Lessons From 19 Years in the Metaverse

A conversation with one of the few people who have real historical perspective on digital communities.

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.

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