An exposed wood-framed house sits atop a hill with the sky and clouds in the background, uprooted trees, rocks, ladder, and debris floating into the distance.

Still from Styles and Customs of the 2020s

Second Lives: Who Are We in the Virtual World?

About five years ago, I was confronted by an angry man during a talk about digital society I was giving at a media lab. He thought I was being presumptuous, that it was too soon in time to say what I had just said, that time would tell.

People once thought of the Internet as a place we would eventually be able to go, I’d said. There, we would live second lives, as custom-made second selves, in virtual worlds that held parallels to our real ones. These avatars of ours would go to work in virtual conference spaces, cycle through virtual outfits. We were going to shop at virtual stores, browse lifelike 3-D models of real things. After all, people were already designing and selling virtual goods and virtual pets—and in some cases, making big money from virtual real estate. The Second Life avatar of Anshe Chung, the first “virtual world millionaire,” made the cover of Time in 2006.

By 2012, though, the cyberpunk dream of life in virtual reality, or “the metaverse,” as imagined by the millennium’s venture capitalists and wealthy fans of the novel Snow Crash, had not quite materialized yet. There was still money being made by entrepreneurial Second Life creators, but the economy was niche, apparently fueled mostly by fetish items like avatar skins and sex beds. Truly, in a world with no rules, where people can fly, they still end up mostly wanting to have sex in beds.

And therein was a major problem with the metaverse fantasy: in a reality where anything is possible, dutifully reproducing the values, norms, and laws of the existing world in virtual space does not make for an enduring draw. In fact, as writer and researcher Nick Yee excellently articulates in his critical work The Proteus Paradox, when we strive to emulate reality, we bring its limitations and our biases along with us. Second Life and its ilk were overrun with predominantly white, Western beauty ideals, for example. The virtual dreamhouses were all the same, a group homogenization of minimalist architecture styles beloved by wealthy Californians. And, as Yee observed, they always had chairs, even though virtual bodies never need to sit.

A digitally rendered stone villa sits at the edge of the sea, bookended by trees and benches, beneath a nearly cloudless sky.
Solaria SIM Lighthouse Villa in Second Life by Jace Lethecus.

When the novelty of the metaverse began to ebb away for most of us, what was left was the online socialization, which we could do more easily in chat rooms and on burgeoning social media platforms. The much-lauded virtual colleges are now curious ghost towns, and the half-thought artifacts of over-eager corporations are deserted. The real “virtual conference room” is just your office Slack channel or Campfire account. Why would anyone “log in” to a 3-D world and walk their avatar to a virtual store to buy virtual goods, when Amazon’s simple interface has one-click buy and readable photos? The great revelation of the last decade has been touch screens—it’s obvious now that the vast majority of people wanted to simplify their online lives, not deepen them.

Clearly, as I told the audience I was speaking to five years ago, we won’t all be making our living earning virtual currency from virtual goods, or heading to work in virtual conference rooms any time soon. “You don’t know that,” a man said, standing up in the dark auditorium and shouting at my podium. He repeated, “You don’t know that!”

I suppose it’s possible he may yet turn out to have been right. The latest and most vigorous surge of VR tech development and investment is resurrecting many old ideas and conversations about digital space, posing similar questions about our presence and embodiment in VR, and how VR might affect the future of our social networks (especially now that Facebook has acquired hardware maker Oculus). Lots of dialogue surrounding VR seems similarly concerned about how to reproduce reality. Looming large right now is also the idea that stepping into a designed situation—or even another body—offers a unique opportunity for us to foster empathy and learn other perspectives. Some of the complex problems with that view would require an essay all their own.

But what’s happened to the concept of the avatar? What’s evolved about how we represent ourselves in virtual space? As more and more of our shopping, working and socializing began to shift online, it was thought users would need some way to represent themselves visually, and that they would want control over that representation—the ability to create, customize and regularly update something that felt like “them.” Countless reams of research have been produced in the video games and virtual world space on the relationship between a player and the character s/he creates to “play as,” generally concluding that the more control one has over a self-image, the more attached one feels to it.

One of the early draws of digital culture was that, theoretically, you could be anyone online, from an anonymous poster to a blue-skinned “Night Elf.” You could be not necessarily your real self, but an idealized version thereof, customized to have better clothes, bigger eyes, an idealized projection. Whatever you chose, that virtual face and virtual body could act as “you,” and you’d experience the world online through that avatar.

A hooded, faceless man takes a selfie.
One of the early draws of digital culture was that, theoretically, you could be anyone online, from an anonymous poster to a blue-skinned “Night Elf.”

Surprisingly, though, total anonymity is a rarity in modern digital space. By and large, we didn’t end up flying around fantastical spaces together, wearing technicolor skins and fantasy horns. Representations of ourselves exist on many different platforms, from our social media profiles to professional accounts and photo networks, but just like few people cared to pretend they were shopping in a virtual store, it seems few people find it efficient to be a fictional character (at least outside of video games). But avatar creation is alive and well on the internet. Everyone has friends who use Facebook to craft a manicured, idealized version of their life; we’ve all even been that person from time to time, sharing only our most considered thoughts, our most attractive photographs. At first there was a lot of talk about how the way we perform on social media isn’t entirely “real.” Now, as the line between online life and offline life becomes indistinct, if existing at all, it’s easy to forget.

Last May, New York Magazine published an essay on how people’s social media profiles can ruin their friendships—it asserts that when the disconnect between the way someone expresses themselves online and the way they do in person is too great, this gap can become insurmountable for a friendship. Most people can think of at least one person they thought they’d like, until they saw the things that person had posted. Now that everyone can broadcast their inner world, or create a story of themselves made only from carefully-curated snippets, we often have to confront sides of our friends we never expected to see, to click supportive “likes” on performances we might not necessarily enjoy. There are a lot of unstated and ill-defined norms coming into place for social media, and most of us are still struggling to navigate them.

Nowhere, though, is our new character-craft more evident—and more interesting—than on Instagram. Fashion trends now originate on Instagram, then make their way out into the real world. A skillful Instagram artist can become a bigger trendsetter than a celebrity under the right circumstances. Heard of an “Instagram eyebrow”? It’s a particular style of eyebrow grooming and pencilling, dark with a bold shape and a feathered corner. It looks great in selfies, like a frame for the eyes, but is commonly thought strange in real life. This is revelatory: Thousands more eyes will see the Instagram pictures, the selfies, than the real thing. Therefore, the Instagram presentation becomes more important than reality.

In this world, bizarre beauty trends—“geode lips” encrusted with crystals, rainbow cheek patterns that look like infrared maps, unicorn highlighter—aren’t exactly meant to be worn to the office or out on the town. They’re for creating bold looks in selfies. Photo manipulation apps are everywhere now, overlays that smooth the skin or make the eyes look larger. For a brief period early in 2017 it seemed like everyone in the world was using FaceApp, a photo app that used algorithms to speculate, with compelling plausibility, about what you would look like if you were elderly, or a different gender. Before that it was Meitu, an app that was able to transform faces into soft-focus anime-inspired illustrations you could decorate with stickers, after the tradition of Japanese purikura photo booths. It worked horribly for nonwhite people and demanded such aggressive privacy permissions as to constitute a threat, but managed to see a boom even still.

Endless collections of filters exist to reimagine your photos as any of dozens of painterly styles, black and white illustrations, abstract art. There’s even been a surge in “beautification” apps and filters, where with just one swipe, you get smoother skin, softer focus. Your nose and jaw subtly transform. It’s you, but idealized, alien, perfect. The veracity of the photo has stopped mattering.

Along with all of our friends, we can become polished ideals with the touch of a finger. Or fantastic comedy characters, crowned with animated dog ears and tongues, or given the skin pattern of a red strawberry for fun. Everybody knows your real self looks nothing like your Instagram or Snapchat pictures. Nobody cares; that’s not the point.

Selfie-craft is the new avatar construction. Think pieces abound on the supposed narcissism of the millennial generation, but it does young people a disservice to assume they’re simply obsessed with themselves. They might be trying to take control of their stories in a world where there is no longer any “logging off”; they are certainly engaged in character customization, preparing and refining the representation of themselves that they will use in virtual space, where the greatest share of their lives exists.

Interior view of a digitally rendered, partially built wood-framed house, its contents exposed to the elements.
Still from Styles and Customs of the 2020s, a collaboration between Scatter and DIS

The forerunning thinkers who imagined the metaverse, then, weren’t entirely wrong: They correctly predicted that internet users would want to create our own things, that we would create selves, that we would be motivated by social interactions and prestige. We do use certain virtual currencies, like follower counts or number of retweets, to estimate the value of something. People are eager to earn badges and rewards on their profiles—just as predicted by those who were sure lots of people would pay real money for a useless digital item, as long as it conferred status.

“Everything we said about virtual worlds/metaverses is still true,” veteran MMO designer Raph Koster told me. “They’re just not in 3D worlds. They’re in feeds now, and in goggles soon.”

So perhaps the man who heckled my talk will yet have his virtual goods marketplace inside Oculus Rift or similar. I sincerely hope he profits. But in general, I fear the burgeoning VR space presently risks making the same misestimations of who we are and what we want to do with virtual space as those “metaverse evangelists” did. When VR imagines that we will want to play games, socialize, or visit new places, we have to ask: what about wearing this helmet—besides that compelling initial moment of novelty—makes those experiences better over the long term than the other avenues that already provide them (and in more accessible ways)?

Who will we be in the VR world, and why are we going there? Do we have good answers? Or are these the same wealthy West Coast fans of Snow Crash who drove the online worlds boom, now trying again to bring their science fiction books to life for a mainstream audience that has proven it doesn’t broadly want them?

A digitally rendered landscape depicting a fenced-in compound dotted with palm trees and debris, such as a discarded television.
Still from Styles and Customs of the 2020s, a collaboration between Scatter and DIS

As demonstrated by the Styles and Customs of the 2020s installation, the possibilities for virtual reality in the world of art and thought are incredibly rich. Art might be the highest calling for the medium of virtual reality, where we can play with the distinction between the person standing in the gallery, and the person standing in the world they see before them. This particular installation uses the spatial features of the actual museum itself to create an experience that speculates about the future, a collaboration of multi-layering and remixing that uses the medium of VR itself as part of the provocation. Virtual reality itself used to be science fiction, as the voice-over explains. Now we can fantasize about what’s next on the horizon by looking through those goggles.

Just as with the metaverse, virtual reality is more interesting as a springboard for imagination, possibility, and transcendence than as a space to literally reproduce what’s real. As Marco Roso of DIS says, the moment of “going back” to reality is often more interesting than entering the virtual in the first place. How can we continue to explore and define that journey? What will our virtual selves do that our real ones cannot? Most importantly, who will we be in those places? Our better selves? How? When we wear the goggles and look down, whose disembodied hands, feet, are we looking at? And what does it mean if we look down and see no-one, nothing at all? We don’t know that, I think. We don’t know that.

Styles and Customs of the 2020s is a Virtual Reality (VR) experience in the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art.

The Hillman Photography Initiative is an incubator for investigating the rapidly shifting field of photography and its impact in the world today.