What Happens When Digital Cities Are Abandoned?

Exploring the pristine ruins of Second Life and other online spaces

I stand at the junction of several dusty, well-traveled roads. Passersby hurry through, chattering and laughing as they make their way from the city looming in the distance to the north, along the paths to the southeast, which branch out as the land grows less dense, winding through lakes and forests.

I haven’t been here in years, but it’s as familiar to me as if I’d been away only a few weeks. There are no familiar faces, and no one recognizes me. By memory, I make my way along the winding road and soon end up in a clearing by a lake. Trees bend over the water, dragging their tendrils across its mirrored surface. Birds chirp contentedly.

This is it; I’m home.

Sort of.

That’s because, in this case, “home” is actually “grove,” as in “a small wood.” It’s a term used in the text-adventure game I am currently playing, a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) set in a vaguely Tolkien-esque world with touches of Greek mythology. I spent the better part of five years playing this game, all through high school and into college. It’s still running today, and it remains immersive to an astonishing degree, even compared with contemporary games—it has its own social mores, cultural life, history and folklore. Its political systems are complicated and well-developed, and to this day I still use some of the slang terms that were common. And it’s all presented via simple text on a screen.

In this game, members of the Druid guild have dominion over the world’s forests, and are allowed to select a single forest “room” as a personal waypoint. As a player, that becomes your home base—you meet up with people there, hang out and chat, protect yourself and use it as a starting location for navigating the entire world.

That ownership expires, though, and must be continually renewed, the way a garden must be continually tended, lest nature overtake its carefully-arranged borders. I touch the ground, sensing. Yes—someone else owns this spot, now. I am just a visitor, here. I straighten up again, thinking about how much the Internet has changed in the last 15 years—and how much I, too, have changed.

* * *

The nomenclature of the early Internet is domestic: home pages, key words, hosts. And in those days, the web was small, knowable. Search engines contained a finite, hand-indexed listing of every website that had been submitted.

Map used to navigate MUD (Laura E. Hall)

In the late 1990s, GeoCities was one of the first sites that let people create webpages of their own. It was organized into topic-based neighborhoods, and those into suburbs, with what were essentially house numbers. Because the service was around so early on, and because it was free, many users found their first taste of internet self-expression there. When Yahoo! shut down GeoCities in April 2009, there was a concerted effort to collect and archive all of the site’s contents.

“The great paradox about these digital communities is that they’re easily kept around forever, and they are even more easily deleted utterly,” said Jason Scott, an Internet advocate and archivist who launched a digital preservation team that year. His Archive Team worked quickly to capture as much of the info as they could, backing it up on the Internet Archive and releasing a torrent of all of the files, and a handful of other sites scraped and reposted what they could.

“When we founded Archive Team, it was in a dearth of recognition that these communities had lasting historical and societal value,” Scott said. “They were considered to be byproducts, like a street corner—thinking of it as the point where two streets collide, rather than being a hangout that when removed, removes the entire community.”

I recently tried to revisit my own first homepage, a wonder of center-aligned blinking text, purple tiled backgrounds, clever “Under Construction” gifs and pixel-art icons I had traded with other GeoCities page owners. But all that remains is a single mention of the username on someone else’s page, a record of my having visited there once. Because of the nature of the sites, none of the archives of GeoCities is 100 percent complete, and it’s difficult to know for sure how much actually still exists; much of the data is simply being stored for a later date, when technology has reached the ability to collate and curate it all.

“People build these communities without really recognizing what they are, then they suddenly realize, we’re out of money, we’ve changed priorities, we’ve been acquired—they decide to jettison their material,” Scott said. “That’s when we step in. We grab a copy of it for posterity, just because the conversation stops when the data is gone. We take a backup so that somebody can make use of it down the line.”

One of the archives promises that, just because a page isn’t displayed, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever: “It may simply mean that we haven’t gotten around to restoring it.”

“Your page isn’t gone,” Scott said, when I mentioned my search. “It’s just in a quantum state.”

* * *

People use terms like “majestic,” “spectacularly vacant,” and “post-apocalyptic” to describe real-life ruins. There’s an entire subculture around images of once-splendid buildings, now left to rot and decay. I’m a quiet fan of these urban explorers, people who devote time to poking around abandoned buildings or “haikyo”—and, if they’re lucky, uncovering stories about the people that once resided there. And because I’ve spent so much time inhabiting digital rooms myself, I often think about how time decays digital structures. I imagine all of the strings of text that have come before or after mine that similarly disappeared into the void. But what happens when those spaces stick around, as in a virtual world—when they can’t physically decay?

When Second Life launched in 2003, the world was captivated by visions of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash come to life. The virtual world isn’t a game--it’s a venue, a platform, a plot of undeveloped land, a blank canvas, an open world. Users make of it what they will.

In 2006, an avatar was featured on the cover of Business Week magazine as part of an interview about a million-dollar land management business. People were swept up in a great wave of excitement and possibility. Universities and corporations flocked to build huge structures, including full-size stadiums and digital recreations of their real-life buildings.

But that was nearly 10 years ago. I wondered: what happened to all of those buildings? Were people still making use of them? So I logged in. The world of Second Life, it turns out, is not abandoned. Estimates put the current active user-base around 600,000 members; in its heyday, it boasted between 60 and 80 thousand simultaneous logins. There are often a handful of people in most of the spaces you’ll visit, but it’s easy to find privacy. Here and there are signs that point to its lack of people: “space for rent”, “band wanted.” But the sheer variety of environments, and the obvious care that people put into them, remains stunning.

There are moments in Second Life where the artifice is obvious. Not just when it’s loading, building up the world from flat planes to polygons to intricate, textured shapes—but when you realize that everything is pristine, unlike real-world counterparts. It brings to mind the words of Philip K. Dick describing the detritus that’s started taking over the largely-abandoned cities in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers of yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.

There’s no kipple in Second Life; no tumbling, ivy-covered walls, or pools of stagnant water, no gum wrappers or cigarette cartons slowly disintegrating.

Screenshot from Second Life (Laura E. Hall)

Removed from organic decaying processes, the only ruins in this world, including simulacrum of piles of dirt and construction vehicles, are ones that have been deliberately built and placed there by a designer. But despite its empty spaces, the world still feels full of possibility, perhaps specifically because it’s all still standing strong, so many years on. It’s not abandoned; it’s simply waiting.

* * *

Glitch was a browser-based game that launched in 2011. The game art was beautiful, with an ethereal, almost paper-like quality to it. Everything about Glitch’s universe, Ur, was friendly. Gentle. A little bit funny. Weird in the best way.

Metafilter user procrastinator wrote, “Obvious quality of graphics and art design aside, the writing in this game was really top-notch and was one of the main reasons why players were so enthusiastic about it, I think. From the naming of things to the bubble dialogues, every single line of writing was a positively essential part of that gleeful experience.”

Players could own homes, run businesses or throw parties. But mostly, people were enthused about the connections they’d made with other players, and how strangers there were always willing to help out. When game maker Tiny Speck shut it down just over a year after its initial launch, those fans were undeniably sad.

Screenshot from Glitch (E D D I E)

“You leave your hometown and maybe you’re still in touch with your old friends over time, but eventually that network of friends ceases to exist. People move away, they get married, they die, they move on,” said Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Tiny Speck and Flickr. “We were trying to build an environment where it was easy for people to create those kinds of communities. Although there were game mechanics and rules, the point of those was as a way of facilitating the creation of culture and community by the players.”

Then, a year later, they released its assets into the public domain under a Creative Commons license—10,000 pieces of art, sprite sheets, background images and code.

“It was already enough of a shame that the relationships that only existed in that world would not be able to be maintained,” Butterfield said. “People did a lot to mitigate it—they formed Facebook groups, moving networks into other games—but it’s never exactly the same. It fragments and splinters the whole community as it existed—does it ever really exist anymore? That was always going to be the case. So at least some of the spirit could live on, in the work that lived on.”

Anyone is free to use the assets (as long as they follow the only stipulation: “use them for good”). They’ve been put to use in game jams; someone has crafted an HTML5 platformer game named “Orbs”. There’s a children’s book. And some fans, like Eleven Giants and Children of Ur, are even trying to put the game back together again.

* * *

And what comes next?

The river of time flows around us, and technology marches on. The popularity of Minecraft has proved that people still crave collaborative building environments. And soon, we’ll be able to explore Second Life using VR technology like the Oculus Rift—suddenly, the decision to build the world on a human scale, with doors and stairs, despite the fact that avatars can fly, makes a lot more sense.

Screenshot from Second Life (Laura E. Hall)

Computers are increasingly able not only to parse vast amounts of information, but to draw connections between distinct data and make sense of it. Improved voice recognition technology has led to great strides in studies of spoken vocabulary; with the addition of facial recognition, at some point in the future, machines will be able to make more sense of what’s being saved. “Decontextualized, [the data] has no meaning,” Archive Team’s Scott said. “This is only one step in the journey. This is only one artifact. It has lasting and interesting value, beyond the participants.”

It’s up to our future selves, or those who live beyond us, to make sense of what’s being saved today: to curate the data and form the stories around it that will give it meaning.

“The more fundamental question is—is user content a right, a treasure, a heritage, a meaningful part of the human condition? And people come down on different sides,” Scott said. “But ultimately, this is not a new self-awareness. You’re just keeping it on a hard drive instead of the old family bible. Your diary is now on a server, instead of underneath your room, where your parents throw it out.”

* * *

Still in the MUD, I stand pondering, trying to recall the names of the people I used to spend so much time with. Some of my oldest real-life friendships are with people I met through this game, and I know of at least a couple of real-life marriages that first sparked here, too. It was here that I came on September 11, 2001, to discuss what had happened and to grieve with my community. Throughout the years, I’ve moved through several other online spaces, sometimes in virtual worlds, IRC channels or forums. I spent years developing a taste for ephemerality by playing ARGs and immersive fiction games. These days, my pursuits are largely offline, focusing on games and experiences that bring people together face to face, though I spend plenty of time on Twitter.

The grove’s owner enters the room, towing an animal companion behind them; it scratches at the ground, impatient. He greets me, smiling, but I can tell he would like me to leave.

I nod politely and move on, just one more traveler passing through.