Q&A: Second Life's Founder on his Virtual World

Fake worlds have long served as an escape from reality for the socially inept geeks of the real world. But Second Life is more than just that. Whereas the likes of the hit '80s board game Dungeons and Dragons and the Internet's World of Warcraft provided fantasy for gamers, Second Life creeps much closer to reality. At once a 3-D social networking site, a place for would-be entrepreneurs to do business (and make real money), and a forum for conducting scientific and medical research, it has now attracted the attention of multinational corporations seizing the opportunity to translate virtual money into cold cash. As a result, Second Life is blurring the boundaries between the virtual world and the real one.

But that's not the way it started. Back in 1998, when San Francisco software developer Philip Rosedale dreamed up the idea, he never imagined that his virtual world might have such an impact on the world at large. In an e-mail interview with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett, Rosedale described Second Life's evolution, and how it's changing the way we interact. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Describe the evolution of Second Life since it launched to the public in 2003.
Philip Rosedale:
In many ways, Second Life can be seen as the next step in the fulfillment of the Internet, in which people create and interact with content and each other in a 3-D environment. The potential for social interaction, education, commerce and entertainment in a 3-D environment is far greater than in the flat two-dimensional world we are now familiar with on the Web.

How has the Second Life community changed as big corporations have moved in?
Within Second Life there is a vibrant mixture of in-world businesses, real-world brands and recreationally minded individuals. We very much encourage all of these elements to create, engage in commerce and interact with one another—ultimately it brings value and makes for a richer experience for everyone involved. At Linden Lab, we take a hands-off approach and don't see the need to actively manage this balance. With hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands each day, the concept seems to be working well. Ultimately, we think the possibilities are endless for a wide range of companies and individuals, in both a commercial and recreational sense.

How does ownership in Second Life work? I know residents can buy things, but does Linden Lab ultimately own the entire entity?
Second Life users maintain intellectual property rights over their in-world creations, while their data is hosted on Linden Lab servers. The most fitting analogy [to that] would be [the relationship] between blogger and blog hosting provider. As an individual blogger, you maintain the IP [intellectual property] rights to all of the original content which you've created—you may do what you will with this content. The blog host, however, owns the servers and the data on these servers. A good example of this would be the case of Tringo, a Tetris-bingo hybrid that was created by a Second Life resident. Ultimately, given an explosion in popularity, he was able to license the concept to Game Boy.

How are virtual worlds like Second Life changing the way we interact and socialize?
The fast pace of technological advancement allows for continued improvements upon ways in which individuals can stay connected. Imagine the potential that the Web held in 1994. What was once a novel concept is now ubiquitous not only for companies, but for individuals, as well. Second Life, and other sophisticated interpersonal technologies, are simply advanced ways to network with fellow human beings. Perhaps in a few years time having a virtual presence will be akin to hosting a personal blog, or even as pervasive as individual e-mail addresses.

How do you deal with policing or censorship in Second Life?
Linden Lab's goal in Second Life is neither to be a "government" nor to foist one upon the residents. We believe that each individual within Second Life should have as much personal control over their experience as possible.  If a Second Life resident or group of residents wishes to govern Second Life directly, they'll have to earn their mandate from the residents themselves, not Linden Lab. The sheer volume of in-world activity prevents Linden Lab from being able to police all in-world activities, nor was it ever our intention to do so. Rather, we are actively working with the community to foster a self-governing community, where residents are empowered to act on things they feel strongly about, and adjudicate such disputes.

Which part of Second Life are you most proud of?
The sophisticated way in which the community has developed, and the sheer volume of incredibly creative and unique content has simply blown me away.