Second Life

State of Mind: One on One with Philip Rosedale

At last week’s community convention I had a chance to sit down with Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab founder and recently returned CEO of the company that runs Second Life. What was supposed to be a quick 15 minute catch up turned into close to an hour of discussion and, oddly enough, it was me who cut the chat short feeling like I was monopolizing his time just an hour or so ahead of the Viewer 2.0 presentation and his flight back home to be with his family.

Now, I’m a horrible note taker and, frankly, having criticized Philip in the past for malapropisms and odd claims in interviews, quotes would be taken out of context anyways. (Philip has variously compared Second Life to a terrarium and a business meeting with no eye contact, but I now realize that in the context of chatting with him that he makes an oddly perfect sense). Besides which, the meeting was never set up as a formal interview and was more of a “let’s get caught up” kind of thing. So the following captures the spirit more than the fine print of the discussion.

One on One with Philip Rosedale
Philip Rosedale creates reality.

And I don’t mean that with Second Life he’s created a world.

What I mean is that he shapes reality itself and can do in actuality what most of us log in to Second Life to experience: the creation of that strange loop I’ve written about, the one where what seems distinct and separate (virtuality) feeds back on itself and we discover that our avatar is inside us, we’re inside our avatar, and there actually IS no separation between computer and self, pixel and atom.

With Philip you come away with the distinct sensation that he sort of experiences through you what the rest of us experience through an avatar. The world isn’t so much created as bent: the passion to make something (a company, a world, a prim) is usurped by his ability to bend the future simply by the act of envisioning what it will become, selecting the slices of that vision that more closely match your own disposition and gently gliding you towards it.

If it sounds a lot like spin maybe it is but I don’t think so.

And I spin stuff myself so I should know. It’s what I do – I evangelize and enthuse and jump up and down on the table if I need to but with me, at least, meetings usually end and people say: “OK, now that we’re out of Dusan’s reality distortion field, let’s actually get some work done” and people continue with their day as if nothing much had happened.

With Philip, I came away with the distinct impression not of someone who spins, but of someone who has a tremendous amount of clarity around what kind of future he sees, and an incredible passion to get you to see it also. It left me feeling a strange mix of frustration and exhilaration, which, if nothing else, is emblematic of where Second Life is today.

We’re Androids in an iPhone World
Actually, let me retract.

Because I did feel like Philip was going for spin off the top. He kicked things off by talking about how he had slept in. He had taken a red-eye the previous night from California to be at the conference in person, a tremendous sacrifice both by him but even more so his family, who were starting a vacation in Yosemite.

But his story about sleeping in was a story about phones. He has one of those new Android thing-a-ma-jigs, and he compared it to the iPhone.

You see, he had set the alarm on his new Android and then he turned off the volume on his ringer so that calls didn’t wake him up. Problem was, the phone wasn’t smart enough to know that just because your ringer is off it doesn’t mean your alarm shouldn’t still work.

On an iPhone, by comparison, you can turn the ringer off but the thing still knows that you set the alarm and, well, duh, of course it should ring for the ALARM, it just makes sense.

I guess I was slow to see his point so he kind of had to spell it out for me: “And it had me thinking – how do you create experiences that are just really excellent, and focused on the user, and delight you instead of frustrate you.”

(To which I was thinking: you go work for Apple, but decided not to say anything).

And this echoed his speech of the previous day when he talked about how Second Life needs to be fast, easy and fun in an iPhone kind of way, and he made the hilarious comment that everything ABOUT the iPhone should make it fail: it’s impossible to type on, it’s harder to make phone calls than on one of the old traditional phones with, um, buttons – and yet, well, it’s FUN, and we put up with it, and we delight in it.

And it suddenly occurred to me that we weren’t just having casual banter about phones, he was, well, spinning me a little – launching into fast, easy and fun by talking about how late he had slept but how sleeping late had become a teachable moment (although not late enough to have incredible hair, of course – but we’ll always give him allowances for taking the time to get his hair into a suitably effusive state).

In any case, my brain raced to catch up a little, at which point he launched into a little side tangent on IQs, which is one of those things that, if quoted out of context, opens things up to all kinds of jokes, because his “I’m just thinking out loud here” aside was his theory that in order to get those little things right, in order to get interface and online experiences and design past just being RIGHT and being something with DELIGHT you probably need to have a company with average IQs.

He seemed to have a theory that really, really smart people are less productive – that productivity is more evident in the mean than in the ends of the curve, and to be honest I have no idea if he was talking about Linden Lab, cognitive theory, or organizational dynamics.

Reality was quickly bending and I was scrambling to keep up.

Linden Lab is an Experience Company
So, 5 minutes in and we’ve talked about phones, and how glad he was to be at SLCC and how important it was to him (and how gracious and positive his family was), and how you really need a sub-genius staff to make stuff happen and – well, I was just darn smitten.

I mean – not like I live on tangents (he says, hopefully), but going on 3 tangents in as many minutes is the kind of conversation I could have all weekend (which must be why I loved SLCC so much, it was one tangent after another and every one was riding the same waves).

And I don’t remember all the stuff we talked about.

We talked about Second Life Enterprise (SLE) and about the projects my own company is working on, so we sort of slipped in and out of a kind of business discussion and then back to a more general ‘state of the union’ kind of thing.

But perhaps for the first time it truly dawned on me that either Philip has changed somewhat, or my impression of him had always been wrong.

I had always thought of his vision for the Lab as being firmly anchored in “tools” – that in his vision, Linden Lab was a software company creating technological tools from which value would arise (virtual goods, land rental, whatever). But in my discussion with him it feels like his focus or vision has shifted slightly (or that my understanding has shifted).

While Philip is still clearly a believer in the power of software as a tool for creativity and value, there’s something else, which I’d describe like this:

Openness and Creative Destruction
Organizational process has taken a shift. And I actually regret I didn’t dig into this more, because it’s at the heart of a frustration I have with the Lab (and with the wider memes around crowd sourcing and open source and the rest of it).

But I felt clearly that even for Philip these concepts have changed since the first days when the Lab was a Lab – and the best way I can describe it is that there is a greater belief in openness both as a facilitator of change and progress, but also of competitive dynamics that facilitate creative destruction.

A lot of this seems to be rooted in how he had extended some of the organizational lessons from Linden Lab to his own work at Love Machine. Roughly, the idea isn’t just that you source ideas and efforts from the crowd, but that you build in mechanisms for creating competition amongst the crowd as well.

Think of it this way: you put out a bid for a code fix. 10 people bid for the business. One person wins the bid. But the people who lose can also make money by reviewing the work of the person who won.

This isn’t crowd-sourcing in the Fortune 500 “get your customers to work for free” kind of thing – this is a variation on a capitalist market with both a kind of “crowd is wise” thing plus a financial injection to get everyone to check in on each other – to raise the game and quality not because you went to the crowd, but because you rewarded the crowd for being its own worst critic.

How this approach plays out in Second Life and Linden Lab goes beyond sending love and approaches a fairly radical model for doing business: I mean, what if in addition to the Viewer being open sourced, the open source community was both nominally paid to contribute but also paid to critique each others’ work?

Now, I’m not saying Philip is planning anything like that – but there was something in his enthusiasm for this that seemed like another one of those “I’m thinking out loud” tangents that might have a tangible end.

Linden Lab Creates Experiences
The second thing that felt different to me was felt in his comment about his phone. And he circled back to this several times, first in a discussion of the old tag-line “Your World, Your Imagination” and later in a lengthy discussion on ‘emotional bandwidth’.

And that’s his focus on Second Life as a site of experiences – that what matters aren’t so much the ‘affordances’ of the technology, but the experience facilitated by it.

Strangely, this feels more aligned to parts of Mark Kingdon’s vision, with the difference being that while M focused on getting to those experiences, Philip seems to be focused on getting the software out of the way of delightful experiences.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s all software, of course. But Philip seems to truly embrace his mission of fast, easy and fun – and he seems to embrace it from the perspective of using organizational process (see above) combined with elegant engineering. It feels, at least to me, that he’s shifted from the idea that the central value proposition of Second Life is to ‘give tools to the users” towards “give delightful experiences to the users” and that he really means it.

The Centrality of Experience
So what we have is an interlinking set of beliefs: first, if you open up the doors, are transparent, and do your work in public (and, I imagine, kill all those NDAs and secret user review teams) you’ll find both serendipity and a sort of organic capacity to change; second, by starting to engage more fully (both internally and with the community) you can lay the groundwork for radical new organizational principles; and third, if you focus on the experience of the world, the world will sell itself.

And here’s where Philip and I diverge a bit. But maybe it’s because he’s a technologist and I’m just a marketing guy who likes slogans. And in all fairness, Philip said that he hadn’t really gotten around to think about it in the short time since he got back – and yet I still can’t help thinking that while it’s nice to focus on the experience, it’s also important to focus on how that experience is communicated to the wider world.

See, I believe that Second Life needs a wider narrative architecture – a framework for communicating the value of the experiences that take place in-world so that more people come into it in the first place.

Philip seemed to believe that it was more important to get the experience right and that the rest of it was a sort of add-on, or something to kick down the field and worry about later.

But a use case isn’t a brand strategy and it isn’t a narrative architecture – and I’m a big believer that the experience should be coupled with a vision for how the value of the platform will be communicated to future users, as a critical way to inform the decision-making process of the folks in charge of crafting the tools, software and interfaces of that experience you’re chasing after.

Or, to put it another way: the iPod was a cool experience, but the ads that expressed that experience made it a cultural icon.

Don’t for a minute think that the ad campaign was just some sort of add-on – the platform for selling the product is as important as the product itself when it comes to Apple, whether in the white ear buds or the Genius Bar at the local Apple store. And I’m a firm believer that the same should be true for Second Life.

It’s Not the Vision That Takes You There, It’s Having One in the First Place
So over an hour, we wandered through a bunch of topics. We probably went in depth on most of the topics he’s covered in blog posts and speeches these past six or so weeks (and if you’re looking for clarification on something and I didn’t cover it, ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to expand).

But what struck me most is that Philip seems committed, passionate, focused, and just happy to be back.

There are some gaps and he seems clear on what they are – that he still needs some time to get all the gears moving, but he’s doing what he thinks is right and in the order he thinks will work.

And while I have some central frustrations of my own and can be just as critical as everyone else, Linden Lab actually can often be quite irrelevant to getting stuff done, and I’m just happy that there’s a consistent inner logic, a childlike enthusiasm, and a passion to make the future happen from the person at the tiller.

Whether he’s right or wrong doesn’t feel like it matters, in some ways.

Sometimes, having a vision is far more important than doing the absolute right thing.

I’ve heard a lot about the state of the Lab these days, the internal mood, and from everything I hear there’s an enthusiasm, focus and “positive vibe” down on Battery Street that means a lot more to me than whether Second Life has the absolutely best road map or the absolutely right approach to mesh.

Energy and optimism is all. Sometimes you just need to will yourself into the future.

And right now, Second Life is in the hands of someone who may not have a plan that everyone can agree with, but has a plan that at least internally (to start) has a consistent and empowering logic, that many people can get on board with, and that most importantly is a step forward at a time when it sometimes feels like we’re sliding back as we climb that slope towards more enlightened lands.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.