There Will Never Be Another Second Life

The other night, I had an odd conversation with ChatGPT, made somewhat stranger because the AI’s answers came out of a humanoid rabbit idly sucking on a juice box. He was standing alone in a virtual novelty store in Second Life, where he had recently been fired. The rabbit, the shop owner explained to me later, was meant to be a clerk, “but he kept trying to sell items that were not for sale.” (AI, after all, has a tendency to make things up.) So the rabbit had been demoted to the role of greeter, chatting with customers about the nature of comedy, his own existence, or whatever else they cared to ask.

BunnyGPT is among the first bots in the virtual world to have its “mind” wired to OpenAI’s large language model. It’s an example of how Second Life, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, continues to evolve, with a community that taps into new technologies for its own oddball purposes. Nothing else is quite like it—Second Life is neither exactly a social network nor really a conventional game, which has both limited its mainstream appeal and ensured its longevity. To this day, tens of thousands of people are logged in at any given time, inhabiting a digital world that’s more original than the corporate versions of virtual existence being offered by Meta and Apple.

The reasons for the virtual world’s longevity are as paradoxical as they are inspiring, especially in this moment when traditional social media seems to be collapsing in on itself, or flailing for new relevance, even as the rise of generative AI promises an uncertain, discomfiting future. Developed by a company named Linden Lab, Second Life was inspired in part by the metaverse as first described with biblical specificity in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic Snow Crash: a massive virtual world created by its users and connected to the real-world economy. Countless technologists who began their career in the 1990s were also inspired by that novel. But Linden’s charismatic founder, Philip Rosedale, added to this geeky conception a distinctly bohemian muse: Burning Man, the orgiastic art festival held every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

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“I was just blown away by the fact that I was willing to talk to anyone,” Rosedale once told me, remembering his time on the playa, “that it had this mystical quality that demolished the barriers between people. And I thought about it: What magical quality makes that happen?” Rosedale believed that allowing users to create their own content, along with highly customizable avatars, would also evoke a similar sense of serendipity.

For its first three years, Linden Lab contracted me to be the virtual world’s official “embedded journalist”—a roving reporter using a digital avatar in a white suit (my pretentious tribute to Tom Wolfe), impertinently asking members of the early user community about their virtual lives—ambitious collective art projects, savvy business ventures, the pixel sex they were having with the attachable genitals they inevitably created.

Rosedale’s dream of merging the metaverse with Burning Man succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. I’m always stunned to scroll through my blog, to review the people I met in Second Life as avatars. I’ve talked to an Iraqi arts professor who excitedly logged into Second Life through his sputtering, postwar internet connection from the ancient city of Babylon; a Jewish American woman who, with the help of her daughter, began logging into the virtual world to give lectures about surviving the Holocaust; a young Japanese sex worker who, in between porn shoots, created in Second Life an eerie memorial to the nuking of Hiroshima; the conceptual artist Cao Fei, who created an entire city in Second Life, and then—15 years before NFT mania—sold virtual real-estate deeds for her digital metropolis to bemused patrons at Art Basel.

Many of the profiles I wrote about avatars occurred by pure happenstance. Randomly visiting a virtual Bayou bar one day, I saw an avatar playing blues guitar, his appearance customized to look like a tall old Black man. Clicking on the user’s account, I realized that in real life he was Charles Bristol, an 87-year-old bluesman and the grandson of once-enslaved people, who’d lived long enough to play live music in the metaverse.

Still, despite this miraculous diversity—or perhaps because of it—mainstream adoption of Second Life remains elusive. The utopian ideals that contributed to Second Life’s longevity as an online community may also have relegated it to a niche platform. To encourage as much free-form user creativity as possible, Linden Lab adamantly refused to market Second Life as a game. That effectively made the virtual world uninviting to gamers (who subsequently moved on to Minecraft and other popular sandbox games), while leaving new users confused and adrift. At the same time, this lack of consumer categorization excited a disparate coterie of academics, artists, and other nonconformists who became regular denizens of Second Life—but who might have refused to join had it been positioned as a mere video game.   

The utopian paradox even extends into how Second Life was developed by employees at Linden Lab. Under the idealistic direction of Rosedale and his CTO, Cory Ondrejka, the start-up operated with a no-managers, “choose your own work” policy, cheekily dubbed the “Tao of Linden.” Their creativity thus unleashed, Linden developers wound up adding a farrago of persnickety features to the product with little unifying direction that might create a seamless, user-friendly experience. To this day, the Second Life application resembles a massively multiplayer online game welded to a 3-D-graphics editor duct-taped to a social network crammed into an ancient television remote with infinite buttons.

But the program’s very complexity became a kind of initiation rite. Some 99 percent of new users would quit, overwhelmed and aggravated, most within their first hour in the virtual world. Those who stayed long enough to learn how to use the software—usually guided by a patient “oldie” community member—found themselves welcomed into an exclusive club. Second Life quickly became a small enchanted city with an eccentric but charming citizenry, surrounded by a brutal desert that few dared cross. Linden Lab, in other words, had inadvertently re-created the Burning Man experience a bit too thoroughly.

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Using the world’s 3-D creation and coding tools, the community quickly built a veritable multiverse of items and experiences spanning nearly every conceivable genre and avenue of human interest (an evening gown made of fishhooks; a self-generating steampunk city in the sky; a tesseract house with no beginning or end). And because users could also sell their creations in Second Life and exchange the world’s virtual currency for USD, thousands of local 3-D artisans created successful small businesses, many of them servicing the sprawling avatar-fashion industry. The most well-known Second Life–based brands took on celebrity status; at the very high end, grassroots creators in this and other virtual worlds pulled in millions of dollars. It also created another reason for staying: Long-term Second Life fashionistas typically have spent many thousands of dollars on virtual fashion items in their inventory.

Alongside all that commerce and creativity, I noticed the rise of powerful subcommunities in Second Life that would be difficult to replicate in the real world, or even with traditional social media. The trans community, for example, is remarkably large in the virtual world, comprising about 500 registered groups, people from around the globe in search of a secure place to exhibit their identity; some are so battered by transphobia in their offline lives that they save expressions of their full self for the gender customizations of their Second Life avatars. And as the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, I started noticing military veterans—separated by distance, social pressure, and battle wounds—informally meeting together as avatars to discuss their PTSD and other painful topics. As the director of a veteran-support organization once put it: “I know Marines that say that Second Life is working when nothing else has.”

They are not alone. I’ve seen similar communities spring up in many other, newer virtual worlds. By my estimate, more than 500 million people are active community members within platforms that roughly fit what Stephenson described in Snow Crash—especially VRChat, a kind of next-generation successor to Second Life. Many of these metaverse communities may have a longevity similar to Second Life’s, thriving apart from the algorithmic sirens of social media and the reckless growth of generative AI. We may briefly enjoy conversing with ChatGPT-powered bunnies, but ultimately we yearn to connect with real humans behind the avatars we meet.

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