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'Second Life Herald' book pulls back historical curtain on virtual worlds

Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace's new book is a must-read for those interested in the history and philosophy of modern virtual worlds.

If you've followed virtual worlds at all over the last four years, the name Urizenus Sklar will probably mean something to you.

Uri, as he was known, was the muckraking journalist who founded the Alphaville Herald, a blog that reported on, among other things, the seedy underbelly of Electronic Arts' disappointing virtual world, The Sims Online.

Second Life Herald, the new book from Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace, is a deep chronicle of the early days of two of the most influential virtual worlds, The Sims Online and Second Life. MIT Press

In late 2003, he was banned from TSO by EA for what the company called terms of service violations, but which was widely seen as retaliation for Uri's critical coverage of EA and its approach to specific in-world issues. Smelling a free-speech issue, media the world over picked up the story.

Soon after, Uri, also known as University of Michigan philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, migrated to Second Life and eventually changed the name of the blog--which still exists--to the Second Life Herald. After awhile, though, he decided he needed a partner, and joined forces with Mark Wallace, a freelance journalist. The two continued the tradition of uncovering great scoops, and the blog quickly became one of the most important sources of SL news.

Now, Ludlow and Wallace have published a book, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, that I think is an indispensable look at the early days of two of the most important modern virtual worlds.

More than anything, the book reveals the philosophical underpinnings of the so-called metaverse, looking in depth at the ways in which the communities in TSO and Second Life developed and how they interacted with the publishers behind the two virtual worlds.

In both cases, Ludlow and Wallace argue that the publishers fell far short of responsible governance, often because of what they see as capricious decision making and enforcement of rules. Yet in the case of Second Life, at least, their eyes are open with wonder at the possibilities of an open-ended, 3D, social world in which users can do almost anything they can imagine.

But the disconnect between what they see as technological magic and corporate wishy-washiness led to intractable problems with Second Life that they think will ultimately pull it down.

Regardless, the book is a fascinating look at the early development of both SL and TSO and an explanation for why what went on in those two worlds means something to larger society and to the future of online communities.

Though by both Ludlow and Wallace, it's pretty clear that the book is largely seen through the former's eyes. That's particularly true because, though the title is The Second Life Herald, the book doesn't really dive in to SL until more than two-thirds of the way through.

And despite the crucial importance of TSO in the overall history of virtual worlds, the decision to focus so much of the book on it--and on the history of the Alphaville Herald--is unfortunate, in my view.

It's not that readers shouldn't care about what went on in TSO. But given that the book was published in the fall of 2007, a time when so much attention is being focused on Second Life, it would have been nice if the book had given readers a great deal more of the history of SL, particularly because that history is not being told elsewhere.

It is possible that the decision was made to focus more on TSO because another book, Wagner James Au's The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World, will be published in February. But I doubt it.

In fact, The Second Life Herald, which was published by MIT Press, almost never happened. It was originally titled Only a Game and was to be published in April 2006 by O'Reilly. But for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, O'Reilly dropped the project. It's a shame, too, because the rush of attention on Second Life picked up shortly thereafter and the book would have been perfectly situated.

And while the MIT Press version of the book has been updated to some extent, it is clear upon reading both versions--I have an advance reading copy of the O'Reilly book--that the final published manuscript didn't change that much in the 18 months it was delayed.

And that's too bad, because the end result is that it feels a little dated. There are, for instance, almost no references to anything that has happened in SL in the last year, with just a short chapter at the end dealing with any recent history.

Still, the book is largely about early history, and in that regard, it is a triumph. Readers unfamiliar with those heady days of TSO and SL will come away with a better appreciation for what the earliest adopters went through and what those travails mean for today's users.

And in the end, I would judge that Ludlow and Wallace have succeeded at helping to answer the charge put forth by so many critics of social virtual worlds that "there is nothing to do." Indeed there is. But to discover it, you must dive in.