Can You be A Citizen of a Virtual World?

Thu, Apr 19, 2007


Online communities play an important role in positive global change not just because they bring crises to world attention, Hollywood celebrities are even better at doing this! More importantly, they bring together diverse aspects of the global community/polity to make human dignity and freedom a priority in a world seemingly dominated by global competition (see Chika Anyan Wu).

I have been focusing on “bridge blogging” and “virtual worlds” because I believe on-line communities, in general, and virtual worlds, in particular, will play a role in positive global change so big that we cannot fully imagine it yet.

A connection to the experience of others motivates the social and political actions that can make the world a better place. The potential of virtual worlds, in particular, to enhance and energize shared experience and human connection has been acknowledged by everyone I have met (who has actually explored them), educators, corporate marketers, gamers, and political activists.

Are Virtual Worlds just games?

On Tuesday, I went to visit Xerox Innovation Island on Second Life to hear panelists, from Xerox Innovation Group, Beta Technologies, Multiverse, IBM and Xerox (PARC) and others discuss, “A vision of what’s next for virtual worlds.”

The theme that came through strongly despite grid problems was the role of virtual worlds in enhancing and enriching the experience of communication and collaboration at work. And, while this of course can be debated, and it is not the main topic of this particular post (later), I will mention that “making work fun” came up a lot. The focus of the event was, “perspective and ideas for business.” But, there was food for thought on the potential role of virtual worlds in global development. And, an important factor will probably be the particularly engaging qualities of these environments.


I am sitting on the far right in a xerox T-shirt looking very prim and proper (no foxy face this day). I had actually stripped my avatar of my “fun” accessories like flames and a foxy face. Inappropriate, I thought, for a Xerox guest. So, I was a little jealous of Jonas Karlsson’s (prime mover of the Xerox Innovation Island project) cool skates, and Philip Linden style spiked hair.

Second Life is not a game!

There was a large press turnout for the Xerox event that was being watched by a Real Life Audience. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Ziggy Figaro of Information Week. And, I couldn’t resist telling him I had been tweaked by Cory Doctorow’s post and article, “Why Online Games Are Dictatorships in Information Week. Doctorow asks the question “Can you be a Citizen of a Virtual World.”

Doctorow argues that Second Life is just like World of Warcraft – a dictatorship because the control of wealth and property is ultimately in the hands of the Lindens. The debate continues from a gaming perspective on Raph Koster’s blog. Where Koster writes: “The core of his argument [Cory Ds] is that while democracy can be really fun, actually governing sure isn’t, and interactions with governments tend not to be either. And that this poses challenges for any world (just as it does for the real world!)

I asked Ziggy Figaro what he thought of Doctorow’s article. And, he told me he had edited it, adding:

I thought it was interesting, his idea that games might well have to be dictatorships. I think he’s right. Unlike Cory, though, I don’t think that’s a bad thing… a game, like many businesses, you’re the customer and you expect the business owner to RUN things……his essay convinces me that SL is not a game. Because it’s not a dictatorship.

Can you be a citizen in a virtual world that is not a game?

Issues of governance are debated in depth in some communities on Second Life, notably in the Neufreistadt (a topic for another post!). And, Second Life citizenship is discussed both in the sense of property rights, rights to participation, and as active citizenship.

Forms of “active citizenship” are very much a part of online culture. If you go to this link you will find a detailed argument for this, and many other relevant links. There are reasons to be skeptical of the potential of “cyberactivism” to result in real world change. See Mutant Palm’s, “Nailhouse Blues,” where it is pointed out that the “Nail House” cyberhype seems to have had little impact, so far, on the much “blogged about new property law.” But, there is plenty of evidence for a more optimistic view.

In particular, there is the role new media technologies have in questioning “the role of nation states as agents of change, public police and social monitor.” And, as the state of nations states is frequently corrupt, oppressive, impotent or defunct. And, the majority of successful political or social movements in the last few years do not reside in their country or society of opposition due to political pressure and intimidation (Wu), this role is pretty important. See this post, “Reporters Without Borders, has published The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents.” (BBC Click)

Darfur – Giving Voice to a Crisis.


The on-going Darfur crisis in Sudan has caught the world’s attention (we are still waiting for global leaders to act) through a combination of celebrity activism – Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg – and the work of new communication networks. Working across a wide physical and cultural geography these new networks of communication and online organizations have found ways to give voice to the refugees, e.g., and bring attention to the crisis (see the Google Earth Darfur initiative).

The New York Times, reports on Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg’s efforts to put pressure on China. And, how in the new global politics, governments are more likely to listen to global threats to their interests than local protesters. A Senior Chinese official -

Mr. Zhai even went all the way to Darfur and toured three refugee camps, a rare event for a high-ranking official from China, which has extensive business and oil ties to Sudan and generally avoids telling other countries how to conduct their internal affairs.

Just when it seemed safe to buy a plane ticket to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, nongovernmental organizations and other groups appear to have scored a surprising success in an effort to link the Olympics, which the Chinese government holds very dear, to the killings in Darfur, which, until recently, Beijing had not seemed too concerned about. (New York Times)


This picture and the drawing by a child from a Darfur camp at the beginning of this post are from Camilla Nielsson. Her film, “The Children of Darfur,” “tells the children’s version of what is happening in Darfur. Some of the strongest testimonies are told by the children and etched in drawings made in the support centres that have opened throughout Darfur.”

I talked with Camilla about her film, her experiences making it, and talking to people around the world about the situation in Darfur. Camilla stressed the necessity for people to have some experience of a situation, and to make a connection, for political motivation to arise. Her film by taking you into the day to day lives of children in the camps, as they draw, cook, duck their head against the sandstorms creates an opportunity for such a connection to be made.

Camp Darfur in Second Life is a trail blazing effort at trying to connect people, through a multi-dimensional experience in a virtual world, to a social crisis in the real world. This and other projects like it are the beginning of an exciting and crucial adventure in positive global development. But, as anyone who has tried knows, establishing a presence/experience in a virtual world, whether it is corporate, educational, or as an active citizen, is an on-going experiment – a process of trial and error as we learn how to engage the potentials of virtual worlds more fully and effectively. But, as we learn how to deepen the experience and link on line and off line worlds in more and more creative ways there will be an ever increasing ROA – Return On Awesome (ROA is from Jerry Paffendorf).

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categories: bridge bloggers, Darfur, Second Life, social media, Virtual Citizenship, Virtual Worlds, Web3.D

12 Comments For This Post

  1. Aleister Kronos Says:

    I will add my usual rant on the subject of virtual citizenship and SL.

    While the Terms of Service allow “The Gods” to take away/lose your goods and property without recourse; ban you without appeal and undermine your inworld financial status (L$ have zero value, until exchanged for RL currency) then you are effectively still in a game environment (or a “game dictatorship” if you prefer). The recent loss of Moo Money’s (and others) inventories brings it home that SL is also insecure – and actually under no legal requirement (from ToS) to make recompense. Of course, it would be bad PR to be over-dictatorial, or indeed (for SL), “over game-y” – and the numbers of new residents would be adversely affected. So LL will do what they can – but they are not under any formal obligation to do so.

    The Virtual Democracies and Citizenship endeavours in SL are, in the light of the above, only playing at politics/ethic/morality. The members are extremely earnest, I know – but at the end of the day their efforts are, in effect, tolerated by The Gods. In themselves, they are not truly independent and autonomous.

    In the future, when 3D environments move out into 3D web, then this can change. But while stuck with the “Game Mentality” that is wrapped into the existing ToS, then we are playing at citizenship (OK, “preparing ourselves for virtual citizenship to come”). Until that change comes, we can only hope for a continuation of the largely benign dictatorship under which we live our virtual lives.

    PS: Gwyn will probably beat the cr*p out of me now :-)

  2. Team Mascot Says:

    I believe that SL “works” as a community just now because the inabitants are, on the whole, enthusiasts who “want” it to work. With the massive influx of users over the past few months, it is only natural that there will be a proportion of users who are not really interested in community, but find it fun to grief or destroy. Sady, human nature is like that.

    As Al says, in SL there are the “gods” of LL, who can banish ill-doers at a whim. They have the difficult balancing act of being seen to let the citizens of SL live freely, whilst not letting griefers cause too much trouble.

    A neat feature of SL is that communities such as Neufreistadt are able to experment with ways of creating and maintaining a democracy within the SIM.

    Looking at the wider issues of your post, with references to Darfur – for me, Camp Darfur provided a vehicle for bringing the situation to my attention. Perhaps it was the novelty of using SL to do this that caught my interest…. but does it matter, provided the profile was raised?

    To wind up this comment – and connecting to Al’s comment about future 3D environments – we are back in the same arena as the internet today – governments try to impose their laws (and sometimes succeed in imposing restrictions on free speech and information). Puting a 3D world around it won’t make such governance any easier or any harder.

  3. Tisha Says:

    For my personal experience, husband addicted to Second Life, the benefits seems to be two-fold – there’s a vibrant community of people seeking fun and relaxation through the game aspect which provides loads of entertainment with music, chats, etc. and the second aspect is the possibility of meeting like-minded individuals for professional purposes and organizing events. It’s very real!

    I would love to hear your opinion on Tim O’Reilly’s Draft Blogger’s Code of Conduct post I have up today!

  4. Gwyneth Llewelyn Says:

    Very interesting article, Tish, although, to be honest, I’d have liked to see a longer answer to your own question :) So, can we be citizens of virtual worlds or not?

    Aleister, no, I won’t bash you :) Actually, you’re using the same arguments than Cory Doctorow in his article: that you cannot be a citizen of a world where you don’t even own your identity, and where everything you have — a name, content, and the freedom to move around — can be taken from you in a second by a Linden on a bad day, without recourse.

    Personally, I think that we have several very complex issues in Second Life specifically (never mind Cory’s oversweeping generalisations to other MMOGs and MMORPGs; it’ll be several decades until the Terra Nova clan is able to finally understand that just because it’s 3D and it has avatars, it has to be some sort of game) that need to be addressed before “citizenship in Second Life” means anything.

    But let’s see what “citizenship” on the Internet means. Very succintly — it means identity and a set of rights that extend to a different medium, namely, the right to authoriship of content. It also means protection under the right of law. The Internet started as a libertarian, no-law cyberspace — you could register any domain name you wished, use any nickname in IRC, use any email address you wish, and copy a whole web site and claim it as your own (on a different server, possibly across the world…) and nobody had any clue on how to prevent that from happening. It took us well over a decade to place the same set of rules, controls, and laws on the Internet that allowed you minimal protection. And while a decade ago or so people still talked about “netizenship” and “special human rights fo netizens”, all that talk faded out into oblivion once it was pretty well established that the Internet was “just another medium”, and one that had to be recognised by existing laws, not specifically new ones.

    I’m still a citizen with full rights when I talk with someone over the phone. Just because I’m not “physically” there to talk, the same sets of rules and laws apply to a phone conversation.

    There are naturally some differences. An US citizen that engages in gambling on a website on a state where gambling is a crime is commiting a crime or not? Legally, yes, if he’s physically on his own home, even if he’s connecting to a server across the world on a country that allows gambling. But the truth is that you can still break the law and “nobody will ever know”, unlike what happens with physically going to an “underground” casino to win a few dollars. So the Internet has added some interesting legal challenges, but, in effect, most of them have been figured out by the many jurisdictions of the world — hardly any country in the world hasn’t addressed at least some of the issues.

    Now, I’ve always claimed that Second Life was precisely the same thing. Well, to be honest, there is a big difference — Linden Lab, effectively, is able to supercede any national or international legislation and do pretty much what they want. In fact, by literary pseudonym “Gwyneth Llewelyn” is fully registered as an author in my country, and by blog is also registered under the Creative Commons — so I have the full extent of the law (national and international copyright laws) to claim my identity and ownership of content regarding what I write. If someone else steals my content and my identity, I have recourse in the real life — pseudonyms are fully protected, and they have the same rights as any other name. When writing or posting pictures on the Internet, I’m being a nice citizen, and being protected in my rights.

    Second Life, sadly, has precisely the opposite approach — you don’t really own anything, not even your identity, and there is no recourse, because you have specificaly forfeited those rights when joining SL. The best that people can do is to prevent identity theft to an extent, by trademarking their own avatar names, and thus, if a Linden in a bad day throws you out, at least prevent legally someone else to steal your identity (using a DMCA takedown notice). But all your content in SL is “lost” — as is your money, your property, your business, your contacts, and it’s lost “forever”, since there is no appeal nor recourse to LL’s decision.

    I’m pretty sure this situation will not change soon, while LL is the sole entity in full control of Second Life. I can’t devise a mechanism whereby LL can allow identity and ownership using their platform and be not liable to a whole set of irregularities that happen in “their” virtual world — like the always troublesome issues of gambling and prostitution.

    However, there is a way out — once what we know as “the Second Life grid” becomes a joint operation of several independent groups (companies and organisations) that link their grids together using the open source version of Second Life server software — all the relationship between users, their avatars, and the all-embracing benevolent dictatorship by Linden Lab will be thoroughly questioned. On IBM’s sub-grid — which might become reality in less than a couple of years — IBM will definitely not want Linden Lab to arbitrarily remove some of IBM’s own customers, based on the cranky unpredictability of the results of an Abuse Report.

    No wonder, then, that Linden Lab’s first steps was to start to change the Abuse Report system. But more will follow — have to follow — until, step by step, Linden Lab’s “benign dictatorship” is fully removed.

    When that finally happens — and it will take much less time than most people today believe in — we might start addressing the notion of “citizenship” in virtual worlds. However, I predict that the answer will be the same as “netizenship”: you’ll have the same rights, not new rights, that you enjoy in your corner of the world, and the same sort of protections, rights and duties as you enjoy on the other side of the keyboard.

    This might come as a big disappointment for all the utopianists that are currently in Second Life and would like to create a “new society”. The attempt on the Internet failed, although, as a side result, we got much more freedom of expression through a new medium that allows everybody to get an audience instantly. So it was not so bad. I also think that we might be able to exercise our existing rights more and better with a future Second Life, in ways that we don’t fully understand now (like we didn’t foresee the explosion of the blogosphere back in 1992 or so). We won’t live in an utopian virtual society in 2015, but we might be even more in touch with our current society.

    Just imagine SL in 2015, when, say, 5000 avatars are able to be in a single sim (or half a million!), without lagging. Imagine what that means if any citizen in the world can visit their countries’ legislative assembly, virtually, but participate in the debates there. You can do that today — most legislative assemblies in the democratic world have their sessions open to public — but how many of us really, really take the pain to go there every day and watch? Through Second Life, we might do that without leaving our own homes (or offices), once all democratic countries hold their sessions inside virtual worlds… everybody who wants to exercise their citizen’s rights in their own countries will have one barrier less to overcome (physical distance and inconvenience of time).

    That’s my own “utopia” actually. The Web has given us immediate access to transcripts of what our publicly elected representatives are doing, and through forums and blogs, a way to post our views on that. Second Life’s metaverse will allow us to “be there” at the crucial point of decision-making. Like governments had to adapt to the concept that something that comes out of their legislative assemblies can be in minutes posted on a blog and have hundreds of thousands of people commenting on it and spreading the news — sometimes faster than the traditional media, which might or not might be under the pressure of lobbies and interest groups — they will need to adapt to democratic societies where people will be able to cross all barriers to “be there” with the elected representatives when they make a decision. This will need some mindset adjustments.

    The beauty of all this is that it won’t happen “overnight”. Rather, it will be so gradual that almost nobody will ever feel the change. It’s like most things that became ‘suddenly’ ubiquous, and nobody had predicted those. In 1985, we wouldn’t have imagined that everybody in the world would have a phone in their pockets, and would be able to be immediately contacted — we imagined this would be true for a “selected few”, but not all. We adapted all our society — the way business works, for instance — just because of that change. But we never “felt” the change itself, it became a “natural” use of the technology. In 1995, magazines still labeled freaks that used the Internet “more than a few hours per day”. Nowadays, there are hardly any offices in the developed world that don’t have all employees in front of an Internet-connected computer with an email address to communicate. A report on a major magazine saying “25% of the people in the developed world spend more than 40 hours a week using the Internet” would sound silly these days. We expect to use the Internet as part of our daily work, and often for leisure as well. But this change of mentality took about a decade as well.

    So, the same will slowly happen with Second Life as well. It’s all shiny and new, and we look expectantly of what’s beyond the horizon and go “oh, wow, cool, in a few years I’ll be able to use an avatar animation to punch Bush in the nose since the White House will be in-world and Bush will hold office hours there!”. We smile and laugh at that, but it will be so commonplace in, say, 2015 or 2020, that we won’t even understand that there was a change at all. “People wrote letters to the White House in 1950; they sent emails to the White House in 1993; why shouldn’t they visit the President using an avatar inside a virtual world in 2020?” It will be only natural, normal, and perfectly reasonable. It just looks “cool”, “techy”, and “amazing” today. Conversation in 2020: “So, did you punch the President’s nose yesterday? — Awww no, it’s not fun any more, we loved to do it in 2015 when it was a novelty”

  5. dandellion Kimban Says:

    This might come as a big disappointment for all the utopianists that are currently in Second Life and would like to create a “new society”.

    This is less utopia than a dream that was not been thinked throughly. Does anybody sane dreams about “new society” that is going on solely on the grid? I don’t think so. What we can dream of is “new society” here, in the real world. Sure, that society can be, and will be impacted by our living in the metaverse. Being a netizen with rights that differ form citizen’s rights is not much of a success of human kind. It seems more like Matrix scenario than utopia. One can find herself living “full rights” beautiful and shiny life in the metaverse while being connected from a cell of concentracion camp.
    Internet, from text browser to SL client, should be in accordance with our lives off-line. As much as we like to put a line between our first and second lives, some things must remain for both of them. Otherwise we are in serious and dangerous trap. As you pointed, there cannot be different laws for on-line and off-line worlds. Whether I am identified by my ID card issued by country authorities or by profile page invoked by right-click, that is the same me. It doesn’t matter that I do look different and have different name. And that goes for every possible alt one can have.
    One of the huge problems with that is issue of jurisdiction. Really, am I, as a citizen of European country that has nothing against gambling, allowed to gamble in Second Life? Probably yes, as long as casino is owned by another European. But then again, are Linden Labs allowed to maintain the server on which everything is happening? You see where am I aiming at. Internet is one. And that is one of the greatest things about it. But countries are many, and there are too many unbalanced law systems. While it seems like solution that countries develop similar laws that is illusion. First, that is not going to happen. Second, that is not a solution. Diversity of customs and laws is something that provides a bit of freedom for many of us. Developed and democratic part of the world enjoys (more or less) the possibility to change the country if finds its laws unappropriate. And we are witnessing that LL is heading towards the same principle in metaverse by giving more administrative rights to sim owners. (Croquet as a system was far than that by allowing different physics on different servers).
    We are witnessing the early development of the world (or rather, one more realm of our only world), the world that will impact our society in such a strong measure. And we are participating in that development. There is enormus dose of responibility in each of us. What we do now, in regard of our future society, freedom and wellness will have consequences in centuries to come. Or it will not, in the case we screw it up and everything go to hell.

  6. Aleister Kronos Says:

    Gwyn nails it again for me – though I wish she’d not write so much, it makes my brain hurt.

    I would see true(r) virtual citizienship coming along with the future opening out of the closed “dictatorships” of the virtual worlds (for simplicity, let’s say it’s SL). But importantly such opening out also provides a mechanism for localised implementation of different rules of governance. For example, if you visit “IBM City” in this future vWorld you will need to adhere to rules – both implicit and explicit – laid down by IBM. Some of these rules will be in response to RL legal requirements, while others will be IBM’s own – for the protection of their property, citizens and content.

    Sadly, by extension, this will mean that I do not see you having the opportunity to bop a G Bush avatar in the nose, since the “vWhiteHouse” will have put sufficient security and governance processes in place to prevent such anti-social [?] behaviour.

    Security and Governance must develop in parallel with freedom and citizenship – as they provide the foundations on which such a civilisation can flourish. And a final thought – (I do love rabbiting on about Sec & Gov) – trying to apply Sec & Gov as a late addtional overlay just doesn’t work – they are fundamental to the fabric of effective “systems” – be they IT, business, governmental etc.

  7. Ziggy Figaro Says:

    Thanks for the link and the fascinating discussion of Cory’s article, all.

    Mitch Wagner

  8. Ziggy Figaro Says:

    Argh, sorry for double-posting, but a thought just occurred to me.

    Aleister Kronos is not wrong, and yet Second Life is not a dictatorship and is therefore not a game.

    Aleister correctly describes the written contract. LL can kick you out of Second Life for any reason or no reason at all, stripping you of your virtual property and very identity, to die sobbing and alone in the (digital) snow.

    But they don’t do that. They’ve been pretty hands-off. So much so that I occasionally hear complaints from people who wish LL did more to police griefers and scammers.

    And that defines the nature of Second Life.

    If LL ever decided to flex its muscles, create rigid terms of service and enforce them rigidly, it would be a different world. And it would become a game.

  9. dandellion Kimban Says:

    @ziggy: I am not sure I quite get it, why dictatiorship kind of behaviour means Second Life is a game?

  10. Aleister Kronos Says:

    The principle here is that in a game environment, the game authors dictate the structure and rules (perhaps also content) of the game, which are surfaced to us, the users, through the Terms of Service (my hobbyhorse!) The ToS for SL at least, as defined by Linden, give them great power while also committing them to very little in terms of Quality of Service. In effect, they occupy the role of “dictator”. As Ziggy points out, Linden have been benign dictators in that they rarely invoke their powers, while actually attempting to meet a reasonable QoS. They need to do that if they want to attract people to (a) play their game or (b) inhabit their virtual world [delete as appopriate].

    But in the interests of a wider 3D internet they may need to commit to a number of improvements both in terms of the ToS and their defined QoS. I will highlight one of these – the Linden Dollar. Many see the L$ as providing the foundation for a flourishing micropayments system in the 3D internet to-be. However, while it is defined as of zero value “inworld” it remains, in effect, “game money”. As such, it is not constrained by national or international fiscal law (which is nice) – and not suitable as a trusted micropayments system.

    How this is to be handled going forward I have no idea. I am merely highlighting that “game money” is most unlikely to be a satisfactory or acceptable in a 3D internet environment, which will need to adhere to the rule of SL law and fiscal practice.

    PS: Sorry Tish, you’ve heard this ramble before. :-)

  11. Aleister Kronos Says:

    OOPS! – In last para.. I meant of course “RL law” :-)

  12. dandellion Kimban Says:

    kk. Thanks for explanation. It works for me.

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