The Atlantic: The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future
The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future
Second Life was supposed to be the future of the internet, but then Facebook came along. Yet many people still spend hours each day inhabiting this virtual realm. Their stories—and the world they’ve built—illuminate the promise and limitations of online life.
December 2017 Issue
Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”
In another life, the one most people would call “real,” Gidge Uriza is Bridgette McNeal, an Atlanta mother who works eight-hour days at a call center and is raising a 14-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, and severely autistic twins, now 13. Her days are full of the selflessness and endless mundanity of raising children with special needs: giving her twins baths after they have soiled themselves (they still wear diapers, and most likely always will), baking applesauce bread with one to calm him down after a tantrum, asking the other to stop playing “the Barney theme song slowed down to sound like some demonic dirge.” One day, she takes all four kids to a nature center for an idyllic afternoon that gets interrupted by the reality of changing an adolescent’s diaper in a musty bathroom.
But each morning, before all that—before getting the kids ready for school and putting in eight hours at the call center, before getting dinner on the table or keeping peace during the meal, before giving baths and collapsing into bed—Bridgette spends an hour and a half on the online platform Second Life, where she lives in a sleek paradise of her own devising. Good morning girls. I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning. She wakes up at 5:30 to inhabit a life in which she has the luxury of never getting out of bed at all.
What is Second Life? The short answer is that it’s a virtual world that launched in 2003 and was hailed by some as the future of the internet. The longer answer is that it’s a landscape full of goth cities and preciously tattered beach shanties, vampire castles and tropical islands and rainforest temples and dinosaur stomping grounds, disco-ball-glittering nightclubs and trippy giant chess games. In 2013, in honor of Second Life’s tenth birthday, Linden Lab—the company that created it—released an infographic charting its progress: 36 million accounts had been created, and their users had spent 217,266 cumulative years online, inhabiting an ever-expanding territory that comprised almost 700 square miles. Many are tempted to call Second Life a game, but two years after its launch, Linden Lab circulated a memo to employees insisting that no one refer to it as that. It was a platform. This was meant to suggest something more holistic, more immersive, and more encompassing.
Second Life has no specific goals. Its vast landscape consists entirely of user-generated content, which means that everything you see has been built by someone else—an avatar controlled by a live human user. These avatars build and buy homes, form friendships, hook up, get married, and make money. They celebrate their “rez day,” the online equivalent of a birthday: the anniversary of the day they joined. At church, they cannot take physical communion—the corporeality of that ritual is impossible—but they can bring the stories of their faith to life. At their cathedral on Epiphany Island, the Anglicans of Second Life summon rolling thunder on Good Friday, or a sudden sunrise at the moment in the Easter service when the pastor pronounces, “He is risen.” As one Second Life handbook puts it: “From your point of view, SL works as if you were a god.”
In truth, in the years since its peak in the mid‑2000s, Second Life has become something more like a magnet for mockery. When I told friends that I was working on a story about it, their faces almost always followed the same trajectory of reactions: a blank expression, a brief flash of recognition, and then a mildly bemused look. Is that still around? Second Life is no longer the thing you joke about; it’s the thing you haven’t bothered to joke about for years.
Many observers expected monthly user numbers to keep rising after they hit 1 million in 2007, but instead they peaked—and have, in the years since, stalled at about 800,000. An estimated 20 to 30 percent are first-time users who never return. Just a few years after declaring Second Life the future of the internet, the tech world moved on. As a 2011 piece in Slate proclaimed, joining a chorus of disenchantment: “Looking back, the future didn’t last long.”
But if Second Life promised a future in which people would spend hours each day inhabiting their online identity, haven’t we found ourselves inside it? Only it’s come to pass on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter instead. As I learned more about Second Life, and spent more time exploring it, it started to seem less like an obsolete relic and more like a distorted mirror reflecting the world many of us live in.
Perhaps Second Life inspires an urge to ridicule not because it’s unrecognizable, but because it takes a recognizable impulse and carries it past the bounds of comfort, into a kind of uncanny valley: not just the promise of an online voice, but an online body; not just checking Twitter on your phone, but forgetting to eat because you’re dancing at an online club; not just a curated version of your real life, but a separate existence entirely. It crystallizes the simultaneous siren call and shame of wanting an alternate life. It raises questions about where unfettered fantasy leads, as well as about how we navigate the boundary between the virtual and the real.
As virtual-reality technology grows more advanced, it promises to deliver a more fully realized version of what many believed Second Life would offer: total immersion in another world. And as our actual world keeps delivering weekly horrors—another mass shooting, another hurricane, another tweet from the president threatening nuclear war—the appeal of that alternate world keeps deepening, along with our doubts about what it means to find ourselves drawn to it.
From 2004 to 2007, an anthropologist named Tom Boellstorff inhabited Second Life as an embedded ethnographer, naming his avatar Tom Bukowski and building himself a home and office called Ethnographia. His immersive approach was anchored by the premise that the world of Second Life is just as “real” as any other, and that he was justified in studying Second Life on “its own terms” rather than feeling obligated to understand people’s virtual identities primarily in terms of their offline lives. His book Coming of Age in Second Life, titled in homage to Margaret Mead’s classic, documents the texture of the platform’s digital culture. He finds that making “small talk about lag [streaming delays in SL] is like talking about the weather in RL,” and interviews an avatar named Wendy, whose creator always makes her go to sleep before she logs out. “So the actual world is Wendy’s dream, until she wakes up again in Second Life?,” Boellstorff recalls asking her, and then: “I could have sworn a smile passed across Wendy’s … face as she said, ‘Yup. Indeed.’ ”
In Hinduism, the concept of an avatar refers to the incarnation of a deity on Earth, among mortals. In Second Life, it’s your body—an ongoing act of self-expression. One woman described her avatar to Boellstorff like this: “If I take a zipper and pull her out of me, that’s who I am.” Female avatars tend to be thin and impossibly busty; male avatars are young and muscular; almost all avatars are vaguely cartoonish in their beauty. These avatars communicate through chat windows, or by using voice technology to actually speak with one another. They move by walking, flying, teleporting, and clicking on “poseballs,” literal floating orbs that animate avatars into various actions: dancing, karate, pretty much every sexual act you can imagine. Not surprisingly, many users come to Second Life for the possibilities of digital sex—sex without corporeal bodies, without real names, without the constraints of gravity, often with elaborate textual commentary.
The local currency in Second Life is the Linden Dollar, and recent exchange rates put the Linden at just less than half a cent. In the 10 years following its launch, Second Life users spent $3.2 billion of real money on in‑world transactions. The first Second Life millionaire, a digital-real-estate tycoon who goes by Anshe Chung, graced the cover of Businessweek in 2006, and by 2007, the GDP of Second Life was larger than that of several small countries. In the vast digital Marketplace, you can buy a wedding gown for 4,000 Lindens (just over $16) or a ruby-colored corset with fur wings for just under 350 Lindens (about $1.50). You can even buy another body entirely: different skin, different hair, a pair of horns, genitalia of all shapes and sizes. A private island currently costs almost 150,000 Lindens (the price is fixed at $600), while the Millennium II Super Yacht costs 20,000 Lindens (just over $80) and comes with more than 300 animations attached to its beds and trio of hot tubs, designed to allow avatars to enact a vast range of sexual fantasies.
The number of Second Life users peaked just as Facebook started to explode. The rise of Facebook wasn’t the problem of a competing brand so much as the problem of a competing model: It seemed that people wanted a curated version of real life more than they wanted another life entirely—that they wanted to become their most flattering profile picture more than they wanted to become a wholly separate avatar. But maybe Facebook and Second Life aren’t so different in their appeal. Both find traction in the allure of inhabiting a selective self, whether built from the materials of lived experience (camping-trip photos and witty observations about brunch) or from the impossibilities that lived experience precludes: an ideal body, an ideal romance, an ideal home.
Bridgette McNeal, the Atlanta mother of four, has been on Second Life for just over a decade. She named her avatar Gidge after what bullies called her in high school. While Bridgette is middle-aged, her avatar is a lithe 20-something whom she describes as “perfect me—if I’d never eaten sugar or had children.” During her early days on Second Life, Bridgette’s husband created an avatar as well, and the two of them would go on Second Life dates together, a blond Amazon and a squat silver robot, while sitting at their laptops in their study at home. It was often the only way they could go on dates, because their kids’ special needs made finding babysitters difficult. When we spoke, Bridgette described her Second Life home as a refuge that grants permission. “When I step into that space, I’m afforded the luxury of being selfish.” She invoked Virginia Woolf: “It’s like a room of my own.” Her virtual home is full of objects she could never keep in her real home because her kids might break or eat them—jewelry on dishes, knickknacks on tables, makeup on the counter.
In addition to the blog that documents her digital existence, with its marble pools and frilly, spearmint-green bikinis, Bridgette keeps a blog devoted to her daily life as a parent. It’s honest and hilarious and full of heartbreaking candor. Recounting the afternoon spent with her kids at the nature center, she describes looking at a bald eagle: “Some asshole shot this bald eagle with an arrow. He lost most of one wing because of it and can’t fly. He’s kept safe here at this retreat we visited a few days ago. Sometimes I think the husband and I feel a little bit like him. Trapped. Nothing really wrong, we’ve got food and shelter and what we need. But we are trapped for the rest of our lives by autism. We’ll never be free.”
When I asked Bridgette about the allure of Second Life, she said it can be easy to succumb to the temptation to pour yourself into it when you should be tending to real life. I asked whether she had ever slipped close to that, and she said she’d certainly felt the pull at times. “You’re thin and beautiful. No one’s asking you to change a diaper,” she told me. “But you can burn out on that. You don’t want to leave, but you don’t want to do it anymore, either.”
Second Life was invented by a man named Philip Rosedale, the son of a U.S. Navy carrier pilot and an English teacher. As a boy, he was driven by an outsize sense of ambition. He can remember standing near the woodpile in his family’s backyard and thinking, “Why am I here, and how am I different from everybody else?” As a teenager in the mid‑’80s, he used an early-model PC to zoom in on a graphic representation of a Mandelbrot set, an infinitely recursive fractal image that just kept getting more and more detailed as he got closer and closer. At a certain point, he told me, he realized he was looking at a graphic larger than the Earth: “We could walk along the surface our whole lives, and never even begin to see everything.” That’s when he realized that “the coolest thing you could do with a computer would be to build a world.”
In 1999, just as Rosedale was starting Linden Lab, he attended Burning Man, the annual festival of performance art, sculptural installations, and hallucinogenic hedonism in the middle of the Nevada desert. While he was there, he told me, something “inexplicable” happened to his personality. “You feel like you’re high, without any drugs or anything. You just feel connected to people in a way that you don’t normally.” He went to a rave in an Airstream trailer, watched trapeze artists swing across the desert, and lay in a hookah lounge piled with hundreds of Persian rugs. Burning Man didn’t give Rosedale the idea for Second Life—he’d been imagining a digital world for years—but it helped him understand the energy he wanted to summon: a place where people could make the world whatever they wanted it to be.“We used to say that our only competition was real life.”
This was the dream, but it was a hard sell for early investors. Linden Lab was proposing a world built by amateurs, and sustained by a different kind of revenue model—based not on paid subscriptions, but on commerce generated in-world. One of Second Life’s designers recalled investors’ skepticism: “Creativity was supposed to be a dark art that only Spielberg and Lucas could do.” As part of selling Second Life as a world, rather than a game, Linden Lab hired a writer to work as an “embedded journalist.” This was Wagner James Au, who ended up chronicling the early years of Second Life on a blog (still running) called “New World Notes,” and then, after his employment with Linden Lab ended, in a book called The Making of Second Life. In the book, Au profiles some of Second Life’s most important early builders: an avatar named Spider Mandala (who was managing a Midwestern gas station offline) and another named Catherine Omega, who was a “punky brunette … with a utility belt” in Second Life, but offline was squatting in a condemned apartment building in Vancouver, a building that had no running water and was populated mainly by addicts, where she used a soup can to catch a wireless signal from nearby office buildings so she could run Second Life on her laptop.
Rosedale told me about the thrill of those early days, when Second Life’s potential felt unbridled. No one else was doing what he and his team were doing, he remembered: “We used to say that our only competition was real life.” He said there was a period in 2007 when more than 500 articles a day were written about Linden Lab’s work. Rosedale loved to explore Second Life as an avatar named Philip Linden. “I was like a god,” he told me. He envisioned a future in which his grandchildren would see the real world as a kind of “museum or theater,” while most work and relationships happened in virtual realms like Second Life. “In some sense,” he told Au in 2007, “I think we will see the entire physical world as being kind of left behind.”
Alice Krueger first started noticing the symptoms of her illness when she was 20 years old. During fieldwork for a college biology class, crouching down to watch bugs eating leaves, she felt overwhelmed by heat. Standing in the grocery store, she noticed that it felt as if her entire left leg had disappeared—not just gone numb, but disappeared. Whenever she went to a doctor, she was told it was all in her head. “And it was all in my head,” she told me, 47 years later. “But in a different way than how they meant.”Alice Krueger loved seeking out waterslides—she was excited by the sheer thrill of doing what her body could not.
Alice was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 50. By then she could barely walk. Her neighborhood association in Colorado prohibited her from building a ramp at the front of her house, so it was difficult for her to go anywhere. Her three children were 11, 13, and 15. She didn’t get to see her younger son’s high-school graduation, or his college campus. She started suffering intense pain in her lower back and eventually had to have surgery to repair spinal vertebrae that had fused together, then ended up getting multidrug-resistant staph from her time in the hospital. Her pain persisted, and she was diagnosed with a misalignment caused by the surgery itself, during which she had been suspended “like a rotisserie chicken” above the operating table. At the age of 57, Alice found herself housebound and unemployed, often in excruciating pain, largely cared for by her daughter. “I was looking at my four walls,” she told me, “and wondering if there could be more.”Alice Krueger, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, created an avatar named Gentle Heron and founded a Second Life community for people with disabilities. (Melissa Golden)
That’s when she found Second Life. She created an avatar named Gentle Heron, and loved seeking out waterslides—excited by the sheer thrill of doing what her body could not. As she kept exploring, she started inviting people she’d met online in disability chat rooms to join her. But that also meant she started to feel responsible for their experience, and eventually she founded a “cross-disability virtual community” in Second Life, now known as Virtual Ability, a group that occupies an archipelago of virtual islands and welcomes people with a wide range of disabilities—everything from Down syndrome to PTSD to manic depression. What unites its members, Alice told me, is their sense of not being fully included in the world.
While she was starting Virtual Ability, Alice also embarked on a real-life move: to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee from Colorado, where she’d outlived her long-term disability benefits. (“I didn’t know you could do that,” I told her, and she replied, “Neither did I!”) When I asked her whether she felt like a different version of herself in Second Life, she rejected the proposition strenuously. Alice doesn’t particularly like the terms real and virtual. To her, they imply a hierarchical distinction, suggesting that one part of her life is more “real” than the other, when her sense of self feels fully expressed in both. After our first conversation, she sent me 15 peer-reviewed scientific articles about digital avatars and embodiment. She doesn’t want Second Life misunderstood as a trivial diversion.Gentle Heron, the avatar of Alice Krueger
Alice told me about a man with Down syndrome who has become an important member of the Virtual Ability community. In real life, his disability is omnipresent, but on Second Life people can talk to him without even realizing he has Down’s. In the offline world, he lives with his parents—who were surprised to see he was capable of controlling his own avatar. After they eat dinner each night, as his parents are washing the dishes, he sits expectantly by the computer, waiting to return to Second Life, where he rents a duplex on an island called Cape Heron, part of the Virtual Ability archipelago. He has turned the entire upper level into a massive aquarium, so he can walk among the fish, and the lower level into a garden, where he keeps a pet reindeer and feeds it Cheerios. Alice says he doesn’t draw a firm boundary between Second Life and “reality,” and others in the community have been inspired by his approach, citing him when they talk about collapsing the border in their own minds.
When I initially envisioned writing this essay, I imagined falling under the thrall of Second Life: a wide-eyed observer seduced by the culture she had been dispatched to analyze. But being “in world” made me queasy from the start. I had pictured myself defending Second Life against the ways it had been dismissed as little more than a consolation prize for when “first life” doesn’t quite deliver. But instead I found myself wanting to write, Second Life makes me want to take a shower.
Intellectually, my respect deepened by the day, when I learned about a Middle Eastern woman who could move through the world of Second Life without a hijab, and when I talked with a legally blind woman whose avatar has a rooftop balcony and who could see the view from it (thanks to screen magnification) more clearly than the world beyond her screen. I heard about a veteran with PTSD who gave biweekly Italian cooking classes in an open-air gazebo, and I visited an online version of Yosemite created by a woman who had joined Second Life in the wake of several severe depressive episodes and hospitalizations. She uses an avatar named Jadyn Firehawk and spends up to 12 hours a day on Second Life, many of them devoted to refining her bespoke wonderland—full of waterfalls, sequoias, and horses named after important people in John Muir’s life—grateful that Second Life doesn’t ask her to inhabit an identity entirely contoured by her illness, unlike internet chat rooms focused on bipolar disorder that are all about being sick. “I live a well-rounded life on SL,” she told me. “It feeds all my other selves.”One woman created a virtual Yosemite, complete with horses named after important people in John Muir’s life.
But despite my growing appreciation, and my fantasies of enchantment, a certain visceral distaste for Second Life endured—for the emptiness of its graphics, its nightclubs and mansions and pools and castles, their refusal of all the grit and imperfection that make the world feel like the world. Whenever I tried to describe Second Life, I found it nearly impossible—or at least impossible to make interesting—because description finds its traction in flaws and fissures, and exploring the world of Second Life was more like moving through postcards. Second Life was a world of visual clichés. Nothing was ragged or broken or dilapidated—or if it was dilapidated, it was because that particular aesthetic had been chosen from a series of prefab choices.
Of course, my aversion to Second Life—as well as my embrace of flaw and imperfection in the physical world—testified to my own good fortune as much as anything. When I move through the real world, I am buffered by my (relative) youth, my (relative) health, and my (relative) freedom. Who am I to begrudge those who have found in the reaches of Second Life what they couldn’t find offline?
One day when Alice and I met up as avatars, she took me to a beach on one of the Virtual Ability islands and invited me to practice tai chi. All I needed to do was click on one of the poseballs levitating in the middle of a grassy circle, and it would automatically animate my avatar. But I did not feel that I was doing tai chi. I felt that I was sitting at my laptop, watching my two-dimensional avatar do tai chi.
I thought of Bridgette in Atlanta, waking up early to sit beside a virtual pool. She doesn’t get to smell the chlorine or the sunscreen, to feel the sun melt across her back or char her skin to peeling crisps. And yet Bridgette must get something powerful from sitting beside a virtual pool—pleasure that dwells not in the physical experience itself but in the anticipation, the documentation, the recollection, and the contrast to her daily obligations. Otherwise she wouldn’t wake up at 5:30 in the morning to do it.
From the beginning, I was terrible at navigating Second Life. Body part failed to download, my interface kept saying. Second Life was supposed to give you the opportunity to perfect your body, but I couldn’t even summon a complete one. For my avatar, I’d chosen a punk-looking woman with cutoff shorts, a partially shaved head, and a ferret on her shoulder.
On my first day in-world, I wandered around Orientation Island like a drunk person trying to find a bathroom. The island was full of marble columns and trim greenery, with a faint soundtrack of gurgling water, but it looked less like a Delphic temple and more like a corporate retreat center inspired by a Delphic temple. The graphics seemed incomplete and uncompelling, the motion full of glitches and lags. This wasn’t the grit and struggle of reality; it was more like a stage set with the rickety scaffolding of its facade exposed. I tried to talk to someone named Del Agnos, but got nothing. I felt surprisingly ashamed by his rebuff, transported back to the paralyzing shyness of my junior-high-school days.
At my first Second Life concert, I arrived excited for actual music in a virtual world: Many SL concerts are genuinely “live” insofar as they involve real musicians playing real music on instruments or singing into microphones hooked up to their computers. But I was trying to do too many things at once that afternoon: reply to 16 dangling work emails, make my stepdaughter a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich before her final rehearsal for a production of Peter Pan. With my jam-sticky fingers, I clicked on a dance poseball and started a conga line—except no one joined my conga line; it just got me stuck between a potted plant and the stage, trying to conga and going nowhere. My embarrassment—more than any sense of having fun—was what made me feel implicated and engaged, aware that I was sharing the world with others.“Second Life doesn’t open itself up to you … It presents you with a world, and it lets you to your own devices.”
Each time I signed off Second Life, I was eager to plunge back into the obligations of my ordinary life: Pick up my stepdaughter from drama class? Check! Reply to my department chair about hiring a replacement for the faculty member taking an unexpected leave? I was on it! These obligations felt real in a way that Second Life did not, and they allowed me to inhabit a particular version of myself as someone capable and necessary. It felt like returning to the air after struggling to find my breath underwater. I came up gasping, desperate, ready for entanglement and contact, ready to say: Yes! This is the real world! In all its vexed logistical glory!The author created her own avatar.
When I interviewed Philip Rosedale, he readily admitted that Second Life has always presented intrinsic difficulties to users—that it is hard for people to get comfortable moving, communicating, and building; that there is an “irreducible level of difficulty associated with mouse and keyboard” that Second Life “could never make easier.” Peter Gray, Linden Lab’s senior director of global communications, told me about what he called the “white-space problem”—having so much freedom that you can’t be entirely sure what you want to do—and admitted that entering Second Life can be like “getting dropped off in the middle of a foreign country.”
When I spoke with users, however, the stubborn inaccessibility of Second Life seemed to have become a crucial part of their narratives as Second Life residents. They looked back on their early embarrassment with nostalgia. Gidge told me about the time someone had convinced her that she needed to buy a vagina, and she’d ended up wearing it on the outside of her pants. (She called this a classic #SecondLifeProblem.) A Swedish musician named Malin Östh—one of the performers at the concert where I’d started my abortive conga line—told me about attending her first Second Life concert, and her story wasn’t so different from mine: When she’d tried to get to the front of the crowd, she’d ended up accidentally flying onto the stage. Beforehand, she’d been sure the whole event would seem fake, but she was surprised by how mortified she felt, and this made her realize that she actually felt like she was among other people. I knew what she meant. If it feels like you are back in junior high school, then at least it feels like you are somewhere.
One woman put it like this: “Second Life doesn’t open itself up to you. It doesn’t hand you everything on a silver platter and tell you where to go next. It presents you with a world, and it lets you to your own devices, tutorial be damned.” But once you’ve figured it out, you can buy a thousand silver platters if you want to—or buy the yacht of your dreams, or build a virtual Yosemite. Rosedale believed that if a user could survive that initial purgatory, then her bond with the world of Second Life would be sealed for good: “If they stay more than four hours, they stay forever.”
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, featuring a virtual “Metaverse,” is often cited as Second Life’s primary literary ancestor. But Rosedale assured me that by the time he read the novel he’d already been imagining Second Life for years (“Just ask my wife”). The hero of Snow Crash, aptly named Hiro Protagonist, lives with his roommate in a U-Stor-It unit, but in the Metaverse he is a sword-fighting prince and a legendary hacker. No surprise he spends so much time there: “It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.”
Hiro’s double life gets at one of the core fantasies of Second Life: that it could invert all the metrics of real-world success, or render them obsolete; that it could create a radically democratic space because no one has any idea what anyone else’s position in the real world is. Many residents of Second Life understand it as a utopia connecting people from all over the world—across income levels, across disparate vocations and geographies and disabilities, a place where the ill can live in healthy bodies and the immobilized can move freely. Seraphina Brennan—a transgender woman who grew up in a small coal-mining community in Pennsylvania and could not afford to begin medically transitioning until her mid-20s—told me that Second Life had given her “the opportunity to appear as I truly felt inside,” because it was the first place where she could inhabit a female body.
In The Making of Second Life, Wagner James Au tells the story of an avatar named Bel Muse, a classic “California blonde” who is played by an African American woman. She led an early team of builders working on Nexus Prime, one of the first Second Life cities, and told Au that it was the first time she hadn’t encountered the prejudices she was accustomed to. In the real world, she said, “I have to make a good impression right away—I have to come off nice and articulate, right away. In Second Life, I didn’t have to. Because for once, I can pass.” But this anecdote—the fact that Bel Muse found respect more readily when she passed as white—confirms the persistence of racism more than it offers any proof of liberation from it.
Many Second Life users see it as offering an equal playing field, free from the strictures of class and race, but its preponderance of slender white bodies, most of them outfitted with the props of the leisure class, simply re-inscribe the same skewed ideals—and the same sense of “whiteness” as invisible default—that sustain the unequal playing field in the first place.
Sara Skinner, an African American woman who has always given her avatars skin tones similar to her own, told me the story of trying to build a digital black-history museum in a seaside town called Bay City. Another avatar (playing a cop) immediately built walls and, eventually, a courthouse that blocked the museum from view. The cop avatar claims it was a misunderstanding, but so much racism refuses to confess itself as such—and it’s certainly no misunderstanding when white men on Second Life tell Sara that she looks like a primate after she rejects their advances; or when someone calls her “tampon nose” because of her wide nostrils; or when someone else tells her that her experience with bias is invalid because she is a “mixed breed.”
Au told me that initially he was deeply excited by the premise of Second Life, particularly the possibilities of its user-generated content, but that most people turned out to be less interested in exercising the limits of their creative potential than in becoming consumers of a young, sexy, rich world, clubbing like 20-somethings with infinite money. Rosedale told me he thought the landscape of Second Life would be hyper-fantastic, artistic and insane, full of spaceships and bizarre topographies, but what ended up emerging looked more like Malibu. People were building mansions and Ferraris. “We first build in a place what we most covet,” he told me, and cited an early study by Linden Lab that found the vast majority of Second Life users lived in rural rather than urban areas in real life. They came to Second Life for what their physical lives lacked: the concentration, density, and connective potential of urban spaces; the sense of things happening all around them; the possibility of being part of that happening.
Jonas Tancred first joined Second Life in 2007, after his corporate-headhunting company folded during the recession. Jonas, who lives in Sweden, was graying and middle-aged, a bit paunchy, while his avatar, Bara Jonson, was young and muscled, with spiky hair and a soulful vibe. But what Jonas found most compelling about Second Life was not that it let him role-play a more attractive alter ego; it was that Second Life gave him the chance to play music, a lifelong dream he’d never followed. (He would eventually pair up with Malin Östh to form the duo Bara Jonson and Free.) Jonas started playing virtual gigs. In real life he stood in front of a kitchen table covered with a checkered oilcloth, playing an acoustic guitar connected to his computer, while in Second Life Bara was rocking out in front of a crowd.Jonas Tancred and Malin Östh formed a popular Second Life musical duo called Bara Jonson and Free. (Charlotte de la Fuente)
Before a performance one night, a woman showed up early and asked him, “Are you any good?” He said, “Yes, of course,” and played one of his best gigs yet, just to back it up. This woman was Nickel Borrelly; she would become his (Second Life) wife and eventually, a couple of years later, the mother of his (real life) child.
Offline, Nickel was a younger woman named Susie who lived in Missouri. After a surreal courtship full of hot-air-balloon rides, romantic moonlit dances, and tandem biking on the Great Wall of China, the pair had a Second Life wedding on Twin Hearts Island—at “12pm SLT,” the electronic invitations said, which meant noon Standard Linden Time. During their vows, Bara called it the most important day of his life. But which life did he mean?
Bara’s Second Life musical career started to take off, and eventually he was offered the chance to come to New York to make a record, one of the first times a Second Life musician had been offered a real-life record deal. It was on that trip that Jonas first met Susie in the real world. When their relationship was featured in a documentary a few years later, she described her first impression: Man, he looks kinda old. But she said that getting to know him in person felt like “falling in love twice.” How did she end up getting pregnant? “I can tell you how it happened,” she said in the documentary. “A lot of vodka.”
Susie and Jonas’s son, Arvid, was born in 2009. (Both Susie’s and Arvid’s names have been changed.) By then, Jonas was back in Sweden because his visa had run out. While Susie was in the delivery room, he was in his club on Second Life—at first waiting for news, and then smoking a virtual cigar. For Susie, the hardest part was the day after Arvid’s birth, when the hospital was full of other fathers visiting their babies. What could Susie and Jonas do? Bring their avatars together to cook a virtual breakfast in a romantic enclave by the sea, holding steaming mugs of coffee they couldn’t drink, looking at actual videos of their actual baby on a virtual television, while they reclined on a virtual couch.
Susie and Jonas are no longer romantically involved, but Jonas is still part of Arvid’s life, Skyping frequently and visiting the States when he can. Jonas believes that part of the reason he and Susie have been able to maintain a strong parenting relationship in the aftermath of their separation is that they got to know each other so well online before they met in real life—that Second Life wasn’t an illusion but a conduit that allowed them to understand each other better than real-life courtship would have.
Jonas describes Second Life as a rarefied version of reality, rather than a shallow substitute for it. As a musician, he feels that Second Life hasn’t changed his music but “amplified” it, enabling a more direct connection with his audience, and he loves the way fans can type their own lyrics to his songs. He remembers everyone “singing along” to a cover he performed of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” by the Crash Test Dummies, when so many people typed the lyrics that their “mmm”s eventually filled his entire screen. For Jonas, the reality and beauty of his creations—the songs, the baby—have transcended and overpowered the vestiges of their virtual construction.
Of the 36 million Second Life accounts that had been created by 2013—the most recent data Linden Lab will provide—only an estimated 600,000 people still regularly use the platform. That’s a lot of users who turned away. What happened?
Au sees the simultaneous rise of Facebook and the plateau in Second Life users as proof that Linden Lab misread public desires. “Second Life launched with the premise that everyone would want a second life,” Au told me, “but the market proved otherwise.”
But when I spoke with Peter Gray, Linden Lab’s global communications director, and Bjorn Laurin, its vice president of product, they insisted that the problem doesn’t lie in the concept, but in the challenge of perfecting its execution. The user plateau simply testifies to interface difficulties, they told me, and to the fact that the technology hasn’t yet advanced enough to deliver fully on what the media hype suggested Second Life might become: an utterly immersive virtual world. They are hoping virtual reality can change that.Rosedale predicts that we will come to regard the real world as an “archaic, lovable place”—no longer crucial.
In July, Linden Lab launched a beta version of a new platform called Sansar, billed as the next frontier: a three-dimensional world designed for use with a virtual-reality headset such as Oculus Rift. The company’s faith, along with the recent popularity of VR in the tech world (a trend that Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR attests to), raises a larger question. If advances in virtual reality solve the problem of a cumbersome interface, will they ultimately reveal a widespread desire to plunge more fully into virtual worlds unfettered by glitches, lags, and keyboards?
Rosedale stepped down as CEO of Linden Lab in 2008. He told me he thinks of himself as more of an inventor, and he felt that the company needed a better manager. He isn’t disappointed in what Second Life has become, but he, too, sees the horizon of future possibility elsewhere: in full-fledged virtual reality, where he can “build planets and new economies.” His current company, High Fidelity, is working on creating VR technology so immersive that you actually feel like you are present in the room with someone else.
Au told me that he has noticed a recurrent hubris in the tech world. Instead of learning from mistakes, people and companies do the same thing over and over again. Is this the story of Second Life—the persistence of a tech-world delusion? Or is the delusion something more like prophecy? Is Second Life the prescient forerunner of our future digital existence?
When I asked Rosedale whether he stood behind the predictions he’d made during the early years of Second Life—that the locus of our lives would become virtual, and that the physical world would start to seem like a museum—he didn’t recant. Just the opposite: He said that at a certain point we would come to regard the real world as an “archaic, lovable place” that was no longer crucial. “What will we do with our offices when we no longer use them?” he wondered. “Will we play racquetball in them?”
I pressed him on this. Did he really think that certain parts of the physical world—the homes we share with our families, for example, or the meals we enjoy with our friends, our bodies leaning close across tables—would someday cease to matter? Did he really believe that our corporeal selves weren’t fundamental to our humanity? I was surprised by how rapidly he conceded. The sphere of family would never become obsolete, he said—the physical home, where we choose to spend time with the people we love. “That has a more durable existence,” he said. “As I think you’d agree.”
Alicia Chenaux lives on an island called Bluebonnet, a quaint forested enclave, with her husband, Aldwyn (Al), to whom she has been married for six years, and their two daughters: Abby, who is 8, and Brianna, who is 3, although she used to be 5, and before that she was 8. As a family, they live their days as a parade of idyllic memories, often captured as digital snapshots on Alicia’s blog: scouting for jack-o’-lantern candidates at the pumpkin patch, heading to Greece for days of swimming in a pixelated sea. It’s like a digital Norman Rockwell painting, an ideal of upper-middle-class American domesticity—an utterly unremarkable fantasy, except that Abby and Brianna are both child avatars played by adults.
When Alicia discovered in her early 30s that she couldn’t have biological children, she fell into a lengthy depression. But Second Life offered her a chance to be a parent. Her virtual daughter Abby endured a serious trauma in real life at the age of 8 (the specifics of which Alicia doesn’t feel the need to know), so she plays that age to give herself the chance to live it better. Brianna was raised by nannies in real life—her parents weren’t particularly involved in her upbringing—and she wanted to be part of a family in which she’d get more hands-on parenting. Perhaps that’s why she kept wanting to get younger.Alicia Chenaux is the avatar of a woman who in real life can’t have biological children. In Second Life she lives with her husband, Al, and their daughters, Abby and Brianna.
Alicia and her family are part of a larger family-role-play community on Second Life, facilitated by adoption agencies where children and potential parents post profiles and embark on “trials,” during which they live together to see whether they are a good match. Sara Skinner, the would-be founder of the Second Life black-history museum, told me about parenting a 4-year-old son played by a man in the armed services deployed overseas: He often logged on with a patchy connection, just to hang out with Sara for a few hours while his service flickered in and out.
Sometimes adoptive parents will go through a virtual pregnancy, using “birth clinics” or accessories called “tummy talkers”—kits that deliver everything you need: a due date and body modifications (both adjustable), including the choice to make the growing fetus visible or not; play-by-play announcements (“Your baby is doing flips!”); and the simulation of a “realistic delivery,” along with a newborn-baby accessory. For Second Life parents who go through pregnancy after adopting in-world, it’s understood that the baby they are having is the child they have already adopted—the process is meant to give both parent and child the bond of a live birth. “Really get morning sickness,” one product promises. “Get aches.” Which means being informed that a body-that-is-not-your-corporeal-body is getting sick. “You have full control over your pregnancy, have it EXACTLY how you want,” this product advertises, which—as I write this essay, six months into my own pregnancy—does seem to miss something central to the experience: that it doesn’t happen exactly how you want; that it subjects you to a process beyond your control.
In real life, Alicia lives with her boyfriend, and when I ask whether he knows about her Second Life family, she says, “Of course.” Keeping it a secret would be hard, because she hangs out with the three of them on Second Life nearly every night of the week except Wednesday. (Wednesday is what she calls “real-life night,” and she spends it watching reality television with her best friend.) When I ask Alicia whether she gets different things from her two romantic relationships, she says, “Absolutely.” Her boyfriend is brilliant but he works all the time; Al listens to her ramble endlessly about her day. She and Al knew each other for two years before they got married (she says his “patience and persistence” were a major part of his appeal), and she confesses that she was a “total control freak” about their huge Second Life wedding. In real life, the man who plays Al is a bit older than Alicia—51 to her 39, with a wife and family—and she appreciates that he has a “whole lifetime of experiences” and can offer a “more conservative, more settled” perspective.
After their Second Life wedding, everyone started asking whether Alicia and Al planned to have kids. (Some things remain constant across virtual and actual worlds.) They adopted Abby four years ago, and Brianna a year later, and these days their family dynamic weaves in and out of role-play. When Brianna joined their family, she said she wanted more than “just a story,” and sometimes the girls will interrupt role-play to say something about their real adult lives: guy trouble or job stress. But it’s important to Alicia that both of her daughters are “committed children,” which means that they don’t have alternate adult avatars. While Alicia and Al share real-life photos with each other, Alicia told me, “the girls generally don’t share photos of themselves, preferring to keep themselves more childlike in our minds.”There’s something stubbornly beautiful about Alicia’s Second Life family, all four people wanting to live inside the same dream.
For Christmas in 2015, Al gave Alicia a “pose stand,” which allows her to customize and save poses for her family: she and Al embracing on a bench, or him giving her a piggyback ride. Many of Alicia’s blog posts show a photograph of her family looking happy, often accompanied by a note at the bottom. One such note reads: “Btw, if you want to buy the pose I used for this picture of us, I put it up on Marketplace.” In one post, beneath a photograph of her and Al sitting on a bench, surrounded by snowy trees, cuddling in their cozy winter finery, she admits that she took the photo after Al had gone to bed. She had logged his avatar back on and posed him to get the photo just as she wanted.
To me, posing illuminates both the appeal and the limits of family role-play on Second Life: It can be endlessly sculpted into something idyllic, but it can never be sculpted into something that you have not purposely sculpted. Though Alicia’s family dynamic looks seamless—a parade of photogenic moments—a deep part of its pleasure, as Alicia described it to me, seems to involve its moments of difficulty: when she has to stop the girls from bickering about costumes or throwing tantrums about coming home from vacation. In a blog post, Alicia confesses that her favorite time each evening is the “few minutes” she gets alone with Al, but even invoking this economy of scarcity—appealing for its suggestion of obligation and sacrifice—feels like another pose lifted from real-world parenting.
Last year, Alicia and Al adopted two more children, but found it problematic that the new kids wanted “so much, so fast.” They wanted to call Alicia and Al Mom and Dad right away, and started saying “I love you so much” from the very beginning. They had a desire for intense, unrelenting parenting, rather than wanting to weave in and out of role-play, and constantly did things that demanded attention, like losing their shoes, jumping off the roof, climbing trees they couldn’t get down from, and starting projects they couldn’t finish. Basically, they behaved more like actual kids than like adults pretending to be kids. The adoption lasted only five months. There’s something stubbornly beautiful about Alicia’s Second Life family, all four of these people wanting to live inside the same dream. And there’s something irrefutably meaningful about the ways Alicia and her children have forged their own version of the intimacies they’ve been denied by circumstances. But their moments of staged friction (the squabbling, the meltdowns) also illuminate the claustrophobia of their family’s perfection. Perhaps Second Life families court the ideals of domesticity too easily, effectively short-circuiting much of the difficulty that constitutes family life. Your virtual family will never fully reach beyond your wildest imagining, because it’s built only of what you could imagine.
One evening during the earliest days of my Second Life exploration, I stood with my husband outside a barbecue joint in (offline) Lower Manhattan and asked him: “I mean, why isn’t Second Life just as real as ‘real life’?” He reached over and pinched my arm, then said, “That’s why it’s not as real.”
His point wasn’t just about physicality—the ways our experiences are bound to our bodies—but about surprise and disruption. So much of lived experience is composed of what lies beyond our agency and prediction, beyond our grasp, beyond our imagining. In the perfected landscapes of Second Life, I kept remembering what a friend had once told me about his experience of incarceration: Having his freedom taken from him meant not only losing access to the full range of the world’s possible pleasure, but also losing access to the full range of his own possible mistakes. Maybe the price of a perfected world, or a world where you can ostensibly control everything, is that much of what strikes us as “experience” comes from what we cannot forge ourselves, and what we cannot ultimately abandon. Alice and Bridgette already know this, of course. They live it every day.
In Second Life, as elsewhere online, afk stands for “away from keyboard,” and during the course of his ethnographic research, Tom Boellstorff sometimes heard residents saying that “they wished they could ‘go afk’ in the actual world to escape uncomfortable situations, but knew this was not possible; ‘no one ever says “afk” in real life.’ ” This sentiment inspired what Boellstorff calls the “afk test”: “If you can go ‘afk’ from something, that something is a virtual world.” Perhaps the inverse of the afk test is a decent definition of what constitutes reality: something you can’t go afk from—not forever, at least. Philip Rosedale predicted that the physical world would become a kind of museum, but how could it? It’s too integral to our humanity to ever become obsolete, too necessary to our imperfect, aching bodies moving through it.
Did I find wonder in Second Life? Absolutely. When I sat in a wicker chair on a rooftop balcony, chatting with the legally blind woman who had built herself this house overlooking the crashing waves of Cape Serenity, I found it moving that she could see the world of Second Life better than our own. When I rode horses through the virtual Yosemite, I thought of how the woman leading me through the pines had spent years on disability, isolated from the world, before she found a place where she no longer felt sidelined. That’s what ultimately feels liberating about Second Life—not its repudiation of the physical world, but its entwinement with that world, their fierce exchange. Second Life recognizes the ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be.
Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.
About the Author
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, a collection of essays. Her next book, The Recovering, will be published in April.
TheAtlantic.com Copyright (c) 2017 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.