Philip’s Vision, 1999-2009 and Beyond [UPDATED]

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Formerly known as “El Presidente” (a title now held by M Linden) and currently known as “Exortium”, Philip “Linden” Rosedale was always the driving force behind Linden Lab’s vision — and, to a degree, Second Life’s®. But on a recent interview to the Portuguese news radio TSF, he confesses that his original vision was slightly different of what SL is today, and adds new insights that I had never heard from him before!

Interviews to Philip Linden usually follow the same pattern: answering the typical question “how did you create Second Life?” where he tells his story of how he always wanted to create virtual worlds but studied Physics instead, until the graphics card vendor nVidia launched the GeForce2 chip in 1999, which finally allowed desktop computers to have the right kind of graphical performance to encourage Philip to abandon his job at RealNetworks and start Linden Lab in San Francisco.

On this interview, however, Philip inspiringly added quite a few new ideas.

No language barriers on virtual worlds!

It might be so obvious that it takes a genius to point it out for us, but virtual worlds are a huge tool to overcome the language barrier, as opposed to the text-only Web. Philip gave the following example: when he came to visit the location for the interview, a Portuguese-only sim, he wandered around. Obviously all the information there is written in a language that he doesn’t understand; however, he could perfectly navigate among the content. He understood what each location on the private island was meant to do — after all, you know how to sit on a chair in SL, so long as you’ve mastered the art of point-and-click-to-sit your avatar. He understood what were billboards displaying information. Areas for live music events with a stage were obvious. The orientation area on that island, even if everything was written in Portuguese, was recognisable as an orientation area. Chill-out areas with the appropriate pose balls on romantic nooks were obvious too. So… not understanding the language is not a major handicap on a virtual world, so long as you master the interface.

Second Life is […] a world you can navigate through even though you don’t understand the […] language.

His contrasting experience was opening up a Chinese web page. The Chinese Internet is huge, accommodating hundreds of millions of users. But it’s also impossible to navigate for someone who doesn’t speak Chinese! When opening a page, you don’t have a clue if you’re at a shopping site, a web page for amateur photographers, or merely a blog. You see the hyperlinks and definitely can click on them, but they will show you more text that remains utterly incomprehensible. Most human beings only speak one language, and for them, most content on other languages will remain a secret. (Granted, we can get a clue of what we’re seeing using Google Translator.)

Of course, Philip is aware that the biggest issue with Second Life is that the interface is way harder to learn than using a Web browser.

Second Life is still incredibly hard […] just like walking on broken glass […] but users […] will help with better experiences.

It just pays off, because you can shop on a Japanese sim and be pretty much sure that you will get what’s on the vendor — unlike shopping on a Japanese web shop, where even with Google Translator’s help, you just might not get what you want…

Second Life is not a social network but a place

I’m still fond of quoting Philip on his 2004 interview to Wired:

I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.

In those days, clearly separating from game and something different was crucial. These days, we’re well aware that Second Life’s not a game — but what is it then? We tend to classify it as a social virtual world and compare it to, say, Facebook in 3D. You’ll see that reference in several places — praising how cool SL is, since it allows communication, forging networks of contacts, doing business, doing workshops/conferences/seminars/classes. SL seems to be rather good at being pitched as “the social network of the future”.

Well, Philip disagrees — or rather, he sees it from the opposite point of view: when he designed Second Life, he was thinking about the architecture of the place: how would the Big City in Second Life look like? How would people design it, create it? What tools would they need? That were his worries. He never really thought about the people that would be living in it, and so, things like using SL for psychological studies or even learning/education came to him as a complete surprise, but a very welcome one. The whole concept of people writing about how to live in the city was something he never imagined to be interesting to anyone. So, SL is the place, the social tools just came later.

The economy

An interesting comparison that Philip made about the RL economy and the SL economy: after the start of the financial crisis in September 2008, residents used SL more — which is understandable, given that being online is a far cheaper alternative of entertainment, so that would be expectable. But… people spent less money. Not much less — a drop of around 1-2% or so, which was not very significant, and on the first quarter of 2009, as the population continues to increase, the overall economy of SL will keep growing too, or so the statistics show.

What he said was that in his many tours around the world, where he actually spoke to many world leaders, he could easily claim that most of them would have immediately traded their own RL country’s economy for SL’s own 🙂

The incredible success of Linden Lab’s business model

At some stage it’s inevitable that a journalist asks when Linden Lab will be bought (and by whom), and this interview was not an exception. Philip’s answer was quite interesting. He explained that Linden Lab’s business model is not related to the company’s success in pushing a service (through marketing and advertising) to its customers, and make money out of it. Instead, LL’s business model is to provide clients with tools to make business (among themselves), and get a share from it (through tier and a small transaction fee on the LindeX). This, he explains, is a much more robust business model, which will grow as long as people are allowed free trade inside the “platform”. He compares it to eBay — eBay, by itself, doesn’t “sell products”. It just capitalises on the ability of its users to sell more and more to each other, and gets a share of it. A similar business model is also used by PayPal.

Now you know why eBay bought PayPal (both share the same underlying business model), and why eBay’s founder Pierre Omidyar was one of the major investors in Linden Lab. It sounds so obvious after Philip explained it!…

As for anyone buying LL… Philip’s honest answer is “it’s too early!”. LL’s business model is simply too different to be easily understandable. A decade, apparently, has not been enough to make Big Business truly understand how LL thrives…

What about the change in role?

After Cory left, Philip’s abandoning his former role as CEO was seen as some sort of defeat, either at a personal level (he was too tired to continue) or a business one (the board was unhappy with Philip’s lead and wished for a different orientation). Philip dispels this myth. As a CEO, he spent all day in meetings: meetings with accounting, with marketing, with all the development teams. Boring! There was no time left for being creative or even keep in touch with SL’s reality.

These days, Philip splits his day in two. One part is still left for smaller meetings: usually with just a handful of people and sometimes with the Board of Directors. With them, Philip plans strategy — this is where he always shone, as a beacon, leading the way. And for several years he didn’t have time to do it properly. Now he can do it again!

The rest of the day is spent in development — which mostly means, innovation in the engineering and design groups. His first task was changing the map, as he has written us about. You might think this is not very important… but think again. Each map tile has to be loaded from overloaded servers, for thousands of residents at the same time, as they hit the “Map” key and try to teleport. Also, people use SLURLs more and more. What Philip (and his team did) was to offload the map to Amazon’s S3 service and let it be served from there instead of from LL’s own grid. Very clever! And all this is available on the new 1.22 Release Candidate 9 viewer.

So, consider that Philip’s not been abandoned on a dark cave, left to rot 🙂 But, like Bill Gates leaving Steve Ballmer to run the company while Bill focused on strategy and innovation, Philip’s doing the same. Microsoft didn’t crash after Steve Ballmer became CEO, and Linden Lab will only benefit from M Linden having all those meetings and leaving Philip free to think about how to improve SL and push it further on 🙂

… and more time for the residents, too!

A nice side-effect of working on the Map meant that Philip spent a lot more time in-world, because he was clicking all the time on the Map to see if things were working properly. This gave him a new opportunity to re-acquaint himself with what people have been doing in the past few years while he had barely time left to chat with anyone 🙂

Now he’s back, and with a promise to keep in touch with the residents “like in the old days”. I do certainly hope so! Philip also confessed that he did not receive that many messages from residents — he assumes that most people are actually shy and unwilling to chat with SL’s Creator, thinking he’s way too busy. Well, apparently only 10 residents per day send him a message (either IM or email), which he usually answers promptly!

And as this interview showed, he was quite eager to be available to chat with residents and give his opinion 🙂

Welcome back in your new role, Philip, and my wishes of a wonderfully innovative 2009 to you!

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Thanks to TSF’s journalist Richard Haroldsen and Afrodite Ewry for some of the quotes!

[UPDATE] Video is now here (original location from TSF) or viewable below (from Sapo Videos):

CC BY 4.0 Philip’s Vision, 1999-2009 and Beyond [UPDATED] by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

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

  • Hiri Nurmi

    Great article Gwyn, but to nitpick

    ‘Most human beings only speak one language’

    Is incorrect. Most estimates put the proportion of the worlds population who know more than one language to be well over half and possibly as high as two thirds. Being monolingual is really a bit of an oddity, but particularly common among native English speakers (and the number of people who know English as a second language is considerably larger than those for whom it is their first).

  • Oh, excellent bit of research, Hiri! Do you have a link for a reference? Mind you, I was mostly quoting Philip, I never checked that out for myself anywhere…

  • Aliasi Stonebender

    I suspect the ‘bilingual’ estimate includes people who don’t speak it very WELL, though, at which point we’re including “English, She is spoke hear” and my old high school Spanish class that could barely put across “The dog is big and black”.

    It probably varies by need, too. Europe is a patchwork of countries and languages, which means you NEED to learn other languages to get by… and English happens to be this era’s trade language. Contrast to vast swatches of the United States, where you’ll never see another language outside of a large city or the southern portions with a high Hispanic population. Or China, which (as I understand it) still has several widely differing spoken versions in common use, but they all more or less share the same written language.

    Which is just a way of saying it’s probably a bit more complex than “English speakers don’t learn other languages”.

  • Philip’s words, not mine 🙂 I’ve seen this video and learned that the country with the largest English-speaking population in the world will be… China 🙂

  • Hiri Nurmi

    @Aliasi – I think you’d be suprised, to start with there’s a billion muslims in the world, most of whom are non-arabic speakers but form whom being able to read the Koran in the original arabic is something of a sacred duty. Then add on places like India, Nigeria and other ex colonies where English is not native but is the Lingua Franca of the state – to the extent in India where the leading national newspaper is printed in English. Mali and other west africa states do a similar thing with French – and Russian to a lesser degree in the old eastern europe. This pattern extend to all sorts of places big and small – 50,000 Faeroese who all speak Danish for example. I think the odd thing about English is that because it’s the dominant world trade, scientific and even cultural language we are not exposed to other languages to a sufficient degree to develop fluency or even familiarity. On a couple of occassions I’ve worked in a group of proffessionals in Europe (Belgium and Germany) and had the experience of the whole group deciding they would work in English for a period for my benefit – the degree of fluency among normal educated people is just staggering.

    Coming back to SL, on of the great potential uses of it is being able to do language immersion without travelling and at a slower pace (as understanding a text IM conversation is often less difficult than the spoken language – although that’s there too of course).

  • Anna Gulaev

    Being able to recognize poseballs in a foreign-language sim may impress Philip, but it doesn’t impress me. When asked “what is there to do?” too many people respond with things to *look at*, and Linden Lab relies heavily on things to *look at*.

    I’m not here to look at things, and frankly, even the best of things to look at aren’t impressive by 2009 standards.

    The most satisfying thing to do in Second Life is to *talk to* people. There very much is a language barrier. I don’t rank it as one of Seconds Life’s most important troubles, as it just means some people have smaller communities than others but they do have communities, but there very much is a language barrier in virtual communities.

    I just find it kinda grating that people keep blathering on about the wonderful things you can do in Second Life without ever having to talk to anyone. It’s kinda creepy.

  • I really like this post, it clarifies Philip’s vision. With the way SL seems to have evolved, how we see SL is always going to be different. I see SL in many ways, it’s not just a social network for me or the web in 3D. It’s an artists’ canvas as well.

    “I’m not here to look at things, and frankly, even the best of things to look at aren’t impressive by 2009 standards.”

    -What are the places have you visited actually? There are many undiscovered places and there are always people challenging the artistic aspects that exists in SL. There are blogs, websites, and machinima tht talks of them. Perhaps before you dismiss the visual aspect (which is always evolving mind you), true some places can display really trite and mediocre work, but once you dig deeper you will most likely be pleased…:)

    Anyway, moving forward, I hope it will be a better year for SL & LL.