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December 22, 2007

Virtual Worlds and Second Life: A Changing Media Environment

Virtual Worlds & Second Life: A Changing Media Environment

Philip Rosedale and his avatar

Philip Rosedale the founder of Linden Labs who run Second Life alongside his avatar.


One of the most fascinating developments in new media is the growth of virtual worlds with Second Life currently the leading virtual world in the marketplace although there are other ones being developed. Here I start to examine the growth of the virtual worlds and discuss whether phenomena such as Second Life should be considered as a game, a social networking site, or as something else in its own right. A quick search on Amazon UK reveals 11 titles currently available on Second Life. But these are largely not academic more like Lonely Planets Guides. An academic one just published is linked below. It is the first in a stream that will undobtedly appear in the next 18 months.

This page has developed out of my attempts to encourage my AS students to investigate Teen Second Life as part of their Audiences and Institutions: New Media Technologies Unit. It would be interesting to develop a media teaching environment in there so any media teachers / lecturers teaching this age range please drop a comment in the box. 

Game or Not: A Convergence?

The Uvvy wiki points out with a clear position on whether it is a game in the opening to its entry:

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of people (August 2006) from around the globe. Second Life is not a videogame, but a complete platform for business and entertainment. ( My emphasis: Uvvi wiki entry 22 / 12 / 07)

Uvvy itself can hardly be said to be neutral on the issue as they are:

uvvy is a full service Internet, Virtual Reality and Metaverse consulting and engineering team

Here some of the ideas are explained:  

The uvvy is the ultimate p2p communication device invented by the mathematician, computer scientist and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker. The uvvy does not exist yet but maybe coming soon.

Academia hasn't quite caught on to the fact that computer games represent the convergence and the flowering of the most ambitious frontier efforts of the old twentieth-century computer science: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life." Rudy Rucker, "The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul" (My empahsis).

Well this gets us around the question of whether it is a game or not - sort of!

The Virtual Worlds Review 

Virtual Worlds Review has a useful page which analyses several types of virtual world:

A virtual world is an interactive simulated environment accessed by multiple users through an online interface. Virtual worlds are also called "digital worlds," "simulated worlds" and "MMOG's." There are many different types of virtual worlds, however there are six features all of them have in common:

1. Shared Space: the world allows many users to participate at once.

2. Graphical User Interface: the world depicts space visually, ranging in style from 2D "cartoon" imagery to more immersive 3D environments.

3. Immediacy: interaction takes place in real time.

4. Interactivity: the world allows users to alter, develop, build, or submit customized content.

5. Persistence: the world's existence continues regardless of whether individual users are logged in.

6. Socialization/Community: the world allows and encourages the formation of in-world social groups like teams, guilds, clubs, cliques, housemates, neighborhoods, etc. 

Below there is an interesting attempt to develop a more politically astute environment.

Agora Exchange

This site has led me to an interesting  site in which a political game is being devised. It is taking a range of ideas from contributors who must first of all log in. It has actually been commissioned by the Tate Gallery online:

Commissioned by Tate Online, through funding from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Changing Concepts of Cyberspace 

The 07 Siggraph Conference brought out some interesting ideas relating to virtual worlds. As Amy Bruckman suggested in a paper reported by the BBC. 

Already online worlds such as Second Life challenged notions of what was meant by "cyberspace", said Amy Bruckman, associate professor in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Coined by William Gibson, cyberspace has been defined as the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Increasingly it has been associated with online spaces, often games, where people go to play and socialize and are represented by an avatar.

However, said Prof Bruckman, it was becoming obvious that blogs and MySpace and Facebook pages were also in cyberspace, even though they also had strong links to the real world, because they were used to showcase events such as birthday parties, excursions or the birth of their children.

How will the Audience Develop?

Exodus to the Virtual World

Published by Palgrave in the US in November 2007 by Edward Castronova  this is one of the first of what will soon be a stream of academic publications on developments in Virtual Worlds.  

The appeal of online virtual worlds such as Second Life is such that it may trigger an exodus of people seeking to "disappear from reality," an expert on large-scale online games has said. (Edward Castronova, Associate Professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University to the BBC)

But he stressed there will be a group of people that spends all their lives there, and that the big question is the size of this group. (Ibid)

Castronova goes to some pains to differentiate between escapism - somebody avoiding a  situation say a weak marital relationship -  compared to a refuge from the world in which somebody can make a go of things whilst in conventional life they were being discriminated against. He also comments that it is likely to have a strong appeal to those in low paid low skilled jobs. however wherever people congregate there is usually exploitation and they will be paying to be exploited twice just like going to the movies, but if they enjoy themselves and they feel there is some element of control in their lives maybe it won't be so bad.

However if you check out the Densu Virtual Tokyo initiative below they are aiming to use Second Life to conduct high added value services like selling real estate. Clearly there are a number of ways in which this world might develop its audiences in the plural.  

Identity in Virtual Life

It is remarkable to see the reactions of people when one talks to them about Second Life and the possibility of spending a considerable amount of time in one / several virtual worlds. Is the fear / attraction of escapism from "the meat" as William Gibson describes it?

One thing is for certain the issue of identity is likely to be the core one when it comes to the success of these worlds. Many of my own students either quickly expressed an interest or reacted quite strongly against the possibility.  

Historically it might be possible to equate these virtual spaces to the societal role of the masked ball or issues of carnival written about by Bahktin. These are spaces where people can legitimately "transgress". Psychoanalytic accounts based upon Lacanian thinking will probably come to analyse these spaces as ones of the remainder. Probably different worlds will develop different codes of behaviour and perhaps different worlds will prove more attractive to different classes and types of people and come to be understood as functioning differently there are after all lots of different types of pubs and clubs and Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital will, I'm sure, be applicable in due course. It is if course far to early in the development of these worlds to be anyhting more than speculative.   

Here is a long paper by Judith Donath teaching within the MIT media department on "Designing Sociable Media" in 2001. It is quite an old paper now but the issue of identity and deception is even more important now than it ever was. Donath's course had many intersting elements. Here we can see that she is applying her research into the early MUDs into the beginnings of the developing online virtual worlds:

Nearly all of the avatar systems in current development (or in fiction for that matter) are graphical versions of real-time conversation systems (Rossney 1996). This is not surprising, since many social cues that are needed in a real-time conversation - such as emotional expressions, indications of attention, turn-taking signals, and awareness of presence - are problematic in a purely text-based world. Many of the distinctive vocabularies and discourse patterns (smileys, emote commands, etc.) that have evolved in these environments are attempts, given the very limited communicative channel, to introduce expression and other non-textual components of real-world speech (Cherny 1995). Graphical interfaces provide a promising new medium for conveying this information. (From Donath: Inhabiting the Virtual City). 

Donath's key point here is that avatars will effectively become and already are much more effective means of communication incorporating a wealth of non-verbal communication. It might not be real life but then it's not meant to be! It is a media and communications system.

Avatars from Worlds Away

Donath has illustrated her paper with this image of avatars from the World's Away environment dating from 1996. Obviously things have moved on a lot since then.  This environment  originally run by Fujitsu is now owned by VZone

Making Life Easy or Making it Worse?

As we increasingly move towards shopping on the internet there could be distinct advantages in doing this in a virtual world environment points out Philp Rosedale the founder of Second Life:

Shopping on Amazon might be much easier and enjoyable if you could turn to one of the other 10,000 or so people on the site at the same time as you and ask about what they were buying, get recommendations and swap good or bad experiences. (Philip Rosedale in BBC interview - 14th Dec 2007)

The Developing Institutional Context

Thus far it seems as though the media giants haven't invested in Linden Labs and Second Life yet however I'm sure Rupert Murdoch has a close eye on it especially its possible business applications. computer companies are definitely getting very interested and IBM once one of the largest companies in the world is linking up with Linden Labs to develop Avatars:

A virtual character, or avatar, for all the virtual worlds in which people play is the goal of a joint project between IBM and Linden Lab.

The computer giant and the creator of Second Life are working on universal avatars that can travel between worlds.(BBC Technology pages)

The project started by IBM and Linden Lab aims to create a universal character creation system so people only have to create a digital double once. (ibid)

Clearly there is an expectation on the part of IBM that virtual worlds are going to grow and this development could make it much easier to move through a great variety of these worlds. If this sounds strange to some readers now remember it only about 12 years since the web started up with a graphical user interface and things have moved exponentially since then!. 
If you don't believe me then take a look at the impressive line up for the forthcoming virtual worlds conference in 2008 and also take a look at the topics being covered.

The Future Media and Communications

Dentsu in Second Life

One of my AS students kindly added this link from the Financial Times Aug 2007. The advertising agancy Dentsu has spent an enormous amount of money with Second Life establishing a virtual Tokyo:

Virtual Tokyo gets a virtual Second Life Tokyo 

By Mariko Sanchanta in Tokyo, site
Published: Aug 22, 2007

Dentsu, which spent about Y10m ($870,000) to acquire the 85 hectares in Virtual Tokyo, is aiming to recoup its investment by lining up 30 or so blue-chip companies to build a virtual presence within the first year.

Mr Aihara said: "We're aiming to create a virtual Japanese Wall Street, where major Japanese financial institutions will have a presence.

"For example, users would be able to negotiate a virtual home mortgage with a bank to then buy a virtual flat. (My emphasis). 

Virtual Business Tools for Second Life 

Just as this site uses Google Analytics to monitor usage and to help develop pages and audience relationships so a range of business tools are being developed for Second Life. This image comes from Maya Realities who have develop a Second Life Analytics.

Maya Realities Analytics Screen

Equally important to where visitors spend time on your land is where they are located in real life. The above map helps determine what languages to offer your products and services or what cultures warrent focused resources.

Work in Progress on Virtual Tokyo 

The Japan Times of Oct 25th 2007 reprots the following:

A work in progress, Virtual Tokyo so far houses online representations of such entities as Keio University, the TBS television network, Mizuho Bank, as well as a takeoff ramp for ski jumping and a sports stadium.

Sceptical and Critical Views of Second Life

The Phoney Economics of Second Life


The more I research about virtual worlds the more convinced I am that they will be normal for a lot of people in advanced industrial societies in 10 -12 years time. The enormous potential for interactivity will make older media forms seem like the dinosaurs they are. As the number of these world's increases we are likely to see the smart media money from the Rupert Murdoch's of this world move into the arena once it becomes a little more established. In world advertising will probably drive these environments making the cost of entry very low in order to attract mass audiences. Obviously the broadband systems will need to be far better. The likely outcome if this scenario unfolds is for low grade TV channels to disappear. Who wants so called reality TV when you can have a much more intersting time online elswhere? I would rather put my pension fund into Linden Labs than ITV (The current 84.4p, up 1.4p on Thursday) that's for certain !

For my students I'm hopefully preparing them for what will become more important in media, communications and cultural studies departments at an undergraduate level when they get to university. Right now a lot of research that has been going on will come on stream and new courses will start to emerge just as these worlds are likely to take off.  

As can be seen above the prospect of a multiplicity of virtual worlds is upon us. Just like early colour TV sets there will be much that is a bit flakey in terms of quality. But it seems clear from this brief round up of things as they stand at the back end of 2007 that the future of virtual worlds is currently a rosy one. Despite some figures suggesting that Linden labs has lost some members in November it is sensible to take a medium term development view. Dentsu a big advertising (media company) is clearly a large early adopter and is making a clear developmental push to develop quite a sophisticated audience. It is likely that this trend will continue. As the dollar equals around 2 Linden and the Pound Sterling is around $2 there are clearly some entreprenuerial opportunities awaiting! I still wonder whether there will be avatars queuing out of the Second Life Banks on a Satureday morning though! Things seem to have moved on steadily from a year ago and the the pieces are gradually moving into place for a much larger adotption rate of residents to begin who will swamp the pioneers. Lets hope Linden have got enough servers!

Webliography and Online Resources 

Search Term on Google: Identity and Virtual World. This leads to a list of scholarly articles. The ones at the top of the list are the classic ones. You will need to go down a couple of pages to find more up to date material

B. Book. Moving Beyond the Game:Virtual Social Worlds

Stephen Webb : Avatar culture: Narrative, power and identity in virtual world environments (You will need to pay for this one or have subscription rights).

BBC money Programme: Virtual world Real Millions

Elizabeth Daniel is Professor of Information Management at the Open University Business School check her blog here.

December 22, 2006

New Media. Le Web 3 Conference

Le Web 3 Conference

Partners at Le Web 3 Conference

Despite the scepticism noted in earlier postings on Second Life there was a large conference in Paris discussing ideas about Web 3 (Maybe 3.0) but I quite like the idea of Le Web Trois :-).

No time to check this out at present but there are plenty of links from this site. I notice there are some venture capital firms there, so Web 3 means business.

New Media: Second Life continues to be talked about

Follow-up to New Media. Second Life: the Virtual World is Taking Off from Kinoeye

More on Second Life

Some Updates
Currently it seems that Second Life is attracting more and more attention not only from the Web Savvy world but from research psychologists ever keener to get in on the act. Also Thursday’s technology Guardian was sceptical about the numbers of people using Second Life. Whatever else Second Life appears to be keeping up with Oscar Wilde’s dictum about being talked about or not!

Another interested Blogger in New Media also has his doubts about the popularity of Second Life. As with everything it will take time. My suspicion is that with all frontiers it will attract more and more creative people. Adam from Reuters has noticed that many corporate parts of the virtual real estate are empty however they are covering themselves for the future. If real estate and the exchange rate remains cheap it is a miniscule expense. If – as I suspect it will over a decade – Second Life takes off for millions of users on a regular basis then the big corporations have alreadsy got thier claijms staked!

Below: Flights of Fantasy an avatar in Second Life

An Avatar in Second Life

Academic Research

Academic researchers are certainly interested. Links will be added to the bottom of this piece as they are discovered / emerge. There is littel doubt that it will be a delight for Deluezian inspired cultural studies people. Presumably there will be a spate of Research Methods in Virtual Environments in the next couple of years.

What’s out there Now?

Yesterday morning Radio 4’s news programme Today had interviews with two Pschologists about how they were looking into Second Life as a viable environment in which they could run experiements on people’s reactions in certain circumstances. These are experiments that could not be run in the ‘real world’ for ethical reasons.

Much of the discussion circled around the famous experiment of ordering volunteers to adminster what they thought were powerful electric shocks to people who were in fact actors. Despite severe doubts from many of the experimentees they ended up giving ‘electric shocks that could knock people out’ or even kill them.

The radio 4 presenter John Humphreys displayed a certain aversion to -Second Life_ as well. his attitude was a bit scornful to say the least.

If you happen to become a user of Second Life just be aware that if you come across something which is pushing your reactions in surprising ways perhaps conflicting with your real life persona. Just ask yourself the question – is this a bunch of psychologists behind this.

Link here to the BBC ‘Listen Again’ site to download this discussion. Scroll down to the 8.30 am slot: Agony and Ecstasy of Living in the Virtual World

If you seriously interested download it to your hard drive. I’m hoping they will archive it on the server somewhere so that it will be available permanently. I think that there is going to be a lot more discussion emerging around Second Life.

PS: Just discovered the Today Programme Audio Archive Pages. This interview on Second Life will turn up here after Xams 2006.

Added Extra: Short Rant on Psychologists

Things to remember about psychologists are:

  • They need to persuade people they are useful
  • The hisory of early psychology linked to perception was about making the workforce more effective / productive in the early part of the 19th century. See Jonathan Carey ‘Techniques of the Observer’ MIT Press for more on this. This has gone on ever since in business and industry.
  • Psychologists (or some I talked to many years ago) have often been concerned with making people ‘normal’. Ther ones I had in mind were defending the prospect of giving gay people electric-shock aversion therapy to ‘cure them’
  • Psychologists are the people behind putting sweeties under kids noses in supermarkets thus contributing to obesity and general toothlessness
    amongst the population
  • Psychologists love watching ‘Big Brother’, one wonders whether it wasn’t dreamt up by psychologists in the first place
  • Psychologists bear a heavy responsibility for turning the whole education system into the reductionist, positivistic, quantitive, prescriptive managerialist anti-educationalist affair it is today. Why else is Britian’s functiona l illiteracy so bad despite going to school earlier than on the continent and being forever tested?
  • Psychology has shown how socially progressive it is as the ‘discipline’ has expanded exponentially since the Thatcher regime and has remained an extremly popular subject under the Blair regime
  • Perhaps there is a case for social research into the popularity of Psychology in relation to the prescriptivness on governments of the time?

TV Interview With Second Life Guru

Second_Life Interview

Getting back to the point here is a link to the Second Life Interview

Research Projects into Second Life

Aleks Krotoski one of the Guardian’s technology correspondents is also doing a PhD.

December 20, 2006

New Media: Types of Work Available


The links on this page are to show what kind of work is being created within the broad media field as new media technologies emerge and new ways of thinking and doing also emerge.

This link is to the main BBC new media commisssioning page describing the genereral principles of how the organisation works with regard to developing new media content.

This link is to BBC Wales commissioing cross media work.

Enquiry into impact of New Media and jobs in the creative industries (from 2005)

Recruitment Banner for Second Life Virtual Environments

Perhaps one of the most exciting New Media arenas to be working within today is for Linden Labs the creators of the Second Life virtual environment. Linden Labs Recruitment page is here.

December 12, 2006

New Media. Business Likes Virtual Environments

Second Life Means Business

Below Adam Reuters: in real life the Reuters correspondent Adam Pasick.

Adam Reuters Adam Pasick in real life

Reuters and its use of Second Life

(NB please also check the Reuters RSS feed for stories on Second Life only under the new media technologies section in the sidebar.)

you can teleport out to the Reuters Atrium (you will need to be a member of Second Life to get all the way I’m afraid :-( )

Reuters & Nintendo Wii

CNet on the Reuters Second Life News Bureau (They have one as well).

You may be wondering by now what sort of people apart from journalists visit Second Life are they sad non-socials, geeks, adeventurers, entrepreneurs? A new report came out just as I was writing this (connected or what ? :-) ).

Chart of exchange rate of Linden dollars to the US dollar

Check out the Reuters RSS feed in sidebar for the up to date exchange rates.

Other business Stories about Second Life


Jeremy Paxman in Virtuality
elow Jeremy Paxman from BBC’s Newsnight but not as you know him.
Even the professional sceptic Jeremy Paxman from BBC’s Newsnight has been checking out Second Life. Interestingly drawn there investigating new media technologies from a business perspective. There is a link here to the video report. (The title of the article is a parody of Philip K. Dick’s Sci-Fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which got turned into a very famous film – but thenif you’re reading this you know that :-).

The American journal Business Week

Business Week: Second Life Tip sheet

CNet on how Big businesses are setting up in Second Life

If your’en the sort of person who has an ING internet account then maybe you’ll be able to draw out cash in Linden dollars when you visit Second Life sort of ‘Double Dutch’ perhaps?

Where people go business and economics follows and…

So do the tax people!

Other business Developments in Virtual Worlds

World of Warcraft owned by media conglomerate Vivendi is shaking up the games market.

New Media. Second Life: Views of Founder Philip Rosedale


At the time of writing the biggest developing cultural / social phenomenon on the Web is the rapid growth of the Virtual environment Second Life. It was initially launched in 2003 around the time other web2 applications were beginning to revitalise the web after the crash of 2000. Until a few months ago its growth has been steady but not really spectacular. Already over one million people have signed up to become members and it is suggested that its economy is growing faster than many real countries.

Below I have summarised some of the key points to come out of an interview with Philip Rosedale the founder of Second Life with Oliver Rosedale from .Net magazine. (very old world having a paper based product :-) ). If you go to the other article on Second Life you will find links to several stories by BBC reporters on it.

Interview Summary

Currently (December 2006) about 10,000 people per day are joining Second life

In September it grew at a rate of 38%

About $500,000 (real money) is spent everyday

Current rate of exchange real dolloars to Linden dollars (the local currency) $1 – $250.

Inspiration behind the project: Neil Stephenson’s book Snow Crash

Rosedale: the combination of 3D graphics and broadband were the two things that seemed absolutely necessary to make the whole thing work

Rosedale on the differences between Second Life and other virtual world models:

...there’s no levels, no scores and, most importantly, the content in second life is user created (my emphasis)...Linden Lab just sells and maintains land – all objects are created by people inside the virtual world.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between Second Life and environments sucha as World of Warcraft. Second Life is about creating a country not a game.

The difference is that there are many more possibilities to explore. It can be entirely escapist or it is possible to test out products and developments as some businesses are already. Another difference is that people who are ‘stuck’ in the real world can create their own entrepreneurial opportunities in Second Life.

In this latter sense it can be seen culturally as the recreation of a frontier zone. It has shades of a revitalisation of the cowboy frontier ethic for the 21st century.

Perhaps it is part of the liberal free-trading culture which has been the root of American financial success (as well as some of its poverty some would say).

Web 1 or Web 2

Reuters in Second life

This application seems to blur the differences between Web 1 and Web 2. As Rosedale is arguing that Linden Labs purpose is to create a country they have provided an enormously interactive social environment which is a major attraction. another major attraction which gives it a Web 2 feel is that its future development is primarily based upon what users decide to make and to do.

Users keep the intellectual property rights on articles they make within the environment:

bq. People are using the scripting language to build something like a watch that your avatar wears, and when you zoom in on it, its telling the right time and maybe has an alarm on it(Rosedale interviewed .Net Jan 2007 p36).

Clearly this makes it an extraordinarily interactive and highly dynamic environment which is laregly contingent upon how the users decide to use it unlike the gaming virtual environments which often have regular and predictable features built into the software.

There is is even crime in Second Life however there is some serious thinkng going on from Linden Lab. Issues of control are community based informed by books such as the well known The Death and Life of Great American cities by Jane Jacobs. There are many experiments going on about how to govern.

One thing is currently missing that is present in the real world. That is the potential for monopoly contorl of commodities. there’s no cost of goods and there’s no manufacturing and distribution costs says Rosedale.

For Rosedale the most important feature of Second life is that it is _inherently social. When you navigate the web normally you are alone. although Second life is a website you are rarely alone in your ventures. Arguably this puts paid to those a few years ago who thought that the web would kill off sociality. It seems to be moving sociality into different space which is rather a different thing.

December 11, 2006

New Media. Second Life: the Virtual World is Taking Off

Second Life The Reality of Virtual worlds

Second Life for Beautiful People

IntroductionAlgernon Avatar

The first time I’d heard about Second Life the rapidly growing virtual world with thousands of people signing up every month was in the Financial Times weekend colour supplement a few weeks ago (now available online here). They had sent a reporter in to check out this rapidly growing phenomenon.

Once you come across something it seems to be everywhere. its in this month’s Net magazine and a swift search is finding stories about it on the technology pages of the BBC website. so let’s start to check it out.

Special World for Teenagers

Because of the more adult nature of Second life and because many don’t wish to meet teenagers even dressed as avatars the creators of Second life have created another world especially for teenagers.

Click here to find the interface to Second Life

Take some time and follow the BBC links and also the other links. There’s a story of one person who in real life got into debt and managed to win the trust of his Linden friends to lend him real money! Wow…. now there’s impressive.

The BBC Second Life Concert Venue

You’ll find the BBC runs rock concerts in there and IBM are there too. Addidas and Toshiba are selling virtual trainers and cars. some people are reckoning that this is the ‘killer’ application for broadband internet, in other words how to make real money in the real world.

Other Virtual Worlds

The online game World of Warcraft is hugely popular with more than five million people now regularly spending time in Azeroth, trying to turn apprentice adventurers into fully-formed heroes.

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game and, as that lengthy title implies, gives gamers the chance to control characters in a large net-based fantasy world.

World of Warcraft

For some Warcraft players slaying monsters and gathering treasure is not enough. Instead of swords they are using economics as a weapon.
This is because for all its fantasy trappings, one aspect of Warcraft is alarmingly similar to the real world and that is the importance of money.


Virtual worlds is bocoming a big thing. They are working on different models of development. The World of Warcraft is dungeons and dragons for the web however Second Life is a far more creative and dynamic model which is generating real interest in the world of business as well as individual adventurers. Please see the entry which is summarising the Net interview with Philip Rosedale the founder of Second Life. Certainly some are beginning to see Second Life as the new ‘killer’ application for the broaqdband era for it is the availability of cheap broadband that is a core technology in allowing the model to operate. Broadband is to Second Life what roads are to a city.

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