I was contacted recently by a Joshua Levy (that’s his avatar on the right), a new resident who is interested in creating a documentary about progressive activism in SL. Joshua has created a blog to track his project and his journeys in-world. He asked me to respond to some of his concerns that he raised about the viability of virtual activism for real world political change.
I was a bit scattered in our text chat, so here is hopefully a bit more coherent of an answer.
Virtual political activism is still very much in its infancy.
The largest virtual political action to date took place, not in Second Life, but in a Chinese MMORPG called "The Fantasy of the Journey West" last year. It was a virtual demonstration participated in by 10,000 avatars who were protesting what they thought was a Japanese symbol appearing in the online game. Compare that to the measly 120 avatars that we managed to gather in SL in January to protest the war in Iraq!
Of course, this was a protest in support of the Chinese government, so it’s somewhat irrelevant. But still, it points to the possibilities if you get people — even gamers — riled up enough about something.
For the most part though, direct political protest in-world is kind of a waste of time. If you really want to effect change, go to Washington, go to your City Hall, call your congressperson. Get off your ass.
So what, if anything, is the role of virtual activism? IMO, it’s about two things: education and community-building.
Virtual environments are excellent platforms for educating people about a wide range of issues, in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Look at the NOAA’s simulation of the effects of global warming, which not only visually shows you the effects of the melting glaciers but eventually covers your avatar in water as sea levels rise! Or the Virtual Memorial to Domestic Violence Victims, a somber ring of sillouettes, each one containing a different statistic about domestic violence and partner abuse in the United States. Or Nebulosus Severine’s frightening art installation on terrorism and the politics of fear. Three dimensional builds like these are powerful teaching and awareness raising tools if used properly.
Beyond education, the other powerful aspect of virtual worlds is the sense of being in the presence of other people who might be thousands of miles away. Nick Yee’s research on avatar proximity and gaze lend support to the notion that we attend to digital representations of people in similar ways to how we attend to people in the real world. Political activists can use this as a means of building connections and relationships with people that are meaningful and galvanizing. Because we don’t go to protests with strangers, we go with our friends.
Nearly every week I am being invited to an in-world fundraiser for a SL resident who needs some life-saving procedure or just lost all their possessions in a fire. I’ll go and donate $10 or $25, and I know lots of other people do, for people they have never met face-to-face. Why? One, because its easy. I can just teleport over, and drop some virtual linden dollars into a bucket in five minutes. And two, because I feel a stronger connection to the person than I would if I had received an email solicitation or a random phone call.
Not to say that virtual worlds are good platforms for fundraising. They aren’t, at least not yet. You are still better served putting up a compelling website than in creating an in-world donation sim.
But what virtual worlds are good for is getting people to feel like they are really interacting with other human beings, because of the artifice of presence. That sense of presence and connection will only get stronger once SL integrates voice chat into the interface. In the virtual world, you can sit together with people in France, the Philippines, Brazil, Morocco and South Africa and talk about what’s going on in their countries. I say that because I have done this.
And you can connect with Americans that you might never have cause to meet in the real world. That’s why the YearlyKos Convention is integrating a virtual world component in their gathering this year in August.
So to sum up, I think that virtual activism is currently rather shoddy and unimpressive. But as broadband gets more common and the technology gets cheaper, people will become accustomed to interacting in these virtual environments for everything from entertainment to shopping. Like the Web 10 years ago, currently virtual world activism seems like rather a luxury rather than a necessity.
But someday soon we may find that our issues and causes and social movements will increasingly rely on these new communications platforms to grow and thrive. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be getting started making this happen now.