Building Communities

Polska RepublikaLinden Lab announced a bold move, “back to the mainland” — finally recognising officially that they have been doing a rather poor job of maintaining it. On Linden Lab’s official blog, Jack Linden underlines some of the key issues that Linden Lab will tackle again: more control, more attention to urban planning, more enforcement (specially on the nasty ad farms that cover the nice views!), and zoning. Their recent experiments with Bay City — Linden Lab actively promoting a mainland-based rental community, competing with residents providing rental services — might have encouraged them to preserve one of the most valuable assets of the Second Life® environment: in SL, communities are created around buildings.

Interesting for me, the connection between both has not always been clear to me. But the revelation struck me when all of a sudden a lot of different kinds of communities started to pop up here and there.

Second Life’s Self-Governance Attempts

Plodding along for four years and into its 9th term of constitutionally elected members, the Confederation of Democratic Simulators (CDS), Second Life’s first democratically-run territory, has always been one of those projects that refuse to disappear from the face of the grid, no matter how many people have opposed it from the very start. Its foundation was quite simple — communities that depend on a single person to own the land and provide the buildings have always a “succession problem”: if the owner goes away, the community disbands pretty quickly. It’s hard to replace benevolent dictators, as everybody in SL has experienced once in a while, when their rented land is suddenly sold to a different landlord.

The CDS is unique in that regard. There is no “owner” of the four regions that make its territory. Instead, residents owning a plot of land in the CDS get a vote and can get elected for Government, which will manage the regions on behalf of the citizens. If you disagree with the Government’s views and plans, you can just elect a new Government after 6 months — or become a candidate yourself and gather voters to elect you. It neatly solves the issue of depending on a benevolent dictator, although, like all democracies where a lot has to be discussed and voted upon, it grows quite slowly, and not without pain: people with radically different views have to co-exist somewhat pacifically in the same area. The “will of the majority” rules, but the minorities will grumble and protest (all the time), like on any other democracy, and will publicly protest on the forums or in in-world meetings, specially on the more lively Representative Assembly meetings. It’s all part of running a territory under a democracy. It works; although it’s not so efficient as a benevolent dictatorship, at least it gives power to whom most deserves it: the tier-paying residents.

The model was unique, but it certainly sprouted a few followers, like Cedar Island, with over a year of peaceful existence, where decisions are also taken democratically, and with a community that has designed their own charter guaranteeing some fundamental rights to its residents — a charter which any resident can change by voting on those changes. The Al-Andalus Caliphate is a similar attempt.

All these communities have similarities (there are many members of all of them). Besides the notion that the community should govern itself through a popular vote on what to do, they also tackle urban planning, building, and covenant enforcement as part of the duties of any community member. So building brings people together to talk, to do common events, to have a quiet place to rest, away from the hectic life on the grid. But unlike most rental services in SL — where, at most, you’re allowed to decide what furniture you have or what house to live in — on the above-mentioned communities the residents can decide much more: they can change the whole layout of the regions, they can change the theme, add new public buildings — and they will actively engage in the building of their own territory.

Ayumi Cassini at the Polska RepublikaQuiet recently, Ashcroft Burnham sent me an email with a link to Ayumi Cassini‘s blog. Ayumi and Uzi Boa are from Poland, and they had a lot of experience running the SLang Life island and its associated magazine. During the successful days of SLang Life, Uzi and Ayumi have been engaging the international community by promoting several events and projects that brought different cultures and countries together and show each other what they had to offer. When the SLang Life magazine lost its major sponsor, Uzi looked for something else to do.

Well, she came up with an idea: why shouldn’t the old SLang Life island be reconverted into a Polish community where its residents would set the rules democratically?

Polska RepublikaThus “Polska Republika” (Polish Republic) was born. In just two weeks, a rather large group of Polish residents came together, and discussed the details of establishing a Constitution and the overall layout of the sim. It opened just 5 days ago — they were blindingly fast in setting most of the things up, using lots of buildings by the very talented Barnesworth Anubis, set into the late 19th century, and with a very fancy European look, very clean and charming. They even have quite an amount of shops already set up, and one of the residents I met, Szerewp Loon, is busy finishing up a theatre that will show performances in SL.

Audience with Queen UziHow did this all work together so smoothly? Well, Uzi Boa is paying for the tier, and although this is a “Polish Republic” (the main language is Polish, and most of the signs are in Polish, although the majority of the residents there also speaks English quite well), she was made Queen. An intriguing combination — a republic with a constitution established by its residents, where they can vote on features and changes, but which has a Monarchy that pays for tier!… — but Ayumi explains that historically the same happened during a period in Poland as well.

Royal Palace, Polska RepublikaThis means that although Uzi might be Queen, it was the residents of the island that built a lovely Royal Palace for her — and, who knows, one day they might even vote to paint it in pink! 🙂

Until that day comes, Uzi is actually fascinated by the success she’s got so far. Not only the discussions are lively (either on the forums or in-world), like it always happens when you give over power to the people, but the sim is pretty, well-planned, very clean, and quite well attended: my “interview” with Her Royal Highness was at 3 AM CET, and there were at least still a dozen Polish residents around, happily tinkering with the finishing touches on the sim, or just chatting and (probably) discussing what to do next. Uzi might have benefited from a huge influx of Polish residents recently, from a very positive TV show that was aired a few weeks ago, and which (according to rumour) brought LL’s own registration system down, as dozens of thousands of Poles tried to get their avatar as quickly as possible. Naturally, many have left SL since then, and Uzi is relying mostly on the existing Polish communities, and the many friends she made during SLang Life’s golden age.

Library in the Polska RepublikaThe fun bit of creating these communities is that people come to “their” buildings. Thus, Szerewp Loon is not only building a theatre on Polska Republika; he’s also setting up a place where people will come to see performances — thus generating events to attract new visitors. Ayumi Cassini also built her own project, a library in the island, and she reports that lots of visitors come, bring their own books, and actually stay there to read! Why? It’s the feeling of “belonging”. You can read a book in the comfort of your own home, but it’s so much more fun if you are in a place with other fellow book-readers, and can share thoughts about the book you’re reading. After all, this is one of the major reasons why people go to RL libraries to pick up a book and stay there to read!

Atlantis under the Polska RepublikaAnd sometimes people come up with totally unpredictable ideas and concepts that were never planned by the original creators — like an Atlantis Temple under the sea of Polska Republika (I won’t tell you where it is, it’s more fun to find it on your own!). This was clearly the result of creativity put to the vote!

So this is another community that learned an important lesson: get people together; allow them to build things together, and they will feel that’s their “home”; but give them the power to decide how buildings should look like — empower them democratically! — and they will be very reluctant to abandon “their” community. They feel “in charge” if they have some control over their environment.

But this is not the only alternative.

Non-building democratic communities

Probably the oldest (and more documented!) democratic project which does not have its own territory is the Metaverse Republic (MR). After about two years (!) of heavy discussion, the project is slowly coming to its first release. Their concept is radically different. The Metaverse Republic does not “own” a territory at all. Instead, through a software system, they allow banning of avatars from all parcels that join the MR. But this is an extreme measure! Before the banning actually occurs, there is a very complex judicial procedure to follow, where, in all transparency, the alleged infringer of the MR’s laws is fairly judged in a trial. If they’re found guilty — and we’re talking about RL lawyers and legal counsellors that hold court, so this is not an arbitrary process! — their avatar name will be added to the banning list, and all parcels of the MR will ultimately block access to that particular avatar. Griefing can thus be dealt with very quickly and efficiently, and it will affect hundreds or thousands of parcels.

The MR has no “contiguous territory” but is scattered all across the grid, both on the mainland and on private islands. Participation is naturally opt-in, and every resident who places the MR device on their land automatically becomes a citizen with a vote, being able to elect their Members of Parliament. These will establish the laws of the Metaverse Republic, in duly transcripted sessions which should be publicly available. And what kind of laws might those be? Well, the major issue is, of course, griefing, and all sorts of abuse, like frauds and dubious business practices. The latter is not covered by Linden Lab’s ToS at all; and griefers aren’t always caught. Also, the Abuse Report system is not transparent — you have no idea who is accusing whom and what the results have been, or how Linden Lab judged someone to be a griefer and someone else just to be a nuisance. There are no procedures and no publicly available decisions. It all seems arbitrary, and people like Prokofy Neva have demanded for years a more fair and transparent system.

The Metaverse Republic is the answer to all the above issues. It gives “protection” to every member of the MR by allowing them to exchange their absolute freedom (they have to comply with the MR’s Constitution and Code of Laws, of course; but remember that anyone can get elected to Parliament and democratically change them!) for a measure of enforcement that actually works well.

Of course, to be totally successful, the Metaverse Republic ought to operate grid-wide; and this is what a new group, the SL Democratic Movement, proposes to do.

Let’s be honest, in my four years in Second Life, I have seen these groups come and go. All talk about “revolution” and an utopian “direct democracy” model for running the whole of Second Life. All also assume that Linden Lab is willing to grant some users the power to decide over all others — and that if a big enough number of residents promote their group (over the alternatives), Linden Lab will have no option but to yield. No wonder, though, that these tend to quickly come and go — and they often scorn the attempts at “local governance” as being inefficient (since their jurisdiction is so limited) and not serious (since they never grow enough to become significant).

The SL Democratic Movement has at least done their homework well. I’m attaching the full text of their press release below, for you to understand what they are about. Their purpose is simple: the residents of Second Life (unlike other virtual worlds) are, in fact, at the centre of the stage — since they (and not Linden Lab) create content, communities, and give added value to the overall environment. An empty Second Life is worthless. It only became significant because residents built it. However, Linden Lab acts as a tyrannical (albeit benevolent…) dictator, disallowing all participation of the residents in the decision process. This is what they purpose to change — dramatically. They know what the results are supposed to be — Terms of Service that are negotiated between residents and Linden Lab, not unilaterally imposed by Linden Lab upon their residents — but the way towards democratic participation is not clear, not even in their FAQ. What is clear, however, is that they would welcome a model similar to what was done by EVE Online, but where all Residents can participate in the decision processes, not just the “chosen few”.

I leave you with the full text of their press release:

August ’08

SLDM Press Release

http://sl-dm.co.uk/

-The SL Democratic Movement calls for LL to balance the ToS and governance of SL-

Throughout history, human being and its technology have always been in an intricate two-way relationship, changing our concepts of being and reality along the way. With the creation of Cyberspace we even made ourselves a new plane of existence, a new being. With usercreated, immersive 3D virtual worlds like Second Life being the pinnacle in that field at the moment.

Despite the fact the Second Life world is entirely created by its users, by its residents, the grid operator Linden Lab uses a totalitarian control and governance model which is all too common with providers across cyberspace.

The fact this world is being created by its residents and the intricate interdependency relation stemming from this between Linden Lab and the residents, should be cause and basis for establishing a novel relationship between provider and user, that truly acknowledges the residents’ investments and existence, essential for the creation and sustaining of the Second Life world.

What is needed is a revolutionary change! A change that is needed to create together the possibility of a democratic Second Life, and in extension Metaverse and Cyberspace, that will respect the civil rights of its users.

Therefor, the SL Democratic Movement calls for Linden Lab to balance the Terms of Service and governance of the Second Life world:

We demand that future contract changes will be negotiated.

Accordingly, we demand change of the pretext of the Terms of Service regarding change of contract to enable this.

We demand a meaningful socio-political dialog between Linden Lab and the SL community and a public, transparent, non hierarchical structure with meaningful voting procedures and a possibility of referenda to enable this.

We demand the abolishment of articles 2.6 and 3.2.b and similar statements in the Terms of Service.

A profound change in these articles will make room for the full acknowledgment of you and your investments and for protection against arbitrary banning and deletion and in effect towards rights of due process and fair “trial”. Accordingly, the abuse report system should be changed towards these goals.

We want Linden Lab to actively further and intensify its open source plans and efforts, towards open sourcing the server code and a truly open grid.

These changes need the support of the SL community to become reality! We, SL Residents, need to start acknowledge our rights first! Join the revolution today and start agitating for a better world!

SL Democratic Movement’s campaign for democratic reform of the rule of Second Life has been underway for several months, and is motivated both by tensions between Linden Lab and their customers in Second Life and instances of mismanagement of the service as well as by a deep-seated philosophical conviction that users of Second Life ought to be acknowledged with their participation in the world both by right and necessity.

SL Democratic Movement is a non-profit organization advocating self-rule, transparent and fair governance, resident rights and democracy within the virtual world of Second Life. 

-SLDM is not affiliated with Linden Lab or Linden Research, Inc. Second Life® and Linden Lab® are registered trademarks of Linden Research, Inc.-

Roads to Self-Governance

So we see here three different models to empower Residents to self-govern their affairs. The first — used by the CDS, Cedar Island, and the Polska Republika, among (probably) several others — are grassroots attempt to define a territory within Second Life, establish a jurisdiction over that territory, and democratically allow residents in that territory to define their own rules and procedures. They all lean on a crucial issue: Second Life is about people, but it’s also about building together — in the primmy sense of the word. So these “local governments” are not merely forum or blog posts, where people vaguely discuss democratic governance in abstract terms (a lot of micronations are only forum-based, for instance). They’re based on virtual land, as defined by Linden Lab. There is a physical aspect to the local governance (even if it’s… virtual). People feel at “home” at places they helped to build, but, more than that, where they had participation at the decision level on what and how to build.

Their most serious disadvantage is that they’re broken, scattered, and not unified. They’re independent attempts to establish “home rule” on a tiny, tiny part of the huge grid. They also grow much too slowly, compared to the rest of Second Life — democracy requires participation, discussion, and compromise, and all that takes time. They are solid and tend to outlast their founders, creators, or original designers — that’s the beauty of democracy: rotativity. Dictatorships — even the most benevolent ones! — rarely outlast their charismatic founders. In the accelerated timespan of Second Life, what this means is that any non-democratic organisation in SL is only able to survive as long as the island owners remain faithful to SL and their land. On average, these communities last from 6 months to 2 years. But introduce an element of democratic participation, and very quickly they become long-lived — outlasting the original founders, as new leaders are voted into power, or new residents add their views and ideas about how the land should look like by discussing and voting upon suggestions.

Ashcroft Burnham’s Metaverse Republic is more ambitious. It is a “meta-republic” in the sense that it can bind all these isolated local governments under a far-reaching superstructure — not unlike a “federal system” on top of local rules. In fact, the Metaverse Republic is not incompatible with “local laws”. Thus, a community can still apply those rules locally, and basically don’t worry about the far-reaching Metaverse Republic for most of the cases. But, say, if a griefer is caught locally, they can push the issue to the “federal court”, and the same griefer will be banned across several communities (if found guilty, of course). Since the MR is not tied to land ownership directly — just very indirectly, in the sense that all parcels will be tied into their software system that handles the automatic banning — it does not, by itself, “build” a community. That is best left to the “local governments”. So this is pretty much like one of the many UN-based world-wide organisations, where different countries agree to abide by international law, but are sovereign and independent in their own jurisdictions. The need to deal at the upper levels is only needed when “international” conflict (i.e., across communities) arises.

By being opt-in and resident-run, the Metaverse Republic will never encompass all the Grid. At best it will tie together lots of small local communities, and a larger number of independent landowners, that see an advantage in having a strong judiciary (staffed by RL professionals) that can deal fairly and justly with all kinds of abuses that Linden Lab doesn’t care about (namely, all business-related issues). It’s success will be measured by how many people are willing to exchange a bit of their absolute freedom to have an extra level of protection and enforcement, run by legal experts.

And the third option, of course, is a top-down approach, where a group of residents engage in “revolution” and “demand” that Linden Lab complies with their requests. This is, however, the hardest way (quoting from the SLDM’s FAQ on the question if this approach is realistic: “That question has been raised before every big revolution in history.”). SLDM relies too much on the idea that they can successful engage a significant number of residents to a strike, or tier down, or simply move to another virtual world as a form of protest. In my experience, the “large numbers paradigm” always works against these kinds of movements (i.e. even if a hundred thousand residents actively protest and leave SL, in just a week, Second Life will recover those lost residents again), although it’s also true that the SL Democratic Movement does not need to reach all 14 million users, not even the 1.2 million active users. To seriously “hurt” Linden Lab, they only need to capture the soul and will of about hundred thousand residents — the ones that pay tier, create content, and in general maintain this virtual world as an attractive destination for the other millions of casual users. Hundred thousand residents is, however, still a huge number to “conquer” for a cause. Looking at things like the Public JIRA, the forums, or the comments on several blogs (from the official LL blog to many others), it’s clear that the number of actively engaged residents is tiny — a few thousands. And Linden Lab does know that very well. The “silent majority” never registers in their radar.

Perhaps after four years — and having seen the SL population grow a thousandfold in that period — I’m a bit more realistic and not such an optimist. There is, indeed, space for local governance, and never have I seen so many projects popping up where the local authority of a landowner is shared by a group of people that run whole regions together, often with democratic participation and/or election. These are starting to appear all over the place, with more or less success, with more or less “democracy” (even Caledon, which is an excellent example of a long-lasting autocracy, has an “advisor council” to Desmond). Most landowning groups — some of them spanning dozens or hundreds of islands — also have an “inner circle” of trusted people which take decisions together, and sometimes these people are pooled from the most dynamic and loyal tenants. What seemed so remote in 2004 — local, home rule — now spontaneously pops up here and there, as more and more communities understand that the landowner cannot impose their totalitarian will upon their tenants, specially if there are alternatives where power is shared. For now, however, these experiments in local governance are still quite limited in scope, and grow slowly; but they tend to live long and outlast the alternatives.

The first step towards a “more democratic” Second Life is, in my opinion, not a top-down approach, but rather something more akin to Ashcroft’s own plans: a way to tie together several disconnected communities (which will have their own local rules) and bring them together just because they share similar goals: namely, that residents should have a word to say when decisions are enacted that will affect their own (virtual) lives. And that word should be binding; that requires at least some form of democratic participation where residents get a vote. How far this can go, I have no idea; I do think, however, that “revolution” will not come mostly due to a lack of interest. People are very comfortable with Linden Lab’s totalitarian rule — and the ones that are not, have long left Second Life, or, perhaps, came back and reluctantly accepted that they can have fun under a totalitarian regime, too. Although the implications of that are too scary for me to think about, it’s what we’ve seen so far. Except for a very small, teeny tiny, vocal minority, the vast majority of the Second Life residents are content to remain silent and enjoy themselves in spite of everything. I believe that this is what gives Linden Lab a very strong position when “negotiating” with residents about “more power to the people”. The majority of the “people” don’t want power at all, they want stability, peace, and fun. Polarising the silent majority to join a cause which they see little point in pursuing will be a very hard task.

In the mean time, I’ll be eagerly looking at the many communities that are leading by example. They aren’t waiting for Linden Lab, or much less for residents to acquire a civic, political conscience. Instead, they get together, roll up their virtual sleeves, and build their own regions, under democratic home rule. They might always remain the exception — the low voice of the tiny minority — but they will grow, very slowly, patiently, and for a long, long time.

They are the true community builders — where the community actually builds something together, beyond fair words.

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