My buddy Hamlet over at New World Notes blogged today about the explosion in French political activity in Second Life over the past month, with not one but TWO political parties setting up headquarters in the virtual world. Both the far-far right Front National and the Socialist Party have pitched their pixelated tents in SL, leading to the influx of hundreds of new Frenchies, eager to support their own parties or attack their opponents.
Hamlet contrasts this Francophone political upsurge with the lackluster performance of the new Capitol Hill sim (teleport SLURL), which I wrote about not long ago. Indeed every time I visit the virtual Capitol Hill all I find is a couple of newbs walking around wondering what the point is.
What to make of these widely divergent experiments in creating online civic spaces? Does this reveal some basic differences in French and American political life? Or are there differences in implementation?
The tempting conclusion to make is that French people are simply more invested in their political process than most Americans. Certainly there is no lack of pundits willing to point the blame at Americans for being more knowledgable about the contestants in "American Idol" than they are about their elected representatives in Congress.
I wish I could make this assumption about American apathy, but I’m not convinced that the French as a people are more involved in their politics than we are. I have lived and worked with a number of French nationals, and I can’t say that they seemed markedly more interested in their political process than Americans. So at this point I will say that this might be an important factor.
One other possible factor is how these different builds were designed. Perhaps the French political parties are simply better at creating places that people would want to visit than the marketing folks at Clear Ink , who built the Capitol Hill sim.
But cursory examination of the builds reveals that there isn’t much to keep people coming back to any of them. There isn’t much fresh content being updated in any of the political spaces, nor any major events thrown. C-SPAN is not streaming live in the digital Capitol. Neither of the leaders of the French parties have appeared in SL to give a speech or kiss a baby avatar, and in Capitol Hill only one member of the Congress, Rep. George Miller, has given a short briefing. So I don’t think it’s a design issue, at root, although I think they all could certainly be improved.
So what’s my conclusion? That everyone loves a good fight. With the entry of the party of Le Pen, the ultra-right, immigrant-hating Front National, you have all the kindling you need for a flame war. I’m sure there are numerous French discussion boards that degenerate into name-calling and "putain" screaming once the Le Pen folks show up. It’s only natural that this would move into the virtual world as well.
Hell, if the American Nazi Party set up shop in SL, you’d have Americans signing up by the thousands just to throw exploding pigs at them. And you’d have racists galore ready to shoot back.
The real question, then, is not whether or not SL can serve as a platform for one-off meetings like Rep. Miller’s fly by, or whether it can host flame wars when the most radical elements set up shop. That is clearly the case.
The real question, which has yet to be answered, is if Second Life can become a new kind of space for political dialogue. What if the progressive RootsCamp people in the US were to sit down and talk strategy and common concerns with the French Socialists? Or Chinese and American labor organizers? Or Venezuelan and Canadian conservative parties?
The possibilities are there, but the various political factions have not stepped to the plate to make it happen. Yet.