Book review: 'The making of Second Life'

Wagner James Au's first book is a thoughtful, well-executed look at the history of the ground-breaking virtual world. If only it had more behind-the-scenes stories.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

The virtual world Second Life might be a household name today, but back in 1999 when its founder first brought a small group of developers together in a sketchy San Francisco alley, changing the world wasn't looking like much of a possibility.

In Wagner James Au's new book, The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World, readers are treated to a glimpse of those early days, when Philip Rosedale, formerly the CTO of RealNetworks, rented a warehouse on San Francisco's Linden Street and started Linden Lab.

As a fan of process and a longtime writer about Second Life myself, it was nice to pick up Au's book and get a look back at the halcyon days of Linden Lab. Over the years, I'd pieced together some of the stories myself, but here, for the first time, Au has managed to narrate the real origins of this well-known virtual world.

For those not familiar with him, Au has been writing his SL blog, New World Notes, since 2003, when Linden Lab hired him to be the official embedded reporter in its newly launched environment, a gig that allowed him to work part-time in the Linden Lab offices and therefore to witness, firsthand, many of the goings-on that preceded Second Life becoming what it is today.

Much of the value of this first part of the book, in fact, comes from Au's recollections of the thought processes of Rosedale; early investor and Lotus 1-2-3 inventor Mitch Kapor; and (now former) CTO and former naval intelligence officer Cory Ondrejka.

Making of Second Life
New World Notes

One thing that struck me was a long passage of Au's about how much Rosedale's 1999 visit to Burning Man, the annual countercultural arts festival held in the Nevada desert, influenced his view of what the virtual environment he was building should be.

"'So you'd lay on the pillows,' Rosedale recounts, eyes twinkling at the memory," Au writes, "'and you'd feel like an exotic Asian king, and you're looking out on the parched (desert); the line of sun starts at the edge of the rugs, and you see that hot desert, and you imagine you're Kublai Khan on a bender...They were just structures of the mind...It reinforced that idea that what we believe in or what we make of things is all that is real. It was unreal because everything was clearly made of found materials and was transitory. But it was real, because when you were there, it was real to you...It had this mystical quality that demolished the barriers between people.'"

Rosedale's epiphany? There was a magic going on out there in the desert--a way that people dealt with each other and laid down their disbelief--with which he wanted to imbue his virtual world.

"Though it wouldn't exactly fit in a business plan," Au continues, "it was an intuition he'd pursue in building Second Life into a full-fledged online world."

One thing I enjoyed about this anecdote was that it was in the book at all. Over the years, Rosedale had mentioned to me personally many times how important Burning Man was to him. Honestly, though, I'd always thought he was kind of buttering me up, because he knew I'm a long-time attendee and participant.

But I also know that Au has never been to Burning Man, so for this to make it into the book, to me, lends it a veracity I never thought it had.

The first part of the book is full of the behind-the-scenes stuff that I had long wanted to know. About groundbreaking meetings, such as the one where a Linden staffer began making an evil snowman in the middle of a presentation to investors, a moment where everyone's collective light bulb turned on and they realized that the key to what Second Life would be was giving users the ability to create content.

For process buffs like me, this stuff is manna.

But come chapter 3, the book suddenly--and to me, unfortunately--veers away from this.

Instead, Au turns to stories from inside Second Life that were clearly adapted from his blog, and to lengthy discussions about their social, intellectual, and sometimes, technical, consequences.

It's not that there's anything wrong with this. In fact, the book is jam packed with these discussions and as a Second Life scholar, it's invaluable to look into Au's mind and read his thoughts on what the various developments were and what they meant, both to SL and to the outside world.

Rather, the problem is that I wanted a lot more behind-the-scenes-at-Linden stories, especially in a book called The Making of Second Life.

But you can't always get what you want.

In fact, Au's book is full of rich details about some of the most important people, communities, and events in the history of Second Life. And certainly, there is no one better situated to tell those stories than Au, whose SL blog has been going longer than anyone's and who has been on hand for more of the seminal moments in this virtual world than anyone.

Of particular importance to readers is Au's ability to tell a story and then delve into its significance, both to Second Life users and to the world at large. Which might surprise the critics who say nothing significant ever happens in SL, let alone anything that might matter elsewhere.

Among his many observations, one that struck me as particularly meaningful had to do with the ways that SL can be a rare avenue to true person-to-person communications for people with debilitating illnesses or conditions like paralysis, Asperger's Syndrome, or many others.

One illuminating anecdote is Au's conversations with the nine people behind a single avatar known as Wilde Cunningham. Titled "The nine souls of Wilde Cunningham," the passage examined how a care provider at a facility in Massachusetts helped nine of her charges, all but one in a wheelchair, use SL to reach out to a world much larger than the one they had previously been restricted to.

As you might imagine, having nine people behind a single avatar can make things complicated, but even that dynamic provided an opportunity for structured negotiation, democracy, and cooperative creation.

"I ask them how they decide what to say," writes Au.

"'Well,' they reply, 'members of Wilde, together with (the care provider) toss out ideas and everyone chimes in when they agree, or choose not to answer, which is also OK. Mostly we vote and take group census on things.'"

To you and me, this might not seem groundbreaking, but to a group like the Wilde Cunningham nine, having a virtual world to use as a bridge to meet new people is entirely eye-opening, and something SL is particularly good at.

And throughout his book, Au peppers us with little anecdotes like this. He is a thoughtful and erudite writer, yet someone with a keen appreciation for the technology and the technological context Second Life fits into.

And while he was a Linden Lab employee for a while, before taking his blog private, he is no apologist for the company. Often he relates some event or occurrence and uses his pen to offer reasoned criticism. And to be sure, there is plenty to criticize.

As anyone who has used SL knows, it is buggy, inconsistent, and has a horrid interface. Yet, despite this, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of regular users and has engendered a healthy economy. And so a book like Au's--which goes in depth into some of the history behind SL and uses story after story to paint a picture of why the virtual world matters--is a crucial addition to the growing bookshelf of books on Second Life and other virtual worlds.

To date, most of those books, including my own, are guidebooks. Only one, Peter Ludlow's and Mark Wallace's The Second Life Herald, have gone into any kind of depth about what SLreally is and what it really means. But that book is much more about Electronic Arts' The Sims Online, so it's nice that Au's tome focuses strictly on Linden Lab's creation.

All in all, I found the book to be enjoyable, well-written, and thoughtful. As I mentioned above, I do wish that it had lingered more on the behind-the-scenes tales from Linden Lab, but then, if that's the book I want to read, I suppose I should just write it myself.

Absent that, Au's book gives us the most complete picture we've had of how this complex and valuable virtual world came to be, what has happened since then and why the world should care.