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For a guy who was an embedded journalist inside the virtual world of Second Life, this whole metaverse thing is a ride around the merry-go-round again.
And so Wagner James Au, who previously wrote a book on his Second Life experiences, is now writing a book dubbed Why the Metaverse Matters: From Second Life to Meta & Beyond, A Guide by Its First Embedded Journalist.
Wiley plans to publish the book in early to mid-2023, around the 20th anniversary of Second Life. Au is in a good position to write that book, but let’s hope for his sake that the metaverse is still going to be a super-hyped thing, or perhaps a reality, by that time. The metaverse is envisioned as the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
In an interview with GamesBeat, Au said his focus is on the metaverse user communities, especially the grassroots creators, which make these platforms meaningful. He will explore the continued influence of Second Life on the evolution of the metaverse platforms, and uncover the mystery of Second Life — how it managed to inspire so many but hasn’t been able to grow beyond a niche of passionate users.
And he will also explore whether the blockchain fits or doesn’t — especially with the new company Neal Stephenson just co-founded, Lamina1, dedicated to the making of the open metaverse.
“I will talk about Second Life’s influence on the current metaverse platforms,” Au said.
For instance, the combat and creation of Fortnite feels like it shares similar DNA with Second Life.
“But why did Second Life, despite being so influential, never really reach the mass market? It’s successful as a niche and still quite profitable, and it was at its peak when the metaverse hit the public awareness,” Au said. “But it never got out of the niche. And to me, that’s one of the biggest mysteries of Silicon Valley, of how can a company which had so much publicity back in 2006 to 2008 not break out.”
The book will also focus on the ongoing problems that metaverse platforms haven’t been able to solve, around content moderation, toxic users, and (yes) the inevitably of virtual sex. He will summarize what he learned from the last 20 years of metaverse reporting and development, to hopefully fully realize the vision in the next 20 years.
Those experiences included covering the labor protest on IBM’s corporate campus in Second Life; writing about the Second Life protest against Front National, a far right political group from France; and his chats with Syrmor, an embedded VRChat reporter on YouTube.
I connected with Au after he began writing his New World Notes blog on the virtual world Second Life in 2003. For two years, under contract with the company, he was an embedded journalist. That meant he wrote about Second Life as a character himself, posing as an avatar named Hamlet Linden. Inside the world, he used his avatar to do chat interviews with other avatars in the virtual community, which encourages people to create a new world based on how they want to live their “second lives.”
Spending hours inside the world, he reported on the development of the new world as a participant in it. Exploring the world, he distilled his blog posts into a book, “The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World,” (Collins, 2008).
Now the metaverse concept has people excited again, starting with the virtual reality revival in 2016.
“When I first worked at Linden Lab, I noticed they literally had Snow Crash on their shelf in the office. It’s kind of one of their reference books. There’s a lot of kind of confusion over what the metaverse even is. And it’s sort of hilarious to me because companies like Linden Lab and Roblox and Epic are directly influenced by the novel. I want to talk about the original kind of conception and how it apply to these different platforms,” Au said.
Other metaverse books are already at. Cathy Hackl, Dirk Lueth, and Tommaso Di Bartolo wrote Navigating the Metaverse: A guide to limitless possibilities in a Web 3.0 world. There are more books coming too.
Au hopes to capture some human stories, like a story about a top content creators in Ukraine. And she was eight months pregnant and the Russians had occupied her city. So she had to flee, and always tried to find a stable WiFi connection so she could upload her sexualized content.
“What fascinates me is how these grassroots creators come from all over the world. And they take their, their life experiences with them, as she’s creating content in the middle of a war. And I’ve, I’ve come across countless stories like that,” Au said.
There are a lot of people, some of them disabled like a memorable character in Snow Crash, who rely upon online connectivity and have high hopes about living in the metaverse where physical impediments will no longer matter. It’s powerful to think that you can be whoever you want to be, Au said.
Au will explore whether blockchain will be necessary as a building block for the metaverse, and whether the boom-and-bust cycle around Bitcoin and Ethereum will have anything to do with the metaverse boom or will turn into just a speculative bubble.
“One of my conclusions will definitely relate to the importance of community and making thriving communities,” he said. “Having done this for 20 years, I see that it’s the community and the content creators in the community, but also kind of the social leaders who become well-known personalities in the virtual world. They shape what happens with the platform and whether it becomes successful or not. And so I want to tell their stories. And I want to explain to the wider readership, including companies and businesses, why that matters.”
He will also focus on negative aspects of the metaverse like content moderation of extreme sexual or violent content, and how that will be the double-edge sword of user-generated content. He will also consider the deep skepticism that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg will support an open metaverse.
Au still hopes to interview a lot of key characters about the metaverse.
“I talked to a woman who turned her Second Life business into a seven-figure enterprise,” he said. “She was more successful than most of the companies that tried to succeed in the virtual world.”