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Published: November 12, 2007 at 01:47 PM GMT
Last Updated: December 2, 2009 at 01:47 PM GMT
Originally published November 12, 2007
This is a true story. The names have been changed to protect an innocent 13-year old and her avatar. It's early September, 2007. "Bluebird" is wandering the Towns section of the Gaia virtual world. Bluebird is an avatar, the creation of Clementine, a bright and articulate 13-year Manhattanite. Bluebird has been 'modded out' with a jackal's head (a nod to the Egyptian god Anubis). She wears a tunic with billowy crimson and plum sleeves (a gift from the goddesses), set off by a sash of golden cloth. A sun staff marks the way forward. From below, a ring of purple flames encircles her. From above, a spirit eagle soars, watching down upon her.
A stranger (all but one of Bluebird's Gaia friends are known to her in the "real world") asks her to "gift" him a cape. Despite a polite and repeated "no," he continues to harangue her. She is trying to escape the stranger when a PM arrives (private message). It is from a moderator who informs Bluebird that her account has been reported. Her password is needed in order "to clear the report." In that same message she is warned that failure to comply will result in a six month ban from Gaia. Rather than reflexively respond, Bluebird has the poise to share the PM with two adults (including her mom) and her older sister. Everyone present is shocked. “How can I have been reported?” Clementine asks in horror. “I never use foul language or anything!” Assuming the rude stranger has reported her out of spite, they unanimously agree she should submit her password; that the request is legit. And so she does. Clementine and her family now believe they have followed Gaian protocol, that the situation will be investigated and all are confident that she and her avatar will be cleared of any wrong doing.
Instead, moments later, Bluebird is no more. Aghast that she's been deleted, Clementine asks her older sister Isabelle to search for Bluebird across Gaia, to no avail. For several months and for at least an hour each day, Gaia had been the favorite playground for Clementine, the thirteen-year-old creator of Bluebird. Last year Isabelle introduced her to the anime-themed teen virtual world and Clementine signed up as soon as she came of age. Now, she was banished for no apparent reason.
Perhaps you're thinking to yourself: So What? Indeed, there are serious sociological, legal and moral implications to this event. But first a bit of context.
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Gaia <> Second Life
All of that press for Second Life? Well-deserved as it might be, Gaia is THREE times its size. What started out as a haven for comic book/anime fans has become one of the largest virtual worlds, period. Gaia claims 300,000 logins per day, for approximately two hours a day. It boasts two and a half million unique users a month, growing fifteen percent and approaching 3 million users in September. Even more impressive is its Forum area, which has recorded over one billion posts! Big Board rates it the most popular bulletin board on the Web and Gaia CEO Craig Sherman calls Gaia the "fastest growing online hang-out for teens." Started four and a half years ago by a group of comic book artists primarily for themselves, the site grew organically without any publicity or even a tool to invite friends, which was only added earlier this year. Gaia raised $12.01 million from Redpoint Ventures and Benchmark Capital last March.
eMarketer recently released Kids And Teens: Virtual Worlds Open New Universe. The study found that of the 34.3 million kids and teens with Internet access, fully 24 percent of them (or 5.3 million) were currently logging onto a virtual world at least once a month. That figure is expected to more than double to over 53 percent in the next four years.
While there are frequent headlines demanding the heads of sexual offenders trolling MySpace and there is ongoing debate about the ethical minefield of marketing to teens within social networks of any stripe, little has been remarked on the relationship that "play" online has to identity formation, about identity theft in-world, and broadly speaking, the fate of one's digital assets.
Clementine's experience in Gaia speaks volumes on the subject. Described by her mother as a shy, intensely creative, sensitive and intuitive child, Clementine's creation of Bluebird and her constant retooling of this avatar allowed her to experiment freely with alternate senses of self. "The transformation was fascinating,” her mother remarked. "To watch her slowly immerse herself in this virtual world and new personality and figure out how to negotiate these new interactions was a perfect opportunity for trial and error in a seemingly safe environment. She became increasingly emboldened and gained confidence from the feedback she received from other avatars as she immersed herself deeper in the culture."
A few days after Bluebird disappeared and with still no response from Gaia on the status of the investigation they believed was underway, her mother contacted Gaia customer service. In hindsight, by waiting patiently for some communication from Gaia they had played right into the hands of the hacker by giving him time to abscond, comparable to allowing a kidnapping to go unreported. Gaia CS responded by encouraging Clementine to file a hacking report, indicating that while these matters are handled in queue they are often resolved within a week. When Clementine realizes she has been hacked she bursts into tears. "I feel like I just witnessed my own murder," she remarks to her mother.
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A week passes. During that time an increasingly and palpably depressed Clementine attempts logging on at least once a day. Alas, Bluebird is still banned, in oblivion, or both. After a few weeks pass, Mom re-contacts Gaia. They indicate that Clementine -- despite Terms of Service indicating never to give out one's password across Gaia –- has provided her password to a scammer. There is no recourse suggested.
The month grinds on for mother and daughter and it becomes clear this will not be resolved through available channels. Intervention by this journalist with Gaia public relations results in Clementine regaining access to Gaia with the user name left to her by the hacker, but her original avatar name is lost, she is unrecognizable in-world to her friends, she has none of her possessions that were accumulated through active in-world effort and all but a small amount of her Gaia gold is gone. "My watermeat is here," Clementine tearfully finds. "That's good." (Watermeat is her virtual pet; visualize a fish on a leash.).
Clementine, dejected, unenthusiastically searches all of the areas of the site she once frequented, feeling a shadow of her former self. When she looks in her account at the marketplace (like an eBay exchange) she realizes that while she was banned someone had traded her possessions for $134,508 in Gaian gold. Her identity lost, her valuable possessions stolen and sold, for the first time she now knows what it feels like to be the victim of a serious crime.
More time passes and this publication's editor mentions Clementine's experience and suffering to a senior marketing executive from a major national advertiser who coincidentally has contacts at Gaia and their venture firm. She advances Bluebird's cause with Gaia CEO Craig Sherman. Within a week, Bluebird’s identity is restored, her possessions and Gaia gold is tracked down, recovered and returned.
Clementine's story has an unexpected happy ending, but hundreds and perhaps thousands of young virtual world residents without Clementine's fortunate connections may be suffering similar fates without ever regaining their in-world identity and possessions. Clementine's mother remains concerned about the psychological fallout. Although to the average person this is nothing more than a “virtual" experience, to Clementine the victimization is real and her Mom believes she needs support and an opportunity to heal emotionally from the experience. But what are the options and where can she turn for help? Clementine's timeout from Gaia, her loss of a daily connection with friends, and her trauma over having caused the kidnapping of her treasured Bluebird were wrenching for mother and daughter alike. Mom terms the banning a "flattening blow."
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The reality of virtual world scams and identity theft raises serious issues that Gaia executives acknowledge and experts believe must be addressed if these emerging communities are to continue to thrive as safe havens for children and teens. Parents and developers of virtual worlds and social communities designed for kids should not confuse their audiences' technological savvy and intellectual sophistication with maturity. Kids can still be easily manipulated and in-world scammers are able to convince even wary parents of their authenticity.
Sherman insists the company "takes this responsibility very seriously. It's complex because it’s the Internet and difficult to protect everyone 100 percent securely." On one level, he suggests, it's a valuable lesson to learn early to protect your account. "But on the other hand," he admits, "the time spent by users and the things they do here are really valuable to them. We go to extra efforts to educate users and make it a safe environment."
To Litigate Or Not?
Benjamin Duranske, a legal expert on virtual worlds, and author of the upcoming Virtually Blind, reviews the case. He believes that Clementine/Bluebird would have had a claim against Gaia, but that while it is "reasonable, it is not practical." Clementine's loss – meaningful to her – is less than $60, although that relatively small sum had been converted into more than $130,000 in Gaia gold, attesting to Clementine's collecting skills, passion and commitment. Unless a class action lawsuit were to be drafted, the cost of recovery would exceed any 'real' damages. But he sees larger issues at stake. Most states take a position of nullifying the Terms of Service (TOS) of sites targeted to youth. TOS's are meant to be written with their audience in mind but this is a near-impossible feat when you're writing to a 13-year-old, plus users are, in fact, minors. In this case, Duranske argues, Gaia did their best to warn users throughout the site not to share their password. But what they failed to deal with was a hallmark of youth: apart from the rare rebel, most kids will defer to a figure of authority. If someone posing as a parental or authority figure makes a demand, they submit. And assets? Duranske and I first became acquainted during the Second Life bank collapse -- $200,000 real U.S. dollars were stolen and they have yet to be recovered. It's undetermined, then, if a virtual world host is responsible for compensating/reimbursing users when third parties steal their virtual booty. Even more questionable is what responsibility virtual worlds might have for mental duress caused by members' losses.
While lawyer Duranske is investigating an emerging body of thought that binds law and play, he says this issue isn't new – it dates back to 1938's Homo Ludens: A Study of The Play Element in Culture by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. While it's tempting to laugh off both the popularity and implications of virtual worlds, for kids these environments are now part of their leisure routine and they are very real societies where legitimate relationships are formed. Psychologists also recognize the importance of play and how it shapes identity formation. Prof. Larry Rosen of Cal State, author of Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, believes that "banning someone can have major psychological impact."
Brooke Foucault is a Northwestern graduate student focusing on teens in online communities. She concurs with Rosen: "We know that kids use media to maintain social relationships when they are not physically co-located. Why shouldn't the new medium of virtual worlds be any different than any other medium that we may have used in the past to carry on this relationship maintenance?"
In Clementine's case this experience has given mother and daughter the opportunity to discuss “presentation of self” in multiple contexts both virtual and real. Initially both had a sense that Bluebird's increasingly flamboyant appearance was an invitation to the hacker to target her. “You can't have your most valuable bling hanging out for every virtual thief to covet," her mother argued. Yet when she shared the story with a family friend and therapist who knew them both intimately, her mind was swayed by the therapist’s view of the episode. While the therapist was impressed how everyone from the head of the company to the most intimate family member rallied to support a child in trouble, she added, “Now that she is back in the Gaia world as her old self, make sure to encourage her to continue to express herself with the full force of her creativity and not to hold herself back out of fear. She is far wiser now and will never make that mistake again. The positive power of that self exploration far outweighs any negatives of the episode”
In Jack Myers' book Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future, he writes "Psychologists report a child's virtual self often reflects more about their core self-image that the self they display in their day-to-day behavior. Their virtual selves display their feelings about authority, their likes and dislikes unfettered by parental influence and controls. The worlds in which they immerse themselves often reflect more about their self-identities and how they want to be perceived than their more traditional activities and choices." Myers adds, "Scientists, sociologists and anthropologists suggest that active social participation and involvement in online virtual worlds is a more constructive and healthy human experience than passively watching television, reading a book, or being in an unhappy job or relationship."
Gaia CEO Sherman agrees. "In a world where teens are constantly packaging and branding themselves in high school, MySpace and Facebook, experiences they are having on sites like Gaia are more rich and wholesome than adults who didn't grow up with them expect they are. Online hang-outs are not like videogames," he explains. "It's an experience with other people in an implied sense of space and it's very real." He acknowledges it would be imbalanced to only be online and not be doing things in the 'physical' world but he argues "in traditional games like Sims, it's implied you are with other people but you are alone." He offers the analogy of playing with dolls and a dollhouse. He also explains, "in the real world you are limited to friends in physical proximity to you. Virtual worlds unlock the chance to find like-minded souls anywhere in the world. It's a wonderful thing that hasn't existed before."
In his book, Myers acknowledges "There can be, unquestionably, legitimate criticisms of websites that capture people's time and attention for hours and hours. Parents especially will be appropriately concerned about how and where their children are spending their time and with whom they are interacting. Safety issues need to be at the forefront of controls over virtual worlds as they evolve. But the evolutionary advances that are the promise of virtual worlds offer hope for the future of human interaction."
Gaia Responds to the Clementine/Bluebird Case With New Rules
The axiom "how a company handles the exception shows its integrity," is apropos here. Sherman is anxious to address the specifics and the issues that Clementine's experience throws into relief. Without coming off as defensive he begins, "I think we do a better job than almost all virtual worlds." He points out that World of Warcraft, which assesses a $15 monthly subscription fee (Gaia is free), does not attempt to deal with scamming. "They won't deal with it, it's your responsibility. And their goods are worth a lot of real money." That said, he admits, "We're may not have been good enough on a case–by-case basis."
Sherman agrees that the Bluebird matter might have been handled differently and offers that Gaia has learned from the Clementine/Bluebird case. It now has a root fix that seems intuitive but was not-so-simple to implement: even though users are sending over a million posts a day, Gaia actively checks every name and password embedded in a message and double checks to assure a password is not being shared. Gaia has also launched a more comprehensive and mandatory education campaign for all new users, introducing them to examples of potential dangerous activity in a game-like interactive format. "Young people learn through experience, not through a set of paperwork," advises dana boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley's School of Information. boyd studies how one negotiates a presentation of self in networked, mediated contexts such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. Rather than read a Terms of Service agreement, she agrees it is more valuable to walk children and teens through a set of exercises and scenarios. "But it's not bulletproof," she warns. Sherman's added solution is a full-time team that is focusing on actively helping people like Clementine.
But what about Gaia gold and objects that users earn and acquire in-world? Unlike Second Life where entrepreneurs have created an economy around skins, apparel and environments, all of the objects within Gaia are made by Gaia, so the virtual world has the ability to track them from cradle to grave via their unique ID. What they can't do unless they are notified is distinguish between a trade among friends, a sale in the marketplace and outright theft. But a new fix is in the works as well. Just as bank accounts require PIN numbers to access monies via an ATM, in the future Gaia users will have a PIN number, a solution Clementine herself envisioned when she discovered her holdings had been liquidated. In effect, a scammer might manage to steal an identity but would be unable to access the Gaia collectibles.
Another issue that did not crop up here but that Sherman wanted to address is pfishing, those fake Chase and eBay e-mails and websites designed to get your social security number, your passwords, your identity. They proliferate on virtual worlds as well. Gaia's remedy is to introduce a frame, think of a border crossing at customs, so that you are told "You're Leaving Gaia" and can distinguish between what is the virtual world and what is a foreign website. Another suggestion offered by boyd is that Gaia residents be sent an e-mail with a reason and projected duration when they are banned, and perhaps given a ticket and reference number. Clementine was never formally contacted when she was banned and Bluebird disappeared.
While the perp that scammed Bluebird has been banned, (by IP address) it took this episode to remind the virtual world that teen users need to be handled with kid gloves. Sherman's bottom line here is: "If our users aren't satisfied, we won't grow." Sherman also needs to address the rights and concerns of users and their parents as Gaia opens its world for the first time to marketers. Before agreeing to accept ad revenues, Gaia asked members their opinion on options to generate revenues required to expand the site and assure it's always available. (Clementine reports in-world activity on Halloween was so active it was difficult to gain entry.) Gaia's first partnership with Scion resulted in more than 470,000 cars being "purchased" in world in the first two months, compared to 6,000 virtual Scions acquired in Second Life in six months. Gaia offered cars, a virtual store for body parts and customizing, flash environments where users could hang out in their car at a mini-mart, and a racing game. "Our [marketing] focus is exclusively on doing things cool for our users that encourage them to spend more time interacting and that work well for the sponsors," says Sherman. He reports to date Gaia has turned down several potential marketing partnerships for not meeting those criteria.
Loyal Clementine has returned to Gaia (she didn't even consider other teen worlds) and Bluebird has been welcomed back with open arms by her avatar friends. Gaia has addressed several of the issues that Clementine's experience raised. Clementine has also gained life lessons: identity is precious and needs to be vigilantly protected; authority, no matter how demanding, needs to be questioned; having the right connections help; self-exploration is positive and should be supported and encouraged; and most importantly, speaking out is not just good – it can actually improve the quality of life for an entire world.
For more information on Gaia contact Director of Marketing Annie Morita at firstname.lastname@example.org. Avatar recreation by Genny Beliveau.
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