I picked up Wagner James Au’s The Making of Second Life from the dollar bin at Barnes & Noble a couple months ago. For some time I’ve been somewhat fascinated by the kinds of social interactions that exist in the virtual world of Second Life; though I’ve never played it or even seen it played, I read a lengthy article once about the SecondLife economics that were very much real, from the exchange rate of the Linden dollar to the kinds of goods and services being traded within the world. (Can’t find the article now, but “Economy of Second Life” has its own wiki entry) Anyway, I flipped through the book, thought it would be interesting to learn about the properties of human interactions that naturally emerge in an artificial world, so I got it for a buck and read it.
It seems that Wagner James Au is a journalist who was essentially commissioned by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, to document the unfolding history of the virtual world, which he did via a blog for awhile and eventually this book. I could believe that a lot of the pages originated from blog posts, as the overall presentation of the book is a little weak. There is a lot of needless repetition of information and opinions, along with some weak conjectures and cute tunnel-vision naivete about the future prosperity of the world (alas, it seems that Second Life usage has gone down recently and Linden Lab has laid off some of its workforce). In fact presentation-wise I was reminded of a book I bought once off the cheap rack at Waldenbook’s – Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, an essay turned into a book which made some very interesting and valuable points mixed in with needless repetition, weak arguments, and naivete. Perhaps some essays and blog posts don’t transform into books very well.
But enough with the complaints; this book has a lot of interesting information. It recounts the creation of the world, its surprising path to success, stories about the kinds of things that take place in Second Life, and stories about the real lives behind many of the avatars. I was most interested by the stories about avatars who make a living in Second Life running virtual nightclubs or selling virtual clothes from virtual fashion lines to other users, especially as many of the real people behind them are escaping prejudice or disability in the real world. I recalled the interesting statement from the old article (that I still can’t find) that the Right view Second Life economics as proof that anyone can succeed if they exert hard work and responsibility and earn it, and the Left view it as proof that everyone needs an equal opportunity (which is inherent in the virtual world, but not the real one) to be able to earn success. I was also interested in learning about the non-monetary social interactions of the world, from the bigger picture of the political parties and interest groups and relationships that emerged to the little things like the way experienced users will volunteer their time to help new arrivals get the hang of things.
Reading the book three years after it was written, Au seems hopelessly naive about his expectations that Second Life would take over the world and that virtual reality was the way of the future, especially as the world now struggles to maintain 50,000 active users. But he was not totally wrong, either, about the way online interactions would transform society; Second Life may not capture 750,000,000 people across the globe – but Facebook does. Maybe Wu was right about people’s desires to project online versions of themselves and escape the barriers, prejudices, or disabilities of the real world. Yet it seems ironic that as technology exponentially advances, the virtual medium that has come to dominate social interaction is not the open-source three-dimensional space the Wu imagined, but the mere two-dimensional space of text and photos. It makes me think that this is a shortcoming that currently leaves giants like Facebook vulnerable to future possibilities.
And as I think about the differences between worlds like Second Life and worlds like Facebook, there is another “shortcoming” of modern social networks that I think future possibilities might address. Second Life allows – and strongly encourages – randomly meeting and networking with complete strangers who share the same interests as you do. This property also exists in forums, which existed long before both social networks and virtual worlds, and are still thriving across the Internet today. The additional immersive layer of Second Life adds some potential danger or just plain weirdness to the random networking, as the book details the romantic relationships and attempts at mimicking sexual behavior that occur in the virtual world, but overall the ability to meet complete strangers is something that I think the modern giants are missing.
Facebook encourages you to connect only with people you already know. They used to have Groups which included forums and facilitated such spontaneous networking, and it really was the best of both worlds – I still have connections with some people I “met” when I was learning about politics and economics in the Ron Paul facebook group back in 2007 or so – but for reasons I do not understand Facebook de-emphasized the groups long ago and I can’t even find them now. Twitter allows you to connect with people you know about, but it’s still rather limited, and the medium is more suited towards sharing information than having discussions. There are pros and cons to LinkedIn and Google+ and many of the other emerging networks as well, but none of them really resolve that fundamental ability to interact with a group of people you agree with – or don’t agree with – and I think the desire for that is part of what fuels the continuing variety of scattered forums, chat rooms, and virtual worlds, none of which have achieved the centralized success of the social networks that boast user bases of nine digits.
All of that is just to say that for all of the desires that are fulfilled by spaces like Facebook, I think there is a big void in online human interaction for both 3D interaction and random interaction for whoever wants to come along and try to fulfill it; of course Second Life has done this and seems to be plateauing. And now that I’m married and working full time maybe I don’t need to have Facebook groups to converse with random people about economics, Albert Pujols, Christianity, and Cornerstone Festival, yet I wish that capacity still existed in one centralized place. But the history of the Internet is still very young and rapidly evolving. We will just have to wait and see whether the future of it looks more like Facebook, or more like Second Life, or more like something we have not yet imagined…