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My activist Second Life

'Virtual' activism and protest are not geeky or trivial, argues Neil Scott, but an important tool in modern communications and politics. The left has a lot to lose if it doesn't acknowledge their potential

February 28, 2009
11 min read

Virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL), imagined and created by their online users, are growing in popularity. And contrary to what many people think, they’re not just about sex, a release from social constraints and an escape from reality. These aspects of SL do exist, as do many of the familiar features of capitalism in the ‘real world’. But there is another side to SL that is also growing – its educational, protest and activist uses.

Virtual activist

‘Plot Tracer’ is my Second Life avatar. He isn’t much different from me, except perhaps in looks (he has borg implants and a metal robotic leg). His political beliefs are mine – as is his love of education and activism. Plot has been helping in a project that has been developing since 2006 – Second Life Left Unity (SLLU ).

A group of over 400 people worldwide and within the metaverse [virtual world], SLLU owns land, a freebie shop that gives away things that can be used in Second Life, a ‘hub’ build that includes links to real life affiliations of members, and a ‘solidarity area’ – a place where people can erect stalls and small buildings with educational web links and note dispensers on real life issues. Recent (early 2009) additions include Gaza and Greek protest stalls, while a native American is in the process of creating an educational sim (simulator) about native American culture, and is adding a stall to link to her huge build and to external websites.

SLLU has been involved in many things in Second Life – including tackling head on fascist groups seeking to use the medium to connect with young gamers. (The demography of SL cuts across age groups – with middle-aged and retired people making up the largest and fastest group.) Back in 2007, the French Front National (FN), like many real life political parties from across the world, set up an office within the SL metaverse. When SLLU members found out, we launched round the clock protests at the FN build.

The FN managed to ‘ban’ members from their land, but SLLU bought land beside them – and then all hell broke loose! We sent press releases to all of the major news outlets across the (real) world, focusing on their technology sections as SL was newsworthy. We were interviewed by CNN, Channel 4, the Guardian and The Times. Our name and links to our charter and aims and principles even ran in newspapers and journals in Japan. This created a backlash against the FN in France, as papers ran headlines like ‘Front National Pigbombed’ (someone, not a member of SLLU, as we are a nonviolent group, had created a ‘pig balloon bomb’ and set it off in their HQ). The FN ordered its members to withdraw from the medium.

Virtual strike

Another SL event we took part in was a ‘strike’ planned by the Italian IBM union, Rappresentenza Sindacale Unitaria. Increasingly, SL is used by large companies for training and meetings, and the union heard that IBM officials were meeting in the online world. IBM workers were provided with logins and specially made avatars by the union, and given links to an online petition and a suggested letter of solidarity with the workers. They were told to log in to SL at a certain time for a demonstration during IBM Italy’s working hours. This demonstration included people across the world – SLLU helped publicise it ‘inworld’ (inside Second Life). The result of the strike, when thousands of IBM workers and supporters disrupted what should have been a meeting of IBM international chief executives, was described in a letter to SLLU from the IBM union:

‘1. Mr Andrea Pontremoli, IBM Italy’s ceo (who personally received all of your petitions by email) has resigned. It seems our virtual action had an impact on his role at IBM. IBM corporation made a complaint to IBM Italy for the way they’ve managed the negotiations with the thousands of employees and how they’ve let it lead to such a harmful image for the company.

2. IBM Italy management have accepted to return to the negotiations’ table and has already met with the works council. We expect an agreement will -finally- be signed in the next week or two. IBM workers have now been waiting an entire year for the situation to unblock, so this is really fantastic news.’

Virtual education, education, education

SLLU has led SL educational activities and discussions on topics as diverse as Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Barack Obama and 1968. We have also hooked up with others to run workshops on human rights and recently staged an exhibition on rape and violence towards women (the group now has a feminist network). Our members come from across the anti-capitalist spectrum, meaning the approaches to educationals, discussions and installations are diverse, though all linked through the group’s charter and aims and principles.

We have made links with universities using the medium, including the University of Delaware and recently the University of the West of Scotland. Universities across the world are buying up space to help in lectures and to create educational builds. Through these, we have introduced university staff as well as students, to some of the issues our members have been discussing and creating installations around (and in turn, university staff and students have been introducing new discussions and creations within the group and on group land).

The new town square is the internet

‘A culture that took 200 years to build was torn apart in 20,’ is how Paul Mason, in his book Live Working or Die Fighting, describes what has happened to working class culture in Britain and the west through the processes of Thatcherism and neoliberalism. Living in the post-industrial west is a very different place than only a few decades ago. Communities in housing schemes, miners villages, industrial towns and cities have been torn apart by low employment and lack of shared experience.

Mason also says that the fracturing of our society comes with ‘the culture of individualism born of technological progress. If the union way of life was in the [past] the only positive identity on offer to young workers, today they are adept at playing with multiple identities: Shenzhen shoe worker by day, World of Warcraft dwarf by night, retro-punk rocker at the weekend.’

Communities that we ‘come from’ are no longer places where people live their lives. The community of family is now spread across the world by the ease of travel and cheap flights. In this new fractured world, where do we pull together community? Belonging? Comradeship? Dialogue? Debate? The new ‘town square’ is the internet – though that too is becoming fractured and privatised. But new communities can exist regardless of the transient nature of modern living – between people who never actually meet, but share common interests and beliefs. So too can new communities between political allies and adversaries – real dialogue with real people.

Lawrence Lessig, in his excellent book Free Culture, says about the US: ‘We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It’s fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes more extreme. We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.’ He then goes on, ‘Enter the blog.’

Enter the blog

The blog is a place where people can write exactly what they think, have debates and discourse with people from across the globe. Blogs allow for political discourse without them having to be gathered in a single public space – or at a specific time.

Commercial pressures do not exist for bloggers; they can obsess, focus, be serious, flippant, whatever. If a blogger writes a good story, it could be linked across the country and the world through other blogs, and as the number of links increase, it rises up the ranks of stories. People read peer-selected popular stories – and with new tools added to blogs such as Digg, these peer-selected stories get a larger audience again.

Journalism is freed of the constraints of commercialism and other issues that hamper the mass media. Lessig goes on, ‘As more and more citizens express what they think, and defend it in writing, it will change the way people understand public issues. It is easy to be wrong and misguided in your head. It is harder when the product of your mind can be criticised by others. Of course, it is a rare human who admits that he has been persuaded that he is wrong. But it is even rarer for a human to ignore when he has been proven wrong. The writing of ideas, arguments, and criticism improves democracy.’

SLLU uses a blog for members to share thoughts, to debate and discuss outside the SL medium. Recently, SLLU asked people across the world to write articles and letters to and about Obama. What was produced was published on the SLLU blog. Opinion was diverse; the debate it created inworld and on the blog was fierce, as was the discussion and debate on Gaza. All of which is, of course, an educational experience, every bit as valuable as turning up to your local activist weekly meeting. (Incidentally, at my fortnightly meetings of the Campsie branch of the Scottish Socialist Party, we encourage each other to write articles for the branch blog.

Not geeky or trivial

‘Cyberspace’ suggests something unreal. A place where ‘unreal’ people congregate. A place where ‘geeks’ obsess and do things apart from real life. This criticism is, in my opinion, similar to when Thatcher and her cronies in the 1980s said that degrees and courses that studied the media were ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’. Degrees within the arts that encouraged critical thinking all came under attack. And to attack cyberspace and those who use it to communicate as geeky or trivial is attacking or, at the very least, mistakenly trivialising the single most powerful communication tool thus-far created by humanity.

It is a communication tool that goes across borders and is very cheap to use in comparison with all other communication tools people have come up with across the years. A communication tool that the corporations are exploiting to the hilt – sinking huge amounts of money, research and legal fees into. From blog spaces through to forums and cyber worlds such as Second Life. So who loses if the left succumbs to the labelling of cyberspace as geekdom? If a tool is shown to be effective in breaking down the barriers between the reader and writer of news and political opinion – if we all become the active participants of the triangulation of news/opinion, who loses? The citizen or news corporations?

In Lessig’s book he writes about a scheme run in San Francisco for children of this new media world. ‘Media literacy,’ as Dave Yanofsky, the executive director of Just Think!, puts it, ‘is the ability … to understand, analyse, and deconstruct media images. Its aim is to make [kids] literate about the way the media works, the way it’s constructed, the way it’s delivered, and the way people access it.’ This is literacy in the world where children (and adults) see on average 390 hours of commercials per year. In a world where the capitalist class own and control the propaganda creators and disseminating outlets, it is important to understand the grammar of media. It is important to understand how to use that media. And it is important to understand that nowadays most people have the power in their everyday life gadgets to create media.

Elizabeth Daley, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Centre for Communication and dean of the USC school of Cinema and Television, says, ‘From my perspective, probably the most important digital divide is not access to a box. It’s the ability to be empowered with the language that that box works in. Otherwise only a very few people can read with this language, and all the rest of us are read-only.’ Passive.

We can create, read and write the political agenda. At the very least empower people to read and understand the tools that are used to mislead and show people how they can get their political thoughts into cyberspace with the use of their mobile phone/video camera/pc or one or more of the above. The tools are out there and are free. From Blogger, through Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, YouTube and others, we have the tools to create a community of pedagogues, news gatherers and commentators that can link across the real world.

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