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