Woodbury University’s virtual campus in Second Life was torn down yesterday by Linden Lab, the company that operates the virtual world, and the accounts of several students and professors were blocked. The tale involves virtual superheroes, accusations of vandalism, and conflicting ideas of what a campus should look like in a virtual world.
“Linden Lab has decided to no longer support Woodbury University in Second Life,” said an e-mail notice sent to Edward Clift, dean of the university’s School of Media, Culture & Design. “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.
This is the second time that Linden Lab has removed Woodbury’s virtual campus. About three years ago, the company wiped out the university’s presence, saying that the university had violated the unspecified parts of the terms-of-service agreement. The university decided to rebuild through a reseller of Second Life land, though by doing so it no longer received Linden Lab’s education discount. Woodbury says it was paying about $1,000 a month for the virtual land.
Yesterday Mr. Clift found his account on Second Life banned, meaning that his virtual alter ego, MC Fizgig, was no more.
Linden Lab officials refused to comment on the matter when contacted by The Chronicle. But the reason appears to have involved a longstanding dispute between avatars affiliated with the university and a group of online vigilantes called Justice League Unlimited, a reference to comic-book supeheroes.
Here’s what happened, according to an account posted online by Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University:
For years Second Life has been occasionally struck by online vandals, known as griefers, who stage disturbances in the virtual spaces, such as placing giant swastikas in public areas. In response, some users decided to seek justice and help get griefers kicked off of Second Life. Their group, Justice League Unlimited, is led by an avatar named Kalel Venkman, who is designed to look like Superman.
Woodbury has long encouraged anyone to use its Second Life campus to try experimental activities. At some point, one or more griefers became affiliated with the university in Second Life. The Justice League, concluding that Woodbury was responsible for the misbehavior, lobbied Linden Lab to block the virtual campus.
In an interview today with The Chronicle, Mr. Clift said the university had never encouraged or condoned vandalism. Its virtual campus included educational spaces designed mostly by students, including a mock representation of the former Soviet Union and a replica of the Berlin Wall. “It was a living, breathing campus in Second Life,” he said.
The professor said he felt that the virtual campus did not conform to what Linden Lab wanted a campus to be—with buildings and virtual lecture halls. And, he said, company officials objected to letting any users become affiliated with the virtual campus, whether or not they were enrolled at Woodbury. Mr. Clift said he felt that allowing a diverse group of participants and setting up an open facility was the best fit for the university’s mission.
“Woodbury is sick of this,” he said, referring to the ban. “Our brand is being maligned, and our 125-year mission is being trampled on.”
Jordan Bellino, a senior at Woodbury who had been an organizer of the virtual campus, said the incident suggests the dangers of online meeting spaces’ being run by companies, which get to decide who participates and who doesn’t. “It took years and thousands of dollars to make that [virtual campus] happen,” he said, “and it all vanished in a matter of an hour because Linden Lab pushed a button.”
Meanwhile, many people in Second Life expressed on blogs that they were glad to see the virtual campus go, arguing that it had been a haven for troublemakers in the virtual world.