[iDC] Second Life and activism, etc.

Joshua Levy joshualev at gmail.com
Thu Feb 22 00:16:23 EST 2007

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 <http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=545> 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 <http://www.rootscamp.org>, a progressive
group/conference that emulates the open-source BarCamp idea of the

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?

I would love to hear about your experiences with SL -- your triumphs,
failures, or complaints.

-Josh Levy


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20070222/9e7f673e/attachment.html

More information about the iDC mailing list