In 2003, Wagner James Au was a young freelance writer in the Bay Area covering massively multiplayer games such as The Sims Online for Salon and Wired. During that time he was tasked with reviewing a new virtual world game, made by a company called Linden Labs, called Second Life. So he got to know the nascent digital world, and it wasn’t long before he met the developers, who made him an interesting offer to work on the game as a journalist. Au can cover everything in Second Life, including weirdness, harassment and cybercrime. Eventually, Au wrote the definitive book on the game, Second Life: Notes from a New World. Today, he still covers the development of Second Life in great detail on his blog, New World Notes, the longest-running metadata news site. One of his most recent articles was about Russian Second Life players running digital businesses in the game, who are now trying to evade sanctions by fleeing the country.
In short, Au is one of the few people who has a real view and experience of the Metaverse community. Since Facebook changed its name to Meta, the concept of the Metaverse has been swallowed up by a sudden hype cycle. Major brands have poured into this space, people have started posting various news about the Metaverse, and many people have dismissed the Metaverse as “useless.” But as Au’s experience shows, millions of people have been dutifully working and creating in the digital world for decades.
Au is a keen observer of the field and, to some extent, an advocate for the digital world. But at the same time, he is also a journalist and critic. He’s hopeful about the future of the Metaverse community, but also digs deep into the excesses that could set everything on fire. He also has his own unique insights into Meta’s foray into the Metaverse.
Charlie Warzel : The popularity of the Metaverse has not diminished, and Facebook has been working on building the Metaverse. You’ve been documenting the development of the Metaverse community for decades, can you tell us how big Second Life is today?
Wagner James Au : After 20 years of development, Second Life currently has a lot of active users, about 600,000 monthly active users and about 200,000 daily active users. The reason why I have always been interested in this game, and I am willing to spend energy to write related articles, is because I see that there are a lot of things worth exploring, and users have always been very interested in these contents.
Warzel : When people are talking about the virtual internet, there are often wild speculations. As a journalist, what did you learn from your visit to Second Life?
Au : Two big things happened. First of all, if you give a community of users powerful enough creator tools, what they create in these worlds will be more interesting than what a large company can create, as Second Life shows.
Second, we have somehow reconstructed all the major challenges and complex social structures of real life in the digital social space. For example, the issue of race is one of them. In the Metaverse, if you could set your profile picture however you want, what race would you choose? Will there be any restrictions and will there be issues of discrimination and harassment? In Second Life, these issues have led to a long-running controversy, and Meta will have to resolve them. No matter what avatar people choose, racism isn’t going away. It is often said that the virtual world is more free than the real world, but the reality is that the virtual world will become more chaotic because there are no constraints, and this is the challenge facing the Metaverse.
Warzel : I often hear people say that users can sometimes create more interesting things than companies, and I feel the same is true on a lot of social media. Twitter is probably the best example, where users create a lot of new usages that the platform then has to code into the program. Have you seen something similar in Second Life?
Au : One of my favorite examples is of a mathematician building a house that goes beyond three-dimensional space—a house shaped like a four-dimensional hypercube. Once you pass through the house, it keeps regenerating in a certain way.This idea is really mind-blowing, and no game company would have come up with something like this. The first person I met in Second Life was a woman who built a mansion by the sea. In speaking with her, I learned that she was homeless in real life and built this Second Life home in an abandoned apartment in Vancouver. With a background in computer work and cobbling together an internet connection, this Second Life is her escape from real life. So, the people who come to Second Life come from different backgrounds, and as long as you give them the tools to build, they can create amazing things for you.
Warzel : The reason I’m asking this question is that I think a lot of people who don’t know Second Life have a big misconception about it. But I also know from time to time that these gamers are real people, not a bunch of introverted, escapist people.
Au : Part of the prejudice against Second Life may be due to its name, and I think Linden Labs knows it can be accused of helping people escape reality. But you also know that no one can say anything about things online. Some users in Second Life build things they see on TV, like the Kardashians’ big house — people tend to recreate things they’re familiar with but out of reach. Of course, this is only a part of the people, there are also some such as the mathematician mentioned earlier, who will use Second Life to do physics experiments. As for the homeless woman, she now makes it her career to build things in virtual worlds.
Also overlooked is that in the early days, Second Life could be integrated with the real-world economy, so people could make money by producing content for the game. One of Second Life’s founders, Philip Rosenadale, has mentioned that a total of 1,600 Second Life users make $10,000 or more each year by selling virtual content. What I’ve learned is that some people even make millions of dollars. Not only Second Life, but other games like Roblox and Fortnite have a similar phenomenon.
Warzel : It’s no surprise that Second Life has such a vibrant game economy, what’s really surprising is that it keeps things fresh. Why do people stay on this platform because they put their time and energy into it, or is there something else that appeals to them?
Au : The investment of time is very important to them, and many Second Life users have been playing for 10, 15, or even close to 20 years. They’ve spent thousands of dollars on virtual content and made friends in games. But the specific user behavior still varies from person to person, and some monthly users will be less active, they will only log in to the community occasionally, or visit a favorite place to check the latest changes. There are also many people using VRChat, an online virtual reality platform. So when I say there are 600,000 monthly active users, it doesn’t mean that all of them are active on the platform all the time. They might log in on Second Life for an hour, then use VRChat for a while, or they might organize a party with friends on Discord. Simply put, they move back and forth between different platforms.
Warzel : Sounds interesting. My idea is that Discord could become something like US TV Guide, where each platform is a different channel that people can switch back and forth depending on what’s playing.
Au : I think that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg and other Metaverse builders should be working on. More than the platform itself, the community is the key. There are generally very few communities that stay on a fixed platform and leave once they feel they are not being treated fairly.
Warzel : Can you be specific about the unfair treatment?
Au : In the case of Meta’s Horizon Worlds virtual reality platform, they had very limited creation tools and monetization tools, and basically didn’t build a community. From what I’ve learned so far, Meta has yet to collaborate with any community team. Linden Lab instills a culture of creativity and free expression in Second Life, and respects the anonymity of users. Linden Labs understands that some rules cannot be enforced and need to be heard from community members.Horizon is the reason why hundreds of thousands of people have left after experiencing it because of its lack of attention to community.
Warzel: How does this community development work in practice, is it a dedicated staff member who greets people in Second Life?
Au : There are indeed welcome people, and sometimes volunteers do it. Second Life also had large social and community projects in the early days. Philip Rosedale had the initial vision for Second Life while attending Burning Man, and in 2003 their first in-game events were Burning Man events to help keep the community on track. The game places great emphasis on contingency and the free participation of users, which requires not only a corresponding community environment, but also a lot of management and mentoring. Ultimately the game attracted a variety of gamers, including mathematicians, hippies, and people from all walks of life.
Warzel : In a sense, Facebook or Meta will try to foster healthy communities. If companies blindly care about growth, they will ignore community building. Also, I’m shocked they haven’t learned any lessons from past iterations of the platform.
Au : It’s also surprising that Meta’s team includes some Second Life employees, such as the former CTO of Linden Labs, and Jim Purbrick, a former Linden Labs employee. Just before Meta launched Horizon, he warned the Meta team about the need for guidance on harassment on the platform, and the company didn’t take his advice. Of course, we’ve also seen some well-documented examples of a woman being sexually assaulted on their platform (in November 2021, a tester reported that she received harassment in Horizon Worlds]) . Building a Metaverse platform is not an easy task, there are many problems to solve, but it seems that the Meta company is focusing on pouring money into it and ignoring the importance of strategy.
Warzel : Thanks to Facebook, we’re in a Metaverse hype cycle right now. What’s your take on this? How do you feel when you see those people who are thinking about the future before they have learned to reflect on the past?
Au : In general, the situation is optimistic, because I have long seen the development of the Metaverse and the wonderful changes it will bring. This hype wave is quite similar to the one in 2008, though, and everything seems to be repeating — the same stories, the same perceptions, the same mistakes. During that hype in 2008, the technology wasn’t ready to hit the mass market. But today, with the advent of Roblox and Fortnite and other platforms, the Metaverse has entered the public eye. At present, there are more than 500 million active users on the broad Metaverse platform. Everything is gradually getting on track, and I’m also very excited.
Warzel : In your opinion, what mistakes are being repeated?
Au : First of all it must be the issue of harassment, but secondly there are other issues. Between 2006 and 2008, many companies set up shop in the Metaverse, including Intel, IBM, American Apparel, Nissan, and NBC, all of which created their own spaces in Second Life. But in 2008, Second Life’s user base wasn’t big enough to support these stores, and most brands thought their virtual stores had the same clout as their offline counterparts (which wasn’t the case). As a result, they spend tens of millions of dollars to build stores that are only visited by a dozen people.
People at the time lost faith in the Metaverse after witnessing a situation like this, and I was really worried that it would happen again. But the problem isn’t with the users, it’s with the companies failing to take care of their own Metaverse communities and really take into account the feelings of the community members.
Warzel : You mentioned just now that humans will reshape old social structures and problems in the digital world.It saddens me that a lot of Metaverse companies just want to make money and make money when they could create more infinite possibilities and achieve any vision, instead, Meta and others say we use the Metaverse to make videos Conference, to collect high mortgages by selling virtual land. What’s your take on this situation?
Au : I feel that these actions are doomed to fail and cost a lot. Once people focus only on how to make money fast, they miss out on many opportunities. I love watching what the younger generation is doing, what Gen Z is doing in the Metaverse like the early Second Life users did, but on a much larger scale. What people should realize is that young Metaverse users are not trying to recreate a second space because virtual space is real enough for them. When you watch people play Fortnite on Twitch, they’re already touting each other, talking about geopolitics or issues in pop culture. The virtual world is just a way of participating, and it is closely integrated with real life. In the future, these generations of Metaverse users will grow from these experiences, building on top of traditional social media.
Warzel : I like your statement that the experience of the virtual world is closely integrated with real life. I think this also fits with your previous point that the virtual world is not an anti-social or escape world, it’s just a derivation of the real world. In your opinion, what kind of experiences do people want from the Metaverse?
Au : They just want to create, socialize or have fun in it, some people want to create new social experiences that they can’t get in the real world. As long as you’re willing to spend enough time in a virtual world, you can always build some interesting social relationships in it. Mark Zuckerberg thinks that people will only build relationships with friends on virtual platforms, but I actually think that we now have the opportunity to build a global connection, to communicate and interact with anyone.
Warzel : When I hear stories like this, I think of my biggest fear of this technology, which is that it will become lifeless, soulless, and financialized by companies trying to build overly commercialized platforms. I know Web3 and the Metaverse are not the same concept, but what makes Web3 unsettling to me is how it tokenizes everything it touches and turns it into some kind of financial instrument. Are you also worried that this will play out in the Metaverse realm?
Au : The hype you mentioned about NFTs and the Metaverse based on Crypto currency really surprised me. In general, very few people are collecting NFTs, and there are far more people with content in Second Life than people with NFTs.And a Metaverse platform like Decentraland that is linked to NFTs has a very small user base, most of which are people who have invested in it. If you buy land in Decentraland, you definitely want people to move in.
In my opinion, those Web3 platforms that want to enter the Metaverse have put the cart before the horse. If you launch a speculative product, such as a new coin, so that people can get into the digital world, then people might get involved, but they won’t necessarily stay involved all the time. From a basic philosophical perspective, an event is only valuable if a group decides it has value. However, these Crypto Metaverse platforms do not put the community first, including Meta, they only want to collect user data for marketing purposes, but do not consider the interests and feelings of the community.
Warze l: What do you think the odds are now? If the company screwed up their Metaverse project, would it set the whole development process backwards or completely bogged down?
Au : The most critical thing right now is Meta. Many observers believe that since they invented the Metaverse, everything they do now is part of the Metaverse. Of course, they’re just new entrants to an old system, and Meta has the potential to succeed if they take action, but they haven’t yet.
However, I also don’t think society has fully realized the far-reaching impact of Roblox being played by most children these days, creating value for gaming companies and trying to make money. Many of Roblox’s monetization models are questionable and may even involve child labor. However, not many people in Congress may know that this is an issue they may need to focus on.
What I’m trying to say is that the development of the Metaverse has run into a lot of real problems these days. The problem of space is already real and huge. There have long been concerns that the Metaverse could threaten national security. In the early 2000s, I interviewed a terrorism expert who told me that jihadist groups at the time had been planning and trying to carry out terrorist attacks in Second Life. The Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA had investigators in Second Life trying to unravel the conspiracy. I think after the Ukraine incident, there will be more focus on the role of platforms in that conflict. People have already started to worry that anonymous people will use the system in Second Life to transfer money, so I am worried that the Metaverse will be destroyed in the hands of large companies like Meta that do not understand it, and that large institutions do not realize the seriousness of the problem.
Warzel : You’re right about that, and the reports of P2E games now reveal some issues. One of the very dystopian views is that we are about to enter the era of “garbage jobs”, where people are working on these platforms, doing repetitive work as a whole, and ultimately earning less and less money. Are you worried that the digital economy will eventually disappear as a result? Ethical issues aside, do you think that if these platforms are allowed to grow without effective regulation, will people eventually lose themselves and become disconnected from the real world?
Au : To be honest, it was really a challenge for us because we needed to use all kinds of equipment. To some extent, smartphones and social networks may be more problematic than Metaverse platforms. The Metaverse platform has infinite possibilities, but like you said, it does have many problems, so when we explore and build these platforms, we must pay attention to the balance between platform functions and real-life community participation. In fact, Facebook and Twitter are still better at running social media than building the Metaverse.
Warzel : Why do you say that?
Au : There is still a difference between social media and virtual worlds, because in virtual worlds, you can get a sense of immersion, a real sense of interacting with real people. Virtual worlds can truly enable user engagement, rather than the delusional interactive engagement of social media. While this may sound utopian, people in the virtual world start out with fair participation, a quality that isn’t found on many social media. I think virtual worlds are the best way for people to participate. On the one hand, you can experience real interpersonal communication, and on the other hand, you can maintain enough social distance to show and express yourself in your own way. . So, some people feel they can be themselves more in the virtual world than in the real world.
Warzel : I never thought about it that way, it’s a really interesting angle. In my opinion, social media increases the distance between people and allows people to do things that real life would never try. However, this also lowers the access threshold of the network, and some users can even send out some unbearable text content without thinking. In the virtual world, this situation may be improved to some extent, because people will participate in a personal image, everyone can see you, and people will take action with more consideration. Of course, without a series of restrictions such as avatars, some people may feel more free, which is also worth thinking about.
Au : In the future, the competition between major platforms will become more intense, because they all have different visions for digital life, and I hope that those platforms that really consider users’ feelings will eventually win.
Posted by:CoinYuppie，Reprinted with attribution to:https://coinyuppie.com/listen-to-the-19-year-industry-lessons-from-the-metaverse-veteran/
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