A Eulogy For Teen Second Life

State of the teen grid predebateIn August, 2010, the owners of Second Life announced their youth-only virtual world, Teen Second Life, would be permanently shut down after five years of operation. In the spirit of serious play that pervaded this unique source of youth expression, the following eulogy is provided. To add your own or join the discussion please go here.

Dearly beloved, educators and youth alike, we are gathered together (to misquote Prince) to get through this thing called Second Life. Or, more to the point, not get through it but get out of it. For any minute, perhaps as you hear these very words, a switch will be flipped, forever dispersing Teen Second Life, our virtual playground and classroom for all these years, into actual oblivion.

Teen Second Life’s passing is no doubt tragic and deeply felt by us all. But its tragedy lies less in the failed results of this noble experiment but, rather, that it was never provided the resources required to succeed. It dies too young for its years, its vast potential more a suggestion than something properly realized, it’s name and deeds largely unsung.

So join me as we look back and ask What was Teen Second Life? and What does its passing mean for the future of youth-driven learning?

Imagine the creators of eBay had launched Teen eBay, where youth ran their own businesses buying and selling goods. Imagine the creators of Wikipedia doing the same, as well as YouTube and Facebook, launching youth spaces for young people to aggregate their own collective intelligence, publish their own creative expressions, build their own social networks, not to meet the needs or expectation of adults but on their own terms. This was Teen Second Life, all these activities combined into one, and yet so much more. It was not simply a place for youth to find a safe haven online, to be away from adults. It was a place where, in the absence of adult authority, youth could be in charge.

We easily recall that Teen Second Life launched in January, 2005, in the early days of the adult-oriented “main grid” of Second Life (18 and over only, please!), before it went from 10 thousand to 10 million adult residents, before it was idolized on the cover of Business Week then parodied on “The Office.” The possibilities were endless for extending and expanding our real worlds through involvement in the virtual.

Youth in Teen Second Life were more than just customers buying clothing and cars; they designed and built these virtual goods, architected and constructed the stores and malls where they were sold, and ran the businesses and web-based catalogs that managed these enterprises. They were more than just renters and land-owners; they were landlords and land barons, speculating on property-values and renting to their peers. They were more than just players or residents; they were community leaders, organizing the community to raise funds to fight cancer, and civic activists, inspiring fellow citizens to march for their virtual rights.

Teen Second Life forced its residents to move from players and consumers to producers and creators. Numbering in the tens of thousands, Teen Second Life became one of the largest youth-led communities the world had ever seen, online or off, in charge of it’s own activities and economy. Yes, adults were there at the launch, to make sure the technology worked, and as a source to enforce the Terms of Service (no sex, please!). But beyond tech support and security, youth were left to their own devices. It was their world to build.

That is, until Global Kids was given permission to enter. We were the first outside educational institution granted the power, and the privilege, to operate within Teen Second Life. We were foolish enough to take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity to experiment with both the teen community and Linden Lab, which owned and administered the space, to learn how an interest-driven virtual world could be leveraged to support deep learning. But like everyone else, we entered the world confused, calling upon old models to provide guidance to the new. We thought it was a game, albeit one without rules, narrative, goals or end-states (no losers in Second Life!).

We opened the island in February, 2006, with a simple scavenger hunt that introduced global issues and led youth through a Polynesian-themed jungle, to a giant rotating globe that rose out of a lake, into the heart of an active volcano. Within a few days, after all game details had been thoroughly explored and posted on their message boards, we learned more from the experience than any youth who went through it. Digital graffiti, of sorts, went up, in the form of giant floating arrows pointing out the correct route. In the heart of the volcano, we ran across a couple in an SL marriage ceremony, who politely asked us to leave, as we weren’t invited. In the shadow of the volcano, under the lake, we found a youth stepping out for a virtual cigarette; he’d quit in the real world, but found virtual smoking met his craving. More importantly, we’d forgotten to turn “build” off; in just the first day we had to return the hotel, church and amusement park industrious youth had created. Eventually, with our permission, one youth even turned our volcano from a representation into a simulation, belching smoke every four hours to be followed by projectile, flaming rocks of lava that left no island corner safe.

So yes, Teen Second Life welcomed us, along as we followed the rules and, like Gilligan and his crew, never left our island. But more importantly we learned right away that for adults to operate in a youth-driven environment, which offered such powerful constructionist opportunities, we couldn’t deliver pre-formed activities and opportunities. Rather, to properly leverage their interests and the affordances of the word, the development process would need to be much more flexible, and collaborative. More like a dance.

We barely have time to review all that youth did on Global Kids Island, but a few highlights must include:
The summer camp which inspired existing youth residents to develop leadership skills around global issues and educate their peers about sex trafficking through the construction of an elaborate maze.
The UNICEF competition that challenged the community to build structures that raised awareness about human rights, followed by a second summer camp, this one to produce, short animated films for UNICEF’s site commemorating the passage of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Virtual Video Project, which over three years led Global Kids Youth leaders to work with community residents to produce animated films about child soldiers in Northern Uganda, child sex trafficking, and racism as an obstacle to education around the world.
I Dig Science, where Global Kids Youth Leaders in NYC and youth in Chicago’s Field Museum learn about paleontology and global issues while tracking, and communicating with, scientists in the field.
Playing For Keeps, in which youth developed a simulation called CONSENT! to raise awareness about medical racism against African-American prisoners since World War II.
The Dream It, Do It initiative, developed with Ashoka, which trained scores of youth to develop entrepreneurial ventures, wherever they were, be it middle schools, the virtual world, or even teen jails.
Witnessing History, a project with youth interns at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who used primary source material to create a simulation that raised questions about the role of witnesses to genocide.
Science in Second Life, a high school level class that taught basic science skills through students visiting simulations of places around the world like Naples, Italy, where they learned about the environmental impact of garbage, and Antarctica, where they flew into the atmosphere to measure the impact of global warming.
Finally, we brought in public intellectuals, like Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee, whose work had been lending context and credence to virtual world-based education and interest-driven learning. Jenkins, for example, addressed the topic of Harry Potter fandoms’ social activism through a dance party to the music of the politically-charged Wizard Rock, held within a virtual Hogwarts created by residents. And he did it all while having his avatar wear a Dumbledore costume.
And Global Kids was far from alone. After the first year, the librarians came in with Eye4You Alliance, offering college fairs, classes, and more. Then came the schools, from Australia, England, New Jersey and California, amongst others. Students took English classes acting out famous scenes from literature and learned about body-image by intentionally manipulating and critiquing their avatars. The listserv dedicated to educators in Second Life grew so big we saw the creation of one just for teen educators. Then Global Kids launched the web-based RezEd.org, now with over 3,500 members, as our use of virtual worlds has spread far beyond Second Life to a wide variety of virtual worlds.

So why did Teen Second Life fail? There are many reasons, not the least being it was never designed to succeed, at least not as a youth-run community. Underage youth in the “adult” space of Second Life was a legal liability. Teen Second Life was the answer. Although segregated, youth were otherwise treated no differently than adults. They used the same convoluted browser, were governed by the same laissez-faire policies. But adults working in the space attest to the fact that while youth deserve their own online places and the opportunities to run them, it doesn’t mean they can or should do it on their own. Adult knowledge, wisdom, and guidance will always be required. It’s one thing to provide youth tools and hold them to high expectations. Itss another to support them with the resources and scaffolding required to attain them.

But perhaps Teen Second Life did not fail. Henry Jenkins suggested years ago that “we might think of Second Life as a platform for thought experiments — a place where we can test ideas that might not be ready for prime time, where we can experiment with new ways of being on both a personal and communal level.” From that perspective, youth who used the platform to expressing themselves, and the educators who brought them there, learned a tremendous amount, about themselves, life in a digital age, and the potential of digital media for learning. That this experiment has ended, then, might not mark it a failure, just a tragedy that it couldn’t continue.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you all with some final words from Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” with which I opened:

Are we going to let the elevator bring us down?

Oh no, let’s go,

let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts

Let’s look for the purple banana ‘til they put us on the truck
I have no idea what Prince is talking about in that last line, but I am confident that someone, somewhere in Teen Second Life, has made (or will make) a purple banana. On a truck. And that this spirit of boundless creativity will never die.

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