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Second Life's Second Phase

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interviewing-philip-linden-for-gigaom-show.jpgThe Burning Man era of Second Life is over. According to Reuters and a personal announcement on the official blog of Linden Lab, the company behind the user-created online world, Philip Rosedale is stepping down as Linden’s CEO. The company is searching for a replacement with more operational and management expertise; Rosedale will stay on as chair to work on development and strategy.

Rosedale founded the startup in 1999 with an infusion of his own cash from his dot-com boom days as Real Network’s CTO, along with investments from Mitch Kapor, Benchmark Capital and Catamount Ventures. Perhaps just as significantly, that was also the year he made a trip to the famed temporary arts community in the Black Rock desert. In my view, that visit contributed significantly to SL’s phenomenal success under his management — and to many of its setbacks.

Others have attempted to create a user-created 3D world — VRML and Active Worlds are two early failures that spring to mind — but as I write in “The Making of Second Life,” it was Rosedale’s visionary sense of making a new country defined by imagination and egalitarian opportunity that fostered a sense of utopianism and patriotism among the users — which helped them endure the many downtimes and other frustrations that still beset the world. Burning Man, Rosedale told me:

[R]einforced that idea that what we believe in or what we make of things is all that is real. It was unreal because everything was clearly made of found materials and was transitory. But it was real, because when you were there, it was real to you.

And while inspiring words like these helped attract a tight-knit community of early-adopter innovators creating genuinely impressive content — Macworld-meets-the-Metaverse, as I argued in my ETech talk, “Why Won’t Second Life Just Go Away, Already?” — they aren’t always germane to scaling a system. New user retention steadfastly remains at just 10 percent, while monthly active users have recently plateaued at around 550,000. This is largely due to the complex user interface and confusing first-hour experience, neither of which have been significantly improved in Second Life’s five-year existence.

It’s become my firm belief that this lack of progress stems from Philip’s (likely unconscious) desire to recreate the Burning Man experience in SL. (As a new user, you’re generally dropped into a desert of the unreal, and only get anything out of Second Life if you reach out to the creative, often eccentric community already there.) The spirit of Burning Man is also arguably discernible in his “Tao of Linden” company philosophy, in which employees choose their own tasks — as opposed to, say, tasks that might grow the user base. With Rosedale in a more ancillary visionary role, and a more experienced day-to-day, managerial CEO in place, that’s likely to change things, surely for the better.

The screenshot, by the way, is from last Tuesday’s mixed reality interview with Philip (in RL and SL) for the GigaOM show.

17 Responses to “Second Life's Second Phase”

  1. I strangely Postedposted on the Burning Life roots of SL shortly before the departure announcement. I feel a bit wistful about the idea that the vision of a free, creative and often carnival-like environment in which unfettered expression might lead to things both not possible before, but with deeper implications for the real than we can imagine. Part of the point of SL, aside from Be Bop reality and mirrored flourishing, it seems to me, is that when the ‘normal’ boundaries of what it takes to create, share, experience and earn are removed, the human imagination might carry us further than we dared dream.

    The reality however, for SL, it seems, is that it still needs to remain a viable business, which increasingly means strategizing its position in a marketplace in which there are increasing opportunities of interest to the creative class, looking for partnerships, and of course making sure that operations, marketing and community relations are well managed.

    Hopefully Phillip’s vision isn’t leaving just because he’s moving to a different office, and that this year Burning Life is a success rather than a chaotic community relations nightmare plagued by lag and griefers….which is my vision of how a poor transition could end up.

  2. “Others have attempted to create a user-created 3D world — VRML and Active Worlds are two early failures that spring to mind”

    How nice if someone who knows nothing about other 3D programs makes “educated” guesses ….

  3. It takes guts for a founding visionary entrepreneur to step aside and hand the reigns over to another. Ultimately the vision has to be more important than any individual, even the source of that vision. Of course the key now is getting just the right CEO. As a CEO myself (and no I won’t be putting my hand up!) my advice is to find someone who is not so much a visionary as a strategist. More of an organizational and strategic technician. The key to scaling an organization is in the deployment of resources: in particular creating the right environment and structures ready to meet the planned growth. So for me, I.T expertise is minor to this, what they need is a first class strategist.

  4. I’m with Seraphine in that in my experience the vast majority of people I meet in-world are astonishingly creative, literate and above all interesting, and that it may be that you have to be that kind of person to be interested enough to persevere. It’s also presumably inevitable that for SL to remain a viable business it needs to be more popular.

    However, I have a slight suspicion that a lot of people give up not because they don’t have the patience to ascend the learning curve – it is surely hardly more difficult than any gaming environment – but because a lot of things are broken when they do.

    There is certainly a resident perception in some quarters that LL is more interested in adding new features (presumably to attract additional visitors) than making existing broken ones work, and overall reliability is not as good as it should be.

    While I have no doubt that front-end improvements leading to a levelling of the learning curve might well attract more visitors (however we existing residents might regard that), to keep them, things need to work when they get there. And work reliably.

    On balance, those of us who are active residents stay in-world because SL is far and away the best metaverse out there, despite its faults. That doesn’t mean to say that taking out the faults would not be worthwhile.

  5. As a long-term Burner and an SL builder, I can affirm that BMan and SL are both places where you (with others) create your own reality. And although there are certainly people who could thrive in (either) environment who have not been to either “there” yet, it is also the case that not everyone wants to do that. I think it makes perfect sense to hand the reins over if the race is now about growth and stability and other biz tropes – let someone who is excited about those goals achieve them. But SL is never going to become the new possibility space that it set out to be, by focusing on increasing subscribers and profit margins. I am glad that PR is going to stay on as CotB, and I hope that in that role he can continue to focus on the creative kernel at the center of the expanding multiverse from which the new and the different emerge.

  6. An astute observation. As someone who built virtual worlds back in 1993 when virtual reality became a media obsession (for a while at least), I feel like SL, while the tools for building are decent, had suffered from a serious lack of innovation on the front end. Definitely a place where Apple style of design could do wonders. I have followed with interest the launch of Sony Home, the PS3-based virtual world launching in beta this month.

  7. I used to be bothered by the complicated interface. I still am frustrated by it from time to time. But… I rather like that the average SL citizen is creative, intelligent and in that top 10% to figure it out.
    Really, I don’t want SL to become another MySpace clone, where I have to sit amongst the great unwashed and wade through advertising/spam I don’t want. SL is NOT a product; when it becomes a product, it becomes ordinary. Dreary.