By Ally Polner
On April 11, Wagner James Au, the author of The Making of Second Life (available in the Richter Library) and The Metaverse Blog New World Notes (https://nwn.blogs.com) responded to questions about Second Life and the metaverse from members of the Media Management Association. Below is a summary of these conversation exchanges, with slight editing for clarity.
For recall, Second Life was created by Linden Lab in 2003 (nearly 20 years ago) and is described as an online community of avatars–a second life for its residents. Your book, The Making of Second Life, was published in 2008. Could you briefly summarize the recent developments of Second Life since 2008 in terms of membership and activities?
I wrote the book at the peak of the first wave of the metaverse. Anything you read about the metaverse now is something that came from the first wave. At that time, they were pushing Second Life to move beyond gaming. People wanted to upgrade Second Life to make virtual meetings. Most people who used it were using it for fun like VRChat or Fortnite Creative, which was a challenge to grow the user base, which is now about 600,000 monthly active users. The content creation is highly active, and there is a huge marketplace and economy where people are making their own living through content creation. Over 1,000 people are making over $10,000 a month through Second Life.
In your book, you noted that the chief complaints in 2006 and 2007 involved the “questionable quality of the experience.” Some critics argued that there was too much sex, gambling, and questionable activities in the Second Life world. One of your chapters dealt with avatar lovemaking! Has the quality of the experience changed in recent years?
The quality of the experience has changed because we are now getting photo realistic quality with avatars and the scenery. There is a lot of emphasis on creating beautiful screenshots. It’s like creating a virtual vogue; it’s a lot about beauty, and there are even virtual fashion shows. As for the avatar lovemaking, a big part of socialization is sex, and it is an ongoing challenge because it alienates a lot of big companies. The graphics are so great and make the environment less of a social space because the avatar quality is so high-res and tends to slow down your computer.
Do you think that we will face a similar situation content-wise in the metaverse as we have in the Second Live environment?
There was a moderation issue. There are virtual sexual assaults happening in these virtual worlds, and it is a reoccurring topic that most companies aren’t taking seriously enough. This space is used to push women and racial minorities out of the space. So companies have to take this issue seriously. There are government regulators starting to look at the metaverse platforms.
But regulation is often criticized and clashes with free expression. Do you have a recommendation for addressing this problem of sexual assaults in the metaverse?
Companies have to put a lot of focus and emphasis on community management and hire people to help shape the community standards. It’s not just a matter of having rules, but there must be community representatives who are engaging with the community and encouraging them in a positive way. Another way to do this is by creating standards and not just laws. These companies need to create a sense of community and responsibility to each other.
Meta plans to create a metaverse with virtual reality. How do you see the metaverse as a second wave after Second Life? Do you think that Second Life should have tried to incorporate some form of VR technology on its platform?
VR was definitely not ready when Second Life launched. I would define a metaverse platform basically as how it was defined in Neal Stephenson’s book, Snow Crash, which is a vast, massive virtual world of content creation tools. While you can access it through VR headsets, there are other ways to access the metaverse without headsets. Zuckerberg announced that there is going to be a mobile version, and I think this is the right path. We shouldn’t need VR headsets to get the immersive experience. I think VR is one of the components that should be strived for, but we should expect the majority to not use it.
There seem to be some lessons we have learned from Second Life that we can actually apply to the metaverse. In your view can we just transfer what we have learned from Second Life to the metaverse even if there are technological differences ?
There are definitely some positives and negatives. One positive is the revenue split. Right now there are more content creators in Second Life making a good living than there are in Roblox. There is an even split of revenue that Second Life and their content creators make. Second Life has an active community that is never going to go away mostly because the company has created a fair share for the users, which is an important lesson that none of the other platforms are making right now. For example, Roblox only gives about 25% of the money a content creator makes back to its creator and the rest goes to Roblox. Also, VRChat is doing a great job and has created a large community. Even though it hasn’t made a way for creators to make revenue yet, it has created a positive community.
One negative is that the user interface was very difficult and still is for an average consumer. The software also requires a heavy download.
Are there any regulations in the metaverse with security?
Yes, there are security issues especially with payments like virtual currency. Social hacking is one of the major issues in which hackers can build trust with someone that will let them send over their passwords to them. We are going to see that more with companies that want to prevent security issues.
Do you foresee in the future that a person could create a single avatar that would be able to travel from 3D worlds to VR enabled elements and also to 2D platforms? Also, do you think there will ever be a standardization of cryptocurrency that would go across metaverse platforms?
To discuss the identity question, Discord has the lead on that where games, virtual world users, and metaverse users are highly active. This is the sort of social media for people in 3D versus spaces, and they will use that as a platform for jumping to different platforms.
For the cryptocurrency issue, I am very skeptical reviewing the standards on that. There are several crypto platforms, but none has taken off as a mass usage.
Because there is no general choice for cryptocurrency, how does it work when you are buying and selling with different coins?
Well, for this question I would go back to why anyone would want to buy any of these. The coins are such a gamble where we don’t know if we are going to be making any money off them. So for those people who are interested in that, go for it, but chances are that the money is going nowhere. They are sort of inventing money before there’s a community, whereby in the real world we create a company before we invent money.
Do you think this [Second Life] technology was made just to be made and not to be practical?
People arouse themselves primarily for entertainment and games. On that level it’s pretty great because it offers an avenue to be creative and for some people to create a living if they are willing to put in enough energy. So there are lots of positives. In books and novels, there are negatives like hackers who want the metaverse for bad purposes. We see that a lot with crypto in the metaverse where there’s a big scam. There are negatives that people need to be prepared for. I am hoping we start addressing, as a society, the negatives so that we can address them as a positive and create a truly democratic and human metaverse.