Second Life 20 Years: Lessons on Metaverse Learned by Apple, Meta, and Roblox from the Pioneering Virtual World


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Second Life has a loyal following but never became mainstream. Its story reveals why building virtual worlds remains so difficult.

This week, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to celebrate the 20th birthday of the groundbreaking virtual world where they have avatars in Second Life. There will be live music, DJs, dance performances, and a large marketplace with more than 1,000 vendors selling avatar clothing and other digital goods. As many as 300,000 people have attended the two-week-long birthday party in recent years. This year is expected to be even bigger.

“There are now people who have been working in Second Life for 20 years,” said Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, who hopes the event will be both a virtual world expo and a party. “It’s going to be exciting,” he promised.

The birthday party is also sure to be a moment of reflection for Second Life insiders and industry observers. On the one hand, the event is expected to attract a broader audience than some of the VR metaverse platforms, including Meta’s Horizon Worlds.

But it also serves as a clear reminder that Second Life never lived up to its own hype. At one point, the platform was touted as the future of the internet: It attracted investments from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and currently has 750,000 active users per month, according to Second Life owner Linden Lab. “By most measures, this was the biggest thing ever,” Rosedale said.

By comparison: Facebook, which launched two years after Second Life, had 3 billion monthly active users at the end of its most recent quarter. “Virtual worlds are not for everyone,” Rosedale acknowledged, “and in fact, they’re not for most people.”

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This recognition stands in stark contrast to the early enthusiasm around Philip Rosedale’s creation. Second Life, which launched in 2003, took inspiration from Burning Man, an annual community and self-expression celebration that attracts tens of thousands of people to the Nevada desert. Like Burning Man, Second Life positioned itself as a blank canvas, inviting people to be anyone and do anything they wanted.

“It has the most powerful creation tools that essentially allow users to create anything that they can imagine,” said Wagner James Au, author of the upcoming book “Making a Metaverse That Matters.”

Some of its most prolific creators use those tools to build impressive 3D scenes, including detailed recreations of real-life cities, serene Zen gardens, trendy nightclubs and post-apocalyptic wastelands. Others specialize in the avatars clothes and accessories that they sell on the platform. According to a Linden Lab spokesperson, Second Life sees $650 million worth of C2C transactions annually, with 1.6 million transactions occurring per day.

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But while some early adopters thrived, more people were turned away by Second Life’s open-endedness and lack of direction. “It scared off 99% of the people who tried it,” Au said.

Three years after Second Life launched, another virtual world emerged that took a more guided approach. Roblox also empowered its users to create their own worlds, but placed a much greater emphasis on casual gaming. That move attracted a younger but also much larger demographic: As of the end of March 2023, Roblox sees 66 million people using it per day. “The reason Roblox is so huge is because it’s essentially Second Life for kids,” Philip Rosedale said dismissively.

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Meanwhile, Linden Lab wanted “Second Life” to be a place for adults, which is why it worked hard not to be confused with video games. Au thinks that was a huge mistake, one that other metaverse creators can learn from. Just as in the real world, games serve as an icebreaker between strangers. “You need some fun activities,” he said. “It should always be a fun, game-like experience.”

Roblox has also benefited from early bets on mobile devices; “Second Life” is only now preparing to release a smartphone app. “We missed the mobile internet,” Philip Rosedale admits.

The Linden Lab had briefly devoted itself to a virtual world optimized for VR headsets, but sold those efforts in 2020. Today, Second Life competes more with virtual worlds optimized for VR headsets such as VRChat and Rec Room. Meta has been trying to attract users through its own Horizo n Worlds service, but reportedly is in talks with Roblox about bringing the service to its Oculus headset.

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Meanwhile, Apple has avoided using the term Metaverse (opting for “Spatial Computing” instead), but the Vision Pro, which is due to launch next year, may further accelerate the development of immersive virtual worlds.

Whether Second Life will be a part of these efforts remains to be seen. Philip Rosedale has long been a prominent VR skeptic and still harbors concerns about motion sickness and other issues with the technology, but he has been trying out some VR products in recent months.

Au believes Second Life will leave its mark on the future of virtual worlds in some way. “It still has the chance to expand its core user base,” he says, “and they certainly paved the way for later entrants.”

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