Earlier this week, Linden Lab, creator of the well-known virtual world Second Life, announced a new CEO: Mark Kingdon, currently CEO of digital marketing firm Organic. He will be taking over in mid-May.
Kingdon inherits Linden Lab after a flood of press coverage last year made Second Life one of the best-known virtual worlds and got people excited about its potential. Major brands flocked to establish a presence in-world. But some, such as AOL and Wells Fargo, pulled out amid the turmoil created by some of Second Life’s Wild West atmosphere. According to an official blog post by Linden Lab founder and outgoing CEO Philip Rosedale, Kingdon “will have an intense focus on improving the in-world experience and stability and reliability of Second Life.”
Kingdon’s arrival is the most recent in a series of changes to Linden Lab’s management. CTO Cory Ondrejka, who wrote the scripting language used in Second Life to create and control user-generated content, left the company in December. Rosedale announced his resignation in March, along with his intention to become Linden Lab’s chairman of the board.
Technology Review assistant editor Erica Naone spoke with Kingdon earlier this week about his plans for Second Life.
Technology Review: How much time do you spend inside Second Life?
Mark Kingdon: I’m spending a lot more time in-world now. I’m still in that place where I’m surveying the landscape, because it’s pretty vast, and I’m collecting experiences that are amazing. It’s just mind-blowing that this is all user-generated content. I haven’t yet created anything myself other than clothing, but I think that’s the next step for me because I like to make things.
TR: Creating things seems like a Second Life rite of passage.
MK: That’s definitely the story of Second Life. Once you cross that magical “Aha!” place, it becomes very compelling.
TR: A lot of new users seem to have trouble getting to that place. They get confused by the controls, and aren’t sure what to do inside the world. Do you have any thoughts about how to make it easier to get started?
MK: I’ve got a lot of background in the kind of user-centered design work that’s going to be important for Second Life, especially as you look at the first-hour experience. I haven’t come to any specific conclusions yet, but I think it starts with understanding what the resident needs in order to make a powerful experience, and looking at the kinds of people that you want to attract and bring in-world. The answers will emerge very clearly from that.
TR: How do you plan to get different types of users acclimated? For example, business users might just want to get in-world quickly to have a meeting, while other users might be looking for a more playful experience.
MK: I think the first thing that I need to do … is really immerse myself in the different user bases and then think about if, by giving them additional tools, they can create that entry point for themselves, or if it’s something we need to encourage, or if it’s something that we need to create for them. I think the question is, how do you make that happen without becoming the primary content creator?
TR: It’s not only users who get confused about what to do in-world. Some companies established presences in Second Life but didn’t seem sure what to do with them. What do you think happened there?
MK: I think for big brands and big companies, it’s the right place, but I think last year was probably the wrong time. Second Life is still early in its development in terms of the audience and the kinds of activities residents engage in. If you look across all social media and social computing over the last two years, there’s been a huge amount of experimentation by brands. None of the initiatives broke the bank when they failed–as inevitably experiments do–and the ones that were successful were wildly successful. So I think if you put it in context from a big-brand perspective, it’s not like companies went into Second Life and built a presence and lost their shirts. I think it’s been part of the natural evolution of social media and social computing. When the time is right and that community is more expansive and more mature, and companies have more experience, perhaps at that time we’ll be looking at it again.
TR: What would you see as signs of that maturity?
MK: I think what would be important is that there be a larger resident base than there is today, and that brands think about the pact that they need to make in social computing. I’ve always believed that in social media and social computing, brands have to give to get. So you have to give the resident community something of value, something exciting, in order to get their positive attention on your brand. I don’t think all of the experiments of brands in Second Life factored that in.
TR: Can you talk about other ways that Second Life might become more mature?
MK: As the resident base continues to grow, we need to make sure that the platform is stable and scalable so that it works really well for residents. The last thing you want to do is invest in bringing new residents in and waste their time because they can’t enter and enjoy Second Life. On top of that, we need to make the interface more enjoyable and more usable for current residents and prospective residents.
TR: Are there plans to connect Second Life more closely with the rest of the Internet?
MK: There’s a lot that’s happening in Second Life on that dimension that I need to educate myself on before I can comment specifically on it. But I’m excited about what’s happened with platforms and data feeds and mashups, and how people are getting the ability to pull content from all over the Web. My hope would be that Second Life is a place where you can enjoy a very rich and very unique experience, and that the experience can contain, and build on, other great things that you can see in the Internet.
TR: What’s your vision of where all this is going?
MK: My vision is still forming as I learn, but I will tell you I believe fervently that our digital experience is going to become increasingly 3-D. People like to see moving images and pictures, and we’re in the midst of an incredible video revolution on the Web right now, as sound and motion become very central to the experience. I think the next natural wave is for digital experience to be 3-D and have the attributes that we see today in Second Life.
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