Reflecting on last week’s Metaverse event at Eyebeam, it seems to me that one aspect that was barely touched upon was the idea of the metaverse as a new form of civic space. The virtual agora, if you will. Prokofy Neva got closest, talking about the need for gathering places and a common rule of law. But beyond that, most of the talk centered on creating opportunities for new forms of business and reaching consumers better, rather than new forms of democracy and engaging citizens better.
This is unfortunate, since there are a number of interesting Second Life experiments that show the potential for civic engagement online. Most are specific to particular causes, to get people mobilized to be more active on a certain issue. I.e.:
- The recent sit-in and interactive maze sponsored by Global Kids on the issue of child sex trafficking
- The virtual Darfur refugee camp
- The "3d-wiki" on Democracy Island to engage citizens in planning a new public park space
- A real world political campaign with a virtual headquarters in Second Life.
More generally, there are the different ways that the Linden Labs, the owners of Second Life, use technology to solicit the views and suggestions of the SL population. Among the wide range of input mechanisms they offer are their frequent community roundtables, Town Hall meetings, their Linden blogs, the discussion forums (now being phased out), and feature voting.
Really, Second Life is fertile ground for political scientists to study how this new world confronts issues of democratic engagement, free speech, inter-group conflict, the management of public goods, and other government-like functions. Is it a benign dictatorship, a corporation with a heart or something closer to the United Sims of Secondlandia?
And beyond that, how do real world citizens self-organize using these virtual spaces in ways that move beyond traditional party functions and even other web-enabled organizing? Does civic engagement in virtual environments echo the same political, nationalist, gender, ethnic and socio-economic divides that characterize our non-virtual public sphere? Or is there an emerging virtual civil society that transcends those divisions?
I have been been through many struggles trying to get traditional NGOs and advocacy groups to move from pre-Internet organizing and strategic modes to a more net-centric, broad-based style of mobilizing. Getting them to realize that online engagement is more than just a static web page and an occasional email blast has been like pulling teeth from tiger. Bringing them into a 3D virtual environment will be exponentially more challenging.
That of course creates opportunities for new kind of organizations and new forms of civic engagement to emerge outside of mainsteam civil society. In the end, groups stuck in 1980s-style "We are the World" type organizing will find themselves increasingly irrelevant as more digitally-engaged activists emerge.