By 2007, Second Life seemed on track for a commercial breakthrough. And then, an opportunity came along to get in front of a truly mainstream audience: a starring role on one of TV’s biggest shows. In part 3 of our series: Second Life’s ascension to prime time, and the hurdles that threw its success into question.
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Speaker 1: Hey, it's Kate, cohost of The Journal. Today, we have the third episode in our series How to Build a Metaverse. If you missed the first two episodes, they're already in your feed. In those episodes, we've told you about Second Life, an early metaverse where people could gather online in an immersive world, and you heard about what happened when swarms of new users came rushing in, bringing sex, harassment and even war to this virtual world. By 2007, Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, had put in place a new set of rules. Second Life was becoming a more welcoming space for more people, and it seemed on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. Here's producer Annie Minoff.
Speaker 2: In October of 2007, Linden Lab was holding a special screening in the rec room of its San Francisco office. Employees were excited, poised on the edge of their bean bags. They were waiting to watch the latest episode of one of the biggest shows on television back then, CSI: NY.
Speaker 3: So we had 40 Lindens maybe downstairs crowded in this little space.
Speaker 2: That's Jessica Jergalski. She was a product manager with Linden Lab at the time.
Speaker 3: That night, we had a Slingbox, which is an old technology. When you could not watch things on the internet, you could grab someone else's cable line and sling it over here to San Francisco from the East Coast when they were showing the CSI: NY live at that time zone. So we were all downstairs watching CSI: NY live from New York.
Speaker 2: That might sound like a lot of trouble, but this was a very special episode of CSI because this episode took place inside Second Life.
Speaker 3: The detectives all log into Second Life and something terrible happens. And all I remember about the episode, besides the general idea, is the main guy of CSI: NY. Is that Gary Sinise?
Speaker 2: Yeah. Yes, yes, yes.
Speaker 3: Right? Yeah. He says, "Log off. Log off now."
Audio: Our entire system is overloaded. Log off. If I log off, we lose her. Log off.
Speaker 3: Because something terrible's going to happen. They're going to kill you in Second Life, and it'll really happen or something. And it was just this insane moment.
Audio: Log off now. Why did you kill Cheryl? (inaudible). Why did you kill Cheryl?
Speaker 2: It was an insane moment for Gary Sinise. It was also an insane moment for Second Life. What was once a niche online community was getting more attention than ever. Over the last few years, the platform had come a long way. Linden Lab had learned a lot about what it took to govern this new online space, and it seemed to be working. By 2007, Second Life was a world on the upswing, adding tens of thousands of new users by the day, and bringing in more cash too. Now, CSI was going to put Second Life in front of millions of new people.
Speaker 3: CSI. Yeah, I mean, that's huge, right? That's mainstream. That's on grandma's TV set at night. I mean, it's… Yeah, it was huge.
Speaker 2: But more than just a breakout moment, the CSI episode would be a referendum on Second Life's mainstream appeal. Linden Lab had spent years getting Second Life ready for the world to see, but was the world ready for Second Life? From The Journal, this is How To Build a Metaverse. I'm Annie Minoff. This is part three, Prime Time. Before Second Life could make it onto CSI, Linden Lab had a more pressing matter to sort out: how to make its world profitable. Daniel Huebner, one of the Linden Lab employees who you heard from last episode, said Second Life started making money almost by accident. It happened when Linden Lab gave away a virtual island during a sweepstakes event in 2003.
Speaker 5: And being that I was in the part of the company that dealt with community, it fell to me to give the suggested retail value since it was a sweepstakes and a prize. So I did a little math and I'm like, "Okay, it costs us 600 dollars for the server. It's about 300 dollars for us to install it. Maybe the software itself is worth this," and I came up with a price of 1,200 dollars.
Speaker 2: Okay, so an island costs 1,200 dollars.
Speaker 5: And as soon as we gave away that island, we started getting people asking, "How can I get an island?" You can't get an island. We don't do that. "Can I buy one?" And we're like, "Well, they cost $1,200." "Okay, I'll take six."
Speaker 2: Wow. Okay.
Speaker 5: So the interest in private islands became really apparent very quickly.
Speaker 2: Linden Lab met that demand. The company set up new servers to create more virtual land inside Second Life. Users paid a lump sum to have their own plot plus continuing maintenance fees, which became a reliable source of revenue. And inside the world, users were making money too. See, from the beginning, something of a small economy had been brewing inside Second Life. Users were creating products and selling them to each other, stuff like clothing or hairstyles for their avatars or sometimes more unusual things.
Speaker 6: Back in the day, I was getting from 10 to 20 dollars per item.
Speaker 2: That's Stroker Serpentine. You might remember him from our previous episode. Stroker had led a sexual awakening in Second Life by creating adult content, like sex animations, for your avatar. His creations were super popular. And as they started to take off, he was looking for ways to sell them. At first, Stroker's customers were paying him through third-party sites like PayPal or eBay. But that extra step, leaving Second Life to go to another site, was tedious. And even though Stroker's creations were popular, his sales didn't amount to much.
Speaker 6: It was a few hundred dollars a month. It was a secondary hobby income. I was still a plumbing contractor at the time. I had 30 employees and had a successful construction business, and it was just play money. It was three or 400 dollars a month.
Speaker 2: But then Linden Lab made an important change. It started letting users exchange in-world credits, they called them Linden dollars, for real-world money. That made buying and selling things in Second Life way more convenient. Entrepreneurs like Stroker could keep their business in-world and make cold, hard cash. Was that a turning point for you?
Speaker 6: It was a turning point. That's when I dedicated myself full time to Second Life.
Speaker 2: Offline, Stroker was a plumber named Kevin Alderman. And when he saw the money that was coming in from Second Life, Kevin sold his 30-person contracting business and went all in on metaverse retail. It was a risky move, but it paid off. His business grew into a bonafide sex empire. He bought a huge plot of land, which he called Amsterdam, and filled it with fetish shops and sex clubs. It became one of the most popular locations in Second Life.
Speaker 6: I think our best month was about 120,000 dollars. I was making a six-figure salary for about 12, 15 years there.
Speaker 2: Wow.
Speaker 6: In 2008, my income from Second Life was 1,200,000.
Speaker 2: At the time when business is booming, who were your customers?
Speaker 6: Everybody. Everybody on the platform. The feedback that I was getting is that the more, the better. There's no way you could create enough content to satisfy the marketplace.
Speaker 2: Stroker made so much money from his Second Life business, he says he was able to put his two kids through college. He even retired early to a nudist resort in Florida. By letting users freely make money in world, Linden Lab had set in motion a full-blown economic revolution in Second Life, and employees like Daniel noticed it started to change how people thought about the platform.
Speaker 5: It exploded in a way that we hadn't anticipated. What people heard about Second Life was you can make real money, and people came to Second Life for that reason. That became the plausible deniability. No, I'm not using this weird online 3D world. I'm going to make money. I'm here to make money.
Speaker 2: Second Life was becoming more than just a social space. It was becoming a place to do business.
Speaker 5: Second Life was very quickly filled with dance clubs and malls and airplane dealerships and everything you could imagine. It was capitalism on steroids. It was overwhelmingly commercial.
Speaker 2: People in the real world were hearing about entrepreneurs like Stroker, and they were rushing into Second Life with all kinds of creative, unpredictable business ideas. Another salesman who found success was a guy named Giff Constable, also known by his Second Life name.
Speaker 7: Forseti Svarog was how a lot of people around the world knew me for quite a few years.
Speaker 2: Giff was exactly the kind of person who would gravitate to Second Life. He was a tech entrepreneur with an artsy side. He liked to paint. And soon after he joined Second Life, Giff found himself in the kind of business that could only exist in a virtual world: Giff helped run an amusement park for hamsters.
Speaker 7: I created a giant hamster contraption with the colorful tubes and things that would spin as you ran through them. So all of a sudden we're-
Speaker 2: Like a hamster wheel?
Speaker 7: Exactly, like hamster wheels and hamster farms where it's all colorful plastic curving things that can hook together and-
Speaker 2: The little tubes they scurry through.
Speaker 7: Yes, exactly. You turned it into an adventure park for your hamster. So I created an adventure park for us as little tiny hamsters and bunnies and raccoons.
Speaker 2: Okay, so let me explain this. In 2005, a few months after Giff joined Second Life, there was something of a tiny animal craze sweeping the platform. Users were turning their avatars into tiny, adorable rabbits and hamsters. The playground that Giff and his friends built was just for fun, but they also sold things there, think hamster outfits and accessories, and they were making real money, like thousands of dollars. Did you talk about Second Life with people in your first life? Did you have to explain to your wife, "Oh yeah, this is an extra 2,000 I have because I sold some clear hamster tubes this weekend"?
Speaker 7: I remember distinctly the uncomfortable feeling of being at a small dinner party with a bunch of very high-powered professionals, the lawyer investment banker kind of types, management consultants or whatever, and this coming up at dinner and I was trying to explain what was happening in this virtual world and why it was interesting, and everyone just looking at me like I had 10 heads, like I was from another planet. And that was very much what it was like back then, and I think even to this day, that there were certain of us where the immersion of this world, it really, really tickled our imagination and we were all in. We were really swept up by it. Anyway yes, they thought I was very weird.
Speaker 2: But Giff ignored the skeptics. He saw the bigger picture. In Giff's view, Second Life had the potential to change the world of commerce, to be a bigger, better 3D version of the internet. He was a believer to the point that he quit his day job as an investment banker to focus on the metaverse.
Speaker 7: Eventually, I got to the point where I decided there's something here that I'm really interested in and it's growing like mad. And this is potentially a new layer on the internet, and I want to be part of this on the ground floor. I mean, frankly these days in crypto, you see this happening all the time, people just saying, "I just want to be part of it. I don't know how I'm going to figure it out, but I want to be part of it."
Speaker 2: Giff did figure it out. In 2006, he found a group of people just as obsessed with the metaverse as he was. They called themselves The Electric Sheep Company, and they built stuff specifically for the metaverse like services, tools and experiences. Electric Sheep did business in Second Life, but it catered to a new kind of customer: companies.
Audio: One of the fastest-growing sites on the internet is a 3D world called Second Life. Big business, like Apple, have stores there. CNN is launching a news bureau there. Kelly Services is recruiting real workers there.
Speaker 2: Word had gotten out that there was real money to be made in Second Life. And one by one, corporations were dipping their toes into the metaverse. Giff and Electric Sheep were there to help. Some companies came to Second Life to sell things, but Giff says a lot of them just wanted to be where the action was. This was an opportunity for them to grow their brand and maybe get a write-up in the news.
Speaker 7: This became a hot story. This started appearing on the cover of Businessweek magazine and the New York Times business section and things like that. And then everyone's thinking, "Oh, we got to get a piece of this. We need to be part of this. We can't miss this."
Speaker 2: For what it's worth, we are in a very similar place today. Vans and Forever 21 have launched experiences inside Roblox, a popular metaverse app. Walmart is in there, too, with an experience they're calling Walmart Land, and Adidas has started selling virtual shoes in a metaverse platform called The Sandbox. Everyone wants to be the first, the first sneaker, the first store, the first fill in the blank in the metaverse. 15 years ago, it was the exact same thing.
Speaker 7: I remember we did a project where for Nissan, we built out one of their cars and we built out this giant Hot Wheels-esque loop-de-loop where you could actually be inside the car and drive through the loop-de-loop that when you were a kid, your Hot Wheels would… you would watch your Hot Wheels do. But now, you could live it. You could do it. It was really fun.
Speaker 2: What was it like?
Speaker 7: It was awesome. I mean, you were like, "Whoa. Whoa, here I go. Oh, we're jumping off the cliff." I mean, you felt like you were in that moment.
Speaker 2: It didn't stop at companies though. Celebrities followed. Musicians like Ben Folds did concerts in Second Life. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut did Q&As. Politicians were campaigning in world. Sweden even opened an embassy there. Second Life was exploding, and Philip Rosedale, the company's founder, was taking a victory lap.
Audio: It is almost certainly true that whatever this is going to evolve into is going to be bigger in total usage than the web itself.
Speaker 2: That's Philip giving a talk at a conference in 2008.
Audio: So I think, again, that it's likely that in the next decade or so, these virtual worlds are going to be the most common way as human beings that we use the electronics of the internet, if you will, to be together, to consume information. Mapping…
Speaker 2: After years of developing Second Life, it seems like finally Philip's vision was coming to fruition. A future was coming when we would leave our bodies behind for a new life online. "It was all happening," he said, and sooner than you'd think.
Audio: (inaudible) have said, "Fasten your seat belts because the change is coming. Here are going to be big changes." Philip Rosedale, thank you very much.
Speaker 2: But behind the scenes, things at Linden Lab were far from perfect. As more users poured into Second Life, cracks were starting to show, and the pressure was building for Linden Lab to fix them. That's after the break. After years of tinkering, it seemed like Linden Lab had finally refined Second Life enough to appeal to the mainstream. This little-known world of sex animations and hamster amusement parks was becoming instead a land of Coca-Cola vending machines, Dell computers and Disney characters. And then in 2007, Second Life landed on the radar of one of the biggest shows on tv.
Speaker 7: The creator of CSI, the television show, got excited about doing a transmedia project where you could engage the audience and the fans of the show. And the show was huge back then. I mean, millions of people were watching the show.
Speaker 2: CBS, the TV company behind CSI: NY, had become an investor in Electric Sheep, and the network connected Giff with the show's creator. The CSI folks had an idea for an episode where the show's detectives would go inside Second Life to solve a mystery. And then at the end of the episode, they would invite viewers to join them in the virtual world.
Speaker 7: The idea was at the end of the show, "Hey, everybody. Come with us. You can help. Come into the world." And we hadn't yet written the second episode. The idea was, if I remember correctly, was to, based on what was happening with the community as well as where the writers wanted to take it, to allow that to influence the second episode.
Speaker 2: Oh, wow.
Speaker 7: And really, all of a sudden, make television bidirectional, make it immersive. You're part of the show.
Speaker 2: This was a huge opportunity, a chance to expose millions of people who'd never heard of Second Life to this up-and-coming metaverse. But it wouldn't be easy. In fact, CSI would be a challenge unlike any Giff and Electric Sheep had faced, and it would also be a test of Second Life infrastructure, which as of late was beginning to struggle. One of Second Life's biggest issues came down to technology. Linden Lab had to deliver a ton of graphical information to a ton of people all in real time. And sometimes, it was more than the company's servers could handle. Here's Giff.
Speaker 7: If you think about this, this is (inaudible) over a decade ago. Servers, CPU, processing power, the size of memory, bandwidth, all of this, has come so much further. But back then, the servers were struggling to keep up with this, and the technology and the bandwidth wasn't quite there.
Speaker 2: This was in 2007. Back then, only about half of American adults had high-speed internet. Those technical limitations meant that sometimes, Giff's projects didn't work as expected, like the Nissan one that we talked about earlier, the one with the loop-de-loop. In some cases, it would hit against Second Life's limits.
Speaker 7: Because the physics of that little experience was so intensive, we could only really run one car at a time. We could probably, for that, only have maybe 15 avatars on that space before things started to slow down into sludge.
Speaker 2: What would happen when it turned a sludge? You'd be on the ride and what would happen?
Speaker 7: Well, everything would just slow down. It wouldn't necessarily crash, but things would get a little buggier. But it really just happens in slow motion, which was not fun.
Speaker 2: This same issue would come up whenever Second Life tried to host large crowds. Pretty much any large event, a concert, a celebrity meet and greet, was at risk. The more people who came in, the slower and sludgier the experience became. And there were a lot of people coming in.
Speaker 8: It was a fascinating time because the hype cycle was almost at its peak around Second Life.
Speaker 2: That's Yas Graham. He joined Linden Lab in 2007, and he still remembers a conversation he overheard on one of his very first days at the company.
Speaker 8: Over the weekend, concurrency had reached about 26,000 users, which is 26,000 people all online at the same time. And when we reach 27,000, we're toast, as in the system would not be able to handle it. At 26,000, there were already sparks, rivets flying out of joints, things like that, and the team was having to do desperate things to try and make the system more scalable and more robust.
Speaker 2: CSI had a lot more than 27,000 viewers. If this episode was going to work, the team would need to figure out how Second Life could host all of those potential new users. But that was only half the battle. There was also the question of how to keep those users engaged. Another major complaint back then was that Second Life was hard to use. The user interface was complicated, with tons of different buttons to do pretty much anything. For newcomers, it was a lot to figure out. Here's Jessica again, one of Linden Lab's product managers.
Speaker 3: It was a complicated product. It still is in many ways. They've done a lot of work to make it a little more user-friendly, but it's a 3D space. If you haven't played a bunch of video games in a 3D space, you have no idea what to do. It's very hard to… What if I move this way? What do I do? How do I move my arm? And then there were a whole range of social, emotional, cultural issues. I don't look the right way, and that makes me angry. So I'm logging off. Or I took all my clothes off and I'm embarrassed. I am never coming back to this again. This is terrible.
Speaker 2: So when I first joined Second Life, I did a tutorial to show you how to buy a hat and put a hat on.
Speaker 3: Oh yeah, sure. Okay.
Speaker 2: But I was already wearing a hat, so I ended up with two hats on at once. And I just-
Speaker 3: Yep.
Speaker 2: And I couldn't figure out how to take off the hat and then put on my new hat, so I'm just walking around with two hats like a total dummy. It was just-
Speaker 3: Yeah. That's hitting two issues right there. That's the UI and the emotional "Oh, I feel bad about this UI."
Speaker 2: You're just like, "I don't want to meet anyone like this." Second Life's early adopters tended to be pretty tech savvy. Many of them were gamers. But as Second Life got more popular, more of your average internet users were checking it out and they were struggling. Many of them didn't make it past Second Life's new user tutorial. And the ones who did, they were confronted with an even bigger question: now what?
Speaker 8: One of the most fundamental questions that people have when they join Second Life is okay, what do I do now? What's this for? And the answer is, it's a world. What is a world for? And again, that sounds grandiose, but it really is the answer. We can't say, "Okay, the point is to amass as much points as possible." We don't have a scoring system, and it wouldn't be any point to one. Everybody comes to Second Life for something slightly different.
Speaker 7: It wasn't like a game, where a game's really structured and you come in, you have quests and you got things to do and things like that. People would get in there and they'd go, "How do I move around? What am I here to do? This is just strange, and I'm lost and I'm stuck." And a lot of people were bouncing off of the platform because of that.
Speaker 2: From the beginning, one of Second Life's main selling points was its open-endedness. This was a world where you could be and do anything. But now, that same open-endedness was starting to look like a liability. To a lot of users, it didn't feel like Second Life had a purpose. And combined, all these issues meant that many users were giving up on Second Life before they'd even given it a chance. Of the number of people who dropped into Second Life, how many never came back?
Speaker 3: I mean, I would say a majority, like more than 75%. I mean, a lot.
Speaker 2: Second Life had a massive user retention problem on its hands. It was the kind of existential threat that made even the most committed believer, like Giff, nervous. You talked about this dream as Second Life as this next layer of the internet that… potentially something that everyone would use. Did you have doubts ever about that?
Speaker 7: Yes. Yes, I did. I mean, you could see it happening. The doubts were at my dinner party with these very nice, they're friends of mine, professional people looking at me like, "You're strange." Doubts creep up there. And doubts when you see people bouncing off the platform, doubts when you hear people complain, "Oh, I'm getting griefed. People are bothering me. There's this obnoxious trolls in this platform." And you're like, "Oh gosh, how do we get that under control?" Doubts because you know that people don't know what to do when they get there. But the thing is, is that that was the same case with the web. Beginning of the web, you were on these really slow modems and half the time, they wouldn't connect and half the time, things wouldn't download, and there wasn't very much to do. There wasn't very much content out there and a lot of it was crappy, and people were being mean to each other at times.
Speaker 2: Right. This is the journey. This is the journey.
Speaker 7: This is just a journey. Exactly. It's a journey, and it gets better and it gets better. But we were optimistic. We thought, "No, no, no. It's always about timing with technology. And just because it didn't work in the past doesn't mean it's not going to work now. And we have to work really hard." We see these problems. We think we can overcome them. And if we could overcome them, then bang. We're good. We're off to the races. This thing becomes huge.
Speaker 2: Giff understood the problems with Second Life as well as anyone. If CSI was going to work, he knew that the platform would need some changes. So Giff and Electric Sheep got to work to make sure that those millions of CSI fans didn't just come and go, to give them a reason to stay.
Speaker 7: Turned into this massive effort because of the things that we talked about in terms of the challenges that we had. And so we knew when people wanted to get into Second Life, there were all these doors that they were going to run into. You go slam into a door, so we knew we had to open that door. But we knew that they get to that door, they were going to run into another door.
Speaker 2: Giff and Electric Sheep opened all the doors they could. They worked with Linden Lab to make sure that Second Life could handle the heavy load of new users. They also built a simpler version of Second Life user interface so that new users wouldn't get so confused, and Electric Sheep made special CSI-themed games and activities so that people actually had stuff to do as soon as they arrived. And then came the night of the episode premiere. Were you nervous?
Speaker 7: We were nervous. We were nervous. We were confident in what we'd created. We had tested what we'd created, and people had enjoyed it. And so we were confident, but we were nervous as you'd expect. You don't have do-overs and you don't know what's going to go wrong and you think, "Lots of things could go wrong, not least being are we actually going to be able to handle tons of people coming in at once?" And so we were worried about that and we were worried did we do good enough job and all that stuff.
Speaker 2: The episode begins with Gary Sinise, AKA Detective Mac Taylor, investigating the murder of a woman, a popular Second Life user named Venus.
Audio: She's a cyber celebrity, the Paris Hilton of Second Life. Second Life? It's a metaverse, an online social network inside a virtual world.
Speaker 2: The detective doesn't care much for Second Life, but soon it becomes clear that if he wants to solve the mystery, he'll have to go in world.
Audio: He's not in any of our systems and there's no other paper trail. Maybe there's another way to get to him. How? We find his avatar.
Speaker 2: From here, things get weird and increasingly difficult to follow. But for Giff and the Lindens, the plot of the episode was beside the point. It was all about what happened when the show ended, when the more than 10 million viewers who'd tuned in that night were invited to come into Second Life. Jessica remembers the rush when the end credits rolled.
Speaker 3: As soon as it ended, it pops up. Log into Second Life, and everyone logged in. It felt like the entire world logged in.
Speaker 2: Well, not the entire world. A lot of people's computers didn't meet the system requirements to run Second Life, but enough did that Linden Lab was quickly overwhelmed. Jessica remembers there was an avalanche of new users. They were coming in so fast, new avatars were literally spawning on top of one another.
Speaker 3: Well, they would land and it would just be like a hundred people stacked on each other-
Speaker 2: Oh my God.
Speaker 3: … in the same spot because they all logged in and the login code couldn't handle that many things at once. So just-
Speaker 2: People were literally falling on top of each other, spawning into this world.
Speaker 3: And they would stack on top of each other. And you have to assume they weren't seeing anything good. Things weren't loading, so their avatar might've been naked or not properly rendered, and there are all these other people around. And I just remember I would… You had the ability as a Linden to control pretty much everything that was in world. You could take an avatar and shoot them somewhere else. You could teleport them right away. So I was just manually grabbing people who had just landed and shooting them to a place that was empty. I will never forget that as long as I live because it was just so bizarre.
Speaker 2: Meanwhile in New York, Giff and the Electric Sheep team were glued to their numbers. Users were flooding into Second Life, but how many of them would stay?
Speaker 7: So we've got this whole back channel going over texts that we're talking. We've got dashboards to see the numbers, and we were watching people experience the world. We were looking at our metrics. How many people were staying in the experience? How many people were then engaging in the game and starting to play the mystery? Who were using the browser? This whole experience that we tried to create, how long were people sticking with it, and was this actually as fun and as successful as we were hoping? And we could see that very evening… And we watched this over days as well, but even that evening, we could see that it wasn't working.
Speaker 2: How?
Speaker 7: You could see it in the numbers. You could see it in how people were engaging in the experiences, the avatars winking in and winking out. All of a sudden, they're gone. They've given up. They're not willing to put in this work. Maybe we didn't make it fun enough. This is still too strange, too difficult for them.
Speaker 2: Giff says that in that moment, he realized Second Life's problems might be more fundamental than he thought.
Speaker 7: It's something you learn as an entrepreneur, is know your audience. CSI was a mass market television show. It was watched by millions of people around the country with a very broad range of technical sophistication. This was not gamers. This was not early adopter tech people. This was-
Speaker 2: This is America. America watches CSI.
Speaker 7: Exactly right. This is America, and what we tried to do was leapfrog. We tried to jump two steps on the board. We weren't ready. People weren't ready. And even though we tried to make it easier, it was still too hard. For as many doors as we tried to open, what we realized is that people were still slamming into doors.
Speaker 2: What did that feel like to see that night?
Speaker 7: Oh, it was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. Yeah, it was heartbreaking. This may sound overly dramatic, but it felt to me like the beginning of the end, the end of the dream of a metaverse happening anytime soon.
Speaker 2: In a way, that night of the CSI premiere might encapsulate all the reasons why Second Life was never able to go mainstream. Maybe the concept of Second Life was too ahead of its time, and computers back then just couldn't keep up. Maybe the user interface was just too janky, and using a keyboard and mouse to move around was just too difficult. Or maybe the idea of Second Life was just too weird. And to make matters worse.
Speaker 7: That particular year, there was a writer's strike that happened, and television froze for a period of time. And it was perfect timing that the second episode had to be put on hold. It was never written.
Speaker 2: So no one ever finds out who the killer is?
Speaker 7: No one ever found out. Nope, nope, nope.
Speaker 2: Oh my god.
Speaker 7: It's, as I say, heartbreaking. Heartbreaking on so many levels. You couldn't even solve the mystery.
Speaker 2: Over time, the popularity of Second Life began to wane. Fewer users were logging in, journalists moved on to the next big story, and the companies that had rushed into the metaverse, they too began to quietly close up shop.
Speaker 7: They left. A lot of them accomplished what they wanted to accomplish, which was get some buzz, and then they were on to the next buzz thing. Okay, they got what they wanted. They didn't have failures. The ones that were part of the ride up did really well, but they'd accomplished that. And now, where was the next thing going to be?
Speaker 2: These days, companies pushing for a new metaverse, like Meta and Microsoft, don't have to deal with some of the barriers that Second Life faced. Computers are much more powerful than they were in 2007. More people have better internet connections, and most of us spend more time online than we ever have. But something big tech still needs to reckon with is that same question that Giff and Linden Lab faced: what do I do here? Put another way, what exactly is a metaverse good for? Next week, some people who may know the answer, the ones who stayed in Second Life, who are still there today and who remain committed to that vision of a digital future. How to Build a Metaverse is part of The Journal, which is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. This episode was produced by Alan Rodriguez Espinoza with help from me, Annie Minoff, and Josh Sanburn. Our editors are Brendan Klinkenberg and Katherine Brewer. Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka. Series art by Laura Kammermann. Sound design and mixing by Griffin Tanner. Music in this episode by Peter Leonard, Nathan Singhapok, Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound. Our theme music is by So Wylie and was remixed by Bobby Lord. Special thanks to a Afeef Nessouli, Rick Brooks, Hannah Chin, Jason Dean, Kalila Holt, Ryan Knutson, Kate Linebaugh, Sarah Platt, Georgia Wells, and Catherine Whelan. And thanks to the entire Journal team: Melvis Acosta Chrisostomo, Annie Baxter, Pia Gadkari, Rachel Humphreys, Matt Kwong, Peter Leonard, Laura Morris, Enrique Pérez de la Rosa, Aaron Randle, Vladislav Sadiq, Nathan Singhapok, Pierce Singgih and Lisa Wang with help from Jonathan Sanders. The final episode in our series will be out next Friday. To make sure you don't miss it, follow The Journal podcast on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.
Kate Linebaugh is the co-host of The Journal. She has worked at The Wall Street Journal for 15 years, most recently as the deputy U.S. news coverage chief. Kate started at the Journal in Hong Kong, stopping in Detroit and coming to New York in 2011. As a reporter, she covered everything from post-9/11 Afghanistan to the 2004 Asian tsunami, from Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall to General Electric. She holds a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and went back to campus in 2007 for a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
Ryan Knutson is the co-host of The Journal. Previously, he spent more than four years in the newsroom covering the wireless industry, and was responsible for a string of scoops including Verizon’s $130 billion buyout of Vodafone’s stake in their joint venture, Sprint and T-Mobile’s never ending courtship and a hack of the 911 emergency system that spread virally on Twitter. He was also a regular author of A-heds, including one about millennials discovering TV antennas. Previously, he reported for ProPublica, PBS Frontline and OPB, the NPR affiliate station in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Beaverton, Ore. and graduated from the University of Oregon.
By 2007, Second Life seemed on track for a commercial breakthrough. And then, an opportunity came along to get in front of a truly mainstream audience: a starring role on one of TV’s biggest shows. In part 3 of our series: Second Life’s ascension to prime time, and the hurdles that threw its success into question.