What feels like a thousand years ago, I was sitting in a college classroom, listening to my professor talk about some crazy platform called Second Life. “It’s a new virtual world,” he explained, “where everything is made by its users. Like a game, but not a game. Companies have started using it. Schools are there. Reuters has a news division in the world. Depeche Mode has put on a concert. There is real potential for it to be something big,” he told us.

That was all the motivation I needed to give it a try. When I got home from class that day, I downloaded the software, signed up, logged in, and created Gore Nesterov, an enormously tall, dark-haired, steam-powered ice skate-wearing guy who would serve as my avatar. I met up with my professor, who was gallivanting about the virtual world as a pink-skinned hipster named Giacomo Rickenbacher, and I was immediately immersed in the possibilities the platform afforded. He was right – it was an enormous, thriving, artistic world, completely filled with the products of its users’ creativity. People were everywhere. Amazing ideas were all over the place. Second Life’s tagline was “Your World, Your Imagination.” A profoundly accurate four words.

I didn’t know it then, but I would obsessively spend the next three years in this virtual space. I created countless objects, ran businesses, made a fair amount of real money, wrote for an in-world news outlet, owned huge quantities of in-world land, was commissioned to write an e-book about building and creating objects in-world, and utilized the platform to expand my creativity in ways I never expected. I made a replica of the Enterprise. I recreated Monica’s apartment from Friends. I built custom waterfalls, homes, and night clubs. More important than any of that, I made numerous friends from all over the world, many of whom I still stay in touch with on a regular basis all these years later.

Late in 2008, after several years of prolific innovation and fun, my original social circle within Second Life started to bust. After everyone dropped off, it was hard getting back into the groove and difficult to maintain my fervor for the universe. My tight-knit circle of friends peaked at a few dozen people who were all logged in 24/7. Their numbers continued to decline until only a few of us were left. Once they all dropped off, I was alone. Over the next few years, I only managed to pop in and out intermittently, no longer immersing myself in the world’s creativity, but logging in to admire the inventive work of others, feeling more like a spectator of Second Life’s art than a creator. Life, jobs, kids, and other things then got in the way and limited my participation even more – until 2014 – when I stumbled upon another group that gave me a similar feeling to that of my former crew, and with whom I was able to make a new set of memories and build wonderful new experiences. We were once again logging in for hours a day, building awesome things, sharing with one another, and pushing the boundaries of our imaginations.

Trouble is, few things in Second Life last. It wasn’t more than a year before that group had dried up, too, and I was once again left to wander alone.

As my real-life kids got older, my real-world jobs got more “job-like,” and reality’s pressures added up, I found myself less and less inspired to create the way I once did in Second Life. All the while, Second Life’s popularity waned, and creating in-world became less appreciated. I could build awesome things and nobody would see them. I could try to meet people and have a hard time finding them. Though the platform has maintained a solid user base over the years, it peaked ahead of its time, and fell out of sight of the greater population. Now it’s a niche thing; a tiny subset of the internet. That’s fine with me, but limited time and a nonexistent social group made continued dedication more of a chore.

That’s not to say it’s entirely the world’s fault – all the people I knew years ago are gone, yes – but Second Life is still full of people I can meet and engage with if I try. The tools to build creations and express oneself are even more spectacular now than they were back then. What people are capable of making in Second Life today absolutely blows everything we did from 2006-2008 out of the water. It’s like comparing Pixar’s recent films to their first animation, Tin Toy, from the 1980s. But that’s kind of the thing – in many ways, Second Life has evolved while my expectations for it haven’t.

For me, the creativity was always most valuable when I had folks I cared about to share it with. Building for strangers, or for the sake of building itself, passes the time for a while. But passion comes with collaboration; from creating objects or places that you can share with friends who have come to mean something to you, and with whom inspiration is reciprocal and perpetual. For one reason or another, that’s what I’m not getting when I log in now.

Finding those people, making those connections, and flourishing under that kinetic exchange of ideas and intellect and ingenuity is what I’ve always found the most beautiful about Second Life. And even though I have trouble finding it these days, it’s why I still use the platform.

I no longer log in every day. Sometimes I go weeks without seeing Gore’s virtual face. These days, I idly roam around, checking out what’s new, finding gems from the past which remain unchanged, wondering if Gore will ever find another group of friends like the ones before.

Being in-world also gives me a chance to explore myself – has Second Life’s dynamic really changed that much, or have I? Am I really the same optimistic, open-minded, bursting-with-creativity guy I was all those years ago? Or am I holding myself back, limiting the way I approach strange people and new experiences, sheltering myself from the way I used to be? Maybe I’m nostalgic for simpler times. Maybe things really are different. Either way, I’m a lifer. As long as Second Life exists, I’ll continue to use it in some capacity, continue to create, and remain in awe of its limitless possibilities. I may not do it the same way I used to, but that’s one of the nice things about a user-created world that offers no specific objectives or goals – it’s there for you to use it as you wish. You can give, you can take, and you get out of it what you want.

Today, Gore Nesterov turns 5,000 days old. In Second Life terms, he’s ancient. Among the first million users. An O.G.. And despite all he’s seen, the friends he’s made and lost, and the ways in which the world itself has grown and changed, he’s still wearing that same pair of steam-powered ice skates.