In this series, we explore how our online identities intersect with who we really are.
Do you remember Second Life? For most people, one of the first large-scale virtual worlds – where users could be whoever they wanted, build and do whatever they wanted, and even make real-life money selling digital goods and services – was a blip on the radar.
In its infancy, the Second Life creators at Linden Lab had envisioned millions of users arriving in their virtual space and putting down permanent stakes. "Second Life is the scrappy frontier of online games," a New York Times article heralded in 2004. "… Since its launch in mid-2003, it has tested the possibilities and limits of unfettered creative freedom."
But more than a decade later, the real world has moved on to shinier techno baubles such as smartphones, augmented reality and Netflix. (Incidentally, the iconic San Junipero episode of the Netflix dystopian drama Black Mirror perfectly captures the promise of Second Life.) We now have the ability to connect and communicate in so many ways we couldn't have imagined at the turn of the millennium.
Yet Second Life still has at least 600,000 active users. To find out what has kept more than a half-million people dedicated to a 14-year-old world of polygons, The Globe and Mail spoke with Wagner James Au. The California-based writer was contracted by Linden Labs as an embedded Second Life journalist for three years, and has continued to document the virtual-reality genre ever since at nwn.blogs.com.
So who uses Second Life?
They tend to be on the older side, people in their 40s and 50s. And my personal estimate is that 10 to 20 per cent actually have a physical or mental disability that makes it difficulty to interact in the real world. The most well-known is a woman who just turned 90. She has Parkinson's, and she discovered that using Second Life has helped with her symptoms, an effect that's been studied by researchers.
How open then are users about their lives outside of Second Life?
It really varies. Fran, she's always been very open about being an elderly woman with Parkinson's. But others would rather not discuss it publicly, because they have a chance to be a glamorous supermodel, for example – there's a virtual fashion industry, so there are virtual supermodels who actually make some pretty good pocket change. But in reality, they may be somewhere in the Midwest, in their 50s or 60s and confined to a wheelchair.
If Second Life allows people to become someone else, how does your Second Life life intersect with your full identity?
Well, there are also people who experiment with an aspect of their identity that they are either uncomfortable expressing in real life, or it's difficult to express. There are a large number of people who are transgender in Second Life who, in real life, might still be transitioning.
Or, for example, take "furries." There's actually a very large furry subcommunity, and then a subsection of them can be very kinky, so you might encounter furry sex in all its pornographic glory.
It seems the sexual content is often singled out when talking about Second Life in 2017.
There's a defensiveness that the community has because of the sexual stuff, which I estimate at 20 to 30 per cent. It's really salacious. Part of that reputation is earned, and part of it is not fair, because there is so much other great content: There's a thriving arts scene, including a Canadian artist, Bryn Oh, who's even received Ontario Arts Council grants for her Second Life work.
Are there ever many new users?
It's mostly the hard-core users. It's very difficult for an outside user to access, unless they want to spend eight to 10 hours to learn the interface.
Do you recognize the Second Life of today from the one you saw as an embedded journalist in 2003?
Oh, no. I helped them launch it and the whole idea was that this was going to be like the metaverse, from Neal Stephenson's books, where there are millions of people on the next generation of the Internet. Instead of going to this 2-D Web browser, you'd find all your content in a 3-D world, and that's what contributed to the hype. I definitely thought it had a good chance to become that.
When my book [The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World] came out in 2008, I wrote that even if growth did slow and it became a niche, it's still a really fascinating niche because you can learn about the real world and society through this microcosm.
I'm sure there have been some IRL friendships that have developed through Second Life.
A lot of romances and friendships were definitely developed virtually first. I wrote recently about a woman who can't have kids. So she has a virtual family in Second Life. She has a couple of friends who role play as kids, and she acts as the mom. Then there's another player who role plays as the husband. They go to the virtual park or the carnival. Her real-life partner knows all about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.