Civic technology

Update on Second Life as a Platform for Online Community Building and Politics

(re-posted from my Corante blog)

Back in August, when I started investigating it for the first time, I
wrote about Second Life
the (for now) runaway winner in an emerging niche of online 3-D virtual
worlds that are not (according to their publishers) games. It’s high
time for an update on what I’ve discovered in the six months since.

Second Life’s greatest utility, to me, is that it better mimics the
experience of being offline in the same room together than any other
online medium… The experience of interacting there is vastly more
social and immersive than, say, an online blogging community. High
trust relationships are built quickly…. Therefore, I think it is
destined to become an important new platform for online organizing /
community building / social networking.

Think Meetup, except that you don’t need 40 people to be in the same
place on the planet to have an effective Meetup. Therefore a niche
group– let’s say "Doctors for Tax Justice" can achieve critical mass
to "meet" and form an action-oriented community for readily than if
they needed 40 Doctors For Tax Justice in San Francisco. In this vein,
we run RootsCamp in Second Life every week. 

Think of a conference like YearlyKos
in Chicago this summer, in which ~1000 people will attend in person,
but which we expect to sell out early… People who can’t afford the
time or the money to attend in Chicago, or who miss getting registered
before we hit capacity, will be able to attend a concurrent
"mixed-reality" YearlyKos conference that we will be running in Second
Life, complete with Second-Life-only panels that we have insufficient
space for in Chicago, streaming of the Chicago panels and keynotes, etc.

Think of a political campaign with staff around the country who need
to trust each other and work closely together every day– Cisco, IBM
and many other Fortune 500 companies have already found that Second
Life meeting environments can help their distributed teams work
together– and in some cases work directly with their clients– more
effectively than a combination of email, telephone, video conferencing,
and airplanes for face to face meetings. That’s why these companies are
investing millions of dollars in researching and testing virtual
worlds. We recently brought NASA into Second Life for the same reason.

Second Life is also a rich medium for content creation that can be
"surfaced" to the Web for broader exposure… ~200 people participated
in an anti-war "virtual march on virtual capital hill" that we
organized between CodePink and RootsCamp in Second Life recently, and
one of our volunteers made a video of the event that went mildly viral with over 50,000 views…  The cost of creating it was $0.

Clearly Second Life is not a panacea for online organizing, and
there is a great deal of hype… User base growth statistics of 30% per
month and >$1 Million transacted between Second Life users every day
are somewhat misleading, though the growth rate is torrid nonetheless.
To hear Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus and the Chairman of Linden
Lab (the company behind Second Life) tell it, Second Life "promises to
be disruptive… comparable to both the PC and the internet itself, which
started as something “quirky” for geeks, and then entered and
transformed mainstream society. Ultimately, Second Life will displace
both desktop computing and other two-dimensional user interfaces. As a
hothouse of innovation and experiment, Second Life may even accelerate
the social evolution of humanity.”

Hype or not (and I’m actually not at all certain that it is- Mitch
is smarter than I am), I do think we’re seeing the early stages of a
massive trend towards extensive use of immersive 3-D online
environments as a primary medium for online social and professional
online interaction with each other and with data that can be
represented visually. There is already great utility for me and
communities I am helping to build in the context of RootsCamp, NASA,
and YearlyKos in Second Life, and I think it likely that the utility I
experience today will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, as
Second Life’s technology improves and as its user base grows.


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