I logged into "Second Life" in the year 2018 A.D. It still exists, sort of.
Residents and businesses began fleeing for more popular social networks long ago. Vast acres of land are abandoned or sparsely populated by the few remaining diehard users. Its developer's VR follow-up, Sansar, is currently in beta. Property values are dropping. It's becoming a digital ghost town.
Which is why I was visiting — disaster tourism of dying software. I first warped to a boardwalk at Flotsam Beach, an idealized digital facsimile of Atlantic City, without the Syringe Tide. It was deserted, but remains in pristine condition. Digital worlds don't typically rot or become overgrown with foliage, after all. They exist for a time, and then someone shuts them down. Right now, "Second Life" resembles a city swiftly evacuated following a radioactive threat.
I wandered around. Reggae music played for no one. Lights from a dance club flashed before an abandoned dance floor. Empty stores sold unwanted goods that would never collect dust. I flew to the top of a big slide — there was no line — and went down.
A little girl suddenly appeared on the boardwalk. She was holding a fishing rod. Two strangers, meeting in the void.
I typed a message: hi.
A minute later she responded: why are you messging me
I left the area.
"Second Life" is a 3D massively-multiplayer open-world game. It's run by a software company called Linden Labs. The company was founded by entrepreneur and former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, who was inspired to create the virtual world after a trip to Burning Man. Early investors in the company included Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar.
"Game" is used loosely here, as one can't "win" "Second Life" in any real sense, and there are no objectives. It provides a digital escapist fantasy, supposedly allowing users to be and do whatever they want, unbound by the restrictions of the "real" world. They can create custom avatars. They can use the game's official currency (Linden Dollars) to purchase and sell in-game items, including land, which they can build houses on. They can fly. They can make friends, and have sex with them.
"Second Life" launched to the public in the summer of 2003, only three months after the start of the Iraq War. Roughly three years later, it reached a million users, impressive for a social network at the time. Magazines and blogs wrote glowing coverage of it. Universities built campuses in it. Brandsbuilt outposts. It became a nexus for some pretty impressive net art. It even got a shout out on an episode of "The Office" ("Local Ad," S04E09, 2007).
The limitless freedom attracted furries, government spies, sex freaks, and (disturbingly) pedophiles. It sometimes made it difficult to keep the servers alive. A friend once told me the following anecdote at a party, maybe apocryphal, possibly typical SV lore, totally unforgettable: His acquaintance, an engineer at Linden Labs, had to deal with a series of mysterious server crashes.
Upon further investigation, he found that a single user had made a 3D model of a dick that was so massive and detailed (imagine: pumping high-def veins, glistening drops of sweat, a penile shadow cast across the landscape, etc.) that it was straight up melting servers. After capping the size/detail of models, he became disillusioned with the nature of his gig and quit. I haven't been able to confirm any of this (yet...), but the fact that any of it is even remotely credible says a lot about "Second Life."
I remember logging in for the first time in 2006, during my freshman year of college, largely because of the optimism surrounding it at the time. Everything was going to change. Snow Crash was becoming a reality. It's hard for anything to live up to such lofty expectations, especially running on a crummy Dell laptop built circa 2004. The software was glitchy and slow. It felt like a glorified chatroom.
It seemed to me that, like a lot of Silicon Valley creations, "Second Life" offered the promise of a revolution, but merely delivered a normative, if slightly recontextualized reality. Another transfer of wealth with good PR. Instead of U.S. dollars, we had Linden Dollars. In a world where everyone could fly, people still built stairs.
Eight years after I first tried "Second Life," I logged in again. My partner was teaching an internet art class that utilized "Second Life." We explored it together.
By this point it was already on the decline. When my partner purchased a house to display her students' work, it was in the middle of an empty suburb, surrounded by homes abandoned long ago, waiting for owners who would likely never return.
We made matching avatars. They had smooth nude bodies without genitalia, and giant eyeballs for heads.
We roamed around, low-level trolling. We talked to a giant unicorn about 9/11 conspiracies. We visited a red light district. There, one could buy 3D models of genitals to attach to their avatar. One vendor offered a free sample, called the Demo Dick. It is limited in that it is purely cosmetic; it can't get erect. I immediately installed one on my avatar.
With my new Demo Dick, it seemed appropriate to visit a nude beach. We spotted a couple making love on an outdoor bed. We watched.
Maybe it was our eyeball avatars, which perhaps suggested a level of voyeurism too extreme even for "Second Life," but users were pretty uptight about it.
One man became so distressed by our presence that he actually ran away. We chased this nude man around the beautiful beach, as he yelled at us to leave him alone. It was a great night.
I was probably a little too harsh on "Second Life." Looking beyond the utopian hype, it really does help some people connect with each other, especially those with mobility or health issues that make socializing in the outside world difficult. And it's actually pretty fun, especially if you have a friend to explore with.
After that encounter on the boardwalk with the creepy ghost girl, I decided to find the old John Edwards SL headquarters. It was created in 2007 to promote the former Senator's presidential campaign. This was before he lost the primary, and it was revealed that he had had an ongoing affair while his wife was dying.
The headquarters was located in the Laguna Beach area, a section built by MTV after their first attempt to create "MySpace 2.0" largely failed. In February of 2007, it received mainstream media attention after it was vandalized. According to a blogpost on Edward's campaign website, all sic:
A group of republican Second Life users, some sporting ‘Bush '08' tags, vandalized the John Edwards Second Life HQ. They plastered the area with Marxist/Lenninist posters and slogans, a feces spewing obsenity, and a photoshopped picture of John in blackface, all the while harrassing visitors with right-wing nonsense and obsenity-laden abuse of Democrats in general and John in particular.
I witnessed this event, taking names and photos, including the owners of the pictures. I also kept and saved a copy of the chat log. I have filed an abuse report with Linden Labs, and am awaiting their investigation.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar to how elements of the 2016 election played out online, well, yup. The internet has always been the internet.
I couldn't find the Edwards HQ, or Laguna Beach. Nothing showed up in the game's search engine. I tried asking around. I visited an '80s-themed night club and asked anyone if they knew where Laguna Beach was. I was immediately warped to a dance podium, where I started dancing, against my will.
I warped to another nude beach. I was greeted by a sign explicitly stating that no erections were permitted on the beach.
There were actually a few people at the beach, but none of them seemed active and were most likely AFK. How long had computers been running, with their ghost avatars waiting in suspended silence?
A user going by the name Carina was finally willing to help out. The whole Laguna Beach area had been deleted, she explained. The John Edwards campaign headquarters was long gone.
Exploring empty areas gets boring pretty fast. I wondered if there were parts of "Second Life" that are still alive. According to one estimate from 2017, there are 800,000 active users. Where were they? I reached out to a number of prominent "Second Life" residents: Anshe Chung (the first virtual millionaire, who landed the cover of BusinessWeek in 2006); Esteban Winsmore (a notorious griefer, whose video series of polite "Second Life" trolling has cumulatively received over a million views on YouTube); Cristiano Midnight (an early resident, who created Snapzilla, a service that allows users to share screenshots); R. Crap Mariner (a popular erotic SL photographer); La Turbo Avedon (an avatar and artist). Everyone ignored my emails, except for R. Crap Mariner, who replied via Facebook message: "I'm not really the tour guide type, and I don't do interviews." Maybe their reluctance to talk is just an indication of how Second Lifers are insular, and suspicious of outsiders. Maybe they've all just moved on.
I kept exploring on my own. "Second Life" has a helpful internal guide called "destinations" (kind of like Twitter Moments) that suggests places to go, organized into categories, like "Newcomer Friendly" and "Editors' Picks." Through this section, I warped to the suggested "Gem's land of fractals." It's a massive art installation, resembling a crystal city, built by artist Gem Preiz. Walking through it feels like a deleted scene from Blade Runner 2049. It is pretty and lonely.
I warped into the forest in a mountainous area, and wandered through the woods. I emerged into a clearing to find a house and two people talking out front.
The woman, PoppyRose60, offered to show me around. We first warped to a dance club, and then a few minutes later to another location called ~*Water Horse*~, where one can purchase horses. I got a free trial horse, which allows you to use it for a limited time. I wondered if, like the Demo Dick, the full version also had erectile functionality. Poppy and I rode around the island on horseback.
I took a photo of myself on horseback standing before a majestic cliff.
Then I learned that you can still fly while on the horse.
In his haunting Dead Mall YouTube videos, filmmaker Dan Bell explores grim, abandoned retail spaces. For those who grew up in the suburbs in the '80s and '90s, they are especially evocative. Malls were one of the few "public" spaces to gather and meet with friends. Revisiting them in these videos years later, one feels heartened that humanity can still find joy and connection in even the most soulless, artificial environments. Teen romances living and dying in the sugar-dough air outside of Cinnabons. But one also feels sort of depressed by their precariousness. Even corporate-controlled environments that once seemed invincible can become ruins.
In both instances, this precarity is inextricably linked to commerce. Malls can serve as spaces for people to meet and hang out, but this is only incidental to their primary purpose, which is to generate wealth for their corporate owners.
This is troublesome, as these social spaces are incredibly fragile. They often fail under the strain caused by true public use. This manifests itself in different ways, some more alarming than others; like "no skateboarding" signs, or rules banning large gatherings (protests are bad for business, after all). The businesses can also suddenly fail — maybe their prices are undercut by a more convenient, monopolistic online retail company — taking the extraneous community spaces down with them. Not that we should weep for dying corporate chains or anything, but in lands of suburban sprawl, they at least offered places for people to go, however bleak.
I wonder if we can think about our digital social spaces in the same way. Many of those that were popular in the '90s and early '00s are now vaporware. The companies went bankrupt or were purchased and mismanaged to death. Users fled. Communities were destroyed. Data was liquidated.
We should be concerned that a majority of our online spaces are owned by corporations who do not have our best interests in mind, despite fuzzy PR statements about "building communities." Our digital spaces can suddenly be destroyed or altered in disturbing ways without our consent. Why don't we have control over them? Why can't we? Always remember: Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are malls, not parks.
After exploring "Second Life" with my partner, I got an email from a moderator passing on the news that the creator of one of the areas we visited, the Ivory Tower Library, had passed away. His name was Lumiere Noir. There would be a gathering in "Second Life" to celebrate his life. A memorial shrine was built for him.
I missed the gathering, but logged in to check out the shrine. It was located outside the main entrance of the library he built, so that users could learn how to build stuff. The memorial was made up of in-game photos of him, and trinkets users had submitted.
As I took in the memorial, I suddenly realized that my avatar — a giant eyeball with a big Demo Dick — might not be appropriate for such a somber occasion. But this was "Second Life." Others seemed to like it. "A big eye with a penis," one user chatted, "such a powerful mix."
At some point, Linden Labs will meet one of the many dire but inevitable fates of most companies. "Second Life" will disappear. The nude beaches, the vast forests, the Demo Dicks, the memorials for those who devoted time to build and maintain it, will all crumble apart into a digital blackness. The people will go elsewhere.