Two girls, one with her arm draped over the other, stare out at me blankly as I try to join. The lighting makes everything seem vaguely apocalyptic. The logo is an eye in the palm of an open hand, and the only descriptions are “Join Second Life” and “Make new friends and lifelong connections.”1 If I didn’t know better, I would think that I stumbled upon a lost cult, something left to rot in a forgotten corner of the Internet.
In reality, Second Life was one of the most hyped online platforms of the 2000s.2 Reporters thought it would herald a new era of virtual worlds. Users created avatars, hung out in real time, and built anything and everything they could think of. Countries were establishing3 embassies;4 churches,5 synagogues,6 shrines,7 and mosques sprouted up;8 Stanford’s library system created virtual archives in Second Life;9 and an entrepreneur named Anshe Chung bought, developed, and sold enough virtual land to become a real-world millionaire.10 Somehow, there was even a bank run.11
Second Life once had more than a million monthly active users.12 Speaking at Google in 2006 about Second Life’s users, founder Philip Rosedale noted that “they live here because they make friends here, and they can build things, and they can externalize their thoughts here in ways that in the real world you just can’t.”13
“We don’t see this as a game,” he added. “We see it as a platform that is, in many ways, better than the real world.”
Unfortunately, the hype has since died down. Second Life’s creative freedom, its largest selling point, is no longer seen as liberating but rather lawless. The platform developed a reputation as a haven for Not Safe For Work (NSFW) and extreme content, driving away institutional customers such as corporations and schools. An inefficient abuse reporting system and spotty follow ups left users to deal with trolls, griefers, and thieves by themselves. Rampant piracy caused the average customer to seek out alternate platforms.14
Second Life did not become the future, but its history deserves a closer look nonetheless. Today’s developers and entrepreneurs are promising similar visions of virtual worlds, and they’ll no doubt struggle with governing those worlds as well, especially at scale.
“All the stuff that’s happening on the internet was happening on Second Life ten, fifteen years ago,” said Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life15 and owner of New World Notes,16 a blog on Second Life. He’s been reporting since 2003, when Linden Lab, Second Life’s developer, contracted him as an embedded journalist. “Extreme content starts defining a society. That happened in Second Life and that’s now happening with Facebook.”
But is it wrong to have extreme content on a platform? “I don’t think it is, not for what Second Life is,” wrote Joshua ‘Karsten Rutledge’ May, who had operated a Second Life game development studio, in an email to Rewired. “Second Life always was and always will be a social wish-fulfillment simulator.”
Indeed, Second Life’s ethos centers around freedom, creativity, and liberty, which translates to minimal institutional oversight around NSFW content.
“Their whole argument was that the internet has a lot of porn but no one says that’s what the internet is only good for because it’s huge. We have a lot of users, yes that’ll mean a lot of porn, but all the other users doing other things will drown them out.” Au explained, recounting early conversations over whether Linden Lab should allow nudity on Second Life.
“That never happened,” he continued. “They didn’t grow fast enough in terms of retained users.”
One of the stories that notoriously characterized Second Life as a world of NSFW content was CNET’s interview of Anshe Chung in 2006.17 Anshe Chung, the entrepreneur who had become a real-world millionaire from developing and selling in-world land, was scheduled for an interview with reporter Daniel Terdiman on December 18, 2006 in Second Life.18 Shortly after the live interview began, Chung and Terdiman were attacked by flying male genitalia.19 They followed Chung and Terdiman even as they switched locations, ultimately crashing the server.
The perpetrator was later identified as the Goonsquad, an online group focused on griefing and disrupting virtual worlds (“EVE Online, World of Warcraft, and Second Life,” as noted by WIRED).20
“That became the story that chased companies away from Second Life,” Au recalled. It didn’t matter that CNET could have added more stringent restrictions to prevent non-authorized users from running scripts in their interview space. To non-users, it seemed that Second Life wasn’t just a platform that allowed NSFW content to exist; it actively allowed NSFW content to proliferate.
Second Life received an unprecedented amount of media attention from 2006 to 2009. “There was [sic] lots of publicity, and any time you depict adult content, that’s the most salacious thing that drives the most clicks, so that became how it was defined even though there are genuine artists doing projects, scientists, others,” Au said.
In reality, adult regions only make up around 25% of Second Life. “Communities within Second Life have been very effective at deciding what content they want to be part of their community and then making that happen.21 If a community doesn’t want adult content, they can decide that and then enforce it. If they want content to follow a specific theme, they can require it,” May wrote. “Much like any internet forum, moderators are the lifeblood of the community and either make it or break it.”
While Second Life’s so-called salacity may have deterred new users from entering, for experienced, existing users, it wasn’t the reason for driving them away. What pushed them out was Second Life’s failure to police piracy.
“Piracy of content and IP theft has become so rampant that creators are seeing their incomes plummet and morale tanking as fees rise and protections fail to appear. Linden Lab says our IP belongs to us, but then gives creators absolutely no control over whether that IP is respected,” May wrote. “Their own official Marketplace is so infested with pirated and stolen content that even wary consumers attempting to carefully purchase the real thing often get tricked into buying a pirated version instead. It lacks even the most rudimentary enforcement or awareness mechanisms and creators have no recourse against pirate sellers which proliferate at an alarming rate.”
Does freedom to create also mean freedom to copy? Mirroring its approach to NSFW content, Second Life has adopted a hands-off stance to piracy and theft on its platform. Second Life’s rampant copyright infringement issue received attention in 2006, when BusinessWeek writer Catherine Holahan noted that “the hope is that, once people know someone has an illegally copied item, they will be shunned by the community and sued by the original designer.”22
Here, communities not only need to control hate and inappropriate speech but also plagiarism and copyright infringement —all without sufficient centralized enforcement.23
A year ago, May had written about his experiences in Second Life for Hypergrid Business, an online publication covering virtual worlds: “People who’ve bought pirated games off of the Second Life Marketplace — 90 percent of them don’t even realize they didn’t buy it from me until they dig back through their order history to find out who they actually paid for the item. When you see pirated rare gacha24 items going for thousands of Linden Dollars on the Marketplace, it really starts to feel like Linden Lab is profiting from their inaction on the issue.”25
After 13 years spent developing games in Second Life,, May is now at Sine Wave Entertainment building sinespace, a virtual world much more focused on protecting IP.26 It’s a relief to someone who, in his own words, “has been badly burned by piracy on other platforms.”
For the dedicated user, stray genitalia wasn’t going to be a deal breaker. But piracy ultimately was, because it meant Second Life failed to fulfill its promise of a safe space where users could freely create and own their creations. Ultimately, virtual world developers need to be aware that they aren’t just developing a product to host virtual interactions. They also need to invest in fostering virtual communities and building a virtual society, and that means defining the rules and structures that come with them. Platforms need enforcement mechanisms, clear community guidelines, and swift consequences to provide proper infrastructure for moderation.
Establishing early guidelines can be difficult, although being intentional with early adopters can help guide the product.
Jessica Zhou, who leads Community and Growth at Eternal, a game-like avatar-based virtual world that launched early 2020, noted that early users define “what the space and range of behaviors might look like.”27
Pressures to scale can lead platforms to decrease oversight over their communities. As Second Life’s case has proven, this can lead to unintended consequences. For any amount of negative or extreme content, there needs to be a vastly greater amount of positive content to define the platform.
“Roblox and Discord were two really big examples, and even with [sic] Minecraft. You see a lot of anecdotes on Twitter of people encountering racist servers like it’s a fact of existence. I think it’s pretty unfortunate that Minecraft has that connotation now,” Zhou noted.
As platforms grow and communities expand, interactions are no longer contained among close friend groups, introducing potential for hate, griefing, and theft.
“When Eternal or any social network goes from private to public, where there are any potential interactions between strangers and the public, the stakes become higher for amplifying hate speech,” Zhou said. She stressed, “it still falls on the platform to recognize what they are providing space for.”
May agrees, noting that platforms, like governments, should be enforcing and providing infrastructure for moderation. “Just like wearing a mask is the responsible and rational thing to do to protect ourselves and those around us from a literal plague that is killing us,” May wrote, “the responsible and rational thing to do on the internet is to ‘wear a mask’ against social plagues as well.”