Second Life’s Second Phase

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.