Politics in Second Life®

I know I’m playing with fire here, but I’ll still post some of my thoughts on the subject.

When I started as an utter clueless newbie – and I definitely had a much harder time figuring out things out than most of the current batch of new residents – I was really not sure about what to expect.

I briefly referred that after a week or so I asked to myself “What is Linden Lab trying to accomplish?” I have always been fascinated with conspiracy theories, contemporary myth, and urban legends. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate that Linden Lab® was backed up by a US government agency that was trying out social behaviours with clueless gamers, with the purpose of “training” them towards a “better society” in a virtual environment. Lots of things could point towards this:

  • There.com had sold its technology recently to the US Army. So why shouldn’t LL have done the same?
  • America’s Army was always announced as a “game” sponsored by the US Army to find out leadership trends in youths. So, LL could have been comissioned to do a similar thing, but focused upon political and economical vocational discovery, and not “team” leadership in a warfare environment.
  • Linden Lab hardly seems to make huge amounts of profit and grows slowly. It is also seriously attracting attention from the non-gaming community – perhaps even more so, since Second Life hardly has the necessary elements to be considered a “game” (although it is definitely entertaining). This could point to “other sources of income” that we simply don’t know anything about – again, pointing to US governmental funding for specific purposes.
  • The game was targeted towards adults. Most game platforms prefer to target the “console generation”, ie. late teenagers and young adults. The Teen Grid was a recent addition – LL survived very well without it. So it seems that an adult, mature audience was the key to LL’s success. Also, although there certainly are many worthwhile exceptions, the bridges between SL and real life are built mostly by residents in the 30-50 age span. Are they the intended audience of LL?

Of course, after a few more weeks in-world, the conspiracy theory slowly faded into the mists of irrealism and I started to enjoy myself too much to still believe in those things.

Still, it’s interesting to see how many people are politically conscious. I have never seen any community – besides specialized boards and forums, of course – that are so well informed and knowledgeable about politics and socio-economics (although many are plainly wrong, at least they read about these things). I’m sure many would disagree, when looking how people behave in the sandboxes, but think again. A few of the most active “sandbox-blasting” youths have an incredibly strong view about their own political orientation. Yes, they blast newbies, get suspended – but talk to them for a while, and you’ll be surprised. So many of them have real life political agendas that it is almost uncanny.

Remember, I’m talking just from my own experience, and always in relative terms, when compared to other electronic communities.

So, what does the political-savvy community in SL do? Most, of course, bring their own political agendas into RL. My early reactions in the posts targeted the “right to an anarchist utopia” which has been the landmark of SL in 2004. In 2005, what we see is that this group has dwindled (but is still mightily active, compared to the same size in the real world) and been partially replaced by several “groups”, “organizations”, “groups”, or “virtual companies”.

Why is SL’s society changing?

So there was a shift towards less anarchism and more organization. Why? I could point a few reasons, some of which may even be true:

  • The SL population grows to be less US-centric. US residents are still 2/3 of the population, but the difference is, you get very different styles of US residents these days. The new ones that stay for a long while I can only describe as having an “European” attitude towards socio-economics and politics. After a while – many months at least – this group grows, and it influences growth. European-style thinking tends to throw off the balance of the status quo thinking and bring a wider range of political thoughts in a community.
  • Although most new residents still come from a computer science background, many don’t. Techies ruled the Internet, as we all know. But all over the Internet communities, the non-techies are definitely a majority these days, despite the success of things like Slashdot. Actually, I believe that the “techie culture” has created things like Slashdot to be part of a counter-culture to a non-techie Internet.
  • Second Life still grows, and more people mean a more balanced population. This is true of almost all communities – the wider its range, the more different schools of thought will be present, and the more it will resemble the real world.

The Revenge of the Geeks

Bill Gates is usually credited with this description – he started as “one of the geeks” and grew his geeky vision into one of the major companies in the world, while becoming the world’s richest person.

While the truth is rarely so simple, it’s true that a technically-minded person has a certain system of values and concepts which are strange (sometimes “alien”) to other, non-technical people. This was always true – scientists were stereotyped into beings living in Ivory Towers and forgetting about the world around them. Engineers are stereotyped in comic strips like Dilbert. The Internet-based community of computer experts have created a new “society” of their own – where millions of technically-minded people join forces together, exchanging ideas and thoughts with people who understand them, and where they can freely adopt the ideas and opinions that everybody in their own community can relate to.

This “geek universe” has given us lots of radical new ideas, like the concept of “open source software” – the notion that, having someone to pay your salary so that you may pay your bills, you can spend your free time to develop software for free and spread it among your own community, which will gladly improve upon it and further spread your collaborative work. Unix was born that way; almost all applications based on Unix wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the open source movement; and, to an extent, the whole of the Internet has its roots in a mix of academia and the open source movement. Later companies “absorbed” this vision and not only began to use open source software, but they encouraged their employees to develop it as well, or even released their own software into open source. Despite all critics of the open source movement, it not only grows, but it has given us more robust tools, less prone to failure, easily reviewed by a vast number of high quality programmers and system administrators, and generally setting up the standards that proprietary solutions have to compete against. It also gave the computer experts a much larger user base of highly trained professionals in a certain tool. As a comparison, the Microsoft Windows core team may have a thousand programmers – who know the code by heart and do its low-level debugging and technical support – but an open source solution like Linux may have hundred thousand knowledgeable experts who can tweak it in their sleep. For the end user, this means a much vaster experience base, a larger number of people that can immediately address any kind of problem very quickly and respond in a timely manner. In this age of computer viruses and cyberterrorism, being able to address issues very quickly is paramount – thus, as a side-effect which was probably not foreseen by Richard Stallman in the 1970’s, the open source movement actually contributes for the business world to get more reliable tools, and businesses based on open source tools can grow faster and more securely as well.

Another important issue is the recognition of having done something amazing. The hacker subculture exploits systems because they want to be recognized by their peers. To a certain extent, people want to become immortalized by their achievements when they create something for free and pass it around. This is one of the fundamental drives for creating new tools or ideas – making them better or unique, and get your peers to admire your work. This also gives the promoters of open source software a whole new, dynamic range of social interaction. People fight for the right to belong to an “inner core” of programmers that have determined the direction of a certain tool (a good example is the way Linux Debian mantainers are selected). They excel in their own work to get admitted to the sanctum sanctorum of the “core programmers”. If they are unable to do so, they split from the group, and create something new instead – i.e., becoming themselves the new “inner core” of a new technology, and attracting new programmers that way, and so on. The net result is a vast variety of ideas and solutions to the same problem – and the end user is able to make choices and pick the one which is best for his own purpose.

Linden Lab is a children of the new age of open source. We all know that Second Life would never be possible if they didn’t do extensive use of open source software. The servers run Linux, Apache, Squid, MySQL. The client is based on OpenGL. Except for some few features – sound handling, the physics system (Havok), and QuickTime for video streaming – all the building tools of Second Life are based on open source tools and applications (as well as their own web servers, of course). It’s not to be unexpected – the culture of Linden Lab, a Californian “Silicon Valley”-style enterprise, is naturally driven by what their technical experts bring with them.

In a sense, Linden Lab is a technologically-driven company – both finantially as well as culturally. This is not surprising, seeing that it has created a fantastic technological product. What is suprising is that for Linden Lab only the technical aspects are interesting (at least at the beginning of LL). Things like “virtual economy” and “community building” came much later, almost as an afterthought, although I tend to believe that these are their focus right now, and they have made an excellent effort to adapt quickly to that.

Why weren’t these two aspects – community and economy – important from the beginning? Well, a company like Linden Lab basically developed something geeky for the geek community. Not unsurprisingly, these were the first to use the virtual world, and shape it accordingly. Again, not unsurprisingly, the early adopters of Second Life encouraged the prevalent thinking paradigm of the computer expert community. Sharing your builds or your scripts became second nature to them – after all, in a sense, “creating” things in Second Life is analogous to programming software and sharing it through the open source movement. Many of the early adopters are still around, and they still think the same way. As long as someone pays the bills for them, all their work spent in SL is given away for free. Projects grow organically with volunteer help; you don’t expect anything in return except perhaps a willingness for others to share as well. The result has been amazing – a world mostly built from scratch, from zero, with thousands of very knowledgeable experts in SL, that advanced their knowledge simply from sharing experiences.

It’s no wonder the open source movement has been adapted so well to SL.

Many tend to see this approach to a certain way of life as being “left-wing”, idealistic, or contrary to the spirit of free market countries, where people expect that their work has value and that you deserve to be paid for that work. Actually, the open source movement in the 21st century is way beyond Richard Stallman’s original thoughts of building a counter-culture to proprietary and profit-making software engineering. Richard may have had his political views leaning towards a certain leftish trend, but most adepts of the open source movement these days – who have grown into it and probably never read anything about Richard Stallman – are much more ideology-free than many would like to admit. For them, this is “natural”. They work for companies and get paid; in their free time, they’re entitled to do whatever they wish, and to give it away if they like. Value is attached not to what they create and own, but to what they do – and in the way their peers recognize their work.

If you’re a resident of Second Life for more than a few months, you’ll see these social dynamics in place. The “mythological aristocracy”, the so-called “Feted Inner Core”, are not much more than the alleged group of residents that has created the most amazing things in Second Life – and mostly given it away for free (although not always!). They are the ones that encourage getting together to do new projects just for the pleasure of saying they have done something new – and getting their peers to applaud the end result. It worked fantastically well for Second Life. It’s almost undeniable that if it weren’t for them, there would be no “Second Life” as we know it these days, thanks to volunteers that grabbed this virtual world designing platform, and pushing it into areas nobody (at Linden Lab, at least) thought possible.

The problem derives from the growth of Second Life, which brings people in it that either don’t come from a technical background, or that do not support ideas like the open source movement, but advocate a model similar to real life – where things have “intrinsic value” (like land) and that you should get a monetary reward from your work. Thus, products and services should get paid, according to the time it takes to develop them. If they’re freely given away, you don’t have a sense of “value” attached to either your work or to the product/service you deliver. And this means that you have no way to measure its worth, or your own worth as a supplier of a product/service.

This, eventually, will clash with a society where “value” is not so important as “doing interesting things and being recognized by it”. The open source movement is mostly free. Recognition does not come from time/labour spent into a product, but by the achievement of actually rolling a product out. Good open source products exist that have taken little time to create, when compared to the gargantuan monsters (in terms of programming hours) needed to create things like Linux, Apache, or Mozilla. Recognition levels are, however, almost the same. As an example, if Second Life would be released into the open source, it would immediately rise to become one of the most fantastic open source products ever designed, despite the fact that it was mostly developed by a tiny team and is quite “young” compared to old things like Linux or Apache.

Labeling and factions spring from lack of understanding

Not understanding how the open source movement thinks, what their basis of attributing “value” (based upon recognition), tends to get them labeled according to the wrong reasons:

  • If you give things out for free, and encourage others to do the same, you’re a communist.
  • If you encourage the exchange of free things, but wish to “control” it in a centralized way so that you can improve the efficiency of the spreading around of free products, you’re a socialist.
  • If you wish to get paid for your work, and the results of your hard work and long hours of development are sold for money, you’re a capitalist.
  • If you wish to control the flux of money by yourself, you’re a dictator.
  • If you don’t want to be part of any of the above groups, you’re an anarchist.
  • If you encourage others to ignore the above, you’re a libertarian.
  • If you fight for your right to violently disallow others to belong to either group, you’re a cyberterrorist.

Of course, “only the Sith think in absolutes” and there is no clear-cut separation of all the above groups. Reality – either in a virtual world or in the real one – is shaded in degrees of grey. However, I still think that this “perception” comes from not understanding the motivations of the open source movements and their adepts. Since it’s alien to non-supporters, they label it accordingly. The truth is, it doesn’t fit either classification, and, worse than that, it seriously irritates promoters of the open source movements to be thus “labeled”.

Perhaps a few examples can be made to understand why it is so difficult to label things in SL. Let’s imagine that a supporter of the open source movement wants to develop something for free and give it around the community, for improvement, and for getting recognition. You have several possible approaches to do so, of course. But after a while, you’ll see that the ones that have given us the best tools/creative content are actually the ones that have had finantial success in Second Life.

This is not a contradiction in terms! Remember, to be able to have free time to concentrate on doing open source products, you also need to pay for your bills. In terms of Second Life, if you wish to spread your work successfully, you need to do lots of things: you should have a place to offer it – a shop or something similar. You should advertise it in some way, although things like events to give it out work very well. You should gather the attention of third parties, eventually encouraging people to improve your product. And you should give some sort of (technical) support to your open source product.

Now, all of these cost money!

If you have an amazing network of contacts, you may be able to pull it off without money, but let’s assume that you have just started. So, what do you do? Well, the best approach is to create something that is valuable, and sell it. By making money that way, you are able to support land, where you can have your shops, and host your events, and eventually teach others how to use and improve your products. Your regular income from sales also allows you to hire people to do the customer support for you, while you engage in your next project: something you can give out for free.

Normally, what happens is that you’ll be able to give out for free your first item when the novelty wears off. So, the new content is developed and pays for your bills; older content (or derivative products) can easily be discarded and given away. As long as you’re able to keep the community interested in your own good-selling products, this will work quite well.

After a time, you grab the attention of other similarly-minded people. You “join forces” – get more shops or places to spread your common goods. Have more free time for your own projects, or even collaborate together on a common one. The sum is greater than the parts, and now you are a two-person group that is viewed – and recognized – as benefitting the community much more than either of you separatedly.

You are also at a position where you can encourage others – who don’t have created anything successfully – to participate in your own projects. This could be a new resident, for instance, still too “young” to have created a reputation. You help them to create that reputation by “joining forces” with you. Now it’s a three-person project, and probably you’ll be able to do even more than before.

The new resident, in turn, has dozens of friends who haven’t a clue how they are able to make money successfully in SL. He approaches them and says something like: “I don’t know how to make any money, either, but these two fantastic guys I know are doing some fabulous things together, why don’t you come and join us?”

So you see how this slowly grows. In this sort of group dynamics, you don’t need much to start with. A small group of residents are effectively able to encourage and sustain a very large group of similarly-minded individuals, whose only purpose is to create free content, for fun and because they have already have established a “reputation”. They are the ones “that do creative stuff”, and protected by the original team leaders. They also despise the “capitalistic and consumerist society” which they feel that only creates envy and mistrust and wrong objectives – since our group of free content designers have joined SL just for creating interesting things and talk about them. The economy is just an annoyance, it distracts them from their true purpose.

This also means that the best creators are often attracted to those groups, where they can express themselves fully, without any need to think about “boring stuff” like economics or how they are going to pay for tier. A few of the group, of course, will always be able to sell their own content – as they have built a reputation previously – much more easily. In return, they will highly likely encourage others to work with them on other projects.

I used to quote that in SL, everybody is always working “on a project”, and this is most certainly true!

The Third Way

Now lets get back to the beginning: namely, that this model works – there is absolutely no question about it, or else we wouldn’t be here. The question is, “is this what Linden Lab originally planned?” And if yes, why?

Personally, I don’t think it was “planned”. New technologies attract naturally the ones that are bewildered by new technologies. Not surprisingly, most of them come from the birthplace of new technologies itself – the Internet communities designed for the technically-minded people. Again, also not surprisingly, these are the “forefathers and founders” of Second Life, the ones that have shaped this virtual world according to what they believe is “the right way”. It works so well that it’s only natural for them to shun any other way; and it’s also natural that they encourage (by word of mouth advertising) others to experiment this virtual world, where “g33kz r00l3z”.

The clash with differently-minded people is, thus, inevitable. Not all of us in Second Life are technically-minded. Not all are content creators. Not all of us – even if technically-minded – like this model of working. Second Life was offered as a product not only encouraging creativity, but diversity. Unlike the real world, where things like the open source movement was born inside a more materialistic approach to value attached to work, Second Life was “created” the other way around. Disaligning yourself from this “ideology” or “philosophy” means being an outsider – exactly the reverse of what happens in the real world! – and this is definitely disturbing for some, who can’t cope well with the idea that this system also works. Grasping for examples from recent SL history, it’s only natural that this model is labeled as an “utopia” or worse, and that it will fail in the future, so it’s better to drop it before SL collapses. The truth is, things like the open source movement have started under much more idealistic terms three decades ago, and are deeply embedded into our current society, although many fail to realize that.

So, it’s only natural that Second Life’s creators, Linden Lab, try to emphasize a view of the virtual world that is shared by a majority of its users.

As said, this is slowly changing. From an initial outburst from radical and inflexible groups of people that despise this model and spread their venom across the world – to be, in turn, labeled as “fanatics” – the current population is getting to be more moderated. SL is big enough to accomodate us all, and the moderates gently smile upon both camps. Like the real world accomodates things like Microsoft and the Apache and Mozilla Foundations, Second Life is definitely able to allow both to coexist peacefully. The “third way” is to encourage both groups to grow – but not at odds at each other. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the “open source group” in SL that is more flexible in thought. They have created their own network of contacts and are able to explore a more commercial usage of their work, perhaps to a point that they have never dreamed before. They are being contracted by real world companies to develop things for them – and getting paid in US$. Linden Lab itself is hiring content creators from that group, to help them to improve some Linden content. This means that from an “open source group” they became a lobby – a force to be reckoned with, which still subscribes to certain ways of life, but who is able to slowly adapt and understand the emerging, economic nature of Second Life (they will only need time to adapt, of course).

The group mantaining the view that Second Life should have a “real” economy, based upon the perceived value of products and services, and that people should get paid for their work according to skill and time, also need to understand the differences in SL. Instead of “fighting” free content, they should embrace it or even promote it. They should learn the lessons of the open source software companies – who, unlike popular myth claims, don’t go bankrupt when they give away their code. Instead, they change their paradigms, and make money from derived products, from service, and from technical support and training. In Second Life we already see this happening.

I also think that it’s the moderates’ job in SL to reconcile both groups with each other. Again, it’s not unsurprising that a growing group of what I call “European-thinking” are exactly in that “middle ground” (and of course, that applies to a large majority of the US-based residents as well). Currently they are perhaps in the midst of the conflict, being attacked by both camps, but already establishing the few bridges and connections between both sides.

And, at the very least, to make them think about it.

There is no One Way to the Metaverse – there are several roads, and it’s up to us to make sure all of them have a right to exist.

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