Virtual Worlds as Test Tube SocietiesS

Though you may never visit Second Life, you know about it for the same reason you know about MySpace: it's a digital social space that's transforming how we use the web. Except instead of being a bunch of webpages devoted to bad music and OMG WTF, Second Life is a 3D virtual world where people build crazy houses, transform into dragons, and talk a lot about the Metaverse in scary marketing terms. It's something you need to understand, and luckily there's a new book that can explain it all to you. Second Life "embedded journalist" Wagner James Au's The Making of Second Life hit bookstores last month, and it's one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive books out there on the topic. (That's Au above, in his Second Life incarnation.)

Au spent several years working at Linden Labs, the company that created Second Life, writing a publication called New World Notes that was essentially the virtual world's first newspaper. When he left the company, he continued New World Notes as a blog, and began writing a book about how Second Life came to be the poster child for virtual world communities.

Unlike World of Warcraft or City of Heroes, both 3D worlds where people can build up their avatars and zoom through amazing scenery, Second Life is not a game. And the world is not pre-set. Everything in it is generated by the "residents" who live there. Like MySpace, it's all user-generated content. Unlike MySpace, it's about building a visual, experiential world rather than a bunch of social relationships. People create dream homes, set up shops, go dancing, have sex, and discuss philosophy. Universities hold lectures there, piping in video from a real-world location to a screen in Second Life. And you can even visit a therapist, holding your session in the bodies of your avatars.

At the same time, Second Life is the focus of a lot of intense marketing and advertising. Entrepreneurs want to monetize it. Advertisers want to turn it into a 3D showroom for their goods.

For this reason, Au writes, "this book is meant as an allegorical reference guide to [the] tension between the democratic, grassroots internet and the many industries struggling to understand it." And that, in the end, is what makes Au's book so fascinating. As he explains the technologies and social relationships developing in this new virtual world, he always has his eye on this tension — which is in a sense the original conflict that forged the internet. Should virtual worlds belong to the people, or to the companies that make the virtual world possible?

In this book, you see the Second Life developers and citizens struggling to figure out the answer, forming local governments and economies, as well as social policies to govern behavior in this test tube society. It makes for fascinating reading, and will give you vivid glimpse of what it's like to build a new world — with tens of thousands of other people who want to build it with you.

The Making of Second Life