Teen Second Life is Dead; Long Life Mixed-Age Second Life

Almost three years ago, residents of the youth-only Teen Second Life held a protest march, walking (and flying) en masse across all teen public lands. Their slogans and placards reflected demands which only make sense in the context of a virtual world: grid merger, which is to say, eliminate the teen grid by combining it with the adult-only main grid. Merge the economies. Merge the social space. Merge the properties. When Linden Lab, the producers of the virtual world Second Life, announced last Fall they would be closing Teen Second Life, they offered just that in return, a grid merger, in which older youth, their avatars and properties, would be transferred to the main grid.

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Barry's main grid avatar standing with Terrence Linden on GK's TSL island, for the first time

I've already spoken about how disappointed I am at the closing of Teen Second Life, now that it occurred this past weekend. But what I'd like to do now is reflect on the potential, and perils, of the grid merger, written before it occurred.

First, I'd like to clarify three misconceptions that might be floating around.

First, Linden Lab is clearly on to something with this idea of mixing youth and adults within the same shared online space. Since this announcement Facebook has followed suite with a similar statement, eBay leaked a memo about plans to let teens buy and sell on their site and the World Wide Web, as full as it is with porn and content with questionable sources, might do the same.

Actually, as we all know, this bit of farce highlights that the Internet has primarily been a mixed-age space. There are valid causes for concern, as there are with any media influencing our youth, but year by year we're figuring it out. Cyberbullying is hot in the news these days, and we're seeing more programs developing youth's ability to assess credibility. But even virtual worlds like World of Warcraft have successfully mixed ages for years.

Secondly, Linden Lab is not about to start supervising youth in Second Life for the first time. In fact, they've been doing it for over five years. As Philip Rosedale, Linden's CEO, recently said in interview, their current practices have worked very well and the grid merger won't end those practices.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing, Linden's new grid merge policy will not introduce youth to Second Life for the first time. I remember three years ago running an after school program to teach youth Second Life. I was surprise to learn that three youth entered the program complete with their own Second Life businesses, designing clothing and building houses. However, of the three, only one was actually operating out of Teen Second Life. It's always been an unspoken understanding that there were more teens in Second Life than Teen Second Life, simply because more people meant more opportunities.

So if none of that is new what IS new about the policy. Two things:

First, Teen Second Life will no longer exist as a safety valve for Linden Lab to siphon youth. And while Blue and Claudia Linden did magnificent work supervising the space, they were chronically underresourced. Now Linden Lab can address youth's needs as part of their work on their main product, not inadequately on a side project.

Secondly, and most importantly, the major change is that youth will be in Second Life AS youth. Before they had to pretend or risk being kicked out. Now they can be themselves. In a sense, we can view this as Linden Lab eliminating their own "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, returning integrity to adventurous youth.

As you might sense, the new changes do not strike me as a call for alarm to protect youth (although I am confident others will continue to raise valid concerns, like those who initially responded to Philip's announcement). What interests me now is what this change means for Second Life overall, and what that will mean for both youth and education.

It means at long last families can play together, teaching each other skills while parents are returned to their rightful role as mentors to their children's online behavior. Who better than one's own parents to teach the ethics and practicalities of safely traversing Second Life's various social scenes.

High school programs can now reach youth who range ages 16-18, something seemingly random which wreaked havoc on program designs.

Students and educational programs will now have access to the incredible array of resources, both virtual and human, that populate Second Life. Imagine the possibilities for language learning, taking youth to communities populated by all French or Japanese residents. Imagine a class on public policy with guest speakers from every corner of government. Nearly every institution from every corner of the world has a presence in Second Life; finally, educational programs can take full advantage of how virtual worlds echo that Disney refrain "It's a small world after all."

Youth educators can finally visit and learn from each other's programs. This might not be known to those outside Teen Second Life, but when we say we were locked to our organization's islands to prevent us from visiting the youth mainland, it also meant we couldn't visit each other. That meant we were locked out of one of the things that makes Second Life so effective, it's social network. Professionally and in regards to field building, it's amazing how much HAS been done, considering the isolation.

Finally, I think having teens as teens in Second Life, and everything I just mentioned, will mature the space, and I don't mean in a "mature for adults" way. I think it will improve how some, but not all, people behave, which will improve Second Life's image, which will make it easier for youth educators to run our programs. It will certainly be bumpy at first - some people's program have been decimated and will need to be redesigned from scratch, if at all - but in the end if this means that the support, resources, and professional connections we've lacked all this time will be available in a new way, once the scab heals and we're back in the race, youth virtual world education in Second Life can thrive.

Global Kids founded and runs RezEd.org, the largest web-based community on learning in virtual worlds. A new group was created for just this topic, the future of education within a mixed-age Second Life. Please join us for the discussion.