6 Lessons on the Future of the Metaverse From the Creator of Second Life
A version of this article was published in TIME’s newsletter Into the Metaverse. Receive a weekly update on the Internet’s future by signing up
In 2007, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale made a bold proclamation: “The 3D web will rapidly be the dominant thing and everyone will have an avatar.” Considering the success of his creation, it wasn’t an altogether far-fetched idea. Second Life—a virtual world in which participants can explore fantastical landscapes and build their own mansions, forests and spaceships—was reaching the crest of its popularity, with Many thousands of people are actively involved You can also find out more about a 500 million dollars in self-reported GDP. Second Life was featured on the Coverage of BusinessWeekVirginia Governor and Presidential hopeful. Mark Warner hosted a town hall. His avatar wore a white suit and tie. Reebok and Dell have invested in virtual stores to get ready for a new age of marketing and sales. Rolling Stone Referred to as it (skeptically) as “the future of the net;” The GuardianProclamed: “Today Second Life, tomorrow the world.”
This sounds familiar? It’s hard not to look back on the frenzy around Second Life in the mid-aughts and see parallels to the discourse around the metaverse these days. Rosedale and other Second Life optimists often used identical rhetoric to crypto idioms today: He called Second Life “the Wild West,” compared its growth to that of the early internet and foresaw the “entire physical world as being Kind of forgotten.”
Second Life was no longer growing. It wasn’t uncommon for users to struggle for hours on-boarding into the world, only to find themselves wandering around Ghost Cities with vacant storefronts. Reuters—which made a big fuss of opening a bureau in Second Life in 2006—pulled out about two years later; brands abandoned their posts. Looking back, we can see that Reuters opened a bureau in Second Life in 2006. Second Life a dozen years after its peak, it’s less a transformative cultural lynchpin than The punchline in a sceneIn The Office.
It would also be grossly misleading to consider Second Life a failure. It is responsible for connecting millions of people to virtual worlds for the first time, and for creating tight-knit communities especially for those who are marginalized or excluded. Persons with physical disabilities• and to pioneer digital economies. A spokesperson for Second Life’s parent company Linden Lab said that users have spent the equivalent of 500,000 years in Second Life, and that 750,000 monthly active users still inhabit the world: flying around, building and buying stuff, nurturing virtual families.
So there’s plenty that the current builders of the metaverse can learn from Second Life, both for better and worse. To look back—and forward—I talked to Second Life founder Philip Rosedale and Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist who spent two years inside the virtual world at its peak and then wrote the book A Second Life Anthropologist: Coming of age in Second Life.
Below are some key takeaways they took from Second Life’s saga.
Virtual worlds can be used by people without any explicit purpose.
As Dwight Schrute tells Jim Halpert on The Office, Second Life is not a game: “It doesn’t have points or scores; it doesn’t have winners or losers.” It is this aimlessness that confounded many early users, and a similar criticism continues to dog recent conceptions of the metaverse. What is the “killer app?”—the feature that makes it indispensable to users—critics ask. What is the point of a world that doesn’t fulfill an obvious need?
Rosedale and Boellstorff both agree that Second Life is an excellent place to live. “It’s often not that going into a virtual world is sort of fulfilling a pre-existing need,” Boellstorff says. “A lot of people check these things out because they hear about them, but then sort of discover something that they enjoy doing or a community they enjoy interacting with that they didn’t know about ahead of time.”
Rosedale says this unbounded potential for creation was a key reason for Second Life’s success. “I think the reason why tens of millions of people tried it out was the promise of the ability to be creative and expressive in a realistic, lifelike domain,” Rosedale says. “You need a toolkit that lets people build things live from kind of small parts: That has to be present in a metaverse to make it successful.”
People will spend money on digital goods—but very few creators will actually make a living.
Another common talking point against the metaverse is that people won’t buy things that only exist in virtual spaces. Second Life has proven this to be false. Second Life’s 10 year anniversary saw a staggering increase in users. $32 billion in real money on in‑world transactions. Rosedale loves to claim that Second Life had the first NFTs, which are unique virtual goods you can buy or sell. For example, a dress designer might create an exclusive dress to wear at a virtual ball so its wearer could stand out from the rest.
Rosedale says there was a key distinction between Second Life’s one-of-one goods and NFTs, however: Speculative value wasn’t at all a factor in Second Life. “I’m very proud of the idea that there is an intrinsic value—for a coat for your avatar or a motorcycle—that’s driven by the creativity of the designers,” he says.
These unique digital items made up a very small percentage of Second Life’s overall economy, and only a scant few made a living off creating them. Boellstorff has reservations about the utopian visions of digital creations where most creators can make money selling digital goods. “It’s similar to something like YouTube: You have a relatively small percentage who really make income from it, and a lot of people who are just consumers, or some people who sort of informally make stuff that they don’t sell to make money,” he says.
Technology challenges and ease-of-use remain major roadblocks to mass adoption.
In the following: 2017. Article about Second LifeIt is the AtlanticIt was reported that 20% to 30% of users who tried the platform for the first time never came back. The world was confusing for many. Reuters reporter Eric Krangel Write that the Second Life had a “monster learning curve,” a convoluted user interface and an oft-crashing server. The Second Life also failed to develop a viable mobile application during an era when smartphones were ubiquitous.
Although Second Life has solved many of these issues through technological advances, virtual worlds that want to appeal to a large audience must still overcome enormous barriers to entry. Rosedale says that his current company, High Fidelity—which specializes in spatial audio for apps like Clubhouse—ran recent studies on metaverse technology, and found that “people don’t want to be a cartoon avatar while wearing a VR headset,” he says. “We concluded it was an extraordinarily difficult thing to get, like, regular people at work to want to become a cartoon avatar with very little in the way of facial expressions. It’s really stressful for people to do that, and most of them won’t.”
(Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is investing heavily in creating Photos of photorealistic avatars; Microsoft’s avatars remain Cartoons.)
Some demographics may not be attracted to virtual worlds.
Rosedale points out that current interest in metaverses arose in response to a peculiar moment in time during the pandemic, when everyone was locked in their houses. He says it’s much harder to get certain people excited about spending the bulk of their time in virtual worlds in normal circumstances.
“If you live a comfortable life in New York City and you’re young and healthy, you probably are going to choose to live there. If I offer you the life of an avatar, you’re just not going to use it very much,” Rosedale says. “On the other hand, if you live in a rural location with very little social contact, are disabled or live in an authoritarian environment where you don’t feel free to speak, then your avatar can become your primary identity.
Rule-making is difficult as well. Identity can be tricky.
Rosedale did have the power to create Second Life the way he wanted, however he was careful to follow the principles decentralization and he tried his best to remain as neutral as possible. There was some espionage, as reported byMoney laundering, sex simulation for minorsCopyright violations and trademark violations are also prohibited.
“The question of what kinds of moderation is needed for us to equitably co-exist in a metaverse are yet unanswered,” Rosedale says. “There are things like getting identity right, so you’re not doxxing a person by identifying the real person behind the avatar—but the avatar or the pseudonym of the individual is sufficiently stable so there are consequences to their actions and they’re going to behave well. But we are simply not there yet on the internet: We don’t have identity systems yet that would enable strong governance.”
Boelstorff believes that Second Life’s subscription model—in which people pay to own land—has helped ward off the worst tendencies of ad-driven companies like Facebook, which was shown to have Prioritize profit over correcting misinformation. Jaron Lanier (tech pioneer) also believes that Facebook and Twitter could solve many of our problems. Changed to a model that is paid) “The subscription model of Second Life is one reason that you don’t have misinformation and anti-vax stuff,” Boellstorff says. “None of this metaverse stuff going forward has to be a particular corporate ad-driven model.”
The metaverse doesn’t need to be ubiquitous. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Boelstorff scoffed at being asked about Second Life’s slow growth. “This hype of the Silicon Valley capitalist model is so overwhelming in the sense that to attract venture capital, you have to really sell yourself as the next iPhone or the next Facebook—that you’re going to transform the entire world,” Boelstorff says. “I think it just has such a warping effect in terms of agenda setting. There’s potentially some really good stuff about being online more and more, especially for folks who are disabled, or for climate change in reducing cars on the road. But I never shade into this like, ‘We’re all going to be living in the Matrix’ kind of thing.’”
More than a decade after Second Life’s peak, Rosedale concedes that he conceptualizes our move into virtual worlds with less inevitability than he did in 2007. But he says Second Life shows that there’s still a huge appetite for virtual exploration, especially as the technology improves. “Allowing somebody to be really expressive and creative in an environment that’s lifelike is an incredibly powerful offering. I think that’s why we all tried Second Life,” he says. “And I think that we will eventually get there—but it’s still a long road because the difficulty of it is considerable.
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