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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 11:30 GMT
Teenage clicks in Second Life
By Gareth Mitchell
BBC World Service's Digital Planet

Second Life avatars
Linden have been making efforts to protect teenagers in Second Life
A few days before my trip to San Francisco, I was in the online world of Second Life having problems with my avatar - the digital manifestation of myself in this massive 3D virtual environment.

Around me, perfectly proportioned boys with prominent torsos floated around with skinny mini-skirted girls. After an hour fiddling around in the "edit appearance" menu, Therag, my avatar, stubbornly refused to be anything other than an anonymous silhouette. The only thing I could change was Therag's hair colour. I settled for purple.

Three days later, I found myself at Second Life in real life. The virtual world is the creation of Linden Lab, located on a quiet road near Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.

It runs on 4,100 computers housed in two server farms - one in San Francisco and the other in Dallas. Over a 24-hour period, an average of 60,000 of Second Life's 1.5 million users log in.

Despite my avatar-related frustrations, this was something of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment for me - an opportunity to peer behind the scenes of this social phenomenon with over three times the population of Luxembourg.

Business and porn

In a large, airy open plan office generously decked out with pot plants and figurines of characters from various sci-fi movies, around thirty people sat at their computers keeping an eye on their digital world.

Joe Miller
One of our challenges is just the sheer amount of bandwidth that we use
Linden Lab's Vice President Joe Miller
Linden Lab's vice president of platform and technology development, Joe Miller, is one of those charged with keeping it all going.

"We feel like we're surfing a very large tidal wave of popularity and we're staying out ahead of that crashing wave and surfing it successfully right now", he told Digital Planet.

But as Second Life has grown, so has criticism of it. Far from being a utopian online paradise, some regard Second Life as a seedy, even violent place, compromised by the presence of big business and porn.

And if my experiences are anything to go by, its technical capacity has failed to keep up with the rapid increase in membership. At busy times, scenes take ages to load, and navigating the landscape is slow and tedious.

"There are some bottlenecks in the system," Mr Miller concedes.

"We're actively working to remove those bottlenecks so that we can distribute the load that is perhaps causing some performance reduction at peak time.

"One of our challenges is just the sheer amount of bandwidth that we use. That's something we can easily solve by adding another one gigabit data line which is literally going in as we speak."

But last week, a Digital Planet listener told us that the newly expanded World of Warcraft online game supports four times as many people as Second Life and it never falls over.

"World of Warcraft touts a six million or larger active user base - but they shard their world off into smaller servers so you never see 16,000 people in the same place", said Mr Miller.

"That's unlike Second Life, where tonight you will see 16,000 people enjoying exactly the same world all able to communicate with each other, all attending the same live music event should they wish to."

Global issues

I mentioned my difficulties with my avatar and Joe Miller obligingly introduced me to one his team, who cranked up Second Life on my errant laptop and started fiddling with the graphics settings.

Meanwhile, for Digital Planet's contribution to the BBC World Service Generation Next season, focusing on issues surrounding young people, I made it to the other side of the office.

Headquarters of Linden Labs in San Francisco
Linden Labs operate out of this small building in San Francisco
I wanted to find out more about Teen Second Life, an area of the virtual environment fenced off exclusively for younger users.

The idea of the Teen Grid is to act as a safe haven for younger users, free of the adult content that pervades much of the main space.

Through their avatars, Teen Second Life's young users can go shopping, hang out and island hop just as their grown-up counterparts do on the Adult Grid.

But community manager Claudia L'Amoreaux told me that the Teen Grid is also a place for young people to tackle serious global issues that affect them.

"They built this maze as a project on global sex trafficking," he said.

"They were interested in helping other students learn about it so they could protect kids around the world who are being taken advantage of. It's a way to share what it's like for kids who are held captive in the sex trade."

The walls of the maze are emblazoned with images and posters giving information on the problem. Being ensnared in the puzzle is meant to mirror the experience of being a child trapped in prostitution.

Meanwhile across the office, Joe Miller and his colleagues had successfully configured my laptop to display Second Life properly.

Therag sprang on to the screen in the regulation Second Life newbie uniform of blue jeans and white t-shirt. Job done, it was time to go.

You can hear more from San Francisco in this week's edition of Digital Planet at 1232 GMT on BBC World Service.

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