The virtual universe didn’t die from becoming unpopular in the mainstream, quite the opposite, in fact.
Avatars hanging out during a live radio show in Second Life. Photo by HyacintheLuynes via Wikimedia Commons
It’s probably been a long time since many people out in the real world thought about the virtual universe of Second Life. Developed in 2003 by Linden Lab, Second Life is a comprehensive, open-ended digital version of reality, tinged with the promise of making the impossible possible—from flying, to morphing into strange beasts, to owning your own utopian nation. Inspired by the Metaverse in Neil Stephenson’s 1992 seminal sci-fi hit Snow Crash, people had high hopes that Second Life would change the world. From 2006 to 2009, optimism about this new space reached a fever pitch, with dedicated reporters, travel guides, and hundreds of businesses clamoring to get in on the excitement of a whole new universe within our own. Researchers flooded into this alternate world as well, examining all the ways one could use Second Life to, say, help Asperger’s patients develop their social skills in a specially tailored, therapeutic safe space.
“At the height of Second Life’s hype wave,” wrote Wagner Au in Polygon last summer, “the world resembled a libertarian fever dream, with garish sci-fi cities and fantasy sex palaces strewn right alongside official corporate headquarters and high-toned shopping malls…It was crass, endlessly chaotic, and mostly ugly.” Second Life seemed like a bustling, morphing, and dynamic Wild West town on its way to stabilizing into a new kind of virtual metropolis.
A cat at a cafe. Photo by Jupiter Firelyte
Yet for most of the world, the promise of Second Life never panned out. The fun of wish fulfillment wore off and the lag of the cheesy graphics kicked in. Businesses learned that there wasn’t much money to be made in the simulation. And people who tried to take the platform seriously faced trouble from “griefers,” people who made it their business to mess up other users’ experiences. One such group once attacked a CNET in-world interview using a swarm of flying, chunky, disembodied pink schlongs, after which many reporters seem to have taken the message and left. The common narrative was that Second Life started to decay. Virtual properties went vacant, cities lay empty, and the number of residents of the increasingly dystopian, dirty, and absurd world fell, as post-2009 humans fled back to the predictable dynamism of the real world.
Though that’s not quite the whole story. In truth, Second Life remains quite alive, clocking a million active users per month as of 2013 and up to 13,000 new users ever day. The site may actually have a larger, more stable population as of today than it did at its 2006-to-2008 peak of popularity and respectability. Yet we don’t hear about this continued vibrancy in Second Life, mainly because it’s no longer thought of as a space for general populations to enhance their lives. Instead it has generated a second life of its own as a uniquely attractive hub for globally dispersed subcultures to join together. These groups can create whole worlds that unite them, transcending role-playing and turning their ideologies into a comprehensive society.
Image from Cirque de Seraphim Second Life ASPCA fundraiser. By Serena Snowfield via Flickr
This may have been Second Life’s real fare from the get-go. Although Linden Lab really went out of its way to market their virtual world as a place where people could enhance their own lives and live out fantasies, there was only so much people could do in that respect. There was plenty of experimentation early on with gender and race swapping, invention and coding, and the recreation of the mundane world with slightly more fantastical means. But with no real goal, this open-ended exploration often got a bit dull, depressing, or just weird as it sucked people further down a rabbit hole and demanded more investments of time and money to buy property, develop estates, and otherwise fund casual escapist adventure. Average users were probably destined to flee in the end.
Conversely, at times Second Life actually feels like its interface was built less for wish fulfillment and more for world building and in-grouping. One of the easiest things to do in this virtual reality is search, find, and join exclusive communities sharing one’s own interests and beliefs. This allowed the early, rapid development of groups and sub-groups ranging from activists and educators to more alternative and niche identities. As of the end of 2014, some of the most active subcultures on Second Life appear to be: cyberpunks, elves, furries, goreans, steampunks, Star Wars enthusiasts, satanists, wiccans, and various fetish groups. Many of these groups consisted of usually hidden peoples—BDSM practitioners aren’t always in fetish gear, for example—existing in small populations and scattered over the earth. People in these scenes are often limited in the number of like-minded and compatible companions in their towns, restricting their ability to practice or express what they felt to be major components of their identities. But Second Life gave them the ability to locate, congregate, and participate in their identities both anonymously and openly simultaneously, with no constraints on what they could do or say.
In a sense, that’s not an unprecedented development. Ever since the birth of the internet, niche groups have been using digital tools to find and communicate with each other, developing supportive global communities. Often these groups continue to see utility in outdated technologies. The Goreans (a sexual identity associated with male-dominated master-slave relationships) for instance, were early users of 2-D chat rooms in the 1990s, but kept using them well into the 2000s, despite their general obsolescence and abandonment. It would have been a lot of work rebuilding the communities, norms, connections, and trust cobbled together over years on what was a suitable (if not sophisticated) gathering and communication platform for bonding, solidarity, and self-expression.
Steampunk Night. Image by Dax Dover via Flickr
Yet the continued use of Second Life was different than maintaining old, established chat communities from outdated platforms. The only actual virtual world (rather than virtual space), Second Life allowed communities not just to meet, but also to build closed societies mirroring their beliefs and desires. This went beyond role play, in which a Gorean, say, could momentarily pretend to be a masculine god before snapping back into real life. It involved the creation of a society in which being a Gorean was the norm, and all social rules and physical accouterments were built around that lifestyle. In Second Life, one wasn’t playing at being somebody else—one was that somebody else, and entire intense, realistic relationships formed over the years. Anthropologists recognized this potential and started to visit these subcultures-turned-societies, studying these communities and worlds built on fully inhabiting what were outside, minority, niche, transitory, or transgressive identities.
For such communities, abandoning Second Life would have been more than ditching an outmoded or boring platform. It would have been abandoning a whole world in which they got to be a digital embodiment of a core, yet marginalized, part of themselves. Second Life was built to accommodate this kind of in-group world creation and accordingly, these tight communities—although suffering from all the intrigue of any small unit and far from utopian—never abandoned the technology in the same way as general users. In fact, as time went on, these Second Life communities stabilized and even grew into regular, respected, and appreciated elements of these subcultures.
Second Life is a paradise. Image by ZZ Bottom via Flickr
This doesn’t mean that members of Second Life subcultures are happy about being technologically surpassed by superior graphics in online games. But soon enough they may not have to feel envious. Over the past couple of years, Second Life’s creators have been exploring new technologies like the Oculus Rift headset, which could increase the immersion and reality of virtual worlds and help to create successors to Second Life. It’s unclear whether subcultures will be willing to abandon their worlds in one virtual reality for these glitzier new models, but it will be interesting to see what happens when new and superior virtual realities exist. Will they attract new subcultures, segregate subcultures across different universes, or splinter these subcultures across disparate worlds?
But that’s the uncertain and distant future. For now all we can say is that Second Life is not as dead as many think. It just wasn’t the world we thought it was half a dozen years ago. Rather than a place that would reinvent everyday life for the masses, it became a place for the gathering, manifestation, and expression of societies and ideas that might not otherwise get to exist. And as long as it fulfills that purpose, it will most likely not fade away any time soon.