Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Virtual Dialogues: My Conversation with Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab

Long-term residents of Second Life would probably experience the little shiver of recognition that I did during a long-ranging interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab.

“For me, the hook was the moment I created something,” Humble told me. “It was the moment I made a cube and then checked off ‘activate physics’ and watched as the cube fell to the ground and bounced to its side.”

For many Second Life users, that initial ‘aha’ moment is often something so simple that it later seems difficult to describe the power of the experience: the moment you rez a prim and realize that the ability to create the world is in your own hands; the day you buy your first pair of virtual shoes or hair and just somehow feel, well, emotionally connected to the way your avatar looks; the night you go dancing in a club and it suddenly dawns on you that you’re in a “room” with people who are spread all over the world.

At its core, the Second Life experience isn’t terribly complicated: give users rich tools for creation and communication in a shared 3D space, and see what magic arises.

Humble agrees: “Early on I was exposed to the idea that if you can tap into the power of people’s creativity you’ll have something incredibly powerful. I was exposed to that idea through things like Maxis and the insights of Will Wright (creator of SimCity and Spore). Second Life is onto something really powerful – the ability to create is the magic and I want to help build on that.”

It was incredibly refreshing to have a conversation with Humble and not hear him talk about things like “the long tail of virtual goods” or “making bank”.

In fact, I don’t actually think he mentioned “Linden Lab” itself – his focus was the world, the experience.

After several years where the only press that came out of Battery Street was always about the Lab and how wonderful the Lab is, and how awesome its latest hire (or feature, or product, or market) is….well, it’s nice to just talk about Second Life again with someone who might still be a noob, but who at least gets the power of the prim.

Because after a while, that prim becomes things of increasing orders of magnitude – the prim becomes a table which becomes a dock, a home, a village, or a whole island. Our virtual shoes become vast virtual wardrobes containing not just clothes but shapes, attachments, genders and species, ages and sizes.

And our conversations move into increasing orders of magnitude as well, and it can start because we realized one night that we were in a place with other people, and the ways that we could express ourselves were our own.

The Quality of Conversation
I was reminded of the power of Second Life a few months back when we hosted the first Virtual Veteran/Civilian Dialogue. This event was the virtual equivalent of a broader initiative that brings equal numbers of veterans and civilians together in a facilitated conversation.

From a New York Times article on the Dialogues:

“By the end of the evening, there’s this unity, and the two groups do understand each other better,” Ms. Dolan said. “I think it breaks barriers. That’s why I’ll keep going.”

“The goal,” Mr. Winters said, “is to create a space for a story to be told, to try to counter isolation.”

“What surprised me the most,” he said, “was people’s willingness to be emotionally naked in front of groups of strangers.”

And I couldn’t help thinking that those quotes sound a lot, to me, like Second Life. That maybe the mission of using a virtual world to enhance the human condition isn’t so far off.

What starts as a prim becomes a table, becomes a dock, becomes your home.

What starts as a casual conversation finds increasing orders of magnitude: a chat, a love affair, watching a movie together, attending a lecture, or using a virtual world to heal the effects of war.

Humble seemed to agree but had the same trouble many of us do in explaining the quality of virtual conversation:

“I compare what we’re doing to a conference call – but this is so different. There’s something really special and unique about the fact that we’re talking but I can sit here and look at you, and look at the beach or the world around me. That’s a really special thing.”

But Humble might not have visions of using this special quality to achieve world peace just yet:

“One of the first things that occurred to me was I just want to bring a bunch of friends in here and watch a soccer match together,” he said. “I’m a soccer fan and I want to hang around with other soccer fans, and be here as fans because that’s what you do.”

A More Immersive Web
It’s early days, Humble admits, and he’s nowhere near ready to lay out a grand vision for where Second Life goes next. He’s still looking under the hood a bit, and he has some immediate goals in mind:

“I want to do some of the non-sexy stuff. There’s a magic to the Second Life experience, but what kills me are the little things – those little edges that kind of stop the whole magic feeling. So it’s things like lag, or when things render just a bit too slowly. Those might not be sexy things but it’s really important I think to fix them so they don’t detract from the magic.”

But his broader vision will come from thinking about how Second Life can play a role in the broader digital landscape.

The walls might not be coming down, but Humble seems to have a decidedly different world view than his predecessor: the goal isn’t just to get people in and keep them in, the goal is to understand how Second Life can contribute to the wider digital landscape.

“Look, with things like HTML-5 and more immersive types of things on the Web in general, I can’t help thinking that maybe Second Life has a broader role to play in sort of shaping how we think about interacting and communicating.”

Humble’s vision isn’t just the world – it’s finding a place for that world in the larger digital domain.

It’s Not About the Viewer
Typically, the question you ask is “will we get Second Life on an iPad” but Humble seems to think that the Second Life experience isn’t so much about the device or the viewer or the widgets.

“I’m way less interested in how we program viewers, although we can get into that stuff,” he said.

When Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale returned to the CEO role, his main contribution seemed to be, um, SCRUM development teams for the Viewer, which struck me as a decidedly geeky way to tackle strategy.

Humble doesn’t put as much stock in how things get programmed or in the idea of the Viewer being such an over-riding focus:

“I’m really interested in new ways we can interact with the world that we haven’t done before. Maybe they’re really simple things or radically simple. Like being able to access text chat when you’re not in-world. Or being able to “see” the world without logging in, as if you can set up a camera to help people take a peek into what’s happening at an event.”

Humble isn’t sure yet what those things are – but what’s clear is his belief that the focus on the Viewer has perhaps come at the expense of thinking about the different ways people might want to interact with the functions of the world. What those ways would look like, it’s too early to tell.

The Ethical Obligation of Privacy
But any talk of the Web, of the wider digital world immediately puts Second Life at risk of a conflict with different views on privacy.

I asked Humble whether he subscribed to the conventional wisdom that in the digital age, privacy is dead:

No, I don’t think that the conventional wisdom is the only way to look at it. Privacy is extremely important for anyone putting themselves out there, expressing themselves, or expressing a side of themselves through an avatar. People don’t want other people to connect the dots from their avatar to their real life person – or even, for that matter, to an alt. One of the ethical obligations we have is to protect people’s privacy.

People come to Second Life because they want a story, they want to be in a story….and we have an ethical obligation to protect that.

I’m not so sure that the conventional wisdom makes any sense. Yes, it might be technically easy to track people and all that. But in the long-term I’m optimistic that we’ll see the pendulum swing back in the other direction towards more privacy.

Frankly, to hear Humble say that he’s optimistic that we’ll see a return to more privacy is – well, for me anyways, heart-breakingly awesome.

The Avatar
Humble doesn’t just believe that we need privacy and control over what we disclose – he believes the avatar is a powerful and deep-seated vehicle for expressing and exploring ourselves:

“It’s not unlike the persona I portray on Facebook I suppose. I mean, I’m very deliberate about what I post on Facebook. It’s a persona. I’m not sure it’s a construct, but it’s certainly an aspect of me.

Now, Second Life lets you really extend those dimensions, the ways you can show yourself.

I don’t want to get all geeky about it, but I sort of see this day coming when there’s a formalization of identity that happens. We haven’t had the tools before to formalize our broken up bits of identity.

See, there’s the me who goes to school meetings with my kids and that’s a very well established identity. And there’s the me who plays shooter games online and I don’t want those separate identities to mix up. It’s not appropriate.

We can increasingly go deep on each element of identity and they become more valuable and I can’t help thinking that if we formalize the structures around those identities and have the tools to do that it might actually change us – it might change the person.

The identity system itself influences the person.

For many of us, Second Life led to a profound rethinking of our concepts of identity and the meaning of “self”.

Humble’s comments were far from geeky – they sound more, to me, like he’s experiencing what many of us have – a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be “me” in these brave new digital worlds.

And any CEO who uses the words “construct” and “formalization” in an interview – well, give them a gold star. :)

A Year to Go
I concluded my chat with Humble asking where he think we’d be a year from now.

If we sat down next February and I asked him: “what’s your biggest achievement of the last 12 months, what would it be?”

His response was, I thought, telling:

“Well, first, I hope we’d be sitting down and talking about all the new kinds of content and creations and categories of creation. I mean, that’s what it’s all about – creating new ways to create. I want to be able to sit down and say “Wow, it’s amazing, look how far we’ve come in having ways to make stuff.

But I have a bit of an internal milestone as well. Because what I’d like is that next holiday season, by Christmas say….that anyone in Second Life will be able to give an invitation out to an intelligent person and have them come into Second Life and that person will then thank you that you made the invitation.”

As I was thinking about this after our interview I felt, at first, a bit confused. I wasn’t sure whether his choice of the words “intelligent person” was intentional – but in reviewing my notes he made the point twice.

On reflection, Humble doesn’t preclude anyone, he isn’t saying you need to be intelligent to “get it” (we had talked at length about usability and discoverability) – but what he seems to be saying is that if Second Life can continue to, well….to NOT be IMVU, I suppose.

To be about a quality of experience that can be about dancing, and prims, and watching a soccer match with your mates.

But which can also generate higher orders of creativity and exploration, understanding and connection.

“Your World, Your Imagination?” I asked Humble.

“That seems pretty appropriate to me,” he said.


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