Second Life, Revisited

November 12, 2007

An article I wrote about avatar harassment and assault in Second Life inspired a considerable response after it was published earlier this fall. Perhaps the most notable reply was from a source I wasn't sure I would hear from at all -- Linden Lab, the company that created the virtual-reality world.

In my initial essay, I noted that dozens of colleges worldwide have a presence in Second Life. I argued that higher education has enough trouble dealing with code violations in the real world without complicating due process with corporate-service terms that bestow anonymity and disavow liability. I recommended legal, ethical, and pedagogical analyses of potential conflicts arising in Second Life, especially when they involve online harassment and assault, known as "griefing."

I also noted that Linden Lab had failed to respond to nine questions I had e-mailed, faxed, and sent to the company via certified mail in July.

After my article appeared, Peter Gray, an account executive at Lewis Global Public Relations, which represents Linden Lab, asked if I planned to write a follow-up. He promised to provide answers to my questions and to arrange interviews with Robin Harper, vice president for marketing and community development at Linden Lab, and Terry Beaubois, a prominent educator who directs Montana State University's Creative Research Lab and one of the first academics to use Second Life for teaching.

I welcomed the opportunity. In my e-mail response to Gray, I said I hoped our exchange would result in an acknowledgement from Linden Lab that more work needed to be done to help mitigate the incidence of avatar harassment, assault, racism, homophobia, and other violations whose resolution requires disclosure and due process.

Belated and Best Practices

Gray e-mailed replies to my original questions, along with separate e-mail responses from Harper and Beaubois. (You can read their comments in full here.)

Linden Lab refused to answer questions about litigation involving the identity of avatars. Neither would it provide data on the number and type of violations in Second Life that had been deemed harassing, racist, or homophobic. (That is understandable from a corporate viewpoint, but a public university would have to answer such questions under freedom-of-information laws.)

The company did offer substantive answers to many of my other e-mailed questions, noting:

  • Second Life forbids harassment, and the vast majority of residents comply with community standards.

  • Disputes between residents are best resolved by residents. Linden Lab does participate in dispute resolution to the extent "appropriate for a platform provider."

  • Linden Lab respects users' privacy and does not provide identifying information about users but cooperates with the legal process "consistent with policies and applicable law."

  • Second Life's terms of service apply to all users and do not vary in relation to the size of their virtual land purchase or organization.

  • Educators can create private campuses to control who visits, matching avatar names with students' real names.

  • Residents can mute disruptive behaviors and use a built-in abuse-reporting tool. Other tools safeguard the virtual environment.

  • As with e-mail and chat rooms, colleges can create Second Life guidelines.

  • Best practices and support are available at the Second Life Grid and the Second Life Education mailing list.

  • Colleges should thoroughly plan their use of Second Life before jumping in.

Terry Beaubois, who is also a professor of architecture at Montana State, echoed much of the above but thought the issues I had raised were "extremely important" and merited continued discussion.

Beaubois said he analyzed Second Life thoroughly before adapting it pedagogically. He opted for a private "island" -- virtual land with restricted access -- to minimize distractions. (Still, he admires those on Second Life "who can gracefully teach a class while a squirrel crashes its spaceship" into their projects or "a 6-foot fox harasses the teacher with questions not about the class.")

The controls in place in that virtual environment may account for his not experiencing any harassment, assault, or other griefing incidents in more than two years of teaching in Second Life.

Beaubois also approaches Second Life from the standpoint of how it can meet his objectives "rather than 'what can we do in SL that is cool and fun?'"

He also runs a research lab that investigates the application of technologies to education. "Many educators are in SL because they have a personal interest in SL," he said. "Their institutions may not. Their job is to teach classes. They are taking on an additional challenge to figure out how to teach in SL, and if their subject area is one that doesn't lend itself to being taught in a virtual environment, then we have to be brutally frank about what is 'appropriate technology' and what isn't."

Here's what he recommends:

  • Setting realistic expectations for what can be accomplished in Second Life.

  • Creating a strategy for the use of Second Life at your institution.

  • Involving top teachers in the effort, or teaming them with others who have "in-world" experience with virtual campuses.

  • Applying assessment and pedagogy, as with any program.

Robin Harper, the Linden Lab vice president, acknowledged that sexual harassment and assault exist in the virtual world as in the real one -- but with a significant difference. "Virtual assault," she said, "cannot cause physical harm, and an avatar cannot be forced to do anything against its controller's will."

Any resident encountering such behavior can teleport elsewhere or leave Second Life temporarily, she states.

In real life, you can leave the premises, too, when someone makes a racist or other offensive remark. That has not stopped lawsuits. Students, fraternities, professors, and administrators have been suspended or expelled or had contracts terminated because of such incidents, or their response to them.

Within "the context of a properly maintained and controlled educational environment," Harper said, incidents of racism, assault, harassment, and homophobia are expressly forbidden and rare in Second Life. They are forbidden and relatively rare on many campuses, too. But the consequences for the victim, the accused, and the institution can reverberate for years.

"Unfortunately," Harper said, "there will always be those who seek to use technology for offensive mischief -- one need only consider the number of Web sites that have been hacked for evidence of this. Our developers work extremely hard to foresee and prevent potential exploits, and new exploits are shut down as soon as they have been identified."

I gave Harper a hypothetical: Say a university requested the identity of a Second Life resident in the investigation of a code violation that occurred on the university's virtual campus. Would the company comply?

"We would not provide this information without a subpoena," she stated.

Where Sun Shines

What takes precedence -- corporate-service terms or freedom-of-information laws?

At the moment, national groups seeking to use or safeguard those sunshine laws are dealing with government outsourcing to private venders whose service terms restrict access to public documents, meetings, or activities. When colleges contract with virtual worlds, they outsource their environment, and with it, indirectly, their institutional culture -- something we invest in as much as companies do their corporate brands.

Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism, believes that states must monitor outsourcing -- such as that occurring with Second Life -- or else risk loss of public access to critical information.

"The problem is, as government grows ever larger and more complex, the left hand often is unaware of what the right hand is doing," he said.

One of the attributes of Second Life is its convenience as a meeting place. Newt Gingrich, a virtual-world advocate, recently announced in the virtual world that IBM would create a "Legislative Life" area in Second Life for state lawmakers, giving them a place to network. "This would dramatically expand the rate of innovation and the rate of new ideas," Gingrich said.

Here's a thought: That kind of innovation may violate open-meeting laws.

Worse, universities hosting open islands on Second Life, such as Ohio University, may not even be aware that public-meeting violations are taking place. Tom Hodson, director of the journalism school at Ohio, also is a former judge. "Any meeting for the purpose of discussing or deliberating business by a public body must be done in public" with proper notice, he said, whether that meeting happens via computer or in real life.

"The issue of outsourcing public records is more troubling," he adds, and so far has not involved virtual worlds. Nevertheless, Hodson noted, the Ohio Public Record Act mandates that "it is to be liberally construed in favor of disclosure of public records."

Paul N. Tanaka, general counsel for Iowa State University, said most materials posted to Second Life in the course of university activity would likely fall under the definition of a public record. "The university has obligations with respect to such records," he said, "so the question then becomes one of whether the contract with Linden Lab has a clause in conflict with the university's obligations."

Further, Tanaka said, "even though the records created by avatars may not be part of a university activity, and therefore are not public records, the fact that the activity occurs in the university's virtual space will result in instances in which we would want to have access to information, such as the identity of avatars to investigate misconduct affecting a member of our university community.

"The lack of ability to have access to such information should give administrators reason to reconsider using such services."

When Worlds Collide

At the core of my concern is a culture clash that may erode due process and disclosure in academe -- values upon which the most ardent Second Life advocates would have to rely, should they become embroiled in controversy on a virtual campus.

Jeffrey Cole, a leading expert on Web-based technology, is director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. He, too, sees a clash between corporate and academic cultures.

"Second Life was really designed for people experimenting (and without deep pockets)," he observed. "I don't think it was in their design for major research universities -- with all their constraints as well as disclosure requirements -- to be players on SL. The difference in cultures between the structured world of the university and the 'anything goes' ... frontier of SL, could not be more different."

Would it make sense, I wondered, for Linden Lab to consider creating an educational grid with identity checks and new service terms?

"It depends on what Linden Lab wants to be," Cole replied. "If they really want the status of Facebook or MySpace, appealing to everyone and protecting against the risks and dangers, then absolutely they should adapt an educational grid with identity checks."

Beaubois, the Montana State professor, liked the idea, too, and said it may even coincide with Linden Lab's plans for evolving the technology. "I would love to have an educational grid," he said, "even one for those specifically in building industry-related career paths."

In the end, Linden Lab's entrepreneurial values are as important as academe's transparent ones. Any conflict is coincidental and unintended -- unless, once informed, colleges and their corporate partners do nothing about resolving the challenges chronicled here.

Michael Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, also is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both from Oxford University Press.