The haunting story of a virtual world which tried to replace life, and mostly succeeded for a generation, now lost to the past.

In 1585, seven ships set sail with colonists from England to Roanoke Island on the newly explored New World continent. Their mission was to establish a colony of settlers there. At first the colony persevered, but when supply ships visited just five years later, they found the colony mysteriously vanished. The eventual fate of these colonists remains a mystery to this day, a selection of humanity whole lives have been deleted from history.

On March 13th, 2002, a San Francisco software company on this New World continent, by the name of Linden Labs, launched the Beta of their new online virtual world. That world was called “Second Life.” It was an ambitious project, to be a virtual space where members could socialize in a fantasy world that was a continuous, endless landscape hosted across multiple servers. Residents joined the platform and the virtual community grew to rival the size of the most popular online MMORPGs. In the early 2000s, when the concept of “social media” had yet to be coined and the very first primitive blogs were beginning to form on the Internet, Second Life was a thriving community which eventually peaked close to a million users.

But time moved on, as did the Internet audience. New shared social platforms were created and multiplayer online games and communities perpetuated a hundredfold. The Internet has now forgotten Second Life, and yet the active users in the community have only decreased to around 700K. It has been more than a decade since Second Life was in the headlines, but its users remain stranded there. An isolated community calved away from the rest of the Internet, the citizens of Second Life seem to have largely forgotten about us, as well.

Second Life at its peak

At the height of its popularity, Second Life was famous enough to be the subject of crossovers with mainstream TV shows like The Office and CSI. Woodbury University would set up a virtual campus within the environment. The currency of Second Life, Linden Dollars, would become valuable enough in real life that it was the target of various investment fraud schemes. Real-world corporations rushed to set up brands in Second Life, where you can use the currency to buy gear for your avatar, props, and… not much else.

Nike_shoes_Second_Life

Be that as it may, reasoned Nike, if your avatar in Second Life is going to buy shoes, it might as well buy ones with their logo. In fact, Second Life made its own virtual millionaires, some of whom in turn made the cover of real-life business magazines.

AnsheChung_BusinessWeek_Cover

Furthermore, the virtual place was so firmly differentiated from the real world that several nations saw it necessary to establish embassies there, while organized religions moved in to establish church services. Like all great civilizations in history, Second Life enjoyed a long boon before its inevitable downfall.

The forbidden fruit of Second Life

As one might guess, this semi-anarchic virtual world, which was meant to be as much of a virtual paradise as its company could make it, became home to radicals of every kind.

Leftist_Populism_in_Second_Life

Politics became an issue early on, but that matter soon became swamped by an ever more pervasive social factor. See, there’s nothing to do in Second Life except explore, chat, and trade or use various clothing and props. Like, take Runescape and subtract the entire “game” element. But like any large social network platform, after awhile users form their own bonds and community there and then become trapped, because leaving the virtual space means leaving their entire social life behind. True to its name, the platform replaced real-world, meatspace life for its users.

So they began to simulate other social activities, which means virtual sex. In an environment where any fantasy is possible, combined with the anonymity of online interaction, that sex dove into unmitigated hedonism in a hell of a hurry. Furries and hardcore BDSM were a given from the start. Second Life whizzed past the threshold of hosting a Gorean community without batting an eye. Gender isn’t even a factor in a world where you can swap plumbing with a mouse-click.

furries_and_slaves_Second_Life

As the abstract world helped increasingly exotic desires take shape, the fantasies of Second Life denizens began to less resemble a paradise and look more like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. They became unholy and bizarre, everything fair made foul and foul made fair, profaning the sacred and sanctifying it just to profane it again. Rule 34 was specifically coined because of Second Life. Until, somewhere along the fifth wave of irony, the Second Life user base found that it had completely parted with all known expressions of eroticism as we define it in the real world.

Mercat_with_sea_monster_Second_Life

See this? This counts as sex now.

Controversies soon arose, to put it mildly. Particularly when pedophilia began to run rampant. A barrage of media outcry and government banning followed:

To this day, Linden Labs has no age verification system in place on its now-aging software. They have attempted to urge users to keep the adult stuff on an adult virtual island, but this is Second Life we’re talking about. There’s nothing else to do but virtual sex. You can’t even have a job like in The Sims Online.

naked_baby_Second_Life

Other scandals which have rocked the community include hacks, fraud, lawsuits, and endless squabbles about virtual intellectual property. Meanwhile, the official Second Life Marketplace site has said to hell with trying to make amends with polite civilization, they know their fanbase and they’ve gone full Sodomite. Here you go, naked baby avatars.

The limbo of Second Life

limbo_Second-Life

As Second Life succumbed to chains of scandals, its popularity waned and its isolation from the rest of the Internet hardened.

In the Second Life universe, it is always the early 2000s, and George W. Bush is president forever. Time has stood still. David Bowie and Robin Williams are still alive there. Cultural references predate the turn of the millennium; you may find The Simpsons and South Park, but no Rick and Morty or Bojack Horseman. COVID-19 never reached Second Life, so neither masks nor social distancing are in effect.

The demands of the game being what they are, Second Life players are forever chained to desktop PCs, as likely as not running unprotected Windows XP. Everything about their culture stays rooted in this time period, using Blender for 3D modeling of meshes to import into the game. Second Life users never ventured into Facebook, but they left behind many abandoned MySpace accounts.

Should the present-day Internet attempt contact with the Second Life tribe?

abandoned_Second_Life

Thanks to science fiction horror like Black Mirror, we have a natural revulsion for the idea of leaving a huge group of people behind to be permanent ghosts in a digital limbo. After all, you can’t even die in Second Life, so your avatar stays there until Linden Labs goes under and unplugs the last server.

Yet the xenophobic community certainly isn’t going to welcome new outsiders either. Set up a new account and enter a server, and you’ll have to fly a long ways before finding any sign of life, which will promptly fly away or pop into a restricted area where you can’t pursue. These natives have their own currency, society, ecosystem, and even language now. They have firmly chosen their way of life and ask nothing but to be left alone.

If we were to attempt contact with the Second Life tribe and bring them back to the modern Internet, the cultural shock might prove to be traumatic. Part of the original justification for the virtual world was that it gave virtual lives to the infirm, handicapped, and outcasts of society. Paying only cursory attention to the maintenance of their meatsacks to maintain biological function, Second Life users can only deal with interactions between stiff lip-synching mesh puppets with blossoming sound waves over their heads as they speak into cheap desktop microphones.

Indigenous rights activists would remind us that outside contact with the Second Life tribe could interfere with their right to self-determination. Since they were socially isolating for more than a decade before the present pandemic ever hit, their immune systems are doubtless weaker and large numbers of them could die off if brought back into contact with the real world before a COVID-19 vaccine is perfected.

In the long term, like the Amish, perhaps the Second-Lifers are destined to go their own way. The outside world has nothing to bring to that digital shore but disruption, exploitation, and the very same problems they joined Second Life to escape in the first place.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.