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Thursday, October 28, 2004

STATE OF PLAY, STATE OF SECOND LIFE

Notes and images for a panel talk I intend to give today at State of Play II: Reloaded, a conference hosted by New York Law School and Yale Law School, devoted to exploring the legal and social issues provoked by next-generation virtual worlds. My chosen topic: the emergence of online worlds-- in this case, of course, Second Life-- as a potential medium for political expression.

POLITICAL BLOGGING IN 3D
A STATE OF THE SECOND LIFE UNION ADDRESS

SECOND LIFE DEFINED
A persistent, streamed, user-created 3D world encompassing hundreds of individual geographic regions, each contained on a separate Internet servers, merged together to form a contiguous continent. (Along with dozens of private and publicly-accessible islands off the mainland.) Released commercially in the summer of 2003, it has grown from under a thousand users to well over 10,000 residents who log in from all over the US and Canada, the EU, Asia, and assorted countries throughout the globe.

MY ROLE IN SECOND LIFE
I began as a game writer and freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, among other publications, contracted in early 2003 by Linden Lab to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging online community, in the role of an embedded journalist, for a blog called New World Notes. (Since then, my role has been expanded to include evangelism; for example, speaking on what I've learned about Second Life in my reporting, in forums like this.) My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit, in tribute to Tom Wolfe-- and sometimes, as a large, strange bald man with a bottle of whisky and a .45, in tribute to Hunter S. Thompson.

Second Life gives its residents the freedom and tools to create virtually anything-- homes, vehicles, custom clothing and weapons, for example-- and so, a recurring theme in New World Notes is what the residents build, and why. What do their creations say about their online experience, and how do they reflect aspects of their first lives, offline? Very early on, I discerned a political component to many of these projects-- as in a "Cannabis Carnival" I reported on a year ago, a theme park (with rides) advocating for the legalization of marijuana. I was struck by how the creator's political expression had been realized in fully interactive 3D form-- there's even a site-specific roller coaster, you can ride on-- and also, by the sign at the entrance, warning people to change the system from within, and meanwhile, to obey their country's laws regarding drugs. Even then, this resident was fully aware of the tension between what he expressed through his alter ego avatar, and his legal rights as a citizen in the real world. He'd draw in customers with his rides, and they'd often be inspired to discuss the issue with him, and each other. It's this communal aspect that also strikes me, along with the immediacy of the expression. It takes only minutes to import a text message, for example, and display it as a billboard on your property-- and just as long to get a reaction from passers by.

SECOND LIFE POLITICAL EXPRESSION AS "IMMERSIVE BLOGGING"--
Immediate, interactive, 3D/stereo/avatar-driven conversation conducted in a shared virtual space.

Some further examples...

WORLD ARCHITECTURE AS IT SHAPES POLITICAL CONFLICT AND AFFILIATIONS

Some political expression has emerged from the architecture of Second Life itself, as implemented by the developers. For example, a grouping function enables residents to customize social units, based on activities, interests, or in this case, political affiliation. One of the largest Second Life groups is "Leftists, Liberals, and Lunatics", and there are several LGBT groups, as well-- an act of political expression, conducted through the abstract remove of their avatar. This level of anonymity seems to encourage even more expressiveness. During this year's Pride March through Second Life, several attendees told me they are still in the closet, in real life, or at least very uncomfortable with such open, public advocacy of their lifestyle, as a pride march usually entails. (Unless it happens online.)

In other case, the definition of the interactive space shapes the subsequent political expression that emerges. This is most evident in the Jessie region of Second Life, an "Outlands" simulator where violent combat is not only allowed, but encouraged. Because of this, an influx of wargame fans took over Jessie last year; many of them were politically conservative, and as it happens, from the American South. This helped turn Jessie into a political war zone over the actual war in Iraq, and to this day, Jessie is still known as the "conservative" simulator, and also to this day, is still a flashpoint for political debate. (Recently, a leftwing resident purchased a small plot of Jessie land, streamed a liberal radio station onto her property, and erected a giant anti-Bush billboard-- and provoked the very kind of reaction she was hoping for, from outraged Jessie residents.)

IN-WORLD POLITICAL EXPRESSION AS A MODEL FOR ANALYZING REAL WORLD POLITICS

Often, the political expression is fairly simple-- a matter of copying political satire off the web, for example, and importing it into Second Life, say-- but it still offers rich potential for picking out archetypal narrative that's comparable to real world events. Case study: after a real world advocate for John Kerry created an in-world campaign headquarters, another resident immediately bought up the property next to hers, and created a "Swift Boats"-style anti-Kerry headquarters. (Provoking annoyance from many of their neighbors, some of whom weren't even American, or couldn't care less about politics either way.) Pretty much an entire microcosm of the current American political climate, conducted on 16 acres of virtual land.

Another simple but potentially powerful example of political expression: one resident set her property to a public radio station's Internet stream, broadcasted the third Presidential debate from her land, and invited residents of all political persuasions to listen in and discuss it together. Their conversation (which I live-blogged for NWN) was an informative exchange of politically engaged citizens, at least on a par with "neighborhood diner"-type interviews the mainstream press usually conducts, after a debate-- and perhaps much better.

POLITICAL EXPRESSION EMERGING FROM THE NET'S GLOBAL CHARACTER

Because MMOs are an Internet-based medium, bringing citizens from many countries into the same immersive space, the emergence of new political conversations is inevitable-- even from unexpected places. I recently profiled a resident who logs into Second Life from an airbase in Iraq. (He's a military contractor who shares a satellite Internet connection with his tentmates-- an interesting case study in itself, on the dislocation between perception and reality in Iraq.) Hearing where he was located, another resident he met jokingly accused him of being with the CIA-- but given worldwide opposition to US presence in Iraq, future encounters might not be as light-hearted. (A few American servicemen with Second Life accounts have told me that they prefer not to reveal their real life roles in the US military, to avoid conflicts with anti-war residents-- especially those who are non-US residents.)

We also saw this in September, when a large plot of land was devoted to building 9/11 memorials and tributes to the fallen. Many of them were angry and resolute, and the aggegrate inspired a somewhat dissenting reaction from an international resident-- who created a twin towers sculpture made out of peace signs.

VIRTUAL POLITICS GETS REAL

From the beginning of this year, Linden Lab has allowed the third-party buying and selling of Linden Dollars, the world's currency, for real money. This had led to several in-world fundraising efforts, charity auctions, parties, and other events, where all the proceeds are converted to cash, and contributed to real world non-profit groups. The most recent beneficiaries were victims of the recent hurricanes to hit Florida, but the first such effort was made this June on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF's advocacy of online freedom and fairer digital copyright standards is very much directly pertinent to residents of Second Life, so it's not surprising that they chose this group. (Not unlike nature lovers contributing to the Surfrider Foundation or the Sierra Club.)

THE FUTURE OF SECOND LIFE AS A POLITICAL MEDIUM
Some possibilities...

1 - CURRENT CONTENT ENJOYMENT TRENDS CONTINUE, POLITICS REMAINS MINORITY ELEMENT
Political expression remains a recreational diversion for a minority of players, with little influence on the rest of the world. (Especially if resident membership increases at a gradual arc.)

2 - MEMBERSHIP EXPANDS FAST ENOUGH TO GIVE POLITICAL EXPRESSION A SNOWBALL, POPULARIZING EFFECT
Successful political events (such as the EFF fundraising effort or the debate stream) usually lead to similar events-- more so when there's a large enough potential audience, to engage. (Think "The Daily Show", but in-world.) The ability to transfer the world's economy to real world currency may also add to this effect. Social networking programs have already become a campaign medium, so next major election, I wouldn't be surprised if candidates create official campaign headquarters in Second Life, spreading the word, and more key, raising money.

3 - INTERNATIONAL MEMBERSHIP EXPANDS GEOMETRICALLY, THREATENING BALKANIZATION; PROMISING GLOBAL COMMUNITY
Balkanization: regions divided according to language difference and global location (due to bandwidth concerns), leading to quasi-nationalist regions which don't interact with each other. (Except perhaps with hostility; another recent example: Orkut's balkanization of English speakers and Brazilian account holders.)

Global community: bandwidth and communication issues are resolved enough so that the influx of international residents leads to cosmopolitan societies, not American, not Europeon, not Asian, but a unique synthesis. A distinct, national ethos, for a society that only exists online.

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Comments

Thank you for making it obvious, what your political opinion is...not

Posted by: Ian Schwartz at Oct 28, 2004 12:14:46 PM

Heaven forbid a blogger have an opinion! Morron.

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