When executives from San Francisco-based Linden Lab built Second Life, they had a sense they were doing something historic. So, to keep tabs on their creation, they contracted their own journalist to chronicle the growth of the Internet's first virtual world.
Now that chronicler, Wagner James Au, releases a comprehensive history of Second Life's early days in his book "The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World" (HarperCollins, $25.95).
Second Life has lost some of its buzz in the past year. Growth has leveled, and media investigations have highlighted possible fraud and child pornography within its borders. Early hopes of Second Life's potential to market real-world brands largely failed in practice. But with 1.2 million active users, it is still the dominant player in a rapidly expanding virtual worlds industry, with the most content and a highly loyal fan base.
It may surprise readers of Au's book to find that Linden Lab originally wanted a simulation of the natural world. What actually transpired is quite different.
While many people have a Second Life character — called an "avatar" — that looks like them, others pick talking cartoon animals or blinking robots. The environments are similarly varied, from reproductions of European cities to areas with a fantasy or science-fiction theme.
Repeatedly, Linden Lab set out to offer one product, only to find a combination of financial restraints and input from their customers pushing them into marketing something very different.
Accidental flightFor example, one of Second Life's most distinctive and memorable experiences is flying. With the click of a button, an avatar will soar gracefully into the stratosphere, exactly as one might imagine Superman does it.
But flight, as Au recalls, was practically an accident. In a virtual world filled with hills and buildings, no one had the time for the more difficult task of programming an avatar's ability to climb.
Similarly, Linden Lab assumed it would create an in-world experience for avatars to play in. It was only after programmers started using their own product they realized it would be better to allow their users to build their world for them.
Linden's users quickly began constructing their own buildings, clothing, and nightclubs. Pleased to have their users create content, Linden tried to encourage the practice with a system of ratings. An avatar could register an endorsement of a particularly attractive home with the click of a mouse.
"It's fair to say the voting boxes began to be abused almost the very moment they were introduced," Au writes.
Cliques of users banded together to vote positively or negatively en masse, in exchange for favors or to pursue petty vendettas.
The ratings system was eventually abandoned. Like so much else in Second Life, including the in-world currency called the "Linden Dollar," the ability to buy and sell land, or the popularity of adult-themed virtual goods and services, users had their own ideas about the technology and what best to do with it.
Au dedicates his book to those creators of content. "They're more important to the world's success than the company which actually owns it," he said.
As new virtual worlds come online and try to lure some of Second Life's users and hype, the story of how Second Life came to be may provide a road map for others.
"Second Life isn't the only model, but ultimately I think it's the only reliable one," Au said. "Otherwise, a company will be forced to produce content to an ever-demanding audience of largely passive consumers. That's destined to fail."