An Experienced Second Life User Responds to Facebook/Meta’s Grand Metaverse Ambitions: “We’ve Been There, Done That…Two Decades Ago”

Will Meta trample Second Life? (image source)

I was waiting for somebody with deep roots in Second Life to write a complete, detailed response to Facebook (sorry, Meta) and its ambitious plans to build the metaverse, and lo and behold, Phaylen Fairchild rose to the challenge!

In a Medium post written yesterday, titled Facebook Meta Isn’t New. The Future Started in 2003, Phaylen (who actually was the organizer of Second Life’s sixth birthday celebration, SL6B, way back in 2009), shares her opinions about Meta’s grand plans, informed by her many years of experience in Second Life.

Her longform article is insightful, and I very strongly urge you to go over to her website and read it in full. Best of all, the author assumes that you know nothing about Second Life, which is a common trap those who write about SL for an external audience tend to fall into.

Meta offers some pretty amazing concepts such as Avatar creation, shared virtual spaces, immersive environments and user generated content that will take users far beyond the third person experience of simple status box. Facebook Meta will feature teleportation to other users rooms and customized experiences. From inside, you’re no longer an idle profile picture, but a 3-D representative of yourself. Within this world exists a new social media platform called “Horizon.” It promises detailed and expansive worlds with infinite possibilities and will essentially redefine the way we communicate, collaborate and educate.

Within the Virtual world, you can attend concerts or watch a movie with friends. You will be able to go to parties with thousands of other people around the world or watch a sporting event from the front row, listen to talk shows with your favorite celebrities or buy, sell and trade virtual digital goods. Work from your office 3000 miles away or walk with dinosaurs from 40 million years ago in real time without ever leaving your home.

If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’re a fan or Ready Player One or read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Or maybe… just maybe, you did this all before, if you’ve ever logged into Second Life.

Phalyen also interviews former Linden Lab CEO Rob Humble, and quotes a tweet by Robin Harper, a former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Linden Lab, to get their perspectives on what’s happening now with Meta.

Phaylen writes:

Facebook’s transitional to Meta appears to expect that, beyond pitching itself in a well-produced video, it can forgo traditional marketing necessities by leveraging an already embedded userbase of nearly 3 billion people. As a cultural staple, literally the most formidable technological asset in the world, it hopes to parlay its simple web-based presence in our daily lives into a 3-D, immersive world, where from inside, you work, socialize, entertain and share your presence beyond a status update. But already, Meta is falling victim to the same issues suffered by those that came before and ultimately failed.

Cartoon-like avatars instead of Second Life’s extraordinary, photo realistic avatars was partly why users of Google Lively disassociated from their in-world activities. They felt like they were playing a character instead of using it as a representative of themselves. Limited content creation and a lack of open world made it feel boxed in- you were literally in a box, and the interface was unintuitive and disruptive to the user instead of fluid. Second Life boasts everything from sprawling landscapes of golden wheat fields and sparkling oceans on which to take a cruise of race sailboats, to massive cityscapes bursting with activities- even traffic. That developers at Lively thought they could follow that by isolating users to a room in outer space was an unfortunate, tone-deaf introduction as a Second Life alternative.

Comparing Meta’s avatars with Second Life avatars (image source)

In her conclusion, Phaylen explains some important differences between what Meta wants to do and what Second Life has already done, and she emphasizes something which I say often on this blog: that SL is the perfect, mature, fully-evolved model of the metaverse which newer platforms would be wise to study, learn from and emulate.

Zuckerberg and the developers of Meta, which claims it is “A long way out,” could use Second Life as a proof of concept, leveraging the best parts of it, researching the mistakes made, and using those established building blocks to bring it into the 2020’s. But everything in the video published around the web by Facebook that revealed Meta already exists- and in many cases, in a better, more satisfactory framework than they propose. In Meta, you’re not building your world, you’re essentially putting your calling card on things that already exist- such as a logo on a wall or a sign. Second Life proved that user content and world-building are key- we’re putting our signature on our space, not just in a space. There was an intimacy, a personality with what we brought in and used to build up that reflected our identity. The day Second Life launched, it was a massive empty space just waiting for Residents to build and create limited only by the boundaries of their imagination- and it was that canvas that led them to push those boundaries, and by virtue of that, inspire others. What it wasn’t was a catalog of pre-made content, copy and paste code or simply a transfer of well known video games into the virtual realm. Most of what Facebook advertised in its reveal for Meta was pre-existing games made compatible with VR headsets such as the Oculus which will be compatible with Meta- but Meta isn’t necessary to play these games in Virtual Realty or 3-D, most have already been ported to a platform where that is possible, such as Playstation of X-Box. Collaborative meetings already exist as well, with Zoom and Webex leading the charge, which begs the question, how does Meta intend to improve upon these applications rather than simply integrate them?

For old Second Life residents, the announcement of Meta wasn’t all that innovative or awe-inducing.

We’ve been there, done that… 2 decades ago.

Thank you to Neobela for the heads up!

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One thought on “An Experienced Second Life User Responds to Facebook/Meta’s Grand Metaverse Ambitions: “We’ve Been There, Done That…Two Decades Ago””

  1. It’s true that It didn’t feel new, not to mention that SL wasn’t even the first one!

    And to think that in 2012 Wired wrote how Facebook “killed” Second Life and other social virtual worlds: “Almost all the promise once held by virtual worlds has since been realized by Facebook” and the huge difference in the amount of active users.
    And now it looks like they are going full circle. LOL.

    In general I agree with that Medium post, (I don’t know in future, given they are going to invest a giant load of resources on it), but at least the first impression of FB Horizon wasn’t awesome.

    Isn’t the cartoon-like style per se, though. I understand the self identification thing, it’s a good point. But let’s look at…

    — VRChat.—
    Their avatars are pretty much cartoonish (but mostly anime) and yet VRChat is now about as popular as Second Life (and on social media much more, honestly). Although I’m not an anime in SL and I don’t see avatars as game characters (I’m immersive), I liked VRChat at first sight. I don’t know exactly, but VRChat feels alive. It works. Horizon, as first impression from what I have seen, it looked rather bland, dull, instead.

    — When SL began.—
    SL, too, was cartoon-like from the very beginning (do you remember the first funny 2003-2004 advertisement videos?), and it remained kind of that for a while. It was 2011 when it improved better with early mesh clothing and better feet, then fitmesh bodies in 2014 and eventually bento heads in 2017. It’s 4 years that we have this level of “realism”.
    However this didn’t translate to more and more popularity for SL. Instead, SL peaked around 2008-2009, then the amount of people online kept fading since then, from over 80k+ max to 45-50, except with the pandemic we are back to about 55 now.
    Also back in the day, I remember there were people telling “too much realistic” skins felt uncanny or made them cringe – I didn’t share that feeling, it was a sum of the parts, improving the shape helped; anyway, there were people preferring the early “classic” look – and later, after mesh was introduced, I was an early adopter, but I remember a lot of people were reluctant or entirely against it for several reasons (not just because the SL implementation required alpha layers and HUDs, making it more complex to use).
    Now detailed realistic looks seem very much appreciated instead.

    I’m sure I love my bento head, however, by looking at VRChat popularity and the story of SL, I’m not so sure that highly realistic avatars are a mandatory ingredient.
    Also in VR you need high framerate, therefore lightweight content is preferred, not to mention stand-alone HMDs.

    My impression is that whatever the avatar, what does count is how the avatar represents you, how you feel by visualizing yourself in that way, and how you can relate with that look.
    The avatar could be cartoon-like or realistic, but if it looks dull, impersonal and inexpressive, then it won’t work.
    If, instead, a cartoon-like avatar *feels* like you, even if in a funny way…
    So it’s not just the look, it’s also the feeling.
    Moreover, someone doesn’t even like to be human. This doesn’t necessarily make them gamers that aren’t themselves. On the contrary, sometimes you can express your emotions and personality in that way. You feel nice, so you use a cute avatar, etc.

    I don’t think everyone has to necessarily be a 20 year old top model, with super detailed nipples (as with the last version of the Maitreya body in SL now). I suspect it’s the adult side of SL that gives a boost to all these fine details, and skins etc at first, then other things follow. But you can be so pretty too, not bad at all. Moreover, for example a trans woman would be happy to be herself physically and to have her body as more as real as possible.

    On the other hand, what people do have always imagined for a metaverse and virtual reality? Looking at the Matrix, Ready Player One… I think the general idea is it should look photo-realistic, eventually.

    As for the chances that Facebook/Meta has, I’m a bit cautious, because back in 2007 someone was dismissing the first iPhone with: “nothing new”, “there are touch screens already”, and this and that. But it’s the recipe that makes the difference, not just the sum of the ingredients.
    So far, their first step didn’t look that promising, though, and it didn’t gave me the impression this is the iPhone of the virtual worlds.
    Also 10b dollars and 10k engineers aren’t a guarantee either, but Meta certainly has the resources.

    Yet, if by any chance they succeed, I think I won’t touch anything from Facebook now Meta anyway. And I won’t be incredibly surprised if they turn it into something dystopic, rather than the dream we enthusiasts have in mind.

    For now SL remains the one that feels more like a world to me.

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