Building Communities

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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