Who needs the Metaverse? Meet the people still living on Second Life

Years ago I spent some time in Second Life, taking my young son to visit a display of NASA rockets and historical sites from classical history, and for my own amusement wandering through a few Star Trek exhibits, and exploring the mostly empty landscapes.

My university bought an island, and I was briefly excited at the possibility of teaching my students to ditch narrated slideshows and instead create narrated 3D environments, in a grand virtual museum that would keep expanding as new students visited the work completed by previous students, and added their own annotations and commentary.

My request was denied.

Instead I was shown how to upload PowerPoint presentations so that my my avatar could join the avatars of my students in a virtual treehouse, where I could subject them to the same kind of slideshow I had been hoping to avoid.

I lost interest in SL, which this month celebrates its 20th anniversary. I remember it as an amusing diversion, and am baffled by Mark Zuckerberg’s huge investment in his very similar “Meta” project.

Zuckerberg recently announced 21,000 redundancies and hinted that all Meta employees may soon be required to return to physical offices, a rather self-sabotaging policy at a company committed to erasing the distinction between the physical and digital. As it sheds employees and investor focus impatiently shifts to the get-richer-quicker possibilities of generative AI, the vision fades. Almost every national newspaper has run a variation on the article: “Whatever happened to the metaverse?

Yet Second Life – and its more modest vision of an Internet World – persists. This month it celebrates its 20th anniversary; a mobile version is set for release this year and its developer, Linden Lab, estimates the virtual world’s GDP to be $650m. According to the company, around 185m items are sold each year in the Second Life marketplace, with an average cost of $2 each, and 1.6m transactions – also including tipping, services, currency trades – occur every day. During the pandemic, new registrations soared, with close to a million visitors logging in each month and some building viable businesses trading in virtual goods and services. This is nothing close to the world-conquering figures Zuckerberg would need to justify his sunk costs, but Second Life has nonetheless endured as a profitable and, crucially, populated metaverse. —Guardian

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