Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths