ABC Island Second Life Panorama 3000 wide!
While lecturing to AFTRS students last week about multi platform, social media & new forms I got on to games and social virtual worlds. When I asked who knew about Second Life one student chirped up “oh isn’t that the place where ABC TV got bombed”. Now a few things immediately sprung to mind when hearing this comment

  1. Having built the ABC TV Island in 5 days or so and part running it at the time I knew the background to this intimately, so how much detail to go into?
  2. I was also bizarrely running a LAMP residential lab in Tasmania when this event occurred and Lisa Romano then an ABC producer was one of our mentors, she also was in charge of the ABC Island at the time – so very much involved in the response
  3. These events are very rare and my experience was either mostly technical server errors or simple admin error, so the problem was fixed in an hour or so as we immediately liaised with Linden Lab who run Second Life and fixed the problem

But the thing that really sprung to mind was, wow this event was back in May 2007. A two year old story. How and why would it persist so long and into the heads of ‘one so young’ – well mid 20s gen, young in my book :). Then I started to think about the story I used to tell not so long ago to folk who were fascinated by the story of the intriguing ‘ripple’ effect. How a technical error ended up with the CEO of ABC TV being interrogated in government about the act being about anti- Public Service commercialisation combined with terrorism training. This also reminded me forcibly of Laurel Papworth’s Ripple effect and more importantly the Long Tail of an influenced ripple effect – whereby a story is spread like chinese whispers and in some cases enters into folklore and myth – even with endless online interrogation. I also liken this to the Butterfly effect or chain reaction, where a small event can end up causing something far more significant. In this case study below of ABC Island, as you see below, it was more to do with a kind of mass hysteria about the medium of branded virtual worlds & the reflection of that out into real ‘prejudiced’ society. An example of online mass hysteria or clever marketing? You decide.

So here is a glimpse into the Butterfly Effect chronology on 2nd year anniversary of the momentus event 🙂

RIPPLE LEVEL 0: – The Fact

ABC second life island had a technical hitch, a corrupt server backup that happens from time to time. The island appeared briefly one morning with all virtual items (I had created) missing and this was reported immediately by me to Linden Labs – less than 2 hours later a non-corrupt backup was put in place and everything was back to normal. So…


Someone who should know better in the ABC mentioned griefing inside second life to a few people and then a local Australian ABC online report/story came out with one quote “Head of strategic development in ABC Innovation, Abigail Thomas, says an unknown party has “bombed” the island and various features have been removed.”. Of course nothing online is local and the keywords ‘bomb’ and ‘ABC’ were obviously picked up far and wide. In the next few hours the international online and printed press ran more than 120 articles including BBC online had a field day/weeks with stories of terrorism, bombing, nuclear explosions and on. It went echo chamber, viral as they say. Here are a few headers and links I trawled from present day Google –

Alongside this the fanatics abounded in the comments sections of these news reports & posts. Eg: on the last Kotaku one “And thus the internet reveals the true depths of human nature. Destruction, vandalism, mayhem, and selfishness. This uncensored, unfiltered, permanent mess of contradicting thought and emotion with no social structure to keep it in, the ultimate outcome of freedom is chaos. It was the limits of understanding that kept order. There will be no more order left. When people know too much, they’ll know only their own selfish desires to achieve with that knowledge.”

RIPPLE LEVEL 2 – Embellishment

Of course a couple of sites months later tried to rationalize the situation eg: from the metaverse “ABC attempts to set the records straight” but these were few and far between and much too late as the stories rippled to 100s of blogs, print and radio and TV. A few YouTubes also appeared to try to straighten the story out… (EDIT: video has been removed, here is an overview of some of my old social virtual world builds, including ABC SL)

Well things did eventually settle down and it was mostly forgotten, until two months later started to plumb the depths of journalism, from an inaccuracy point of view of the original story but also incredible lack of understanding of the area – sub-header quote. “Spies watch rise of virtual terroristsThe bomb hit the ABC’s headquarters, destroying everything except one digital transmission tower. The force of the blast left Aunty’s site a cratered mess.” – and uses this ABC story to launch into how Al Qaeda, amongst others, probably plan terror campaigns in Second Life and people are dying in virtual worlds already! Here’s some of this fictional story, bordering on the ridiculous (remember no one dies in Second Life, or buildings destroyed) – this must have been a very slow news day or alternatively a busy news day and the journalist Natalie O’Brien told to research some ‘ game story’ using Google and her imagination!

Just weeks before, a group of terrorists flew a helicopter into the Nissan building, creating an inferno that left two dead. Then a group of armed militants forced their way into an American Apparel clothing store and shot several customers before planting a bomb outside a Reebok store…

This terror campaign, which has been waged during the past six months, has left a trail of dead and injured, and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars’ damage. The terrorists belong to a militant group bent on overthrowing the government. But they will never be arrested or charged for their crimes because they have committed them away from the reach of the world’s law enforcement agencies, in the virtual world known as Second Life…

Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre in Canberra, says terrorists can gain training in games such as World of Warcraft in a simulated environment, using weapons that are identical to real-world armaments…

Intelligence analyst Roderick Jones...”Just as real-life companies such as Toyota test their products in SL, so could terrorists construct virtual representations of targets they wish to attack in order to examine the potential target’s vulnerabilities and reaction to attack,” Jones says.

INSERTED UPDATE: Laurel Papworth follows this particular rabbit hole on a post just after this one called World of Warcraft: Terrorists and Virtual Worlds…now back to the story

Even the so called experts must have been misquoted or it is a very sad state of affairs! The story was then voted by Second Life bandwagoners as the one of the most ludricous ever to have been written. (but journalists still persist even today – hence my post on the ‘so-called’ death of Second Life by SMH last year). I commented on one site “Yet I somehow expect that many who only read heritage media, and who never use social networks, will be referring to this two years from now and using it as a justification for keeping it at arms length (much like the early internet)”. How true this has turned out. The article naturally mentions that governments should be more involved in understanding and monitoring activities on this ‘internet’ thing. I suggested at the time that journalists monitor, even try to experience first hand (when it is as easy as logging into a website), the things that they write about.

RIPPLE LEVEL 3Justification

Now up to this point the ‘event’ had mostly been an online phenomenon even though it had rippled out to all other media but unbeknown to most people the ‘fantasy’ story had already taken another turn and moved the Australian Parliament. Yes that’s the real world “stand-around-shouting-at-each-other-like-massively-debating-school-boys”, parliament. Ministers (including senator Coonan – then communications minister & the future communications minister Stephen Conroy) were asking questions on a committee about those who may be anti ABC and its commercial activities as being responsible for the expensive damage to ABC property. Sadly it really demonstrated the vacuum of knowledge about the reality at govermental level. This is a public transcript below for those who need to see how far this particular rabbit hole went! (note: here real tax payers dollars being wasted in parliament on questions about this vs the actual tiny amount on developing this social virtual community – which is still running )

  • Senator CONROY—I thought I might start with the recent attack on your island on Second Life. I presume you are aware that the ABC’s virtual reality island on the online game Second Life was cyber-bombed and largely destroyed yesterday in an act of digital vandalism?
  • Mr Scott—We actually made a statement on that yesterday. The island was attacked in a digital sense and was down for some hours. I understand now that it has been quickly restored and, if you go to the site today, you will find the site as you would have found it two days ago. So, our usual transmission has been restored, I think we say.
  • Senator CONROY—Have you had a wander through the shop to work it out?
  • Mr Scott—I have not had a go at it today, but I have been online previously.
  • Senator CONROY—What is your avatar? You have to have your own avatar to go online.
  • Mr Scott—I understand that is confidential, but—
  • Senator CONROY—Come on, don’t by shy.
  • Mr Scott—I am not sure I can even remember the name. But I have been on it—
  • Senator CONROY—What did you look like? What did you do?
  • Mr Scott—I would encourage you to have a go yourself. It is the future, I understand.
  • Senator CONROY—I have heard that rumour, which is why I am very keen to find out about your avatar. Come on, tell us. Don’t be shy, Mr Scott. You did not mention it in your recent interviews. Here is your chance: what does your avatar look like?
  • Mr Scott—Second Life, of course, as has been covered by Four Corners and many other media outlets—
  • Senator CONROY—That is right, absolutely.
  • Mr Scott—is a new digital world. People create characters and they can explore this world. Many leading organisations in the world are involved in Second Life. The BBC is involved. Harvard University is creating an artificial university there. NBC is there as well. Telstra has a big site, and the ABC has a presence on it as well.
  • Senator CONROY—I am familiar with Second Life and how popular it is. I have not bought my own island yet, though. Given that all that was left on the island was a transmission tower and a scattering of corporate logos, does the ABC management consider that the vandalism was an act of retaliation against the commercialisation of the ABC? What do you think their motive was?
  • Senator Coonan—I do not really think, quite frankly, that that is a permissible line of questioning. You are asking him to guess. If there is something that he knows—
  • Senator CONROY—Do you even know what Second Life is?
  • Senator Coonan—I am happy enough in my first, Senator Conroy—
  • Senator CONROY—That is a ‘no’.
  • Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS—This comes from the side of politics that believes in Donald Duck and Utopia and those sorts of things, so it is understandable that Senator Conroy should then come out with this line of questions. ECITA 62 Senate Wednesday, 23 May 2007 ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS
  • Senator CONROY—The ABC has spent thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on its island on Second Life. I actually think this is serious. And I happen to agree, notwithstanding some merriment between Mr Scott and myself, that this is actually an important part of where we are going in the future in terms of advertising and various other things.
  • Mr Scott—I am not in a position where I can speculate at all about what caused a particular attempt at vandalism. I am pleased to be able to report that it has had absolutely no long-term impact on the operations of the ABC on Second Life, and I cannot begin to speculate what the motivation might be of anyone who did the vandalism, any more than one can speculate on any motives around vandalism.
  • Senator WORTLEY—Has there been no discussion amongst yourselves as to—
  • Mr Scott—I am not aware of any discussions. All I am aware of is that the site was unavailable for some hours but now is fully restored.
  • Senator WORTLEY—Was it restored by ABC employees?
  • Mr Scott—No, I understand the hosting company of Second Life, Linden Lab, restores the site to the way it was.
  • Senator WORTLEY—Is that at a cost to the ABC?
  • Mr Scott—No, I do not believe so. There were no costs to the ABC arising from yesterday’s attack.
  • Senator WORTLEY—How seriously is the ABC taking this? Has it launched an investigation into who may be responsible for this vandalism?
  • Mr Scott—I am not aware of that. Really, it is an issue for the hosting company that owns and operates the site. I have no further details on it than I have already provided to you and Senator Conroy.
  • Senator CONROY—I understand there have been some disturbing happenings on Second Life recently, and there have been calls for a virtual police force and virtual laws. Is the ABC concerned that by being on this website you could potentially be associated with some fairly disturbing activities that have recently been identified? There have been prosecutions beginning to take place—
  • Mr Scott—I think that is an interesting question—
  • Senator CONROY—As funny as other people may find it, I think it is an important question.
  • Mr Scott—I think it is a question that we need to contemplate. As is the case with other online communities and other aspects of communities here in the real world, there can, of course, be some unsavoury elements, and there can be some activities that we would not condone. I think as far as Second Life and our activities on Second Life are concerned we do take comfort in the quality of other organisations—other businesses, other educational institutions, other broadcasters—who have decided that it is worth their while building a presence on Second Life. We continue to monitor this as best we can. But, just as we might say that there are some unsavoury activities that might take place within 10 kilometres of this place, Parliament House, none of us thinks that we should abandon Canberra as a consequence of that. Nor do we think some evidence of unsavoury elements on Second Life means that we should abandon Second Life as well.
  • Senator CONROY—That is a good answer. Thank you very much, I appreciate that. The ABC board has recently restructured the organisation and created a new division, and I think we did speak briefly about this last time.

Ripple Effect

So back to the original point of the post. How this story has persisted, that 2 years later in the minds of many here in Australia, Social Virtual Worlds = Bombings/Terrorism/Sex/Corruption. A lot certainly had to do with the mis-information from the horses mouth so to speak. A trusted media organisation shouldn’t really be creating fictional stories, even “it was like it was bombed…” – that will spread like wild fire. Secondly around that period in 2007 Second Life was still in its hype phase and almost any news “got the readers in”, especially stories showing how wacky the virtual world and those in it were. The volume of mis-information (read: intriguing fiction) seeped into our culture, soi much we believed in the story from other trusted sources picking it up – more so probably than most other real world news happening at the time. This also reinforced existing prejudices (internet is corrupt evil) provided ammunition to the ‘heritage press’, bashing web services that were taking eyeballs away from them, but also moved into the government doing a bit of public service media bashing themselves.

We have to be very careful in how we expose our prejudices through the things we choose to filter and publish online. This can really get out of hand when the trusted sources sometimes get it wrong and we come to lose faith in the integrity of them.

Luckily this is a rather fun case study and no animals or virtual islands were harmed in the making, but it is certainly a good example of what happens if you have enough people fanning the flames or to use Laurel’s ripple analogy again – keep throwing stones into the pond. Two years on, ABC Island, unlike many other non-community based virtual world brands is actually still active in Second Life. I produced a nice video a few days ago to demonstrate some of the new shadow effects around the corner, this includes the current (unbombed for 2 years) island in all its glory. Enjoy.