Maybe December and the time around Christmas is when the children of all ages dream of model railroads. In a rather insightful post a few weeks ago, my dear and close friend Zippora compared being in SL to playing with trains:
"But wait... did I just mention "Second Life" and "model railroad" in one line of thought? Suddenly something became clear to me: SL is simply the contemporary equivalent of building model railroads! [...] We don't want to make our hands dirty any more and hide safely behind our computer instead. But the crafting virus is inevitable and we start building our little dream world there: on our screen. Instead of gypsum and glue we use prims and to make things move the electric circuits are replaced by scripts. Basically it is all the same."
Zippora is on to something here. What is definitely one of the major success factors of SL is the ability to - literally - build your own world, and collaborate in buildings. There has been social media interaction before (chatrooms, IRC), there have been 3D worlds before (Myst or any other 3D game), there has been the ability to create before (Photoshop, Blender), there have been online games/worlds before. Only SL brought it all together, brought it all in one place, provides a world that the inhabitants build themselves, and where everybody can see and share what the others did.
I know a few people working on model railroads, and usually it is a lonely task. Those railroads are not for playing - they are for being watched in awe. Often the builders are organized in clubs, but the worlds they build are their own. The world we build in SL is open to everybody. The social interaction, based around - and even inside - our own creations, makes this fascination. The comparatively crude building tools level the playing field. Everybody can build, everybody can contribute, the starting threshold is small. If you feel your creativity flow, you rez a prim and simply start. That is the magic of SL!
And that is the reason I see newer virtual worlds like Blue Mars critically. Yes, Blue Mars looks fancier, way fancier. Yes, Blue Mars is faster. But Blue Mars is not a world built by the residents. Blue Mars is a world built by an elite, and our role is to admire (and eventually pay) for it.
SL might seem crude. SL might seem full of horrible (and sometimes perceived as inappropriate) content. But it is us who build it! And if I want to go and redefine "ugly" by building an abomination of a statue, I can.
And that is freedom.