it that. They are growing up with those experiences. They are the ones who’ll create whatever comes after traditional social media, not the brands.
Warzel: I love the way you put that, that the virtual-world experience is tightly integrated with real life. I feel like it’s also a poignant reminder of what you said earlier, that these worlds aren’t antisocial or necessarily escapes from “the real world.” They’re just a different part of the real world. To that point, what do you think people actually want out of a metaverse experience?
Au: They simply want to create and socialize and have fun. Some want to create new social experiences they can’t get in the real world. And that would include having distance in those relationships. Spend enough time in any virtual world and you end up having interesting social connections with people on the other side of the world. I think, with somebody like Mark Zuckerberg, his assumption is that people just want to have their friends in real life doing virtual things. But that’s really missing this massive opportunity for this globally connected platform where you can interact with everyone.
Warzel: Any good examples of this dynamic you can share?
Au: I see it right now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One of the first things I noticed was Russian content creators in Second Life promoting Ukrainian ones. Yes, the Russian government and Putin were invading and it was war, but the Russians in Second Life have very real connections to the Ukrainian people. And those relationships aren’t about national borders. I’ve found some of those gestures to be a poignant reminder of what could be possible.
Warzel: When I hear stories like that, I think about my big fear with this technology, which is that it is going to become sterile and soulless and financialized by companies trying to build overly commercialized platforms. I know Web3 and the metaverse are not the same idea, but something that irks me about Web3 is how it seeks to tokenize and turn everything it touches into a financial instrument of sorts. How much do you worry about that happening in these spaces?
Au: One of the things you mentioned that drives me crazy is the hype around NFTs and crypto-based metaverses. I’ve kept harping on this idea that very few people are collecting NFTs in general. More people actually own content in Second Life than own an NFT—vastly more. And these NFT-connected metaverses like Decentraland have very tiny user bases mostly populated by people who’ve invested in it. If you buy land in Decentraland, you have an incentive to have people come in.
With the Web3 would-be metaverses, I think they put the cart before the horse. If you put out a speculative offering, like a new coin that gains people entry into a digital world, people might show up, but I don’t know why they’d necessarily keep coming back. On a basic philosophical, human level, a thing is only valuable if a group decides it is. These crypto metaverses put the speculation before the community. Meta is sort of doing the same thing by openly saying they want to give people Oculus headsets and scrape their user data, including what people are looking at, in order to do advertising. Right there, once again, they’re putting the monetization right up front, before the community.
Warzel: Do the stakes feel high to you right now? If companies screw up their metaverse projects, doesn’t it set the whole experiment back or jeopardize it altogether?
Au: The big one here is Meta. They are planting a huge stake in the ground. Most outside observers assume that Facebook invented the metaverse and that whatever they build is what the metaverse is. And, of course, they’re just a new entrant into an older system. Meta might get its act together and succeed, but they don’t have their act together now.
But also, I don’t think that most of society has processed what it means that a huge percentage of all children in the U.S. are on Roblox. That they’re highly active in creating content for the company and trying to earn money. A lot of Roblox’s monetization structures are, at the very least, highly questionable. There are some actual child-labor issues here! And I don’t know how many people in Congress would even be aware that this is an issue they might want to look at.
What I mean to say is that metaverse issues are already real and big. There’ve long been national-security concerns around metaverse platforms. In the early 2000s I interviewed a terrorism expert who told me jihadist groups at the time had been planning and trying to execute terrorist attacks in Second Life. A part of the Snowden leaks revealed that NSA had investigators in Second Life to try and uncover plots. I imagine that after Ukraine, there will be concerns about platform roles in that conflict. There’ve been massive concerns about anonymous and semi-anonymous bad actors using systems in Second Life to move around currency. So, yes, I’m concerned about the metaverse idea getting diluted by huge companies like Meta who don’t get it. I’m also concerned that big institutions don’t realize how huge the phenomenon is right now.
Warzel: That’s a very good point. There’s been some interesting coverage of play-to-earn games and the various problems there. One issue I find especially dystopian is this idea that they will usher in a new era of “bullshit jobs,” of people just toiling in these platforms, grinding away all day at terrible repetitive tasks for ever-diminishing monetary rewards. Do you worry that these digital worlds could end up being all-consuming in a toxic way? I don’t mean this to be moral-panicky, but how much do you think about the idea that, if these spaces continue to take off but aren’t properly designed or regulated, people could really lose themselves in these worlds and disconnect from parts of the physical world?
Au: Honestly, this is a challenge we need to apply to every device we have. There’s a way in which this may be more of an issue for smartphones and social networks than virtual-world metaverse platforms. Metaverse platforms have real positive potential. But you’re right that there's so much negative and that we’ll have to explore them with an eye toward how we’ll balance those responsibilities with real-life community engagements. But that’s true for everything. You know, Facebook and Twitter actually do a better job keeping people hooked on them than the metaverse, at least right now.
Warzel: How so?
Au: There’s a difference with a virtual-world space, because in virtual worlds you actually get a sense of immersion and a sense of interacting with a real person in another part of the world. It creates real human engagement in a way that social media, which creates this disorienting illusion of engagement, does not. I don’t mean to sound utopian here, but in a virtual world context, everyone has an equal footing to start that they don’t have when they are on many social media platforms. And human engagement through virtual avatars is quite interesting. For some people it is an optimal way to engage—you have the familiarity of a non-text-based human interaction, but you also have just enough distance to be able to express yourself any way you see fit. It’s why some people feel they can be more themselves in a virtual world than in a physical space.
Warzel: I’ve never thought about it quite that way and it’s really fascinating. I’m thinking out loud about this, but there’s something interesting about the idea that social-media platforms now create this real distance, in part by being text-heavy. And that distance can lead you to say things or do things you’d never do in the physical world. It also lowers the bar for engagement, which means that firing off a shitty tweet is easy and people do it without thinking. But there’s so much engagement and visibility and context collapse that isn’t exactly human—like massive viral pile-ons or ratios—that leads people to not always want to express themselves as they see fit. And virtual worlds might invert these dynamics some. There’s a humanness that makes people feel seen and that raises the stakes a bit more for how you choose to act. And there’s also less of a virality element and an avatarlike shield, which means maybe some people might feel freer being themselves. That’s interesting to think about.
Au: I think the big battle going forward will be between these different platforms with different visions for what digital life should and could be. I just hope the human-centered ones win out.
Correction: This interview has been updated to reflect that there are 1,600 Second Life users who earn $10,000 or more a year from the game, with a small percentage earning over $1 million.