Expelled: Woodbury's Second Life Silencing

Occasionally this blog hosts guest posts. Today, Tim Handorf writes about the experiences of one university in Second Life.

We all know that Second Life, the virtual reality world that has become basically indistinguishable from our increasingly unreal physical worlds, is a powerful tool for learning. In fact, it's pretty much a powerful tool for everything, considering the small but growing number of Second Life millionaires. The fact that there are, as of January 2010, 18 million registered Second Life users demonstrates the power of the virtual world to connect, educate, and enhance our daily lives in an almost revolutionary manner.

But, of course, as is true of the "real" world, Second Life does not come without its problems. Most recently, the brick-and-mortar university
Woodbury was booted off Second Life —thousands of students were affected—by the virtual world's moderators, a company called Linden Lab. What's interesting is that Woodbury was torn down from the site for the second time, the first time being in 2007

What's even more fascinating about this whole scenario is that Linden Lab did not specify, really, what terms of agreement Woodbury had violated, although this was the accusation. Linden Lab has remained largely silent in the press, a silence that has infuriated many. What Woodbury University is so upset about is the suddenness of the Second Life ban. In a matter of minutes, the virtual university was destroyed, some professor and student accounts were blocked, and thousands of dollars and years of time were essentially thrown away.

Although Linden Lab has not been forthcoming about the problems with Woodbury, users and the media alike speculate that it has to do with the university's too lenient openness. For example, the university's buildings were largely student-created, and it has few restrictions on who can associate with the campus. A supposed result of the university's openness was its attraction of users known as "griefers", usually young or middle aged men who vandalize Second Life property, like placing swastikas in different places. Apparently, because of its acceptance of various people, Woodbury had become a hotbed of these "griefers."

While it is understandable that Second Life moderators would want to control activity that denigrates the efficient functioning of a world rife with useful applications pertaining to the real world, it seems that their measures were a bit too extreme. After all, Woodbury University had fully utilized the educational tools that Second Life provides, and students and professors alike had reaped many intellectual rewards from the process. The university paid good money for it, too. The prime culprit in this debacle, I believe, is the unwillingness of many in the Internet community to fully embrace transparency. Linden Lab should explicitly state their reasoning behind the banning of Woodbury and the two institutions should work out a compromise that doesn't leave so many in the e-learning community without a resource to turn to.

By-line:
This guest post is contributed by Tim Handorf, who writes on the topics of
online college rankings. He welcomes your comments at his email Id: tim.handorf.20@googlemail.com.

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Comments

Anonymous said…
Linden Lab gave Woodbury University more than three years to get their act together. Woodbury still didn't have any official classes in SL after all that time (though we're told that some were "in the works").

I think Linden Lab was quite lenient enough. The griefers associated with Woodbury damaged the reputation of Second Life and they also damaged the reputation of many good SL businesses. For example, they'd buy land next to land-for-rent and fill it with annoying junk, ruining the neighborhood and the reputation of the land renter.

When I heard about the recent Woodbury shut-down, my first reaction was, "Finally! Good Riddance." I still feel that way.

If educators want to set up playpens with no rules, they can use OpenSim or one of the other virtual world platforms.
I agree with Troy. Woodbury has had ample time to get their act together. They allow griefers to continually harass residents (most notably an avatar named Prokofy Neva).

Woodbury is a liability to Linden Lab. Someone like Prok would have quite a legal case because he has repeatedly asked for LL to do something about griefers and LL has done nothing (even in instances when identities could be tied directly to Woodbury).

In other cases, like the ones mentioned by Troy, other reputable business and educational areas have been violated by these griefers. Again, LL has issued repeated warnings but have done nothing.

I fully support a "free" second life, but an educational institution has an obligation to be stewards of whatever environment they choose to inhabit. Like Troy says, Woodbury gave us, creative and passionate educators, a bad reputation from the start.

I don't know a thing about Woodbury as an academic institution, but I can promise that I wouldn't send one student to study there.

Best,

Desideria Stockton, CEO, Literature Alive! in Second Life (Beth Ritter-Guth, RL)
wendyhjones said…
It would be interesting to have the other side of the story from Linden Lab themselves. Then it would be possible to make a fair assessment of the situation. However, with LL's silence on the matter this does not seem likely
mvallance1234 said…
My design students and I were threatened with expulsion from some leased land in SL because we violated our terms of agreement. I couldn't figure out what my innocent kids had done so after a few emails to the landowners I found out that my students' architecture did not fit with the aesthetics of those around us. The problem? One of my student's 'classroom of the future' had 3 levels but no roof or walls. In other words, the landowners wanted us to build as if in RL. I then moved on to leasing my own Island but that was far too expensive and I did not renew. I now use OpenSim on a private server and can invite students to do what they please in terms of design. We have a basic AUP/ acceptable use policy. So, yes .. I also suggest OpenSim for creatives.
Anonymous said…
According to the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Linden Lab said/wrote:

"We are making this decision based on historical and recent events that constitute a breach of the Second Life community standards and terms of service. We ask that you please respect the decision and do not take part in the Second Life platform in the future." No further details were provided.



Lots of educational institutions use SL and haven't been banned. The SL community standards and terms of service are very reasonable. Apparently Woodbury pushed their luck a bit too far.
Tim said…
I completely understand the concern of many within the Second Life community over these "griefers" and the trouble they cause. If they have been associated with Woodbury for a long time, then it should be meet, of course, that the university be warned and then subsequently punished, even destroyed, as the case may be. However, this is not the concern that I have raised. It is not what Linden Lab has done, per se, that I find questionable. It is HOW they went about doing it. Destroying the campus overnight and not explaining fully to the PUBLIC is what bothers me. Whether or not all within the Second Life community know and experience trouble from said griefers is entirely beside the point. Even though the Internet has become something of a free-for-all, I think it would have been prudent of Linden Lab to be precise in how these "terms of agreement" were breached. You can search the Internet for news far and wide, and all you will find is the short Linden Lab statement that Mr. McConaghy quoted from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Transparency is key here—that is one good thing that the openness of the Internet promotes. Mvallance's comment perfectly demonstrates that it is not beyond the scope of possibility that Linden Lab could have arbitrary rules governing what places "should" look like, so I don't think it is irrational to question their rules.

Still, I am not saying Woodbury is innocent, not at all. I simply ask that Linden Lab be a bit more open. I would like to see them fully justify their decisions in a public forum. If only out of curiosity.

Tim Handorf
tim.handorf.20@googlemail.com
Troy Mc said…
One possibility is that Woodbury University didn't want the public to know specifically what they'd done (to avoid embarrassment), so they asked Linden Lab if they could do a favor and be vague.

Another possibility is that Linden Lab's lawyers advised Linden Lab to be vague so as to protect themselves from being sued for libel or defamation. Linden Lab is a profitable company, which makes them a target for lawsuits. Indeed, a number of lawsuits against Linden Lab are pending.

Or something else might be going on. I don't know.

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