Humble Governance

The voice of the residents

Consider again how our virtual world is so different than the real world. There is no mass communication: nobody can manipulate the opinion of the whole of Second Life. Interest groups are parochial, not global, because that’s how far their scope reach. Even the largest communities don’t represent more than a few thousands of residents. Residents with common interests might never come in touch with each other — they might even speak completely different languages! There are little tools for analysing people’s opinions — few companies do market analysis — and the few that are actually employed are hard to validate, because it’s very difficult to say if the sample is actually representative or not. Just consider LL’s surveys (I don’t know if they’re still active with Viewer 3) which ask residents if their experience with Second Life has improved or not. If that survey is in a language I don’t understand, I will probably skip the survey (or just randomly click on the answers, which make no sense to me). Since LL doesn’t publish statistics about the virtual world’s demography any longer, we can only extrapolate based on the past reports. Let’s imagine that there are a million Brazilians in SL, most of which barely understand English. How are they supposed to vote on a JIRA – or answer a survey? The few Brazilians which indeed participate in all public opinion polls are the ones speaking English fluently — however, how representative are they of their own language group? If all English-speaking Brazilians were merely land barons, and they were the only ones to meet with LL, keeping the remaining clueless about what issues have been discussed (or that they’re being discussed at all), how can any decision made by LL together with a handful of Brazilian land barons be “representative” or even fair? The short answer is that it simply can’t.

Limited, partial knowledge means making poor decisions, even though our brains are very specialised machines evolved to make reasonable decisions with partial data. The question is how fragmentary that data is. When we publicly claim that “Linden Lab is out of touch with the reality of Second Life”, the question is not really if LL is willing or not to be more active in figuring out the resident’s needs (which, as we know, seems to be the current swing of policy implemented by Rod Humble, a most welcome change!), but even if it’s realistically possible to gather enough information that validates those “needs” as being representative of the whole.

We’re always stumbling upon the very same word, “representative”.

When we look at all the ways that Linden Lab has to interact with residents, this is always the question: what can Linden Lab do to listen to ideas, suggestions, comments, and complaints that are more representative of the reality of Second Life? This goal seems to be unreachable because of so many constraints: the amount of avatars in a sim (preventing in-world meetings to have more than a few avatars at the same time); the available time for residents to answer emails, polls, surveys, or similar tools; the overall knowledge of the residents; the language or cultural barrier; and so forth. What this means that extending the willingness to “listen to more residents” will only mean that instead of a few hundreds that help and influence LL’s decisions, we might get a few hundreds more. Perhaps even a few thousands. Are those “representative” of the whole?

No.

Remember the sunglasses. When extending those “governance tools” towards more residents, what it means is simply that Linden Lab will encounter more people wearing different sunglasses. Instead of finding a convergence of opinions, which would certainly help LL to make better decisions, the reality is that Linden Lab will find a divergence, in the sense of getting in touch with conflicting opinions. Consider a panel of 40 land barons vs. a panel of 40 basic accounts who refuse to pay tier because Tier is Evil. How will Linden Lab conciliate both discussions? The first panel directly influences their income stream; the second panel might represent the opinions of millions and millions of residents (who might leave if they don’t like the results of the meetings, thus also influencing indirectly LL’s revenues…). How can both be conciliated? How can trade-offs be “negotiated”? Even if a “negotiation” is possible, why should a conciliation of those opposing groups, totaling 80 individuals, actually represent the wishes and expectations of 25 million residents, most of them not active any longer?

In the open discussions — on forums and blogs — the majority of opinions are towards an all-inclusive, direct-democracy approach, where each and every resident is called to cast a vote (or emit a short comment on their ideas on a particular subject). There are many ingenious ways of doing this with governance tools. Imagine that on the revamped login page we’d get every day a selection of, say, a dozen JIRAs to vote upon. Since a million users log in every month, and those are indeed the more active residents, we’d possibly get a million votes on perhaps 300-500 JIRAs per month, which would definitely make the JIRA more representative. However, the problem with this approach is that it draws conclusions based on unskilled opinions, not factual affirmations. Imagine that one of the questions is: “Do you like Viewer 3?” A large proportion of the builder community in Second Life hates Viewers 2 and 3 because they allegedly doesn’t address builders’ needs so neatly as Viewer 1. I’m no builder, so I’m biased, and love Viewer 3 — and the majority of residents aren’t builders, either. What this means is that a majority might actually prefer Viewer 3 (I know this is oversimplifying the issue), and the result of the vote could mean that LL would prevent Viewer 1 (and derivative TPVs) users to log in to the grid — that is, effectively shutting the builders out of Second Life. Without builders we will have no new content in Second Life. So while this question, answered democratically in the most involving way, might give LL a very good idea of what people think, ultimately the end result is a Second Life without new content, which will hurt everybody.

In that case, obviously that question should be excluded from direct voting! But that means that someone has to filter out the “good” questions from the “bad” questions. Who will be that “someone” and how will they know what is a good question as opposed to a bad one??

Well, we humans have answered that difficult dilemma by inventing representative democracy.

Under this model, if applied to Second Life, it would mean electing a set of representatives which would make the decisions of what kind of questions to address. In some scenarios, some questions would be set up as referendums (and I still think that the login splash page is the best way to put them, because it’s something we all will see when we log in to SL), but by a discussion process — which would be open to public scrutiny, of course — among the elected representatives. Since these will naturally have different opinions, majority votes would be required to figure out “the best fit” to a particular question. Interpretation of the results would ultimately lead to decisions by Linden Lab — but this time, those decisions would be based on perceived needs by the resident population as a whole, and not by merely consulting with some “selected groups”.

And obviously those groups of representatives would be re-elected every few months. This also poses some problems, of course, but nothing earth-shattering. Everybody would be allowed to run for elections and establish the ways to gather votes by publishing their decisions. Since we have no mass media, this will be a difficult process; but huge countries like India, where a substantial portion of the population doesn’t even have access to TV or can’t read newspapers, continue to be be successful representative democracies after so many decades, even though they have so many limitations — Second Life is like that: even though we’re so technological, we have few ways to disseminate information to everybody.

The size of the group will also be crucial. We have one big limitation: having more than 40-50 avatars in a single sim creates too much lag. On the other hand, cities with a million citizens usually have representative assemblies with about that amount of delegates, so the number might not be too little for a virtual world with “a million regular monthly users”. Even managing 40-50 people — and their different opinions — will be hard. Very likely, there will be committees for handling different aspects of governance: for example, a committee in charge of reviewing all new JIRAs every week and pick the ones attracting the most votes; a committee for content creation, another for land ownership, and so forth (replicating, for example, the interest groups handled by LL’s office hours, which this model might replace). Committees might just have 6-7 members, perhaps with a Linden as guest, but should be openly held in public and publish their discussions on some kind of public forum. Then, when reaching a decision, it would be discussed (but on top of a prepared document!) on a weekly General Assembly with all 40-50 representatives. The results of the voting would then be implemented — either as a referendum to the general population, or merely directed at Linden Lab for direct implementation.

Appeals to unpopular decisions — even bans and so forth — might also get handled that way. It would mean that simple disciplinary measures, as imposed by Linden Lab, would follow the usual route (think of the Lindens as “police”: if someone is caught clearly in the middle of an act which is a violation of the rules, the police can seize and arrest them). Further disciplinary actions, like banning and seizing of property without compensation (which is what LL does without questioning anyone), would require a vote at the General Assembly. This would at least protect some of the innocent which occasionally get kicked out without reason (granted, this happens far less commonly these days) and provide at least some form of resident-run arbitration facility with binding powers, and, most important for all, public release of all information pertaining to the decision process.

Why is this model “better” than what LL currently has? Even though no model is perfect, this governance model is based on a sound philosophy which works, and has proven to work for at least two centuries, to better capture the overall opinion of the population and assist decisions that affect us all. While we might still complain that this or that opinion expressed by a single individual (usually ourselves!) might still not be heard, at least we know that if we really want to be heard, all we need to do is stand for election and become a member of the General Assembly, and then we’ll be heard. Gathering enough votes for that is a measure of how important our tiny little opinion is for others, and it should adequately provide a “filter” of what really matters. That’s the beauty of representative democratic systems — it filters out the essencial and crucial, which is a more common worry and has highest importance, from individual unqualified opinions which might matter little or nothing to most, while at the same time allowing good common sense to be part of the discussion (instead of boldly voting against tier or similar measures that would utterly ruin Linden Lab and destroy Second Life).

Oh, btw, and this is not merely an utopian ideal; for seven years the community of the Confederation of Democratic Simulators (CDS) has been successfully employing a similar mechanism to run their own sims. Unlike many communities, where opinions only matter when they’re closely aligned to the ones of the sim owners, in the CDS people openly disagree with each other, sometimes very aggressively. But then things are put to the vote. The community as a whole survives, even if individuals do not engage in worship of the Glorious Leader (as happens on most communities). The idea that a community only works if everybody is nice to each other, all are friends, and all agree with each other is nice and idealistic, but in the real world, we know that this is hardly the case, except for small groups during a limited time; long-time endeavours require different mechanisms, and representative democracy works quite well in that case, since it fairly gives everyone a chance to “impose” their own opinions — but for a very limited time.

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