The destruction of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s virtual Second Life island in 2007 was considered an act of terrorism.
“Miscreants have hacked into the ABC Island inside the virtual reality world of Second Life, reducing the two-month-old facility to rubble,” the Sydney Morning Herald’s Stephen Hutcheon wrote.
Everything on the island had been razed except for a digital transmission tower.
Multiple reports mentioned the Second Life Liberation Army, a militant liberation movement that had emerged in the virtual world, as a possible suspect.
Representatives for the public broadcaster told the media that they would restore the island to its past glory.
The whole saga encapsulated the absurdity of the project to some, the punchline of a joke told in the ABC’s hallways.
But the ‘bombing’ — much like the entire project — has been misremembered, according to multiple people who were involved in the running of or spent time on the island. These sources spoke to Gizmodo, some of on background, as they still work in the industry.
How ABC Island came to be
Back in 2007, the ABC had a strategic development team in their Innovation Unit.
According to a former member of the ABC’s strategic development team, it was a skunkworks group given a mandate to experiment, try new platforms and think about how audiences work.
“We had free range. 15 people. We had designers, developers, not a lot of money. But we were able to come up with the projects ourselves. It was very democratic. It wasn’t top down,” the former team member said.
Projects were dreamed up, brought to life and then spun off to other areas of the ABC If they were successful. Some were.
While ideas like the alternate reality series Bluebird and emergency digital services either didn’t work out or failed to find broader audiences, other projects like iView have become a crucial part of ABC’s digital experience.
And then there was Second Life.
Created in 2003 by Linden Labs, Second Life is an online, three-dimensional virtual reality that runs on desktop computers. Users create their own custom avatars which they use to meet other people and build the world around them.
At the time, Second Life had buzz. User numbers were growing, people were becoming millionaires selling virtual products, and companies had begun flocking to the virtual world.
Harvard, Toyota, Reuters, even the Swedish foreign ministry had a presence in Second Life.
So the Innovation Unit thought it was time that the ABC got in on this too. The team came up with a plan, partnered with Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) for the design and sought a partner in the public broadcaster for the project.
The remit of the team was to kick off new ideas and then find homes for their ambitious projects to live after they’d been brought to fruition.
It was the prestigious Four Corners that answered the call.
“The ABC is set to become the first Australian media organisation to establish a presence in Second Life (secondlife.com) when ABC Island opens to visitors on a trial basis on Monday 19 March 2007,” a media release said.
The island was launched with a report on Four Corners about Second Life that was simulcast in the virtual world. “Potential visitors are urged to a rrive [sic] early as ABC Island – as with all Second Life islands – holds only 40-50 visitors at once,” the media release noted.
The ABC’s managing director, Mark Scott, even signed up for Second Life — although he remained coy about sharing his avatar’s handle when asked by journalists and in Senate estimates.
ABC Island — designed in the shape of the broadcaster’s oscilloscope waveform logo — was more than just a place to simulcast ABC television programmes.
RMIT’s Dr Lisa Dethridge was involved in the design of the project. She said the production team, led by AFTR’s Gary Hayes, came up with the design and logic of the space over a six month period.
“I remember we spent quite a bit of time thinking about […] when an avatar finds themselves in this experimental space, were we going to simulate that this was a new planet? Or that it was an ancient space that was thousands of years old? We were playing with timelines, we were playing with science fiction tropes,” she said.
The team opted for a relatively realistic design that closely imitated aspects of the real world.
There was an auditorium for events, a underground club for triple j (which wanted to distanced from the ABC branding), sculpture walks, a futuristic space for an invention show and even a ‘news dome’ which displayed RSS feeds of headlines projected above the characters heads.
What separated ABC Island from other spaces in Second Life was a sandbox space where anyone could come in, freely make objects and put them in their inventory.
Gary Hayes said the island was a ‘cheap experiment’.
“We did it on a nickel and dime. It was created in 5 days, me and a few students did some projects and things, and I continued developing it for a year and half,” Hayes said.
ABC Island was largely run by Second Life volunteers
After the ABC had purchased the space for the island, but before it launched, the team behind it realised that it needed on-going moderation that they couldn’t provide. So, they put a call out for anyone who wanted to be involved.
Wolfie Rankin was one of the people who answered.
“A friend who was running a newspaper in world alerted me to the fact that ABC was launching an island, there was a write up about it on a blog, volunteers were needed so I put my hand up,” he told Gizmodo over email.
Rankin was already a keen Second Life user who would hang out on a friend’s island. By the time that ABC Island launched, he was using Second Life every day. When he spoke to the ABC about it, he was insistent about helping them create the right kind of online space.
“Wolfie was really instrumental. We started talking about the project before we launched it […] and Wolfie said ‘what are you doing?’. He was really angry. We engaged him, asking him “can you help us?’” a former team member said.
“What happened was he ended up totally being co-opted into the project. He became the island.”
Rankin was one of the ten volunteers who were made admins on the day ABC Island launched. They ran the show outside of the official activities conducted by the ABC, teaching newbies how to use the game and moderating any trolls.
Rankin, along with two other admins and many of the other people on the Island, were also furries.
Furries are a group of people who are interested in cartoon animals that have some human features or qualities.
Furries took to Second Life, which was a perfect playground that allowed them to express their interests in places like the popular Furry Hangout island.
Online, many of them use anthropomorphic animal avatars to express themselves. For some, it’s platonic. For others, it’s a fetish, too.
Rankin blogged about his joy about experimenting with different forms in the game — including the range of human, equine, canine and dragon genitals on offer.
A former team member the furry culture being a dominant part of the ABC Island experience. She was fascinated by it, but also thought it scared some people off.
“It was a very interesting view on identity, and how people felt inside, and that Second Life provided this ability to express how they felt about themselves,” she said.
Rankin wrote on his Wikifur page (a website dedicated to preserving the history of the furry community) that it was a welcoming place for the community.
“ABC Island is notable in that although it is a ‘commercial sim’, it is furry friendly, and quite a few of the ABC Friends Admin are furries themselves. This is hardly surprising since the ABC are highly supportive of cultural diversity,” it says.
It tried to present broadcasted content in a new way
Non-furries took great pleasure in the transformative aspect of Second Life too.
The ABC ran its own branded events, including interactive talks and broadcasts of their programming. Once, a panel about a new television show was held in the auditorium and the audience was invited to explore a 3D recreation of the show’s world custom made for the Island.
But the real warmth of ABC Island came from the community run events. Inhabitants set off fireworks for Australia Day celebrations and held ANZAC Day memorials. They experimented with new objects and gave them to people who came by. Like all online spaces, there was occasional mod drama.
While it was mostly visited by Australians, international Second Life users would also come to ABC Island to experience the national broadcaster’s virtual tribute to Australiana.
Dethridge remembers a conversation with another inhabitant on ABC Island who gushed about what Second Life meant to him.
In real life, he was wheelchair bound. But in the game he was able to fly, run and swim — experiencing sensations virtually that he was unable to feel in real life.
“I remember talking to him as our avatars, and he was tearful with joy with the difference that it made to his life. His sense of participation and action was surpassing any of his other therapeutic activities. It was so liberating, it was like a lightning strike,” Dethrige said.
Second Life was already waning by the time ABC Island was built
Like some of the strategic development team’s other projects, ABC Island never gained mainstream appeal — but it built up a small, dedicated audience who weren’t otherwise engaged by the broadcaster.
At one point, the Australian reported it was the third most visited commercial site in the game. At its peak, it had several hundred unique visitors a week. The ABC won an award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers for it.
But mostly it was populated by a dozen users hanging out in the space at any one time.
Second Life had stalled.
When the ABC launched the island, there were already 4.6 million users. It only became clear later that user growth had already plateaued at that time, and would remain stuck at around a million active users for more than a decade.
“Certainly the potential promise of Second Life to be ‘the next big thing’ has faded somewhat,” the former team member said in 2011 after four years of operation.
Unlike iView, the team was unable to pass the project onto Four Corners or any other section of the ABC. The strategic developments team wasn’t set up to fund projects in perpetuity. Without anywhere to go, the Island was stuck in limbo.
The ABCs committed to “maintaining” a presence in Second Life but stopped putting any significant amount of money into it since the initial island build.
The Island continued to exist for years, largely without interaction with the ABC, until the team announced that they would shut the island down.
As it closed, Second Life user and journalist David Holloway captured the thoughts of some of the Island’s regulars.
“So sad… I was born there, and owe many old friendships to SL’s ABC Island,” Tiffy Vella said.
“I think whether you ‘discovered’ ABC island 5 years ago or 5 months ago, the common theme has been “but where will I go now?. Saying goodbye to ABC, is like saying: Goodbye….old friend,” Katisha Honi said.
And then, following one last party, the island shut on September 22, 2012.
ABC Island wasn’t blown up
As is often the case with new ideas in the ABC, its foray into Second Life became a Rorschach test for people and their beliefs about the public broadcaster.
Even now, several current and former ABC employees who weren’t closely involved with the project laugh at the mention of it, considering it an oddity from a time when the ABC hadn’t suffered a decade of budget cuts.
ABC Managing Director Mark Scott was even grilled about the island and its demolition at Senate estimates.
One of the most important things ever recorded in Hansard was this exchange about the ABC's Second Life island. "I understand there have been some disturbing happenings on Second Life recently" – indeed, Senator Conroy, indeed. https://t.co/6Rhan1JCnw pic.twitter.com/ZEDprH7GhD— Gary Dickson (@gzy_d) November 25, 2020
At one point, Labor’s Senator Stephen Conroy asked Scott “does the ABC management consider that the vandalism was an act of retaliation against the commercialisation of the ABC?”
He batted away a criticism of his inquiry from Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravant-Wells by reminding her that the ABC has spent thousands of dollars on the island.
Scott deflected saying that he was “not in a position to speculate at all about what caused a particular attempt at vandalism.”
Except, that’s not quite right. ABC Island hadn’t been vandalised by anyone. And despite some reports, it wasn’t blown up either.
It was a glitch that levelled the Second Life space, as first reported by intrepid Second Life journalist ‘Marmaduke Mertel’.
In a video posted to YouTube a few weeks after the incident, Mertel reveals that an error in Second Life’s back end seemingly reverted ABC Island back to its pre-build state.
“Simple mix up? More like a cautionary tale from the school copy-and-paste reporting,” Mertel quips in a faux old-timey radio voice.
Hayes and a former team member both confirmed that this was actually what happened. The pair speculated that a throwaway comment that ‘the island looked like a bomb went off’ mutated into confirmation that someone had attacked ABC Island.
After the team sent off an email to Linden Labs, they reverted the Island to its complete state a couple of hours later.
A weird but important experiment that left a mark
It’s a cliche to say that something was ahead of its time, but everyone involved with the project who spoke to Gizmodo believes that this was the case for ABC Island.
Concepts that seemed futuristic at the time — existing in a three-dimensional virtual world, using digital currencies, media building a communal digital spaces — are now unremarkable.
A former team member considers ABC Island as a necessary by-product of a process that crafted some of the broadcaster’s most important initiatives.
To them, the fact that the government funded national broadcaster would host a virtual island run by furries for years was not a bug in ABC’s system, but a feature.
“If you hadn’t done Second Life and those things, they couldn’t have done iView,” they said.
From the outside, Dethridge suspects that something like ABC Island wouldn’t happen today.
“[The ABC] was much more aggressively into digital design fifteen years ago than they are now […] I think it’s been a bit consuming having to keep up with Netflix and video on demand providers,” she said.
Rankin stayed until the very end of ABC Island. As time went on, fewer people visited. He found himself waiting for hours, hoping someone would turn up.
He launched Rockit, an interactive music quiz on the island that brought new people in. But even still, interest continued to dwindle until it was closed down.
In a 2014 blogpost, Rankin reflects on his time on ABC Island with mixed emotions: fondness for the people who inhabited it and a twinge of bitterness towards the organisation.
“When ABC Island closed down, I left Second Life completely, I had no purpose there anymore,” he said.
Rankin also left a postscript.
“I didn’t explain what Second Life was, Those [sic] who were there know exactly what it is, and those who weren’t, won’t care.”