Happy Valentine's Day from Second Life

What can the Metaverse learn from Second Life?

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‘Second Life’ is clunky, squalid, and largely populated by people more comfortable in pixels than in real life. If only Facebook’s metaverse platform could be as good.

It is difficult to define what ‘Second Life’ is. Its creator, Linden Lab, however, has been fairly clear about what it is not: it is not a game.

‘Second Life’ allows users to create avatars and connect, build, buy, and sell in a 3D virtual world that persists online. It was launched in 2003 and organisations such as Harvard University, Nasa, the Swedish government, the news agency Reuters, and Burning Man all extended their presence into ‘Second Life’. Today, it is something of a ghost town. Although over 50 million people have tried using it, ‘Second Life’ peaked at around one million users and retained around half a million monthly users for most of its lifetime.

This is one vision of the metaverse, as envisaged by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’ as the immersive successor to the flat internet. It was, however, far from the first.

In 1978, Dr Richard Bartle co-wrote the text-based virtual world ‘MUD1’. He believes the long history of virtual worlds is being overlooked amid today’s rush to build metaverse platforms: “It’s that distinct lack of understanding about the past and the lessons we already know, that is most discouraging about the metaverse,” says Bartle, now a professor of game design at the University of Essex. For instance, minutes after the launch of a Christian virtual world, ‘Church of Fools’, a woman kneeling to pray was made to look to be fellating a man standing in front of her. Anyone aware of how people behave in virtual worlds should have seen that coming and given all avatars collision boxes, which cannot be entered without permission, he adds.

“These things aren’t being considered, because the people who are developing them may be great at tech and may have wonderful ideas for the future as envisaged in whatever book they’ve just read, but ultimately a lot of this has been done before, and it doesn’t work.”

Billions of dollars are being poured into metaverse platforms by the likes of Microsoft, Nvidia, Epic Games, and the company formerly – and commonly – known as Facebook. Although its precursor metaverse platform, ‘Horizon Worlds’, has been tried by just 3 per cent of Oculus Quest (its VR headset) owners, Facebook has grand ambitions. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to bring one billion people into VR and pledged to take on 10,000 employees in Europe alone to build the metaverse.

Despite their philosophical divergences, Facebook will look to ‘Second Life’ as it builds its metaverse platform, and not only because Linden Lab came closest to fulfilling the Stephenson definition of a metaverse. “Facebook’s metaverse plans have been greatly and directly shaped by former Linden Lab staff,” says W James Au, who blogs at New World Notes about ‘Second Life’ and other metaverse platforms. The co-founding CTO of Linden Lab, Cory Ondrejka, joined Facebook in 2010 and helped spearhead its acquisition of VR company Oculus. A handful of others followed him from Linden Lab to Facebook.

Facebook is presenting its metaverse platform as an intuitive, immersive space, mixing virtual and real elements, in which users will be able to do everything they currently do online, such as socialise, shop, and work. A much-parodied presentation video from 2021 depicted Zuckerberg and his associates as avatars exchanging excruciating dialogue (“Aw, I love that guy,” said Zuckerberg bloodlessly, on being shown a video of his dog). Containing an undiscriminating mixture of existing and fantasy technologies, and avatars and backgrounds that range from the Nintendo Wii-simplicity to the near photorealistic, it raises more questions than it answers.

‘Second Life’ is notoriously clumsy, with lag and lumpy framerates that put something of a damper on the virtual orgies. Some of this is on account of technical debt accrued early at Linden Labs – which cannot be righted without sacrificing vast quantities of user-generated content – but it also points to the challenge of generating high-poly content in the metaverse.

Game graphics can be as beautifully rendered as they are today thanks to firstly, the ability to do plenty of pre-processing based on the consistent rules of that universe, and secondly, game production that matches or exceeds the scale, expense, technical expertise, and artistry of Hollywood film production. Open worlds populated by user-generated content present a whole new challenge, even without moving into the realm of VR. For instance, a user creating a custom t-shirt needs to ensure it drapes correctly, moves with the wearer’s body, and changes appearance under various lighting conditions; this is far from trivial.

There is always a trade-off between a world’s flexibility and realism. Platforms which allow anyone to shape the world, such as ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Roblox’, tend to be on the opposite end of the spectrum to photorealistic games. Their low-poly graphics have been made charming and they are wildly popular. ‘Second Life’ is closer to this end of the spectrum. It sits here a little uncomfortably, glitching now and again. (Facebook’s ‘Horizon Worlds’ is smoother than ‘Second Life’, but no more sophisticated in appearance.)

Based on its promotional video, Facebook appears to aspire for its metaverse to be smooth, high-poly, and realistically shaded, placing it at the other end of the spectrum. However, it also intends for it to be filled with user-generated content (“This future will be made by all of us”). It must know that it cannot have it all. It is reasonable to expect a high barrier to entry for creators, rendering the metaverse a corporate space: more a return to the professionalised Web 1.0 than an extension of the participatory Web 2.0.

This raises the question of what Facebook intends for ordinary people to do with its metaverse platform. The most successful metaverse platforms are games, but Facebook has been careful not to position itself as being about gaming. ‘Second Life’, then, seems like the obvious place to look to understand what these spaces are used for.

In the public imagination, ‘Second Life’ is all about virtual sex. This is somewhat justified; around a quarter to a third of activity on the platform is sex and it has large communities based around sexual subcultures, such as its furry community. It can be hard to escape. One professor recalls: “We would try to have very serious lectures [in ‘Second Life’] and people would bomb all attendees with flying penises.” Virtual worlds populated by user-generated content are faced with a dilemma known as TTP, or ‘time to penis’, which refers to the tendency of users to create a virtual penis the moment they have the tools to do so. Facebook appears to have taken notes and is pre-empting anything that may be judged remotely sordid; ‘Horizon Worlds’’ avatars are neutered, legless blobs.

“It’s just a disembodied hand puppet, just a torso and arms,” says Au. “Partly that’s for technical reasons. I think one of the motivations, though, is almost a Neo-Victorian approach to forbid people from having genitals, making it impossible for people to have virtual sex.”

It is easy to dismiss ‘Second Life’ as perverse. However, the freedom to experiment with bodies and behaviours in a way that would be impossible in real life is about much more than just sex and has undoubtedly changed lives for the better. Liberation from real-life identity is possibly the main attraction of metaverse platforms, other than gaming. It is possible when users are permitted to be represented by whatever avatar they wish – Facebook appears to have conceded to this, with one person in its presentation video appearing as a robot – but also rests on the pseudonymity or anonymity of these platforms. This is the key point of divergence between Linden Lab and Facebook.

“I think this notion that the digital and analogue self should be the same is something [Zuckerberg] actually holds very close to his heart,” says Ethan Zuckerman, another early virtual-world creator, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I would say that I think that’s phenomenally unimaginative.”

Facebook has been transforming the internet from a topic-based space to one in which the online self is an extension of the real self. Segregating aspects of one’s life online is increasingly difficult and would be practically impossible for a future version of the internet, which every user’s real name and connections enter with them. Although the requirement of a Facebook login to use the Oculus Quest is being scrapped, users are unlikely to feel liberated from their real-life identities given the company’s history of aggressive data collection, including on non-users. On the contrary, entering the metaverse will expose users to far more invasive forms of surveillance.


"The stakes are much higher"

Kavya Pearlman, a former Linden Lab staffer, works with Facebook and other companies on safety issues as founder and CEO of the XR Safety Initiative. While at Linden Lab, she compiled “an endless bloody list” of all the harm users did to one another when socialising (e.g. harassment), creating (e.g. inserting malware), and doing business (e.g. fraud) in ‘Second Life’. She described anonymity on the platform as a double-edged sword and said that companies will need to learn from what went wrong in ‘Second Life’ and consider safeguarding mechanisms such as age-segregated spaces.

When it comes to the metaverse, the potential for harm is on a whole new level. Pearlman explained that this is because of the convergence of technologies such as XR, brain-computer interfaces, and AI. There will no longer be the option to conceal identity: “We can say goodbye [to anonymity] when it comes to the metaverse.” On the contrary, these technologies are increasing by orders of magnitudes what can be inferred about a user. Data captured by VR hardware such as head tilt, gait, eye tracking and poise are already being used to infer intimate details such as intoxication, sexual arousal, or neurological deterioration. Proceeding into the metaverse without caution will amplify all the societal problems associated with social media.

“If we’re not responsible, then we’re f**ked,” Pearlman says matter-of-factly. “The whole world is going to be impacted; the stakes are much higher.”

Verity McIntosh, a lecturer in virtual and extended realities at the University of the West of England, said this could be a pitch to secure young users not active on Facebook’s existing platforms. “It’s aware that their current social media platform is ageing out, that new users aren’t joining, that its current users are becoming less engaged,” she says. “My reading of the current situation is they’re envisioning the metaverse as a way to draw in a new audience, and particularly a younger audience who are interested in ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Roblox’ and ‘Animal Crossing’ and are much more comfortable in these [massively multiplayer online games]. It feels to me like a recruitment exercise for the next generation.”

McIntosh adds vast quantities of revealing and valuable user data will become accessible to Facebook through use of VR hardware: “It fits their business model very well [...] with VR the available data goes up a massive magnitude, because it’s not just what you do with your mouse anymore.”

Zuckerman hypothesised that Facebook hopes its rebrand will: distract from all the problems associated with ‘Facebook’ which have not gone away; establish a new business model similar to Apple’s, in which it owns the hardware, the OS, and licenses content; and impress investors and reassert its place on the cutting edge of technology by presenting a vision of the “future of computing”.

Taking Facebook’s ambition to create a Stephenson-style metaverse platform at face value, it is bound to fail. A more cynical assessment would argue that this company is beset by potentially existential threats – including an ageing user base, the biggest fall in brand reputation this side of the millennium, and the gradual dismantling of its business model by lawmakers and competitors – and is thrashing desperately to reinvent itself. The existence of this very article, in considering Facebook’s foray into the metaverse rather than its existing problems, goes to show that its audacity may already be paying off.

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