Virtual worlds and Second Life as environment for political activism

The most successfull metaverse, Second Life, continues to stir the passions, after a series of critical articles questioning the number of participants, its very high energy usage (an avatar has a very large carbon footprint), and its commercial implications.

Nevertheless, many pioneering participants, such as Joshua Levy who shared his experiences at the IDC mailing list, remain positive about its potential. Here’s his interesting overview:

Joshua Levy:

“Second Life may or may not be overhyped, and may or may not be the future of the web, but I thought I’d share my experiences with it as I’ve worked on a documentary about political activism in SL. I’ve been surprised at how much I’m starting to appreciate its possibilities.

I’ve taken to heart Clay Shirky’s critique that SL has been overly hyped by its creators, and I’ve been especially interested in Ethan Zuckerman’s criticisms of a virtual Camp Darfur, which he argued is an inadequate tool for publicizing such a large scale tragedy; last May he wrote, “given that roughly 100,000 people log into Second Life in a given month – compared to roughly one billion using the Internet as a whole – I suspect people trying to call attention to global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space.”

Nevertheless, many people are finding SL useful as a space for activists and organizers to model behavior and create idealized versions of things that are, in reality, broken. The folks I know best that are doing this are associated with RootsCamp, a progressive group/conference that emulates the open-source BarCamp idea of the “unconference.”

Ruby Sinreich and Andrew Hoppin developed RootsCampSL, a weekly meeting in Second Life for RootsCampers. You might wonder why people would want their avatars to meet once a week when listservs, online groups, or wikis seem like suitable tools for helping us collaborate (and maybe we haven’t even really figured out how to squeeze the best uses out of them yet). But as Ruby explained it at a RootsCamp conference in Washington, D.C late last year, Second Life is different even than instant messaging or IRC or wikis in that it offers embodied collaboration. Instead of getting frustrated with people talking over each other, or wondering if you or someone else is being addressed, in SL you can simply turn to an avatar and address them directly, or initiate a private chat, or walk away from the group.

A group called Doctors for Clark — doctors who supported Wesley Clark for president in 2004 — meets this way. They’re spread all over the country so it’s impossible for them to meet in the flesh, so they do the next best thing and meet in SL.

On the day the new Congress was sworn in I attended a press gathering at the Virtual Capitol Hill (it’s a transparent building), and before a congressman from California swooped in (well, his avatar did) I chatted with people who really think that SL is turning into a legitimate platform for political communication and organization. Some of them were at a war protest at the same spot a few weeks later, dancing around and waving signs and typing slogans of protest and peace. It was wacky, but it was sincere.

I met a man who runs a peace and justice center at Better World Island that was one of the most moving pieces of protest art I’ve seen since the start of the Iraq war. The center is actually a semi-transparent, two-level house with images of children, deserted shoes, and ruins on its walls. When you touch these images you are given notecards with emails written to and received from Iraqis that the curator, Bruce Wallace, has befriended. They tell terrible stories of daily life in Baghdad, and they are personal and heartfelt. It’s an art installation that moves beyond the space of Second Life and resonates strongly in the real world.

I also met a woman who runs the Center for Water Studies, also on Better World Island. The purpose of the center is to model endangered habitats to call attention to their real-world counterparts; it’s actually quite beautiful and magical. The woman, who’s avatar’s name is Delia Lake, took me on a tour of the place and I saw moose and small animals on the ground, birds in the sky, and schools of fish in the water. She even took me for a ride on a giant Orca! The more I describe this, the crazier it sounds; I know this. It sounds crazy to me. But I think that this platform has helped me experience a certain empathy for these causes and the people behind them that I’ve never felt viewing standard web pages.

Although I haven’t experienced it myself, I know that educators have had similar kinds of breakthroughs in SL as well. They describe being able to model behavior and situations in a way that lets students have a closer, truer experience than other mediated teaching methods allow.

I’m doing my best to maintain a healthy skepticism about it all. Is Second Life really a social platform that could eventually rival MySpace in size and outdo it in scope and influence? Is it paving the way for future apps that will change our relationships with technology and our assumptions about social media? Right now only about 40 avatars can be in any one place at any time or else the whole things crashes. Most people are there for sex or to dress up like gothic tigers or whatever. All of this serious stuff happens on the periphery and may be a passing fad. But what if it isn’t?”

2 Comments Virtual worlds and Second Life as environment for political activism

  1. AvatarSanjana Hattotuwa

    As I noted on my blog on ICT for Peacebuilding in January ’07:

    “I don’t see Second Life playing any significant role in Sri Lankan politics for several decades. However, an aspect that I do see MMORPG’s such as Second Life as holding great potential is in the realm of peace negotiations, humanitarian disaster relief simulations and online dispute resolution (ODR). These areas, that are already heavily dependent on communications that are increased mediated through the internet, lend themselves to the virtual worlds in Second Life – that can recreate real life scenarios, help participants work through future scenarios, help stakeholders collaboratively explore solutions to problems, provide the space to interact virtually after real world meetings, secure an online space that’s always available, and secure, for confidential meetings etc.”

    Read the full post here –

  2. AvatarDigidave

    Great post — and an interesting subject.

    At NewAssignment.Net we just did a post looking at the history and future of online civic protests. The basic conclusion — the way to make it most effective is to intermix it with real world activities. What if you staged a protest and nobody came?

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