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Her days are full of the selflessness and endless mundanity of raising children with special needs: giving her twins baths after they have soiled themselves (they still wear diapers, and most likely always will), baking applesauce bread with one to calm him down after a tantrum, asking the other to stop playing “the Barney theme song slowed down to sound like some demonic dirge.” One day, she takes all four kids to a nature center for an idyllic afternoon that gets interrupted by the reality of changing an adolescent’s diaper in a musty bathroom.But each morning, before all that—before getting the kids ready for school and putting in eight hours at the call center, before getting dinner on the table or keeping peace during the meal, before giving baths and collapsing into bed—Bridgette spends an hour and a half on the online platform Second Life, where she lives in a sleek paradise of her own devising. I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning.She wakes up at to inhabit a life in which she has the luxury of never getting out of bed at all.The short answer is that it’s a virtual world that launched in 2003 and was hailed by some as the future of the internet.Second Life was supposed to be the future of the internet, but then Facebook came along.Yet many people still spend hours each day inhabiting this virtual realm.Their stories—and the world they’ve built—illuminate the promise and limitations of online life.
In another life, the one most people would call “real,” Gidge Uriza is Bridgette Mc Neal, an Atlanta mother who works eight-hour days at a call center and is raising a 14-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, and severely autistic twins, now 13.Many observers expected monthly user numbers to keep rising after they hit 1 million in 2007, but instead they peaked—and have, in the years since, stalled at about 800,000.An estimated 20 to 30 percent are first-time users who never return.At their cathedral on Epiphany Island, the Anglicans of Second Life summon rolling thunder on Good Friday, or a sudden sunrise at the moment in the Easter service when the pastor pronounces, “He is risen.” As one Second Life handbook puts it: “From your point of view, SL works as if you were a god.”In truth, in the years since its peak in the mid‑2000s, Second Life has become something more like a magnet for mockery.When I told friends that I was working on a story about it, their faces almost always followed the same trajectory of reactions: a blank expression, a brief flash of recognition, and then a mildly bemused look. Second Life is no longer the thing you joke about; it’s the thing you haven’t bothered to joke about for years.