Second Life Spotlight – Hamlet Au

Today we are shining a spotlight on Hamlet Au, also known as Wagner James Au. Hamlet is a journalist that has been diligently reporting about Second Life for two decades on New World Notes, and has just released his latest book, Making a Metaverse That Matters!


Can you give us a brief overview of your background and how you got involved with virtual worlds, especially Second Life?
Back in 2003, I was a young San Francisco-based freelancer writing about games as an emerging cultural force for Wired and Salon. The PR firm of an oddly-named startup called Linden Lab invited me to see a new online game world they were creating. (Yes, Lindens called it a game back then!) 

After Philip had taken me on my first tour of Second Life, his head of marketing at the time, Robin Harper, suggested that I could write for them — as a journalist embedded in their virtual world. My first avatar, Hamlet Linden, was born, as was my blog: New World Notes.  

Becoming Hamlet Au.jpg

After I left Linden to write my first book, The Making of Second Life, I moved my avatar identity to Hamlet Au in a transfer ceremony. I’ve always worn a white suit, sort of my silly tribute to legendary “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe.

One of the very first Residents I interviewed was Catherine Omega, an amazing scripter who casually mentioned she was temporarily homeless in real life. So I quickly realized an amazing community was developing, and that it was the story of a lifetime. I’ve been writing about SL culture whenever I can ever since!

BunnyGPT Hamlet Au.png

For instance, I recently interviewed BunnyGPT, one of the first SL bots wired up to ChatGPT

Snow Crash Shrine SL.png

I even still have an office space in Waterhead kept from my Linden days. Come visit! There’s an official shrine to Snow Crash there, approved by Neal Stephenson himself.

Your first book, The Making of Second Life, was published in 2008. How has Second Life evolved since then, and how did that evolution inspire your new book Making a Metaverse That Matters?
Second Life’s visual quality and backend reliability have greatly improved since 2008 for sure, but to me, the most important evolution since then happened with everyone else: In the last five years or so, metaverse-type virtual worlds have finally become mainstream. And what’s exciting is that Second Life is not only still thriving, but is an important role model for these newer platforms. As I noted a while ago, Second Life creators make about as much money from the virtual world as Linden Lab itself. No other metaverse platform can say that!

The Making of Second Life.jpg
The Making of Second Life (2008)

So that’s what inspired me to write Making a Metaverse That Matters: I want to take all the lessons we’ve learned from Second Life over the last 20 years and apply them to new metaverse platforms so that we can finally realize the best and largest virtual world possible.

Making a Metaverse That Matters.jpg
Making a Metaverse That Matters (2023)

As someone who has worked for Linden Lab, what insights can you provide into the challenges and successes of maintaining and evolving a platform like Second Life?
The biggest and most amazing challenge is that the community is basically an equal collaborator with the actual company. This is both a blessing and a curse! When I was a Linden, the team would often stop work to marvel at the latest user-made project which included technical workarounds the engineers never anticipated — and then realize that they couldn’t easily patch that workaround since doing that might break the user’s creation.

With your blog New World Notes running for over 20 years, how have your thoughts and insights about virtual worlds changed? Can you share a particular event or moment that was a turning point for you?
During a conference where I was speaking about my first book, I randomly visited a virtual Bayou bar, where I saw an avatar playing blues guitar. His appearance was customized to look like a tall old Black man, which I assumed was just his roleplay character. 

Charles Bristol plays Second Life.JPG
Mr. Bristol photo credit: Russ Roberts/Etherian Kamabuko

But clicking on the user’s account, I realized that in real life he was Charles Bristol, an 87-year-old Bluesman and the grandson of once enslaved people who lived long enough to play live music in Second Life.

Wow, I thought to myself — if people as amazing as that are in SL without me knowing, who else is in there? So I’ve never really left. Even if Second Life is not the largest virtual world, it’s definitely the most interesting and inspiring — and the best role model for making the Metaverse.

Tell us about some of the Residents in Second Life that have left a lasting impression with their work in the virtual realm.
There are so many! But I’m very grateful to Cajsa Lilliehook for covering SL’s incredible Flickr community every week, and Sanny Yoshikawa for translating New World Notes to SL’s large Japanese user base. And to all my regular New World Notes readers! 

AM Radio SL Art.jpg

I should also mention metaverse artist AM Radio, who is not as active in SL in recent years but still keeps his eye on the virtual world, and whose work has been so influential. I recently wrote about how his real life son is helping keep his art alive.

Where can people see your work? Please share links to your books, websites, and social media accounts.
New World Notes
Making a Metaverse That Matters
Facebook: Hamlet.Au
Twitter: @SLHamlet
Plurk: Hamlet_Au
Discord: WJA#3523


Thank you, Hamlet, for all your years of reporting the metaverse news! We especially enjoyed your recent article in The Atlantic: There Will Never Be Another Second Life.

Have A Great Week From All Od Us At Zoha Islands/Fruit Islands


Giant Sculpture Built in Second Life Exported to Burning Man in Real Life

Giant Sculpture Built in Second Life Exported to Burning Man in Real Life

SL to Burning Man Butterfly

Above: Jolhoeft’s Burning Man installation in Second Life and (inset) at Burning Man

I just wrote about how Second Life was inspired by both the Metaverse of Snow Crash and Burning Man of orgiastic arts festival fame, and the SL20B exhibit has a cool installation that demonstrates both: A giant butterfly and flower created in Second Life – that was then exported as a design and built in real life at Burning Man!

“The butterfly and the flower were all built out of prims,” Jolhoeft explains, “and I would continue to model in-world with prims until I started building it out of wood.”

Here’s more about his process, and some behind the scenes:




“A lot of the initial work still took place in SL.. I used Firestorm to export the wings as mesh, and Blender to make a 2-D projection. That gave me a template I could print out and trace onto a sheet of plywood, which I then cut with a jig saw.

“The wings I exported to Collada, then into Blender to make an orthographic projection, which I exported to SVG and printed out as templates to trace onto plywood, then cut out with a jig saw. Most of the other other parts I was able to just take measurements from the final SL design.”

Metamorphosis Development


[Go here to visit it in Second Life this weekend] before the SLB20 exhibit closes down. If you miss it there, however, good news: Jolhoeft’s planning to bring back to the Butterfly to Burning Man 2023.

Have A Great Week From All Of Us At Zoha Islands/ Fruit Islands

Original Metaverse Second Life Celebrates 20th Birthday

In-world celebration includes live music, performance and shopping events, exhibitions and major sweepstakes.

SAN FRANCISCO & NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Second Life – the leader in virtual worlds, metaverse innovations, and pioneer of virtual economies – announced today its 20th birthday celebration, also known as “SL20B,” beginning on June 22, 2023.

“residents” the opportunity to enhance and augment their physical lives by connecting them to thousands of engaging and vibrant virtual environments and communities. Since inception, more than 73 million accounts have been created in Second Life, with around 750K monthly active users. ”

Created in 2003 by Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale, Second Life has evolved into one of the largest and most successful 3D virtual worlds, providing “residents” the opportunity to enhance and augment their physical lives by connecting them to thousands of engaging and vibrant virtual environments and communities. Since inception, more than 73 million accounts have been created in Second Life, with around 750K monthly active users.

Today, Second Life provides a safe space for its residents to express their authentic selves. A thriving economy exists in Second Life: tens of thousands of creators around the world profit from selling millions of virtual items and services on Second Life’s marketplace, with more than 1.6M transactions within Second Life every day.

“When we first shared Second Life with the world in 2003, we had one mission in mind: to create a positive, enriching experience for its residents. While others continue to try, no other company has come close to building a world like Second Life,” said Philip Rosedale, Founder of Second Life. “This would not be possible without the talented and endlessly inventive residents of Second Life, who have built communities dedicated to every conceivable interest. We’re excited for what is to come over the next 20 years as we continue to evolve, and we’re excited to welcome new generations to the world.”

Other in-world activities and events include:

  • Over 500 live performances including music and discussions
  • “Shop & Hop” – Second Life’s largest shopping event of the year with nearly 500 merchants and creators
  • Community exhibition spaces with over 300 exhibits and staffed by more than 200 resident volunteers
  • Global and National sweepstakes including a Chevrolet Bolt EV, high-end computers and Second Life Premium membership subscriptions.
  • Commemorative eZine/Guide and other limited-time products
  • World premiere Documentary video on Second Year’s first 20 years 
  • And More

“We’re proud and humbled by how our hundreds of thousands of residents have created positive, supportive, and accepting communities within Second Life,” said Brad Oberwager, CEO and Executive Chairman of Second Life. “Our commitment to rewarding freedom of expression, as well as protecting customer privacy, has helped establish Second Life as a successful pioneer in virtual economies, cultures, and communities over the past twenty years, and has allowed us to create a virtual world in which user identification and information is protected and not monetized for advertisers. We look forward to continuing to be a leader in virtual world and metaverse innovations.”

Second Life recently announced plans to launch its first mobile application. Second Life also recently announced a partnership with Motown Records, the legendary record label, part of the Capitol Music Group, and STYNGR, the first music integration platform for gaming and the metaverse, to bring Motown’s music to the metaverse.

About Second Life   

Second Life, developed and operated by Linden Research, Inc. (“Linden Lab”), is the groundbreaking virtual world enjoyed by millions around the globe. First launched in 2003, Second Life has since gone on to boast nearly two billion user creations and a vibrant $650 million USD economy. Founded in 1999, Linden Lab creates social platforms that empower people to create, share, and benefit from virtual experiences. To learn more, visit

Have A Happy 20B Celebration  From All Of Us At Zoha Islands/ Fruit Islands

SL20B Music Fest Lineup & Calendar of Events

SL20B Music Fest Lineup & Calendar of Events


SL20B Music Fest Poster.png
Photo by Semiiina

Are you ready for this year’s SL20B Music Fest?

From June 22nd to the 24th, go on an interstellar journey through sound and emotions, as the crème de la crème of Second Life’s live musicians set the SL20B Mandala Stage ablaze with spellbinding performances! 

In the middle of Music Fest will also be a movie premiere! “Made in SL: The Movie” is a special long-form documentary for Second Life’s 20th anniversary, produced by Draxtor Despres and premiering on Friday, June 23rd at 12pm PT at the SL20B Arboretum. Watch the trailer at this link.

This year’s lineup: (schedule subject to change) 

SLT Thursday, June 22 Friday, June 23 Saturday, June 24
10:00 AM SL20B Opens Second Life’s Official Birthday! AnLaik
11:00 AM     Fly Kugin (FlyKugin)
12:00 PM Opening Ceremony with Patch Linden SL20B Movie Premiere by Draxtor Despres Mimi Carpenter
1:00 PM SEMINA (semiiina) Tia Rungray (Tialer Mimulus) TEMPIO Breil
2:00 PM Marqs DeSade (marqsdesade) DorianKash Tally Mercury
3:00 PM Justin Elias Anatra (JustinElias Anatra) Randy De Lucia Jordan Lively
4:00 PM Holly Giles (HollyGiless Heartsong) Joaquin Gustav Slade S. Simunyé™ (sladeslayer)
5:00 PM Ruvi Gatchie (Ruvilyn) ryeshure spiritLed
6:00 PM Frogg Marlowe & Jaycatt Nico (Effinjay) Oblee (Obeloinkment Wrigglesworth) Cosmic Cat
7:00 PM Grace Loudon FrankLee (FrankLee Anatra) Ras Solaris | Waverino ( atom013.takaaki | wavbruh)
8:00 PM Angelikus Deo (Iamangelikus) Maximillion Kleene Gabriel da Silva (Gabryel Nyoki)
9:00 PM   John Rocky (ErikKottzen)  

But wait, there’s more! Hold on to your (virtual) hats because the euphoria doesn’t wind down after Music Fest. The SL20B celebrations are set to reach stratospheric heights with a staggering 500+ performers ready to take over four majestic stages! This is not just a party; it’s a festival of boundless energy and musical marvels that promises to engulf your senses.

Keep your eyes on the Birthday Events Calendar to ensure you don’t miss a beat!

Do you use Google Calendar? If so, you can also add the Birthday Calendar directly to your own calendar by clicking here

You can also watch the Second Life Public Calendar for all Linden Lab events and in the next few days, we’ll debut a dedicated Destination Guide category with many event highlights. Look out for entries that will start appearing in the SL20B Destination Guide category later this week and keep an eye on this blog for more information about SL20B coming soon!


Zoha Islands / Fruit Islands

Videos Of Second Life.

Coming Soon To A Virtual World Near You! Be sure to check it out 6/23 @ 12pm @SL20B.

Comics Made In Second Life. I Found this really cool.



This Video I thought hit home for many New And Old users.


Real Estate Business in SL is Really Not This Easy!



This one is just TOO funny!


Oh And We Can’t do a SL Video Blog Without Our Friend Esteban Winsmore.

Have A Great Week From All Of Us At Zoha Islands / Fruit Islands!

Who needs the Metaverse? Meet the people still living on Second Life

Who needs the Metaverse? Meet the people still living on Second Life

Mark Zuckerberg’s grand vision for an online existence has been laughed off as a corporate folly. Meanwhile, those still existing happily on a virtual world launched 20 years ago may be wondering what all the fuss is about …

On 14 November 2006, 5,000 IBM employees assembled in a digital recreation of the 15th-century Chinese imperial palace known as the Forbidden City. They had come to hear IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano, deliver a speech. Palmisano’s physical body was in Beijing at the time, but he addressed most of his audience inside Second Life, the online social world that had launched three years earlier. Palmisano’s trim avatar wore tortoiseshell-frame glasses and a tailored pinstripe suit. He faced a crowd of digital, animated dolls dressed in the business attire of the day: black heels, pencil-line shirts, Windsor-knotted ties. Looming out of the throng at the back stood a 10ft IBM employee, his digital face plastered in Gene Simmons-style white makeup, with shoulder-length, Sonic-blue hair.

It was a historic moment, a journalist for Bloomberg reported at the time: Palmisano was “the first big-league CEO” to stage a company-wide meeting in Second Life – “the most popular of a handful of new-fangled 3D online virtual worlds”. IBM, just like any other denizen of Second Life, paid ground rent to own a “region” of the game, one region representing 6.5 hectares of digital turf, currently rented at $166 (£134) a month. Renters could build whatever they wanted on their turf.


The pitch proved attractive. While in cities like New York or London you might never own a flat, in Second Life you could design, build and inhabit a mansion. Institutions followed. Some used their space to stage art exhibitions and theatrical performances; others built kink palaces. The retail outlet American Apparel opened a virtual store on a private island called Lerappa – “Apparel” spelt backwards – selling costumes for avatars. The US universities MIT and Stanford established faculties in Second Life. Someone claiming to represent the far-right French National Front joined in (their HQ was the site of virtual clashes with anti-racism demonstrators in 2007). The world used its own currency – the Linden dollar, withdrawable into local currencies – to establish a global, user-to-user economy. Transactions and withdrawals were subject to a tiny fee, which contributed to the cost of server maintenance – a revolutionary, influential business model.

While Second Life’s world was viewed by many as rudimentary and its inhabitants eccentric, in hindsight it represented a bold, pioneering experiment, launched while Facebook was still a website for rating the attractiveness of Harvard students. It remains both the first and the most successful manifestation of a so-called metaverse, a compelling if somewhat imprecise term coined by American writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Definitions vary, but most experts agree the metaverse is, put simply, the internet made metropolis: an immersive, contiguous representation of data and the active user communities within. One might walk from, say, eBay marketplace to YouTube cineplex; or take a virtual Uber from the great library of Wikipedia to the twin towers of TikTok and Instagram. No need for a thousand logins and passwords: in this Internet World theme park, each of us could embody a single body and consistent identity.

An avatar of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
An avatar of Mark Zuckerberg at a virtual Meta Connect event in 2022. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Second Life did not replace the internet in this way. And even at the height of its popularity in the late 2000s, it attracted only around a million monthly users – a fraction of the number enjoyed by some online video games (the makers of Fortnite claim a consistent 80 million) and far fewer than would be necessary to sustain a business such as, say, Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook. But the dream of a coordinated manifestation of websites and users, built on current technologies (VR headsets, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and all) and opening unprecedented opportunities to virtual landowners, marketers and advertisers, has persisted at the highest levels of corporate Silicon Valley, up to and including Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg first outlined his vision for the Metaverse, the “successor to the mobile internet”, in 2021. According to Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, the project would take a decade to revolutionise the way we browse the web. But less than two years and $36bn later, the project has stalled, with little to show for it. User numbers for Horizon Worlds – Meta’s first draft of an interconnected world entered via a VR headset – have steadily declined during the past year. According to internal documents, most visitors do not return after the first month and a feature to reward users who have created content within Horizon Worlds generated just $470 globally in revenue in its first year. Zuckerberg recently announced 21,000 redundancies and hinted that all Meta employees may soon be required to return to physical offices, a rather self-sabotaging policy at a company committed to erasing the distinction between the physical and digital. As it sheds employees and investor focus impatiently shifts to the get-richer-quicker possibilities of generative AI, the vision fades. Almost every national newspaper has run a variation on the article: “Whatever happened to the metaverse?

Yet Second Life – and its more modest vision of an Internet World – persists. This month it celebrates its 20th anniversary; a mobile version is set for release this year and its developer, Linden Lab, estimates the virtual world’s GDP to be $650m. According to the company, around 185m items are sold each year in the Second Life marketplace, with an average cost of $2 each, and 1.6m transactions – also including tipping, services, currency trades – occur every day. During the pandemic, new registrations soared, with close to a million visitors logging in each month and some building viable businesses trading in virtual goods and services. This is nothing close to the world-conquering figures Zuckerberg would need to justify his sunk costs, but Second Life has nonetheless endured as a profitable and, crucially, populated metaverse.

And while the world’s largest tech companies continue to seek ways to more intrusively monitor and monetise our online lives, the metaverse idea is unlikely ever to disappear.

Second Life’s creator, Philip Rosedale, claims his vision of an accessible digital utopia long predates Stephenson’s invention of the word “metaverse”. As a child, Rosedale – who, having left Linden Lab in 2010, returned in January 2022 as a strategic adviser – built go-karts and gadgets. He installed a parabolic antenna on the roof of his parents’ house which he could angle to eavesdrop on friends’ conversations down the street.

Rosedale – who, at 54, still has the appearance of a boy-genius inventor, with colourful glasses and a cartoonish floppy shock of grey hair – was also a dreamer. “I had dreams in which I imagined myself building in space, wearing a spacesuit, using tools I had on my belt to make walls appear and move surfaces around,” he recalls, speaking over Zoom from Linden Lab’s office in San Francisco. “I could build great architectural structures in space. But the idea in my mind was always that was something you could do inside the computer.”

The avatar of Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life
‘I figured everybody would want one’: an avatar of Second Life creator Philip Rosedale …
Second Life creator Philip Rosedale attends ‘What’s in a Metaverse?’ during the 2022 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 16, 2022 in Austin, Texas
… and the real thing at SXSW 2022. Photographs: Getty Images for SXSW; Second Life/Linden Lab

Rosedale read both science and science fiction: Stephen Wolfram’s work on cellular automata in Scientific American, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, William Gibson’s Neuromancer. “I became fascinated by this idea of creating a world that had some simple, low-level rules, but that would become alive from these elemental basics, you know, like a real world does.” When, in 1992, his wife bought him a copy of Snow Crash, she told him: “You’re going to love this: a science fiction book about that thing you’re always working on.”

Two years later Rosedale moved to San Francisco. “The first thing I wanted to do, of course, was use the internet to create a giant pool of server machines to simulate an immense world,” he says. “But even I was not crazy enough to try to do that in the early 90s, when the internet was still incredibly slow and computers were unable to properly render worlds in 3D.” By the time Rosedale founded Linden Lab at the turn of the century, he felt the technology was nearly ready.

Persistent online video game worlds were becoming commonplace (World of Warcraft, the most famous, launched a year after Second Life). While he wanted visitors to stake plots of virtual land and build virtual homes, Rosedale was determined Second Life would not become a video game filled with quests and errands. He wanted the creativity to be user generated, not prescribed – a place, perhaps, where people might try out new identities, proclivities and modes of escapism.

Still, Rosedale kept a close eye on video games, which provided the inspiration for Second Life’s burgeoning economy. “EverQuest, which was a well-known online game before World of Warcraft, had an economy,” he says. “There was a common meeting area people used as a marketplace, where they would cry their wares in text. That was one reason I was convinced we’d need to use an open economy, because it would allow for very complex outcomes.” A marketplace, he reasoned, would provide incentive for users to “build weird things”, then sell them to each other. “I tried to not get in the way of people being their own creators of narrative and content.”

On Second Life’s launch in 2003, Rosedale’s plans to pay for the project were unsophisticated. Initially, Linden Lab charged visitors a “basic access” fee of $9.95, with monthly premium subscriptions of $9.95 thereafter (or $6 if paid annually). After a year, the company switched to a real-estate model. Anyone could visit for free, but those who wanted to own and shape pieces of the world had to pay. Land renters could do anything they wanted with their patch: erect a billboard, build a skyscraper, dig a mine, even run a company. “That turned out to be a great business model,” Rosedale says. “The people buying land were happy to pay for it because they were hosting other things on it, often to make money.” Some opened stores filled with digital outfits; others became estate agents, selling or renting land in desirable locations. In 2006, BusinessWeek featured the first Second Life millionaire on its cover.

Linden Lab won’t provide a breakdown of its current revenue, but Second Life generates income from several sources in its virtual economy: land sales, maintenance, fees on certain transactions, premium subscriptions. The remainder comes from tiny fees added to every transaction made or by any user attempting to cash out. “These are typically single-digit percentages,” says Rosedale, who points out that Second Life has higher revenues-per-user than YouTube or Facebook, yet does not rely on advertising driven by behavioural targeting and surveillance, which he describes as deeply unethical practices the public would never accept in the physical world.

It’s unclear, Rosedale says, which corporate interest first acquired land in Second Life: “People just use their credit cards, you know. It’s direct-to-consumer.” He remembers the first noteworthy acquisition, however. “We auctioned off an island.” A London-based marketing and content development company, Rivers Run Red, bought it for an estimated $1,600. “At the time it seemed like a lot,” Rosedale recalls. “And I remember when people found out it was a real company, they were, like, super pissed. Everyone was up in arms.” (In 2008 Rivers Run Red partnered with Linden Lab to launch Immersive Workspaces 2.0, virtual meeting rooms in Second Life that could be tailored to the specific needs of a client – an idea that now seems eerily prescient, and another key area of interest for Zuckerberg’s Meta.)

The idea of encouraging real-world businesses to set up in the metaverse, turning their webstores into polygonal buildings, seems key to Zuckerburg’s vision today, too. Meta’s ecstatic 2022 Super Bowl ad featured a mascot dog, forced into redundancy by a restaurant closure, suddenly able to reunite with former colleagues in the Metaverse, a virtual high street on which his former place of work had been miraculously reopened. The message seemed to be that, as the real world becomes ever bleaker and more disconnected, a new digital world, accessed via VR headsets, offers a place to reconnect with old friends and restore bankrupt businesses.

Yet for every true believer there are 50 detractors for whom every metaverse is a joke, or at least a solution looking for a problem.

To people of my age – “digital natives” who grew up at the same time as the internet – Second Life was a punchline: World of Warcraft but with terrible graphics and no purpose. Why would you want to hang out there, laying white picket fences with bald men pretending to be furries (there are 18,000 items for sale in Second Life stores under the tag “Furry”), when you could be rampaging across the hills of Azeroth, broadsword held aloft, on a mission to take down a giant cave troll?

Unlike the vast, interconnected video games of the time, with their arcane rules and Dungeons & Dragons-esque aromas, Second Life was beloved by mainstream journalists who could more easily communicate its appeal – and report human, sometimes salacious stories – to a non-game-playing audience. Even completely offline people could understand the Daily Mail headline: “Mom-of-four dumps husband for pole dancer she met in online game Second Life”. Nobody at the time referred to Second Life as a metaverse; it was just another online space in which slightly nerdy misfits found community – albeit one that, via its crude graphical representations, made the usual sexual frisson found in online spaces manifest via explicit digital representations.

Second Life has never quite shrugged off that slightly seedy, tragic association. Yet during lockdown, when many people craved social connection, visitor numbers began to grow again. Wagner James Au worked for three years as a journalist embedded in the virtual world and has written a book, Making a Metaverse That Matters, charting Second Life’s rise and fall and rise. According to him, today the population skews middle-aged and around 20% of users have a disability that makes real-world interaction difficult.

Furry wrestling in virtual world Second Life
Furry wrestlers …
A woman and man shopping in virtual world Second Life
… shoppers …
Hanging out with friends in in virtual world Second Life
… and friends hanging out. Photographs: Second Life/Linden Lab

While other projects have shrunk and closed, Au believes Second Life has endured because of its capacity to facilitate human creativity. “The power and freedom of its creation tools encourages sub-communities to grow, thrive and adhere in the virtual world,” he says. Neither is it seen as a rip-off: “Strong and fair creator economies are rare among metaverse platforms. But Second Life creators earn roughly as much as Linden Lab.”

Most people first join Second Life out of curiosity or boredom, but the reasons for staying are as numerous as the residents, as Fabrizio Laceiras (known as Aufwie) tells me. A musician based in Birmingham, Aufwie, 26, first visited Second Life aged 12. After experiencing bullying at school, he found it hard to make friends and socialise. “Second Life offered a safe environment in which I could be social on my own terms,” he says. Music was his chosen icebreaker. “I would just pop by some virtual land that allowed microphone usage and start playing guitar and singing until someone approached, and we’d start talking.” Often Aufwie’s performances drew a small crowd, so a friend encouraged him to play a proper concert, building a small stage on her land where he could perform. The pair chose a date and time, and distributed leaflets beforehand. When 50 people turned up, Aufwie’s PC struggled to render the throng on screen: “I was forced to log out momentarily, which gave me a bit of time to process what was happening.”

Then, during the pandemic lock downs, Aufwie attended a Second Life concert staged by another user, known as Skye Galaxy, that inspired him to professionalize. He has now played at least 300 concerts in Second Life, and continues to receive bookings from users all around the world to play at their virtual events.

While the rise in new Second Life users has tailed off since lock down, it remains the largest non-video game virtual space predominantly populated by adults. Still, it never quite grew to the scale Rosedale had once believed inevitable. In 2006, he said of Second Life, in a quote that became infamous: “We see it as a platform that is, in many ways, better than the real world.”

There are many long-term users of Second Life who, to one degree or another, agree with the statement. For over a decade, one YouTuber, Draxtor, has recorded the stories of Second Life creators who choose to spend much of their day inside the virtual world, where they can find social connection or physical freedoms unavailable to them in the physical realm. Others, such as Erik Mondrian, a former graduate student at CalArts, have found in Second Life a place for self-expression. Mondrian created a series of elegiac films of Second Life structures and locations accompanied by poetic readings, part of a long tradition of artworks created within and around the virtual world. He remembers the date he made an account: 23 March 2005. He picked his real first name and chose “Mondrian” after his favorite artist, from a drop-down list of options. (In 2017, he tells me, he had his name legally changed to Erik Mondrian.)

In the 18 years since he first made an account, he has drifted in and out of Second Life. “Two things kept me coming back, even after the occasional extended absence,” he says. “One was the people, the other the world; I have a strong fascination for place in all its forms, and I wanted to see more of the amazing virtual spaces people had made and continue to make here.”

Today, Rosedale admits he was naive to believe Second Life would become ubiquitous. “Of course, I shouted it from the rooftops, I was so youthfully excited with what was happening,” he says. “I figured everybody would want to have an avatar and that we would all spend a fraction of our lives in something like Second Life, or hopefully Second Life, for the purpose of doing an interview like this, or shopping, or hanging out with people or just having fun. We would wander and explore the world together. In retrospect, that didn’t happen.”

In part, this is because Rosedale overestimated the difficulty some people have with embodying an on-screen avatar. “I had a utopian belief that most people would be comfortable moving their objective selves into a digital reality,” he says. “That turned out to not be the case. Most choose to identify with only one embodied representation of themselves, and that is their physical body. The difficulty of sustaining a second identity is considerable and the number of people willing to do that is smaller than I thought in 2006. So I don’t think metaverses are going to be able to grow in a way that, for example, would sustain Facebook’s business enough for them to survive. They would need a good part of a billion people doing this.”

A music event in Second Life virtual world
Second Life virtual events …
Peak Lounge in Second Life virtual world
… include music and dance in Peak Lounge …
… and gigs like this, by Skye Galaxy. Photographs: Second Life/Linden Lab

More positively, Rosedale says he was heartened to see how Second Life users predominantly get along. “It’s not divisive, or polarising,” he says. “Obviously I’m biased, but there is a lot of independent research to back this up. Second Life delivers on the dream that a lot of us had about the internet at the beginning, which was that it would be this civil, interesting, thoughtful place where people would, if anything, overcome differences between themselves and find new ground.”

This is where, he argues, the idea of a virtual world built in 3D space offers non-gimmicky advantages over a traditional social network. “In a virtual world you actually have neighbors,” he says. “And they have different personalities and come from different backgrounds, so what happens is people are forced to frequently interact with people who are different from them.” Compared with a Facebook group, which gathers like-minded individuals and encourages self-polarizing, Second Life forces interaction with a variety of users.

If it seems as though Rosedale has essentially invented the revolutionary concept of “a village”, he is quick to point out the virtue of virtuality is that there is no threat of physical altercation in disputes; this can encourage a bottom-up civility, easing the burden on traditional top-down moderation techniques deployed by the social media giants. “If somebody’s having an extremist gathering in Second Life, other people are going to wander by and challenge that, because it is occurring in the same physical space. That is a lot healthier than what we’ve seen with the echo chambers and hard boundaries of social media.”

Second Life, to Rosedale, affirms the essential virtues of humanity. “The fact is, most of us almost all of the time are good,” he says. “We’re social, we’re collaborative. Our primary reason for interacting with each other, even with strangers, is to help them. So it’s appalling to me that, via business motivation, we’ve actually managed to create these social media terrariums which manipulate people into being bad to each other, when it’s not their instinct.”

Rosedale believes a ubiquitous metaverse, whether it’s made by Zuckerberg or someone else, has the chance to be a kinder, less invasive online environment. But he fears that most of the companies working on such a project have missed one essential component of lasting success: the fact that people are as much creators as they are consumers. “There isn’t as yet any evidence that people want to have a purely consumptive entertainment experience in social virtual worlds,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any evidence in human history that you can get a billion people to just kind of sit there and veg out, watch stuff. You can’t get to the kind of usage levels that metaverse brands want to get to with a consumer non-participatory experience.”