The internationalization of Second Life®

Second Life® has always been an international venture since version 1.0, but only to the point that it “allowed” non-US residents into the world. At some point in time, around mid-2004, the statistics were interesting – about 1/3 of SL’s population is non-US.

Of those, the largest community is perhaps British, with the Australians and Canadians coming next. Not surprisingly, if we take a look at the number of SL residents who are native English speakers, the numbers will highly likely account for over 90%. The biggest group of non-native English speakers are probably the French. And all of these “statistics” are highly informal and most likely incorrect – they’re based upon in-world groups for nationalities and languages.

English is the tongue of the Internet, of the computer society, and, naturally, of SL as well. Non-native English speakers are usually very fluent in English – their background comes mostly from having to deal with English speakers, be that simply from the Internet, their business, or their research (for the academics among us). So, there is no really a “language barrier”, and SL looks very much like the early beginnings of the Internet: there is simply no interest in other languages besides English, which works so well for all of us.

Naturally, Linden Lab? has not given much thought to the “internationalization” problem in the recent past. Only in the last quarter of 2004 they started thinking about providing support for non-US keyboards, or hiring “international Liaisons” for technical support outside Californian business hours (PST). But more recently we have seen “international Lindens” around – developers and community managers. This is a first step towards recognizing that the number of residents outside the US is growing, and that sometime in the near future something has to be done about it. Of course, LL is not a mega-corporation, but a tiny company, with – I think – more “teleworkers” than resident staff. Thinking about 1/3 of their customers is therefore an extreme effort, which must really be worth of it.

Growing trends on the usage of new technology is usually exponential in the US first, and stabilizing quickly afterwards – and then the European growth kicks in, followed by other parts of the world. I wouldn’t be much surprised to expect a big growth in European users in 2005, perhaps accounting to up to 50% of the new residents. And in 2006 or 2007, the rest of the world will follow – mostly from countries like Brazil, who take some time to recognize the interest, but, with a population as big as the US, can quickly swamp any “virtual community”. We have seen that happening in things like Orkut, for instance.

Unlike most middle-class Europeans – who, besides the British and the Irish, speak English fluently as their second language – some parts of the world are not so good English speakers. This means that 2005 will not present a big problem for LL. But 2006/7, with Brazilians, most of Latin America, Korea, or the Eastern & Baltic Countries of Europe joining in, at a much higher growing rate than the English native speakers, LL will have a problem.

Back to Orkut, we saw an increase in Portuguese speakers on its 2nd or 3rd year of existence (due to the Brazilian members, who amounted to up to 50% of all users). The English language is a terrible barrier for the Brazilians – and the Orkut team replied by launching Gazzag, which could be considered a “Portuguese-speaking” Orkut with a slightly different interface. Similarly, sites for personal ads suddenly add Spanish or Portuguese as their second language, when Latin America finds their sites and start to join in like crazy – only to discover that they’re unable to participate in an English-speaking community. Sometimes they prefer to develop their own communities (Brazil, for instance, has their own MMORPGs, probably with as many customers as the US-based “major games”, but utterly unknown outside Brazil’s borders). I’d expect a similar thing to happen to countries like Korea, where games like Starcraft are a “national sport”, and everybody has a broadband connection at home.

We must understand that we’re talking about “second-generation Interneters”. The “first generation” joined an Internet where there was only English content, and that was natural to them – they didn’t expect less than that. Their own content was also added in English and not their native language. Tim Berners-Lee (HTML/HTTP), Linus Torvalds (Linux) or the company doing the open source MySQL database (in Sweden) wouldn’t ever dream of publishing their ideas and thoughts, or creating their sites and virtual communities, in any other language than English. They would even probably laugh at that thought. They grew up with an international community where only English was spoken, and this was perfectly natural to them.

However, they are in reality a very tiny minority in their own countries. After ten years of WWW, the non-English content has grown so much, that most people – I’d say, over 90% of them – only navigate through their native content. Yes, they know that there is mostly English content available – but they simple don’t care about it, they are happy to stay in their “islands in the net” where they can understand the language. Radical examples are countries like Korea or Brazil, where much less than 1% of the Internet users understand English – but they have enough content in their own language to satisfy them.

How does this relate to Second Life? Well, at the moment, the problem does simply not exist. Sure, a few tiny groups – the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Chinese-speakers, and even a handful of Portuguese – get together, do a few thematic builds, and enjoy a crippled communication with half of their characters missing (which will change with 1.6 – international keyboard support is perfect!). But still they’ll immediately revert to English as soon as someone not speaking their language drops in. A Czech resident suggested, almost half a year ago, the creation of a “Virtual World Fair”, with thematic buildings from every country, where native speakers of other languages could join together and relax a bit speaking in other languages besides English. It was a very good idea, but it did never become true. The truth is, SL residents who are not native English speakers, are “first-generation Interneters” – they all speak and write fluent English, and they really never consider the thought of using any other language besides English in SL.

But this may change. I personally know someone who does not speak English, and still enjoys SL. There are probably more, and this number will grow – very, very slowly, since even for these “early adopters” coming from the “second-generation Interneters”, the learning curve is very high. Sure, they’re used to English software, and can figure out what “Save”, “Upload” or “Inventory” means. But they won’t attend events, in-world classes, or enjoy socialization. They’re isolated from the rest of the community.

I still think this is not a problem – yet. I believe, however, that very soon there will be “critical mass” for non-native English speakers. If a certain language group reaches around 1000 members, they’ll be able to live on their own community, never to travel beyond their environment. They will announce events in the Event list – in French, in Korean, or even in Portuguese or Spanish. Their scripts and objects will have instructions in their native tongues, and be sold mostly to native speakers of other languages besides English. These will be tiny exceptions at the beginning, but the exponential growth of all things Internet-related may well mean that in a few years we’ll have a “fragmented” virtual world, with signs “On parle Français ici” or “Man spricht Deutsch” warning potential travellers that they have now crossed the border into territories where English is simply not the “major language”.

Perhaps this will also mean that we’ll have French or Korean Liaisons, hired by LL, to handle those spots. Right now, I understand that LL has tried to select “international Liaisons” that speak more than one language, to try to address the few residents who speak English brokenly. So this trend may continue.

I’m not sure if this is “good” or “bad” for Second Life. In a way, I’d be sorry to travel through a Korean sim, beautifully executed, with thousands of interesting people willing to show me their content, and I’d need an interpreter to get in touch with them. Somehow that feels weird – despite speaking and writing fluently in four languages, I’m pretty well sure that I won’t be able to learn Korean or Russian in my lifetime to be fluent enough to understand them. On the other hand, I also think that this will appeal to so many non-English speakers (they wouldn’t be “afraid” to join a virtual reality where they would be sure to encounter native speakers of their language). You’ll get more and more content creators, able to function in a world where they don’t feel that not speaking English is a handicap. The world will once more grow in unpredictable ways!

Google and similar ventures have adapted their sites to deal with non-English speakers, and they have been very successful. I wonder what will happen to Second Life®. And I also wonder how quickly that will happen.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...