An Internet Without Islands

What Second Life taught me about metaphors, friendship and the future of digital societies

There comes a time in the growth of every online society when its citizens start to question the metaphor. In their world, words like “platform” mean nothing, they draw no distinction between code and content. They think of it as their place and what matters is the land.

Here on Medium, the land metaphor moment came last week amidst the news of a monster funding round and the prospect of corporate content. Many folks weighed in but it was Tim Boucher’s post “Is Medium Good Enough to Advertise On?” that caught my attention. Worried over content ownership and platform control, he countered Ev Williams’ long held belief that the future of the web won’t belong to what he calls “Islanders”. Tim wrote:

“If I can’t own the platform (and be my own island), I will always be at a disadvantage to those who do… I think the future does belong to us islanders. It always has and it always will — because it’s *our* future.”

@ev replied with a vision of the metaphor of Medium, one that blended geography, authorship and commerce:

“Medium’s aim is to create a great digital city, where it’s more convenient to interact with other creators and thinkers, where there’s a large audience for all types of content, and where it’s easier for them to find you (and maybe even pay you).”

As far back as Geocities we’ve tried to reify cyberspace. Each culture is different and needs a language that feels accurate and familiar . Whether we’re building castles in Second Life or Tweeting into the void, humans are designed as visual creatures and it shows in our metaphors. In an organic and uniquely human process we build our home(pages) and wait for friends to visit and write on the (walls). As we settle in and consider that this might be where we live online, we read the virtual condo association rules to find out if we’re buying into a “walled garden” or “open space”.

My tone is light but the questions are important. To be comfortable investing our real time, energy and identity in a virtual place, we need to know who owns it and makes the rules. It helps to draw up a map to see how the pieces connect both within this space and in relation to other communities. It is then that the talk turns to islands.

Islands can mean many things but they usually refer to control, access and sovereignty. In Second Life, an island would grant its owner privacy and the right to control who visits. Facebook’s islands come in the form of protected accounts but platforms too can “island” by controlling how the content people make can be exported across the vast seas of cyberspace.

For some, islands mean safety and to others, loneliness.

Williams “great digital city” is a beautiful vision that I hope will materialize but it will be hard journey. I’m not smart enough to recommend the best path but I can unearth some clues with a story about my years in Second Life. On this journey I saw a small virtual village grow into great digital cities and break apart again. I watched (and helped) brands enter (and leave) the world and along the way met a traveller named Molotov Alva. This is that story.

In 2004 I read a blog post by Bill Gurley about Benchmark Capital’s laterst investment in a company called Linden Lab. Curious, I starting looking at their project which was a 3D virtual world called Second Life that was entirely built by its residents. Users owned the rights to their creations which they could sell for real money. Before I even downloaded the program I had one of those odd feelings that my life was about to change.

But the company was mysteriously low-profile. I dug up their office address South of Market and walked past one rainy day with my newborn son in his stroller, looking up at the window longingly. I made it my mission to find the people who were creating this world and somehow get a job there. More research revealed that the legendary Mitch Kapor was their first investor. My friend Alexander Rose at the Long Now Foundation knew Mitch so I send an impassioned plea for an introduction and it worked.

My first meeting with Philip Rosedale was fascinating — we had coffee in North Beach and talked about everything from philosophy to boxing to the architecture of Las Vegas and just got along. I soon met the rest of the team, including the CTO Cory Ondrejka who later went on to be Facebook’s VP of Engineering and a driver of the acquisition of Oculus. They were visionaries and have had more of an impact on my thinking than almost anyone before or since.

Unfortunately I didn’t write code and they didn’t really need me. But somehow through a combination of persistence and luck, I got myself hired as the company’s Evangelist.

When I told my mother that I’d be working as the Evangelist for a virtual world she was worried. I promised they would pay me in real money and that the title just meant I had to explain this crazy concept to people in terms that made sense. As it turned out, explanations were both never-ending and fascinating but they all followed the same pattern — “In real life you can (fill in the blank) and in Second Life you can either replicate it/ do it slightly differently / do the impossible.”

Then people saw it for what it was, a (sometimes distorted) mirror of the real world.

To some, Second Life conjures up memories of an aging, no-holds barred virtual world, a community that basked in a brief moment of Internet hype in 2005 only to slouch off the burial ground of dead communities next to AOL, Digg and Myspace. (NOTE: This happens not to be true— while it never achieved escape-velocity, SL still has a passionate user base of close to a million people and a thriving in-world economy where thousands of people earn their real-world income selling their creative work.)

In retrospect, I would argue that it was the first fully-fledged digital society, a place that showed us all the dreams, debates and possibilities of an online society built by its users. Of course there were online forums dating back to the WELL and before, but remember that Second Life had it all — a robust, engaged community driven by user created virtual content (well before Farmville), a 3D interface, virtual/real currency (ala Bitcoin) as well as various societies and subcultures, each forming various factions.

The virtualization of everything with a visual metaphor created magical oddities. I remember watching one day as our QA team flew around the world with magnifying glasses looking for bugs. I’m serious. Another day, users reported that the oceans were overflowing with self-replicating fish. The fish outbreak was nothing more than I virus made by a tricky user. It’s funny in retrospect but it quickly crashed the entire world until we rooted out and deleted the original fish.

One of the biggest challenges in evangelizing Second Life was that it was itself an island. There were few pictures of life inside the world — even if someone wanted to join, they needed to download an application, paying $9.99 and struggle through a confusing onboarding process. We knew that once they interracted with other residents, the chances of staying were much higher but the islanding was killing us. Two of my earliest projects tried to help solve these issues.

On the first project I worked with a resident named Cristiano Midnight to create Snapzilla, a service that let residents take photos in-world and send them to a website. The next project, coded by my colleague Mark Ferlatte, was called SLurls and gave people a way to create a link on the web to a specific place within Second Life. In theory two anti-islanding projects helped send images out and enable traffic in, but I’m pretty sure neither moved the needle much.

I was humbled to realize just how hard this radical experiment was for all involved. In running Second Life Linden Lab played roles ranging from Gods to Governors to Central Bank. Because residents created the content that made the world great, they often fought with Linden Lab over IP ownership, free speech and the ongoing tensions between policy principles of self-determination vs. top-down planning. This riveting history has been chronicled in New World Notes, the blog of Wagner James Au, a journalist who has lived in Second Life since 2002.

Second Life was a simulated place and the metaphor began as one giant Mainland of seamlessly connected regions. Land was really just another way of saying fractional server resources — the business model just a highly profitable hosting model with an interface. Quite early on, some of the wealthier (or better organized) groups began to ask for Private Islands — a request that caused immense debate at Linden Lab and many worried it might fragment the society by creating an impression of privilege/ favoritism. This issue of islands and their relationship to the mainland regions has continued to dominate Second Life’s culture through today.

You see while the whole society ran on code, the metaphor of simulated reality made us ask hard questions in setting big policies, especially ones related to land, location and commerce. For example, the locations of “Welcome Areas” where new users landed, was a huge issue to residents since being close to these could mean more sales of virtual dresses and such.

In the early days, users happily explored by walking or flying both of which worked nicely when the world was still small. By the time we had 30K users people a debate broke out over “Public Telehubs” — a sort of informational terminal with directions to useful places. If you clicked one, you magically reappeared at the destination. As a relative newcomer, this seemed to me like a debate about favoritism — where would these “utilities” be placed and who would decide which businesses were closest to them?

I remember talking with our CEO/Founder Philip Rosedale about this and asking him, “When do you think we’ll have the technology to let people teleport directly to anywhere they want”?

“Oh it’s built” he said. “We could turn it on right now if we wanted”. Seeing my baffled expression he explained, saying “We think there’s a magic to the chaos that happens when you walk down a street, when you serendipitously discover things and meet people”. He mentioned the work of urban theorist Jane Jacobs who famously battled Robert Moses as he tried to reshape New York with master planning. From the chaos of Greenwich Village, Jacobs prevailed in winning a variety of battles for local neighborhoods and looser structures. She was a hero.

Jane Jacobs

Jacobs’ work had a massive impact urban design and economics but her critics argue her theories don’t work when a city grows from one to ten million (as has happened many times in the Third World). The same may be true online. By the end of 2005, people were pouring into Second Life and things began to break. As we closed in on the 1,000,000 resident mark, the advertisers showed up.

In March 2005 I left Linden Lab. With my partner Chris Lassonde I started Millions of Us, an agency that helped brands develop presences in virtual worlds and other online communities. We put together an amazing, motley team who have gone on to legendary things. (The videos below tell that story and give a feel for the energy of that time.) We were young and hopeful, full of naive optimism and panache. It was awesome. Mostly.

Advertisers (specifically real world brands) were not always warmly welcomed — lots of residents felt their private sanctuary had been invaded— as if Clorox erected a giant billboard at Burning Man. One of our first projects was viciously attacked by the legendary Prokofy Neva, my favorite cultural critic and revolutionary malcontent.

On balance though, the culture was a creative meritocracy and if experiences were thoughtful and cool, brands were respected. The video below was something that really worked — a collaboration with Campfire Media, called Motorati Island and created for Pontiac. The idea was to give land to residents and invited them to create experiences related to car culture. They hosted daily races and concerts by Jay-Z and 50 cent.

Our company also caught lots of flak for helping the cultural brand invasion. But we believed that if were made great experiences (employing the master creators of Second Life rather than “outsiders”) then we could ADD to the quality of the world rather than tarnish it with fakery and commercialism. Sometimes this worked (we hosted book signings for Chris Anderson, concerts with Jay-Z and a comedy festival with HBO.) Hip, permissive brands like Toyota Scion let us just do our thing — we built a Bladerunner-style dystopic city that had nothing to do with branding (except weird versions of their cars just happened to be part of the civilization and culture).

Lots of the other stuff was crap, not in the sense that it was poorly executed or even boring. It was just distractive fakery — the sort of paid advertising that all users dislike.

I think this type of tone-deaf content is part of the growing pains of most publishing-driven platforms (unless they’ve just given up and thrown their business into the hands of the programmatic ad marketplace). And every single publishing platform, from Youtube to Twitter to Medium makes the same early-stage argument — that advertisers will create content that is native to the medium — authentic and valuable to users. Philip understood this deeply when he described how certain companies were using Second Life well.

It seems that all great platforms try hard to set rules based on ideology but its hard underestimate the power of economics. If you’re ad-supported, advertisers rule. I remember feeling frustrated when my former colleagues didn’t give our clients the urgent attention and help we needed. It felt like a cultural sense of superiority and unwillingness to deal with lame corporations and I thought they looked down on us (and our clients). In hindsight, I think the truth was more nuanced.

Philip always had a vision for Second Life and laser-like focus on making it come true:

“The fundamental belief that I have is that Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way. That is the mission of the company to make that happen and it’s my personal inspiration and dream to see that happens”

Getting there would be expensive and would rely on growing profitably. This required needed an ecosystem of successful in-world creators who would buy land (ie. server space). In this equation, real-world brands were a distraction— brands spent a lot to design elaborate experiences (with companies like ours) but didn’t need to buy a lot of land. Second Life’s users owned tens of thousands of servers while corporate islands (at their peak) numbered approximately 200.

You could argue that the only direct value the brands gave Linden Lab was short-lived hype and mainstream PR. I always thought that real companies entering a virtual world help give it legitimacy making the story more compelling to non-users — driving still more PR. At the time it was hard to tell whether it was hype or the very beginning of tens of millions of people coming into this world.

Of course there’s a minor difference here due to the metaphor — in Second Life a “brand” needed to make a space that users chose to visit. Unlike most of the web, you couldn’t just fold in the ads alongside the good stuff. The parallel with something like Medium is clear. To succeed, some combination of the following will need to happen.

  1. Usage will be free for most members
  2. Medium will help companies write thoughtful, clearly marked and well-written pieces sponsored by brands
  3. They will offer a version of “Promoted Tweets” — in some the way native to the form
  4. Great writers will be paid for certain topic areas that content relevant to a brand

Back to our story. 2006 had been glorious and tumultuous year in Second Life but by 2007 our virtual worlds agency was still growing like crazy and badly needed a Chief Creative Officer. It was an incredibly hard role to fill — we needed someone who understood storytelling, brands, videogames and online culture.

One day a guy named Douglas Gayeton came to meet stopped by our office in Sausalito . He wasn’t looking for a job, just to share ideas and inspiration. We sat at a cafe by the beach and I listened to his story. (his bio is here). He was a filmmaker and had collaborated with William Gibson on the first interactive film, a CD-ROM of Johnny Mnemonic. He’d worked as creative director at Napster but also lived in Tuscany and had made video games for years in Europe. He’d spent the past year making a film about an explorer named Molotov Alva who wanders through Second Life on a search for meaning. The more Douglas spoke the more I liked him — eccentric, mad and weirdly lovable.

Finally he showed me his latest work, 4 minute episode of the film. “Molotov Alva and the Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey”. (HBO soon bought all 12 episodes from him).

It blew me away. He’d deeply understood the culture and meaning of Second Life and what it said about the importance of creativity and commercialism. Looking back, he’d also predicted the future of online worlds. I went crazy and somehow convinced him right there to join our team.

This is one of the first episodes that he showed me:

We worked together well (OK, we struggled mightily too) but it was a year-long bender of creativity that took us through Hollywood back-lots, proposals to rebuild the Holy Land of 2000 years ago and on a brief “famous in Japan” trip. By 2008 we had extended our skills into broader realms, working in larger, mainstream 2-d worlds like Gaia and Habbo Hotel and designing Alternate Reality Games for Hollywood studious. We professionalized our 3D skills and were designing experiences like SONY Home, the Welcome area for the global Playstation network. (the clip below is only interesting after 2:10)

But somehow things didn’t feel right, I had an odd sense of danger for reasons I couldn’t explain. The financial crisis came out of nowhere for us and its effects ripped through the real and virtual world. Whether

Economics didn’t care whether land was real or digital and behind both were real people. What began as unwise mortgage loans triggered a collapse. Nobody trusted anybody and credit froze. Suddenly our company went from cutting edge to irrelevant as brands looked at virtual advertising as a insane frivolity. Budgets froze and our little company faced death. It was terrifying and ultimately, very painful. We fought bravely for another year or two but eventually closed the doors.

I was crushed. I felt like I’d poured my soul into this company, believed in my vision, and now had let so many people down who had believed in us. Even more painful was the feeling that the magic we’d created had died with our business. But, as you’d expect, the team dispersed, healed and went on to much greater things.

Now 7 years later, virtual reality is heating up again, though this time I’m looking at things with cautious optimism. It still makes my heart skip a beat. When I look back at the last boom, it’s clear that Douglas’ prophetic film was the work of a genius. It captured the strange, sad and utopian beauty of the time and with all its nuances of escapism, commerce, friendship and love. It’s time for that story.

In Part 2 I will lead you through Molotov’s journey of through the geography and culture of Second Life. In a world where anything is possible, this traveler searches his soul to ponder love and friendship. He trudges through deserts and sails the virtual seas to answer one basic question:

“How do I want to live in this place where the land, water and even the sky are for sale?”

Molotov sets sail for Islands