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.”
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 left behind.”
And then Second Life stopped 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 empty 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. As we look back on Second Life a dozen years after its peak, it’s less a transformative cultural lynchpin than the punchline of a scene in The Office.
On the other hand, it would also be a gross misrepresentation to view Second Life as a failure. It was responsible for introducing millions of people into virtual spaces for the first time; for fostering incredibly tight-knit communities, especially for outcasts or physically impaired people; and for pioneering 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 Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.
Here are some of their main takeaways from the Second Life saga.
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