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3-D Immersive Virtual Environments: Platform for Radical Democracy or Communicative Capitalism?
The Case of Second Life
3-D immersive virtual environments (IVEs) are at the forefront of ‘the physical Internet.’ (Scola 2005) They allow users to communicate with each other through avatars, their digital personas, rather than relying solely on text. Through research on the use of Second Life, one of the more popular IVEs, by political activists, I examine the advantages that communication through avatars gives IVEs over text-based online communities and evaluate the potential of IVEs as platforms for a radical democratic project. I conclude that Second Life’s physicality engenders the communicative reciprocity necessary for the community building and politicization required for radical democracy. However, technical limitations to communication within the programme as well as a normative neoliberal focus on the individual hamper its effectiveness in this regard.
In January of 2007, two leftist organizations, SLLU and antiFN (Front National), initiated a demonstration outside the headquarters of
The demonstration against FN was not an anomaly. In the past year there have been Second Life protests against the June G8 summit in
As a relatively new Internet technology, the efficacy of 3-D immersive virtual environments (IVEs) such as Second Life as political platforms has not been widely theorized, although the topic has been discussed and debated in the mainstream press and the progressive blog community. (Moore 2007; Hoppin 2007; Walsh 2006) While it is advisable to be wary of the hyperbole that surrounds many Internet technologies, I believe the lack of academic attention to 3-D IVEs is an unfortunate oversight because there are significant differences between these programs and other forms of online community, differences that signal IVEs have promise as platforms for progressive politics and could be utilised to those ends.
Why look to a Web technology that is usually associated with online gaming as a venue for progressive politics? The desperation this implies can be understood when one looks at the state of politics under liberal democracy. Called the ‘the crisis of double pathology’—pathologies of participation and representation (
It is to this end that I wish to analyse Second Life. The question I pose in this paper is the following: is Second Life a potential platform for a radical democratic project? In choosing to focus on this characteristic of the program, I am not analysing the material effect of Second Life use on politics (the program is most likely too new and niche for it to have already had any significant impact). Rather, I am analysing its potential as a community-building platform that can be used for politicization. There are a number of questions that need to be addressed before this can be ascertained. Namely, what is Second Life? How does it differ from other forms of online community, and how are people using it? We must also address the questions of radical democracy and politicization themselves: what do these terms mean and what do they entail? How can they be brought about?
Structure and Methodology
I begin this paper with a brief look at some of the theoretical issues that underpin it, namely, an elaboration of the argument for radical democracy and the potential of Internet technologies to foster it. I then turn to Second Life, examining its history, feature set, and the differentiating factors that distinguish it from other online communities. Finally, I consider the use of Second Life as a platform for politicization based on evidence of how the program is currently being used. This information was obtained through a questionnaire that was distributed to members of Second Life Left Unity (SSLU) and SL Netroots, two progressive organizations that operate within Second Life; conversations with political and community activists that took place in August and September of 2007 via phone, email, and within Second Life; and participant observation of meetings held within Second Life by an organization called Nonprofits in Second Life (NPSL). I conclude with the finding that Second Life’s physicality engenders the communicative reciprocity necessary for community building and politicization required for radical democracy. However, technical limitations to communication within the programme as well as a normative neoliberal focus on the individual hamper its effectiveness in this regard.
As most of the users of Second Life (and all of my informants) are North American or Western European, I limit the scope of this discussion to those areas, with a particular emphasis on the political climates of the
The Problem with Liberal Democracy
Liberal democracy is the hegemonic form of democracy in the Anglo-American world and most of the West. Defined first against monarchies and then other modes of absolute states (i.e. communism and fascism), it is characterized by republican or parliamentarian forms of representational government that, at least theoretically, locate power in the people. As such, it is premised on Enlightenment values of equality and liberty (echoing back to the classical Greek form of democracy) that elevate ‘the people’ to a level that self-government would seem to require. Although initially reserved for a certain segment of society (i.e.- white, male, property holders, above a certain age), through the discourse that democracy wrought, the purview of liberty and equality has since been expanded to include other social groups, such as women and ethnic minorities. (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 155-156) The continued expansion of liberty and equality remains an ongoing struggle and, ideally, the goal of any democracy. However, as we shall see, the very terms of this struggle are contested, and this has led to a rift between proponents of the current incarnation of liberal democracy and those that seek to reform it.
The economic mode that has accompanied liberal democracy since its inception is capitalism. Indeed, capitalist expansion has been a key priority of liberal democracy, and the market has been conceived as the natural, legitimate means by which economic activity should be conducted and regulated. (Sadar 2005: 448) However, the relationship between the state and the market has historically been subject to tension, and the balance of power between them has fluctuated over time. At times, the state has seen it proper to intervene in the operation of the market in order to protect the interests of the public. At other times, the state has been reluctant to do so. It is the latter situation in which we currently find ourselves. After the crisis of the Great Depression, the state intervened into the freedom of the market in the form of the institution of social welfare programs. The goal was to revive the consumer base, which is intrinsic to the health of the capitalist economy. This situation, termed the ‘Keynesian compromise,’ in-turn suffered its own crisis that swung the pendulum in the other direction. It “opened the way for the joint emergence of political and economic liberalism as a new hegemonic project…with an unparalleled expansion of mercantile relations under the aegis of liberalism.” (Sadar 2005: 447).
Since the fall of Soviet socialism, this new project, a marriage of liberal democracy and neoliberal economic policies, has been positioned as the only legitimate political system, although this is a simplification that has been contested and resisted. (Munck 2005: 67-68) However, the neoliberal turn has meant the subjugation of the political process to market imperatives in the West such that the mainstream liberal Left (opposed to the radical left) does not even seek to challenge the authority of the market as the natural organizer of economic and social activity, but only to make it more humane. The authority of the market is largely unchallenged because it is seen as a neutral arbiter of people’s interests, “the optimum context to achieve human freedom.” (Munck 2005: 65) This viewpoint can be attributed to neoliberalism’s conception of one of the central tenets of democracy: liberty. Laclau and Mouffe (2001: 171-172) discuss the historical shifts in the expansion of the notion of ‘liberty’ from Locke to Mill to social democratic discourse which positions it as “the ‘capacity’ to make certain choices and to keep open a series of real alternatives. It is thus that poverty, lack of education, and great disparities in the conditions of life are today considered offences against liberty.” (172) This redistributive notion of liberty, or social justice, is contested by neoliberal discourse which sees individual liberty, defined by Hayek as “that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible” (Hayek, cited in Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 172), as the most valid form of liberty. According to this view, intervention of the state in the operation of the market is seen as a limitation to liberty rather than a means to guarantee it, as it interferes with “the right of unlimited appropriation” through the capitalist economy. (172)
The focus on the rights of the individual is one of the key principals of neoliberalism. It conceives of society not as a collective, but as a collection of individuals who operate in their own best interests. Under ideal circumstances, the maximisation of each individual’s interests would lead to the overall maximisation of the public’s interest. But this conceptualisation of the public good as the sum total of the interests of the individuals who make up the public is flawed on two counts: it disregards the fact that maximisation of an individual’s interest often only comes at the expense of another’s, and it assumes an even playing field instead of the reality which is skewed in favour of those who are already in a position of power. (Clarke 2005: 50-52). Thus, instead of facilitating a redistribution of wealth, neoliberalism is predisposed to the continued accumulation of wealth by those who already possess it. In addition, pitting individual against individual in the effort to maximise anyone’s interest undermines of notions of community that, allegedly, had more currency before the spread of neoliberalism. This has been lamented both by liberals and conservatives who seek a return to ‘traditional’ values that they feel held society together in times past.
Thus, the current advanced liberal democratic system, although hegemonic, is not without its critics. As might be expected, proponents of radical democracy seek an alternative to its market-driven logic and focus on the individual, but even those who are less inclined to challenge its basic tenets have realised that something is amiss with politics as usual in the West. The most common articulation of the problem is the aforementioned ‘crisis of double pathology’. Plagued by political apathy and the feeling that politicians do not speak for them, ‘the people’ under liberal democracy have become depoliticized to the point that political participation is limited to choosing between increasingly indistinguishable candidates in periodic elections. (Santos and Avritzer 2005: xxxvi; Castells 1997: 342-349) This limitation was build into the system, which operates through the use of representational rather than participatory democracy. Early American political theorists saw representational democracy as a way to mitigate against factionalism in the public and the possibility of mobocracy that pure democracy (the Classic Greek agora model) might engender. As a solution to governing large populations, representative democracy was predicated on a separation between government (spatially concentrated in one small area, i.e.- Washington, DC) and the governed (dispersed over a wide area, i.e.- the territory of the nation) such that if factionalism did arise “the geographic dispersion of citizens in an extended republic…would make it more difficult for the emergent majority faction…to meet, communicate, and conspire.” (Sacco 2002: 38). The buffer zone that was created between the public and politicians, termed ‘the
This separation of the governed from the government is not unwelcome to the modern state, which operates under the fear of ‘democratic overload’ in the form of too many demands from disenfranchised social groups, which would threaten the prioritisation of capital accumulation over redistribution. (
In sum, we have touched upon a number of problems with the current mode of liberal democracy that operates in the West: 1.) the emphasis on individual liberty has undermined notions of social justice and the expansion of liberty to the disenfranchised, which historically has been a focus of democracy; 2.) neoliberal discourse on individualism has also frayed notions of community; 3.) the subjugation of the state to market imperatives jeopardizes its autonomy and credibility, which in turn accelerates the alienation of the public from politics; 4.) the emphasis on the market as a potential avenue for social justice further weakens the public participation in the political process.
Towards a Solution: Radical Democracy
The situation described above is not without its discontinuities and contestations, but one way for the general crisis of liberal democracy in the West to be ameliorated is a move toward radical democracy; one that gets back to the ‘roots’ of democracy, to its original preoccupation with the advancement of liberty and equality. However, the spread of liberty and equality is not a goal that can be achieved; it is an ongoing process. “Radical democracy does not entail the dogmatic assertion of a set of fixed criteria, but involves a reflexive process by which democracy is understood as unfinished, continuously rethinking itself.” (Dalhberg and Siapera 2007: 7) This reflexive process requires strong communication amongst an identifiable community. Unlike liberal democracy, it requires participation and politicization on the part of the people and a government that is receptive to their participation. But it requires a very different kind of participation than the preconstituted, self-interested, maximisation-of-individual good participation that is common under the liberal democratic system. Barber (1984) distinguishes between ‘the politics of bargaining and exchange’ and ‘the politics of transformation’ such that “in the former, choice is a matter of selecting among options and giving the winner the legitimacy of consent, whereas in the latter, choice is superseded by judgment and leads men and women to modify and enlarge options as a consequence of seeing them in new, public ways.” (136) It is the ‘politics of transformation,’ with its emphasis on the public good, which is required for radical democracy, whereas ‘the politics of bargaining and exchange,’ with its emphasis on the individual’s good, is what usually transpires under liberal democracy.
Thus, the first steps toward radical democracy are a (re)politicization of the people and the (re)construction of community such that the emphasis in the political process is not just ‘what is the best choice for me?’ but the active exchange of ideas with others in the community so that one chooses what is best for the society as a whole. (This is not to say that there would necessarily be consensus on what the best choice is or that a difference of opinion is an obstacle to the political process. Whether or not consensus should be achieved is a key difference between the theories of deliberative democracy and agonistic politics that will be discussed later on in this paper.) It also means that politicization entails more than the performance of disparate acts of a political nature. Dean writes:
“specific or singular acts of resistance, statements of opinion or instances of transgression are not political in and of themselves; rather, they have to be politicized, that is articulated together with other struggles, resistances and ideals in the course or context of opposition to a shared enemy or opponent.” (2005: 57, emphasis mine)
Implicit in this definition is the prior need for community and the process of coming together to articulate a joint struggle against a common enemy. This requires a reversal of the undermining of community and the emphasis on the individual that has had a stranglehold on advanced liberal democratic society. Without the (re)generation of a sense of community and a prioritisation of the social good over individual needs, political action will not be effective in enacting the social change that is required for radical democracy, especially a redistributive radical democratic project that seeks to challenge the market economy. It will not be politicization.
The Internet and Politicization
In his discussion on participatory democracy, Barber claims “there can be no strong democratic legitimacy without ongoing talk,” (1984: 136) thus underscoring the importance of communication in bringing about the politicization required for radical democracy. The question is, what sort of communication is ideal? Is face-to-face discussion a requirement for politics, or can we rely on mediated communication? If mediated, is broadcast or interactive media more effective? Must we choose? To be sure, multiple avenues for politicization operate simultaneously to reach different segments of the population, and there will never be one method that resonates with everyone. However, given the pervasiveness of networked technologies in the West, it would be foolish to discount their potential in this regard, despite digital divide issues which limit access to the Internet for disadvantaged segments of the population. (Madden 2006; Castells 2000: 51-53)
Media and political theorists who write about the Internet as a political platform tend to fall into two camps: the technological enthusiasts who see great promise in the medium or are, at the very least, cautiously optimistic and the sceptics about who maintain that Internet technologies are more likely to reinforce existing social inequities than promote new political subjectivities. (These positions will be explained in more detail shortly.) To be sure, the Internet is contested terrain. What cannot be denied is that Internet technologies are open-ended: the effects of their use depend on the subjectivity and intentions of the users. The twinning of availability and adaptability means that Internet technologies have the potential to foster new forms of politicization on a large scale. Whether this potential is being realised is the source of much debate.
Currently, most of the political activity on the Internet, including much of what is termed ‘e-democracy’ is simply an extension of normative liberal democracy into the online world. Governments around the world have used the Internet to increase their efficiency and ‘connect’ with voters, reinforcing “a liberal-consumer model of politics that valorizes the individual as a self-seeking utility maximizer choosing between an array of political options.” (Dalhberg and Siapera 2007: 3) These efforts give the illusion of greater public participation and input into government practices while never threatening the status quo and hierarchies of power. Chadwick (2006) discusses a number of experiments in e-democracy that allows citizens to ‘plug into’ the state and voice their opinions, including the
This does not mean that the Internet does not have the potential to bring about the politicization that radical democracy requires. Key is the use of the Internet as a community-building tool, at which it excels. Chadwick discusses the plethora of online communities in operation concluding, “…the most successful growth industry on the Internet is talk.” (2006: 96-98) The challenge for online politicization under advanced liberal democracy is not the availability of space for community building, it is the production of a subjectivity that will enable people to utilise that space to actually build and strengthen community rather than furthering the process of fragmentation and individualisation, referred to as “communicative capitalism.” (Dean 2005, 2006), that has flourished under neoliberalism. There are numerous examples of this sort of online community building, discussed below.
A good way of theorizing the use of the Internet for radical democracy is by viewing it through the lens of three strands of political theory: deliberative democracy, most associated with Jürgen Habermas; agonistic politics, associated with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe; and autonomous Marxism, most recently associated with Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. (Dalhberg and Siapera 2007) Deliberative democracy is based on the ideas of the ‘public sphere’ as a discussion space separate from the realms of the state and the economy and ‘communicative reason,’ through which people can overcome differences produced by different subjectivities. It involves “the critical, reflexive process of coming to the most reasonable solution (consensus) to a common problem, in contrast to the pre-deliberative, individual-strategic reasoning of liberalism.” (8) It sees the Internet “as a means for the expansion of citizen deliberation leading to the formation of rational public opinion through which official decision makers can be held accountable.” (Dalhberg 2007: 47) It is easy to see how advocates of deliberative democracy would embrace the Internet as the modern public sphere. Chadwick (2006) writes on the many political communities that exist online:
“Spaces for deliberation that are relatively unconstrained by corporate and state influence and which have been inspired by the need for increasing citizen deliberation have opened up, leading to some hyper-enthusiastic commentaries about the potential of the Internet in bringing about true participatory democracy.” (97-98).
Implicit in this theory is the idea that consensus can and should be achieved. The emphasis on consensus is partially explained by the supposition of the social actors as a community of people who are already in agreement with a set of common values. To this end, critics of deliberative democracy charge that it excludes people, including minorities and immigrants, who may fall outside the normative notion of ‘community.’ (Siapera 2007) In addition, the focus on ‘rationality’ is troublesome in that it forecloses communication that may be deemed ‘irrational’ or not appropriate for public discussion. This separation of matters into public and private realms has historically been used to exclude feminist concerns in particular from ‘legitimate’ public discussion. As Dahlberg (2007) writes: “…deliberative democracy does not deal with the normalizing (coercion) and exclusion involved in the designation of a particular form of communication as the rational and democratically legitimate form.” (52-53, author’s emphasis)
Unlike deliberative democracy, the agonistic theory of politics recognises that people in most communities, especially large, multicultural societies, have different interests and subjectivities that cannot always, or should not always, be compromised. The idea is not to come to consensus; politics depends on antagonism and disagreement. It is not a question of one point of view being seen as more legitimate than all others or one type of subjectivity serving as the permanent mouthpiece of the struggle. Rather, the goal is “to create a hegemony, an alliance between different struggles that are constructed as equivalent which could then extend the meaning of equality and liberty to a wider range of social relations.” This movement would “involve the occupation, albeit temporarily, of the space of the universal by a particular political content, which although universalist in intent, can never capture the complete and elusive ‘wholeness’ of the social.” (Dalhberg and Siapera 2007: 9) Thus, there is no endpoint for democracy in the agonistic theory. The political process, the pursuit of equality and liberty, is a continual struggle, even from within, as different groups come together to charge ahead and then fall back again into the next process of debate and articulation.
Counter to deliberative democracy’s silent acceptance of unspoken communal values, agonistic politics recognises the hegemony of normative discourse. It sees the Internet as “a space of struggle, supporting both the reproduction of dominant social relations and their contestation by excluded groups.” (Dalhberg 2007: 48) Examples of counter-hegemonic discourse online include the Zapatista’s articulation of a politics contra global capitalism and the Mexican government; the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan’s (www.rawa.org) discourse on gender norms; and MoveOn.org’s production of discourse against the invasion of
Despite these examples, some critics charge that agonistic democracy, while valuable for its theory of the articulation of struggles—particularly in light of the way ‘new social movements’ (NSMs) have come together to form loose, conditional coalitions—falls into the same trap as deliberative democracy in not taking into account forces that allow some to speak while others are silenced. In particular, agonistic democracy, as a ‘post-Marxist’ theory, downplays the power of global capitalism, which is the focus of the third strand of radical democratic theory that is often invoked in discussions of Internet democracy: autonomous Marxism. This theory is centred on the constitutive power of the counter-force to global capitalism, the global workforce, conceived as the ‘multitude’ by Hardt and Negri (2000). Moving beyond the old Marxist emphasis on the industrial worker,’ autonomism maintains that the nature of “class conflict mutates…but this does not extinguish the underlying antagonisms” between capitalist power and worker counter-power. (Dyer-Witherford 2007: 197-198). The identification of global capitalism as a common enemy makes this strand of political theory particularly suited for a redistributive radical democratic project.
However, despite Hardt and Negri’s own emphasis on networks as the pre-eminent form for social construction and communication in the age of Empire (2000: 161-163; 2005: 82-91), their theory has been criticised because it “fails to understand the importance of communicative practices to social movements.” (Dyer-Witherford 2007:192) Instead, they insist that the disparate struggles of the multitude remain isolated from each other, composed of “plural singularities.” (Hardt and Negri 2005: 99-102) This is all the more curious in light of the way the NSMs have been using the Internet as a means to coordinate their actions. Scott and Street (2000) write of the way Internet technologies enable ‘mesomobilization’, allowing “a high degree of co-ordination between movement networks across a broad geographical range without creating a fixed hierarchical organizational form.” (231) This non-hierarchical form is intrinsic to the democratic way NSMs are structured, as well as the focus of their struggles. They conclude: “The Internet is thus both organizationally and ideologically perfectly suited [for New Social Movements]. Organizationally it offers flexibility, speed of response, and the possibility of a cellular and secret organizational form.” (233-234). Chadwick (2006: 114-134), Carroll and Williams (2006) and Castells (1997:68-108) also discuss the use of the Internet by NSMs. Thus, while Hardt and Negri fail to articulate the ways the Internet can be used to facilitate their project, other theorists, and the real experiences of some of the people participating in struggles against global capitalism, do illuminate that connection.
Those who write about the Internet and democracy often try to determine which of these three political theories (or others) is most valid, (Dyer-Witherford 2007; Hands 2007; Dahlberg 2007) but that is not the focus of this paper. I discuss these theories because they provide a framework through which to view political activities on the Internet, whether they be discussion through online communities, blogging, the creation of alternative (non-corporate) media resources, or the use the Web for organising, outreach, and fundraising by on-the-ground social movements. But for all the examples of progressive politics online, there are those who remain sceptical of the Internet’s potential to foster politicization. Instead, they see the Internet as a tool of neoliberalism and liberal democracy, increasing segmentation, individualisation and commercialisation. After all, if networks can be used for dissent, they can also be used to consolidate power. In the words of Foucault, “…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power.” (1977: 217)
Some Internet sceptics charge that the significance of social networks and online communities may be overestimated, particularly by the actual participants, because of the tendency toward ‘homophilia’ on the Web. (Boyd 2005) According to this argument, birds of a feather flock together and fail to see their community or social group within the wider context of society-at-large. In this way, the Internet is useful in fostering strong ties between people who share common interests and viewpoints, but it provides little opportunity for the development of weak ties, which are necessary for effective discourse production and circulation. “Technology tends to increase the connections of like-minded people more than increase the breadth of diversity.” (200) Along similar lines, others have warned that the excessive personalisation of the Internet encourages focus on the self at the expense of the development of any sort of community. (Noveck 2004: 29) Because our online experiences can be so tailored to our personal interests, we risk insulating ourselves in customized pods, impervious to outside influences. According to Sunstein (2001), this ‘daily me’ experience is dangerous because “unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.” (8). This sort of isolation and fragmentation also prevents the development of shared experiences, the ‘social glue’ that is necessary to foster the sense of community that is required for politicization on a large scale.
A more basic argument against the Internet as a platform for politicization is that it, like any technology, does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it “exists within a framework of values and ideas both inherent to it and imposed by the external legal and institutional structures.” (Noveck 2004: 20) If specific steps are not taken to ensure otherwise, it will most likely be used to uphold normative, neoliberal values rather than oppose them. According to this argument, the Internet may be the new public sphere, “but it is a public sphere that is committed to the market imperative, and not to criticism of the state, or to facilitating information or communication among the people.” (Schirato and Webb 2003: 177)
A compelling articulation of the argument that the Internet is depoliticizing is Jodi Dean’s theory of ‘communicative capitalism.’ She defines it as the way that values central to liberal democracy, including “ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation…take material form in networked communication technologies.” (Dean 2007: 226) In the process, they actually further the neoliberal project rather than facilitate radical democracy:
“Expanded and intensified communicativity has neither enhanced opportunities for the articulation of political struggles nor enlivened radical democratic practices—although it has exacerbated left fragmentation, amplified the voices of right-wing extremists, and delivered ever more eyeballs to corporate advertisers.” (226-227)
Central to this theory is the idea that what passes as communication on the Internet is really just the endless circulation of content. Messages are sent, but never really received. As such, though everyone is ideally allowed the right to speak, there is no real political dialog on the Internet because the right to speak does not guarantee the right to be heard or the right of a response.
This problem is exacerbated under representative democracy in which there exists a separation between ‘the circulation of content’ in the public sphere(s) and ‘politics as official activity’—the actions of those in power. (Dean 2005: 53) Although technically in a representative democracy the first should influence the second, it usually does not work that way. As an example, Dean points to the discourse that was circulated in the
Thus, we return to our original formulation that the Internet is contested terrain. Evidence can be called upon to back arguments for and against its power as a tool for politicization. But it is precisely because of its fluidity that we must continue to study the Internet. Because they are the communicative backbone of the global economy and reciprocally some of the most potent of activists’ tools, Internet technologies are never at rest, but always in the process of recreation and re-conceptualisation. So, rather than coming to any conclusion about the political nature of the Internet “the continued growth of the Internet as a tool for organizing novel forms of information and social interaction requires that Internet politics be continually re-theorized from a standpoint that is both critical and reconstructive.” (Kahn and Kellner 2005: 76) It is in this spirit that we now turn to Second Life.
The Case of Second Life
What is Second Life?
Second Life is a 3-D immersive virtual environment created by a San Francisco-based company called Linden Labs. Development began in 1999, and the program was first opened to the public in 2003. Though not the only virtual world online, it has recently seen a surge of popularity and, as of August 2007, it has 9,035,972 ‘residents.’ Demographically, the population is 60% male and 40% female and ranges from 18-85 years old. Most users live in
Second Life operates its own currency, Linden Dollars (L$), which can be used to purchase land, goods, and services inworld (within Second Life) or exchanged for US dollars ($) at a standard rate. Residents retain the intellectual property (IP) rights for all their virtual creations, which facilitates the market economy. As of July 2007, the total transaction count within Second Life stood at $12,511,949.00. There are two types of membership plans: basic and premium. The first basic account is free, and comes with an allowance of L$ 250. Additional basic accounts cost $9.95/month and do not come with an allowance. A premium account also costs $9.95/month, and it comes with an initial L$1000 allowance and a further L$300/week. All accounts allow the user to create a customisable avatar (digital persona) and build objects to use or sell. However, only premium account holders are able to purchase land, which is usually necessary to run a business.
While Second Life is similar in look and feel to MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games), it is not a game. There are no points to be amassed or objectives to be achieved. Rather, it is simply another world, with many of the activities and locations that occur in real life (such as parks, shops, cafes), but without the limitations that laws of physics impose on real life. For example, residents can fly or teleport from location to location and objects, as mundane as a t-shirt or spectacular as a two-headed dragon, can be created out of nothing (with a little scripting language knowledge). During the registration process, the user is given the opportunity to select from one of several stock avatar body-types, including human (white, Asian, and black, male or female) and animal forms. Once in the program, the user can then customize their appearance any way they choose. Thus, a user is able to create a persona that differs from their real life gender, race, or species, although there is no official data on how common racial- or gender-bending is in Second Life.
Because of the popularity of the program, much has been written in the mainstream press about the use of Second Life as a political platform, particularly for candidates campaigning for election. In addition to the official appearance by US presidential candidate Mark Warner, front-runner candidates Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards also have virtual headquarters in Second Life, (Sinreich 2007; Levy 2007) as did all four major candidates in the recent French presidential election. (
Despite this mainstream attention, there has been little academic attention paid to Second Life or 3-D IVEs in general. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has been researching the effects of digital identity transformation on social interaction in IVEs (Yee and Bailenson 2007; Bailenson 2006); others have written about online identity formation and issues of gender and ethnicity in virtual environments (Turkle 1999; Leung 2005; Nakamura 2002; Flanigan 2000; Ixchel 2006a and 2006b) but the political potential of IVEs in general and Second Life in particular have not been adequately theorised. I believe this is an oversight because there are significant differences between IVEs and other forms of online community that have implications for their potential for politicization, namely their capacity for embodiment, spatiality, and overall physicality.
Second Life is at the forefront of what has been called ‘the physical Internet.’ (Scola 2006: 2) Unlike text-based online communities, Second Life users communicate with each other through their avatars, their self-created, digital personas. The level of identification that users have with their avatars varies from person to person, although most users I interviewed revealed some level of emotional connection. Some users meticulously craft their avatar’s appearance. Ixchel (2006a), for example, describes trying out 42 different skin shades and 60 different hairstyles and even took the trouble to position the individual eyelashes on her avatar until she was happy with it. In terms of communication, depending on the skill of the user (it can take practice to control an avatar’s body language and gestures) it is possible to articulate a range of emotions through the avatar with a level of subtlety approaching real-life interaction. “Blogs and chat rooms lack the physicality, immediacy, and nuance of Second Life. Using those tools, you can’t whisper to your neighbour, show loyalty (or pique) by hunkering down in one part of the room or another.” (Scola 2006: 5) Currently, most avatars ‘speak’ to each other textually, through chat windows that appear over their heads or, during group meetings, off to the side of the screen. However, Linden Labs is currently experimenting with the use of voice chat to allow avatars to actually speak to each other. This advance should take communication in Second Life to a whole new level.
The combination of this form of partial-embodiment through avatars and the ability to inject interaction with nuance gives communication in Second Life an immediacy that is closer to the face-to-face interaction we have in real life than other Internet technologies. It gives Second Life what Noveck (2004) says text-based forms of online community lack: “the emotional and visual clues that undergrid basic human interaction” which are “among the most fundamental and taken-for-granted building blocks of democratic institutions.” (34). In a similar vein,
Another feature that sets Second Life apart from most other Internet technologies is that it is not browser-based. Residents do not navigate from place to place by typing in a URL; they can simply walk (or fly or swim). (There is, however, the option to teleport to locations as well.) Because of this spatiality, residents can move through Second Life much as we move through the real world. While doing so, an avatar is visible to everyone around it. Unlike text-based chat rooms or forums, it is not possible to ‘lurk’, to see but be unseen, in Second Life. Again, this has implications for community building and reciprocity inworld. The act of presenting oneself in a group conversation means that one is accountable not just as a speaker, but also as a listener. It is harder to ignore another resident’s contribution if you can be seen standing in the same room as him or her rather than invisibly lurking like a fly on the wall.
Furthermore, Second Life residents can move through public spaces, such as the streets and other shared locations. In theory, these are the places where those chance encounters that Sunstein (2002) mentions as so important for democracy may occur. Unlike the regular Internet, where two users can visit the same website at the same time yet be unaware of each other’s presence, in Second Life, you can see other users who are at the same location as you. This leads to more opportunities for interaction and conversation. .Ford and Gil (2001) describe the availability of public space as key for the prevention of individualisation and privatisation in IVEs. (206) I say ‘in theory’ because the public nature of Second Life is somewhat undermined by the ability to search for and teleport to different groups, locations, or people. Much as in real life, although the capacity to interact with the general public exists, most users tend to associate with people within their own social circles or interest groups.
Lastly, Second Life differs from other forms of online community in the level of ownership it can inspire in residents. It is not a wholly pre-designed, pre-populated, unalterable space; it is a world that is created by the users themselves. This can be understood on two levels. On the one hand, because of Linden Labs’ policies of allowing residents to purchase land and encouraging the building of objects inworld, Second Life is literally constructed by the users. They determine where buildings will be located, how they are designed and decorated, who is allowed to enter, and what activities will take place inside. On another level, the very act of moving through space in virtual environments is a performative experience that also allows the user to construct his or her own world. Flanigan (2000) describes it as a process that transforms a virtual reality user from audience member to the author of his or her experience:
“Beyond earlier text-based forms of interaction…these narratives— self-navigated stories—are actually created in a virtual space along X, Y, and Z planes, integrated with images and sounds, both moving and stationary. In effect, those who used to be "listeners" are not simply an audience any longer; they are, through their movement, creating the stage.” (80)
This feeling of ownership can inspire a deeper sense of community than the sterile environments of text-based online communities. According to an SLLU member who wished to remain anonymous:
“The visual world that we become part of and help to create, our attachment to our avatars…it [Second Life] takes online communities to a new level, with a seeming higher lever of interaction and engagement possible than in the ‘dry’ text only environments of message boards and other online groups.” (Personal communication 5/9/07)
The physicality of Second Life and the communicative reciprocity it engenders sets the platform in a unique position in regard to its capacity for politicization. It is closer to real-life, face-to-face communication than text-based forms of online community, but it also shares the advantages common to online communication. It allows people to overcome offline barriers to communication, such as geographic location or other physical limitations that can prevent people from gathering in the real world. Used to its full potential, Second Life can be a hybrid space that combines the best aspects of communication in both the virtual and the real worlds. We now examine the way activists are using the platform to see if this potential is being met.
Second Life in Practice
Background on the Participants
I conducted research on the use of Second Life by people who self-identified as political and community activists in August and September of 2007. I focused on members of three progressive groups that operate within Second Life: Second Life Left Unity (SLLU), SL Netroots, and Nonprofits in Second Life (NPSL). SLLU is a democratically constructed affiliation of individual activists who promote “worldwide Left unity.” It was formed by members of the Scottish Socialist Party, although it is not officially affiliated with that organisation. SL Netroots is the SL offshoot of the Netroots movement, a community of progressive political bloggers and activists who run RootsCamps: periodic conferences and trainings on left-activist tactics that take place in various metropolitan areas in the
Evidence Supporting Second Life as a Platform for Politicization
The key distinguishing factor of IVEs such as Second Life is physicality. Instead of a text-based online community, participants interact through the partially embodied form of their avatars. As could be expected, the effect of this physicality on communication in Second Life is significant. According to SLLU member Plot Tracer, Second Life differs from other online communities because in the program “we read the conversations—so we actually take in what others are saying.” (Personal communication, 3/9/07, informant’s emphasis) This type of reciprocal communication runs counter to the idea of online communication as the endless circulation of content that is central to the theory of communicative capitalism. Not only are messages created, they are, in Plot Tracer’s experience, received and responded to. When asked if he thought this communicative reciprocity was unique to the culture of SLLU, he disagreed, saying instead that he thought it was a general condition of communication in Second Life and a factor of the platform’s physicality:
“I would say there are a lot of other groups who benefit from the kind of chat room that is created through this media…The form of the AV [avatar] and the actual physical presence of the AV is a much more personal experience of someone than when in a normal chat room or e-group…Body language, though limited, can be used just by walking away to show boredom/disagreement, etc.” (personal communication 6/9/07)
Furthermore, in his experience, the presence of the avatar generates the basic level of respect that is necessary for community building and politicization. “SL is a great forum for this [finding common ground] as after a number of months people find there is no point flaming other people or typing madly during conversations.” (personal communication 3/9/07)
The relatively small size of communities in Second Life is another factor that facilitates community building inworld. Indeed, having more than 100 or so avatars in one location will usually cause the program to overload and crash. This is usually seen as a technical limitation of Second Life, but it does have its benefits. The size limitation on group discussions ensures that message volume never gets so high that communication is lost. SL Netroots member Kitaen Koba describes her experience:
“Since SL is still such a small community, with a high ratio of educated and motivated people, it’s very easy to feel that one is playing an effective part in an SL campaign. I have friends in SL who work with the blog-based RL activism group Daily Kos. Daily
Not only does Second Life limit the number of people in any one gathering, its overall resident pool is limited. Because of its newness, Second Life is still a niche platform and its user base is small when compared to the number of people who utilise the Internet and have access to most other online communities. There are fewer activist organizations within Second Life than there are on the Internet in general or in the real world, and this makes finding them and getting involved easier. As an anonymous member of SLLU put it: “…we can be immediately proactive; we can find groups and people with shared goals and political views fairly simply…hold discussions and events much more quickly and with a potential worldwide audience.” (personal communication 4/9/07) Obviously, if the program grows in popularity, this situation is likely to be reversed.
Finally, another feature that can facilitate political action, one that is common to most online communities, is that people may participate anonymously in Second Life. The ability to hide one’s true identity can engender political action with less fear of repercussion than on-the-ground political action. Someone who may be fearful of taking part in a potentially violent political demonstration with police presence and the possibility of arrest for civil disobedience might not think twice about engaging in a virtual protest, such as the demonstration against Front National previously mentioned. This position may be criticised as cowardice, but it does point to another unique way in which Second Life can be used for politicization. Other text-based communities would not allow for the ability to throw firebombs at the headquarters of a right-wing organisation without the physical danger of on-the-ground action. Less dramatically, online anonymity allows people to profess potentially unpopular political views. This is especially the case in situations where people feel constricted by normative discourse in their offline communities. Plot Tracer has found that “SL is a good forum to experiment with political beliefs to see if they ‘fit.’” He goes on to say:
“I think what I have found is that people are less likely to be put off by labels in SL…Exploring one’s political beliefs without the pressure (risk?) of their own cultural preconceptions—and indeed cultural norms—can be part of this exploration of self this type of ‘community’ allows.” (personal communication 3/9/07)
Evidence Against Second Life as a Platform for Politicization
Despite the aforementioned ways that Second Life can facilitate the community building that is necessary for politicization, I found much evidence of the sort individualisation that is detrimental to community building. This is the downside to the creativity that Second Life fosters. At times, it can seem as if the program inspires too much ownership and emotional involvement on the part of the residents. Susan Tenby, community manager of NPSL describes the difficulty of facilitating meetings inworld compared to text-based online communities:
“I hold weekly meetings attracting 45-50 people. They all have a visual identity, and they are all competing for attention. Because of the creativity aspect—it’s their space, their avatars, their activities—everyone wants it to be exactly their way. When someone’s avatar is a big fluttery peacock and I’m trying to hold a meeting, it’s distracting.” (personal communication 12/9/07)
While she considers her community a success because of the enthusiasm and energy of the participants, collaboration is sometimes difficult to achieve: “Because it’s a new frontier, everyone wants to be the one who owns a successful project. Instead of working collaboratively, everyone wants to lead their own project…It’s really surly and unruly and everyone wants to be the leader. It’s such an emotional medium.” (personal communication 12/9/07)
Even without the problem of competing egos, moderating or simply participating in group meetings in Second Life is tricky. Because most of the communication is still displayed as text, I found myself with eyes glued to the chat window during meetings to keep up with the steady stream of communication. I was unable to simultaneously read the text and watch for any non-verbal communication from the other avatars in the room. Furthermore, while I was ‘speaking,’ my hands were occupied with typing so I was unable to show any body movements, gestures, or facial expressions that would have been natural in real-life communication. I do, however, admit that I lack the skills that some other users have in communicating through avatars.
My confusion was compounded by the fact that it is difficult to know when someone is going to ‘speak,’ as text only appears after someone has composed a message and then submitted it. In the meantime, a number of other people would have inevitably ‘spoken’ as well, unintentionally talking over each other. The result is a chaotic chat transcript that can be difficult to decipher, and messages may get lost in the shuffle. For this reason, both NPSL and SL Netroots have created collaborative online spaces—wikis—on the regular Internet where meetings notes are posted, shared documents can be stored, and members can continue their conversations through email lists and blog posts. These supplemental online community spaces are necessary to overcome some of Second Life’s limitations as a communicative platform. Andrew Hoppin of SL Netroots explains: “I haven’t seen any really good whiteboard/ wiki technology deployed in Second Life yet, and even if there were, the utility of the wiki is also quick access.” (Walsh 2006) One hope for the future is that as voice chat becomes more widespread (it requires additional hardware that most users do not currently possess) communication in Second Life will become more streamlined and easier to comprehend.
Second Life and Radical Democracy
Looking back to the three strands of radical democracy that were mentioned previously— deliberative democracy, agonistic politics, and autonomous Marxism—we can see that
3-D IVEs have potential as platforms for the community building and politicization that is necessary for radical democracy. Second Life has fostered deliberative spaces where like-minded people come together to work towards their vision for the future. The existence of organisations such as SL Netroots, RootsCampSL, and NPSL is testament to this. Like the public sphere that Habermas describes, membership in these organizations implies a prior acceptance to communal values, such as the promotion of ‘Left unity’ that SLLU promotes. This being the case, the focus within the groups, even a loose coalition such as SLLU, is often on achieving consensus—although differences of opinion are expected and sometimes even welcome as part of the process of ‘communicative reasoning’. Plot Tracer describes his experience inworld:
“Some of the most rewarding conversations [in Second Life] have been with people who have presented me with an antithesis to my political thesis (and vice versa) and finding common ground and (sometimes!) reaching synthesis.” (personal communication, 3/9/07)
However, Second Life is also used for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse that is central to the theory of agonistic politics put forth by Laclau and Mouffe. The demonstration against Front National, is just one example of the use of Second Life in this regard. The action, and the discourse against Front National it produced, was validated by the media attention it generated and the subsequent use of Second Life by candidates during the 2007 French presidential election. The demonstration was the result of a temporary alliance forged between two different organisations, SLLU and antiFN, as well as independent activists who wished to lend their support. SLLU was not formed to combat Front National and it has not taken any strong action against the party since the demonstration, but members were happy to participate nevertheless, giving that particular struggle the space of the universal, if only temporarily.
This joint articulation of struggle by distinct organisations and individuals is an example of the way that NSMs come together to support each other, despite having varied agendas. It is also an example of the shortcoming of the autonomous Marxist strand of radical democracy, which denies the existence of such joint articulation. As for autonomous Marxism’s focus on global capitalism and class conflict as the ultimate terrain of the struggle of the ‘multitude,’ my research is somewhat skewed by working with SLLU, which was formed by members of the Scottish Socialist Party. As can be expected, most of the SLLU members with whom I corresponded emphasised the fight against global capitalism as the goal of their activism. However, no member of SL Netroots or NPSL I corresponded with shared this emphasis. More research on this particular topic is necessary before I can come to a conclusion as it was not a focus for this study. However, according to Hardt and Negri, self-conscious politicization as the global counterforce to Empire is not necessarily something that the ‘multitude’ possesses at this time anyway.
While the political experience of the activists I researched supports the theories of deliberative democracy and agonistic politics, we cannot discount that some aspects of communicative capitalism can also be found in Second Life. For one, the creative culture of the program sometimes fosters a normative neoliberal focus on the individual at the expense of community and coalition building. There is also some danger that the homosocial, birds-of-a-feather behaviour that limits communication to like-minded people found in other online communities may also plague Second Life. However, I have found little evidence that political action in Second Life forecloses offline, real-world political action as Dean charges. Most of the organisations I encountered inworld also exist (and do the majority of their work) in the real world. This is true for all the members of NPSL and SL Netroots, whose work in Second Life is an extension of the real-world Netroots and Roots Camp activities.
The main advantage of 3-D IVEs like Second Life over text-based online communities is their physicality. Communicating through avatars engenders reciprocity, which is intrinsic to overcoming the endless circulation of content (Dean 2005) that plagues most other forms of online communication and leads to communicative capitalism. The ability to foster reciprocity is combined with the flexibility and global reach of online communication, allowing users to overcome the geographical and physical barriers that hamper offline communication. Thus, 3-D IVEs represent a unique space that can combine the best features of online and offline communication.
Despite this advantage over other forms of online community, the use of Second Life as a platform for organising on-the-ground political action has been limited, especially in comparison to other Internet technologies. This could be due to its newness, relative obscurity outside the Western world, non-trivial technical requirements, or the technical limitations to communicating inworld that have already been described. Certainly, Second Life lacks the ease-of-use that characterises more widespread forms of online communication, such as email discussion groups and collaborative spaces such as wikis. As such, even devoted users do not see Second Life as a stand-alone platform for political activity. Rather, it is viewed as one tool—although a very exciting one—in the toolbox of technologies that are available for activists. However, it should be acknowledged that like the Internet in general, there is nothing inherently progressive or radical about 3-D IVEs. They can just as easily be used for conservative political projects as radical left politics.
Towards a Virtu-Real Future
Second Life is just the most popular of the current crop of virtual worlds. As the technology behind 3-D IVEs improves, we will continue to see new developments in the ‘physical Internet’ and the creation of more virtual spaces or possibly one big one if the technology can be integrated seamlessly into the already existing Internet. Because the technology is relatively new and its actual effect on the real world has been slight, it is easy to dismiss it as a niche plaything for a Western elite audience—much as the Internet itself was dismissed in its early stages. It is important to underscore that 3-D IVEs do not represent a new form of media so much as an evolution in the way the existing Internet is used. Like the Internet itself, it may be starting out as a niche technology for Westerners, but it has the potential to spread to a wider audience. Before this can happen, a few things need to occur:
1. The applications need to become more accessible in terms of hardware requirements.
2. The software behind the applications needs to be improved to allow for easier communication and fewer overloads and crashes.
3. There needs to be better integration between virtual spaces and the rest of the Internet, such as an open platform that does not require registration and allows anyone on the Internet to easily jump in and out of the 3-D environment. Although Second Life is free to use, the registration requirement is a barrier to more widespread use.
4. More non-English programs need to be created, or more non-English speaking people need to populate existing virtual spaces, converse in their own languages, and exercise their own cultural practices. The integration of translation software such that people who speak different languages can nevertheless communicate in real-time through a virtual space is an exciting possibility.
Although there are barriers to be overcome, the technology behind 3-D IVEs represents the future of the Internet and a new paradigm in communication. As such, it has the potential to take political activism to a whole new level and hopefully ameliorate the problems with liberal democracy in the West.
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Appendix A: Second Life and Politics Questionnaire
Progressive Politics through Second Life: A Questionnaire
Thanks so much for filling out this brief questionnaire. I am a post-graduate student at the
There is no organization funding this research, and most likely, the only people who will read it are the Board of Examiners at my university. However, I would like to make it available for the public through the Internet. It would be helpful to be able to attribute quotes to names, but if you wish to remain anonymous, please let me know. Regardless, I will not share your personal details with any other researcher or organization.
Please email the completed questionnaire to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send or submit your answers by August 31st, 2007
Name: Avatar name:
Resident of SL since:
Average # of hours/week spent inworld:
Average # of those hours spent on political activities:
Average # of hours/week spent on political activities outside Second Life:
Other online communities I belong to:
Political/activist organizations I belong to:
1. Do you think Second Life is an effective platform for political activities?
2. Has your activist experience on Second Life differed from your activist experience in other online or offline communities? If so, how?
3. Should Second Life be an extension of the real world or a chance to create a whole new world?
4. To be most effective, should political activism be local or global?
Can I contact you for follow up questions? If so, please provide your email address:
Please email the completed questionnaire to me at: email@example.com
 The full name and background of SLLU will be discussed shortly
 See Burkeman (2007), Willshire (2007)
 The questionnaire was made available to all members of SLLU and SL Netroots via an email invitation to participate on the group listservs. Officially, there are 170 registered members of SLLU and 132 registered members of SL Netroots, although I was told that the number of active participants in both groups is much smaller. I received 14 responses to the questionnaire. The questions posed were largely open-ended and meant to serve as a starting point for a conversation on using Second Life as a political platform. The ensuing conversations were conducted over email. Some informants chose to use their real names. Other used their avatar names or asked to be made anonymous. See Appendix A for the questionnaire form.
 Against accusations of parochialism that focusing on the U.S and the U.K might incur, I do not believe that focusing on Western subjects is any more limited than focusing exclusively on non-Western subjects. As knowledge is a form of power, turning the Western anthropological gaze inward can be just as informative and critical as the more accepted analysis of our ‘others,’ which can be seen as a form of neo-colonialism.
 This does not mean that the state does not currently intervene in the market. It does, but it tends to do so on behalf of market imperatives rather than the public good.
 The emphasis on the market does not necessitate a weak state. See Harvey (2006) and Munck (2005) for arguments that the state is not weakened under neoliberalism. Rather, a strong state is required to enforce market imperatives. I agree with this position and speak not of a weak state, but a weakening of the integrity of the state and the political process such that the public is alienated and distrustful of government under liberal democracy.
 It is common in political theory literature to use the term ‘citizen’ under what I believe is the assumption that formal citizenship is a necessary prerequisite for political subjectivity. I would like to expand the use of the term to include those residents of a nation-state who are formally excluded from citizenship, including some immigrants and refugees, but nevertheless can, should, and do factor into the political landscape.
 This is not to imply that reflexivity is limited to Western democracy and cannot be found in other parts of the world or other forms of government.
 Madden (2006) found that 73% of Americans are regular Internet users, up from 66% in 2005.
 Diebold is the company that manufactured the electronic voting machines used widely in the 2000
 In reality, digital divide issues and offline social structures often limit the ability for some to speak online. See Albrecht (2006) for an analysis of whose voice is heard in online communities and Shohat (1999: 196) for a discussion of how “cyber-communities are entangled in unequal material realities.”
 See Schulz (1993) for a discussion on the way virtual reality and reality have merged to the extent that we now live in a hybrid ‘virtu-real space.’
 Other notable online virtual worlds are Active Worlds, created by Active Worlds, Inc. and There, created by Makena Technologies.
 Those under the age of 18 are officially not allowed to register for the program, as there is a high degree of adult content within Second Life. However, during my registration process, I could not find any real deterrent for youth, who can simply lie about their age. A separate Teen Second Life has been created to cater for those under 18.
 I speak of ‘partial-embodiment’ because even though a user may appear on screen and navigate through Second Life as their avatar, it is not possible to ‘feel’ any of the physical sensations, such as pain, fatigue, or pleasure, that full embodiment would imply.
 From slleftunity.blogspot.com; accessed 14/9/07
 From secondlife.techsoup.org; accessed 14/9/07
 NPSL is a project of TechSoup.org, an organisation that assists schools and NGOs in the effective use of technology. From 2001-2004, I served as the Senior Content Manager for TechSoup.org.
 Installing Second Life requires a heavy software download and running the program is very taxing on computer processors. Even those users who are very technical and have top-of-the-line equipment frequently complain that the software crashes their machines.