This is Woodbury University.
It’s a small commuter college with a main office in Burbank, an architecture school in San Diego, and a media center in Second Life.
Oh. Wait. God. No.
That’s right, Woodbury’s presence in Second Life is, well, not terribly scholarly. In fact, as best as anyone can tell, Woodbury’s mission in Second Life is to pretend to be Soviet in a years-long troll of Prokofy Neva. Over the past few years, Woodbury scholars have bought Prokofy’s virtual land and done their level best to wreck its property values by, well, making it look like the picture above. This is, of course, in addition to the usual garden-variety spamming of particles with goatse pictures painted on them, “raiding” (which in Second Life mostly consists of everyone going to one place and waiting for the server to inevitably crash) and calling Prokofy late at night muttering about cheese or something.
If you’re thinking this has nothing to do with academia, well, in most places you’d be right. However, in Bizarro Planet, one of Second Life’s most prominent resident academics, Peter Ludlow, does his level best to give Woodbury his blessing on his SL ‘newspaper’/blog, the Second Life Herald (now renamed Alphaville Herald after Linden laid down the copyright banhammer). The website is intermittently down at the moment, so I can’t confirm these links to the many, many loving interviews that Ludlow and ‘Pixeleen Mistral’, his editor (and Internet architect in his spare time) give to the various giggling and snorting denizens of Woodbury, each one of which invariably devolves to 4chanisms, self-righteous averrals of “free speech rights” and gleeful tales of “griefing Prok”. I happened to have had one in my cache, so let me quote liberally:
In the few years I have been playing this game, I have owned and built several sims, started a few businesses, joined in Roleplay, and designed, built, and coded anything I ever dreamed of bringing to life on screen (lol Ravenglass Fridge). I am both a W-Hat goon and a Woodbury Channer…I believe that in order to enjoy SL you have to do whatever makes you happy, and I pick and choose my life accordingly.
I recently donated my sim Longcat as a sandbox/e-home locale for the members of the awesome Woodbury university…of which I have many connections with in RL, I know many of the educators (its summer rite nao) on the project personally and have been delighted in the changes and direction Woodbury has been moving in lately…Its always exciting to be a part of something as unique and pioneering as WU, especially during these web 2.0 times. (like so meta)
I also wanted to say that I am about to Leave SL until early November. RL responsibility will take me away from ANY contact with a computer (or cell phone)…and I know that when I return, the crazy world we all inhabit will be here waiting for me, somewhere in the wires…a place with Witness X baaawwwring at whatever is fresh and young, Prokofy playing the SL Ann Coulter, Intlibber/Ansche, and the landbarons buying and selling dreamworlds, Fashionistas blogging, Furries thinking all hoomans hate them, SL armies dividing and fighting, all of the uninformed players complaining that LL doesnt do enough (they obviously do not remember telehubs), What and Woodbury pushing the envelope of good taste, and Everyone on the outside looking in, wishing that they knew WHAT THE F**K is going on and how to cash in on it.
The accompanying picture is of the aforementioned “Ravenglass Fridge”, a huge box refrigerator this charming soul built on a chunk of land on the same server as Prokofy Neva, to try to drive Neva’s rental customers away.
You might think that there might be something interesting to be drawn from the perpetual cycle of griefer and griefed, with neither budging an inch over literally years, and the rhetoric on both sides becoming more and more arcanely obtuse to anyone not following along. The usually more clueful Henry Jenkins, for example, recently wrote an article about the whole subject which managed to mangle almost every fact involved. (The fact that Ludlow and Mistral, the same writers who give loving coverage of Woodbury’s every online burp, were his online tourguides when researching the story is, I’m sure, only a coincidence.)
Among other things, there is the nagging question of why a university would pay a not-insignificant (to the tune of several thousand dollars) monthly fee to support its “students” (most of whom were long since past their halcyon college youth and have no affiliation to the real-world incarnation of Woodbury whatsoever) in learning about new media via the artifice of tormenting a particularly grouchy virtual landlord. One suspects that Dr. Edward Clift, better known in Second Life as “MC Fizgig”, may not have been completely serious about the whole enterprise.
Here is Dr. Clift in response to Woodbury’s online presence being accused of, well, doing what they did.
Woodbury University is a minority-serving institution whose students are often relegated to the margins or unjustly castigated as troublemakers. The fact that Linden Labs waves Terms of Service violations around with no details or supporting evidence reminds me of the Salem Witch Hunt Trials. If people come to an educational island, they seem to say, then we know you are guilty! Let’s burn you at the stake! Look, one of the 11,000 daily visitors wrote a nasty script… Let’s turn their island to grey goo! The truth is we worked diligently to institute a security force including members of the Justice League in an effort to keep problems in check. There was never any communication from Linden until the disconnection as to whether they thought we were doing a good job or not and certainly no chance to take corrective measures in any kind of cooperative fashion.
The faculty here believes in its students and the positive differences they can make in society. I’m not going to turn away students because they don’t meet Linden Lab’s dress code or because they speak with a Spanish rather than English accent. More importantly, I’m not going to let Linden Labs dictate how students should be educated or what they should be allowed to know. The destruction of the Woodbury 2.0 campus is, in my view, an egregious shot across the bow of academia. All institutions of higher education are now put on notice that they better not do anything too ambitious or “enlightening” unless they want to risk being shunned and eventually expelled from the Holy Grid.
Universities should be made aware that Linden Labs maintains global surveillance on all the activities of their student members and monitors them both on campus and off-site. You will never see this tracking data but you will be held accountable for everything they say or do. Monitors at Linden Labs, by the way, will draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of any speech artifacts, scripts, or student activities. Power over the grid and possession of the surveillance tapes automatically makes them right and it is nearly impossible to dispute incorrect or arbitrary determinations. Meanwhile, the venture capitalists behind SL sit on their yachts off the coast of Panama enjoying the spectacle of hapless academics begging not to be expelled (so much for tenure!).
I urged my student group to engage the primum materium of SL and not simply recreate the traditional ivy-covered buildings and chalkboard lecture hall classroom found elsewhere. The invisible “matter” of SL is the creation and interaction of alters and apparently we were the first to study and creatively experiment with these social relationships in an educational setting. Such an approach, as we have seen, can potentially antagonize the owners of a media channel seeking to naturalize its own operations. The Terms of Service agreement used to vaporize our campus is a distraction designed to hide the insufficiency of the technical architecture of Second Life itself. Isn’t it time to stop blaming the customer?
A lot of words come to mind reading this, such as, say “self-absorbed” or perhaps “sociopathic”. Clift, of course, is capable of speaking normal human as well as academia word-salad, as this interview from his presumably more serious day job shows:
The dangers of poor communication do not end at the door of the company. Huge external risks face all organizations, but especially those operating on a global stage. These include natural disasters, forced changes in ownership or management, powerful stakeholders, ideological challenges and direct attack.
Strategic communication dictates that any business become conscious of these potential perturbations to its viability. It should then use its observations to strategically design a robust set of internal and external communication practices.
Hm. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what interview is worse.
There’s a history of academics behaving badly, and in that case too, one wonders how much of this is simply a young professor seeking to justify his own online gaming habits and manage somehow to get paid for them in the bargain. Or perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. After all, I’m sure much was learned by the online denizens of Woodbury University, such as the finer points of setting giant phalluses free to waft along the wind, that they never would have encountered elsewhere were it not for Clift’s hands-on and caring intervention.
There’s also the natural desire of many academics, such as in Jenkins’ piece, to try to draw parallels between nascent group behavior online and how it relates to group dynamics in the real world. However, as Jenkins’ writing admirably demonstrates, a Gorillas-in-the-Mist style travelogue only serves to enshrine the Mary Sue-style bad roleplay of all the participants (such as “the Justice League United”, a group of people who roleplay crimefighting superheroes and tangled with Woodbury’s supervillains briefly, including such antics as leaking private wikis and message boards by the artifice of appearing to be a cute girl. You know, the sort of thing that happens in pretty much every online game since MUDs.)
But really, in the end, there isn’t a lot of deep hidden meanings to be drawn – a group of teenage kids, or more accurately people roleplaying teenaged kids, acted like jacktards. And in virtual worlds, what happens to jacktards?
That’s right, folks, even in the libertarian-stupid world of Second Life, you can eventually get banned. And so Woodbury finally did, en masse. No one knows what the final straw was. My guess is that someone in Second Life’s customer service finally got very, very, very tired of yet another one of these “raids” where the “elite hax0rz” spam particles until either the land owner kicks them or everyone is lagged offline. Or maybe they really did get sick of Prokofy Neva’s 97,003,582nd email on the subject (although one suspects they are quite used to those by this point). But I doubt that – proper customer service is a constant, and it doesn’t matter how tendentious the wronged party is, if in fact they are wronged. And only the most drug-addled academic or clueless mainstream reporter would believe otherwise.
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.”
Yes, Jordan, ‘companies’ shouldn’t run virtual worlds. They should be run by random piles of fish, or perhaps very small cats. Or maybe they should be run by the people who frequent them. But that would take all the fun out of Woodbury, wouldn’t it? After all, without the rest of the metaverse to grief, Woodbury would be left with just themselves, in a virtual chat room full of cacaphonic Soviet fetish porn.
I’m sure the below screed by Jordan Bellino, in his persona as “Tizzers Foxchase”, head of Woodbury’s proto-Soviet online presence, which originally appeared at Woodbury’s website (no, not the respectable one, the other one) but since has been deleted would have nothing whatsoever to do with the above news story:
Dr. Clift is currently fueling the jets of his legal team, and they will be contacting Linden Lab soon. In the meantime I will be busy waging a media campaign. They might have nuked our little virtual playground, but that doesn’t mean we’re going away. Woodbury will be a thorn in the side of Linden Lab until the day they close their doors.
We are also contacting the ACLU.
I’m sure they’d be vastly, vastly amused to defend the civil rights of spoiled children and middle aged men pretending to be pixies to harrass other spoiled children and middle aged men pretending to be pixies. Oh, wait, probably not.
Claiming that his First Amendment right to free speech had been infringed upon, the banned player had been asking for pain and suffering damages, as well as an injunction preventing Sony from banning other players in the game. Last week, a district court judge dismissed the case, saying that with few exceptions, the First Amendment protects people only from having their right to free speech violated by the government, not from private companies.
So, alas, the civil rights of Woodbury students to construct interesting and valuable SomethingAwful memes such as below on the University’s dollar may have finally come to an abrupt end.
But one thing is definitely true in all of the online Woodbury’s public relations campaigning:
Woodbury is sick of this. Our brand is being maligned, and our 125-year mission is being trampled on.
Yes, on that I think everyone can agree.