Sunday, August 01, 2004

Demonstrating intent: Second Lifers find their activist voice

By ETHAN THERIAN
SecondLIFE Magazine

Hank Ramos, balloonist and resident since November of 2003 holds a one-man protest to decry the state of the Linden Balloon that no longer provides tours for new residents. A new campaign headquarters opens for U.S. Presidential Candidate John Kerry, and soon lawn-signs exhorting Kerry 2004 are spotted throughout Second Life. The first of a series of in-world town hall meetings convenes, held by Second Life luminary Khamon Fate, to discuss the future expansion of Linden Continent.



These are a few examples of what seems to be a new trend: activism in Second Life. A growing number of both new and longtime residents have been engaged in debate and events aimed at changing minds and inspiring action; and the issues tackled are not restricted to within the world of Second Life.

On June 30th, IceRink Zamboni presided over the opening of an election headquarters for Kerry. Decorated with campaign paraphernalia such as posters, red, white and blue balloons, and a letter from Kerry on the wall, the site was strikingly similar to campaign sites you might find in any small town. Of course, this being Second Life, there were touches of the outlandish: a girl with cat ears and a tail followed by a small floating demon, for one. Her name was Mimi Therian. When asked why she had decided to come to the rally, Therian replied "[I] do know this election will affect Second Life [and] Real Life, because every person here is a real person and I want Kerry to win."

Within a day of the opening of the headquarters, at which lawn-signs extolling candidate Kerry were distributed, it has become a common site to see residents' houses with the placards displayed out front, as in any suburban neighborhood.

Zamboni (who has since held several pro-Kerry events) when asked if she thinks Second Life activism will have any affect on real world behavior, replied "it will allow for some Real Life discussion in Second Life -- something that I haven't found before. I would hope that this does serve to educate, and if it is indeed possible to change minds in Second Life, I will try!"

Some of this activity may be attributed to the fact that this is a particularly contentious political season in Real Life, and the two sides are highly polarized -- an effect that bleeds into what seems to be predominantly liberal Second Life.

The recently erected Iraqi War Memorial [see related story] also provides silent witness to the increasing expression residents are giving to their real-life concerns, beliefs and opinions within Second Life.

However, the new shift toward personal activism is also seeing growth in the realm of in-world matters. One example is Ramos' Balloon protest.

Declaring "Let residents give tours! We are not the enemy! We are here to help!", Hank Ramos single-handedly maintained a picket line for several consecutive hours to express his grievances that the Linden Balloon, designed to give tours to new residents was not working and was taking up space that could be used to allow residents to park and give tours. Moreover, claimed Ramos, until last week, tours had been advertised despite the fact that officially sanctioned guides were rarely available.

The protest seemed to have an effect, as a visibly irritated Lee Linden fixed the balloon within hours of the small but vocal demonstration. Afterward, when asked why he was remaining on the protest, now that the bug was fixed, Ramos replied that the purpose of the protest went beyond the balloon. It dealt with what he sees as the growing inattention to newbies and residents by the Lindens.

“If you own an island sim, you have Philip Linden's ear... they ignore forums, ignore personal comments, IMs, emails. I'm protesting the unheard suggestions.”


Ramos was apparently heard, as in addition to Lee Linden, Liason Jill Linden agreed to bring up the issue of the deficiencies in the Welcome Area, and the balloon tours specifically, in the Real World, at the next Linden Labs meetings, but made no promises regarding results.

Not all in-world activism took the form of protests, however. Khamon Fate sponsored, in Godeltron, what is billed as the first in-world forums to discuss the future of our online world. The intention of the first of the town-hall style meetings was to attract residents who may not post to the forums and send the resulting transcripts to the Lindens. During the course of the forum discussion, suggestions were raised that Linden Labs could license the software to host small, specialized worlds dedicated to either specific audiences (such as education) led to concerns about the possibilities of establishing commercial presences and advertisers to Second Life.

"I think [Second Life] players supporting Second Life players is a grand thing. I think anyone who is here solely to make a buck misses the entire point of Second Life... I don't think companies belong on the same grid." commented Catherine Cotton during the meeting.

One possible reason for the surge in activism on in-world issue growing pains created by the influx of new users, and the growth of Linden Labs itself. Much of the content of the apprehension and discussion in the in-world forum, among onlookers to the Ramos protest, and positions espoused by Hank Ramos himself, revolved around the decreasing responsiveness of the Lindens to resident concerns and attention to forums and resident suggestions.

Indeed, Fate's town-hall meeting series, of which there have been multiple sessions since the first, have the avowed purpose of providing an alternative method to the web-based forums in the quest to catch the ear of a Linden.

Does activism in Second Life have an effect? The answer may lay in an announcement made in the forums on July 23, declaring "The limitations of the balloon have come to an end. The group formerly known as Baloon Guides will now adopt the stylish new moniker or Sky Guide Tours - and flight path and flying craft are now left to the imagination of the Guides. the Balloon itself has been removed so that the Sky Guides [formerly the Balloon Guides] might dock their tour craft at is former berth."

It seems that Ramos' protest action resulted in change extending beyond the purely virtual. Jill Linden, who had made the commitment to Ramos bring up the balloon issue in a Real Life Linden Labs meeting, confirmed: "I kept my promise to Hank and brought it up in the meeting. The dialog contributed to changes that were already be considered...and now I had sky guide tours."

In response to the news, Hank Ramos declared "I always knew that Linden Lab listens to their customers, and I knew that protests were a time honored way to influence change, both in Real Life and Second Life."

As Second Life matures, evidence points to a gradual thinning of the membrane between residents' First and Second lives, resulting in both an increase in in-world activism that reflects users' in-world concerns and the importation of First Life concerns into the environs of our online world.

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