Politics and Second Life: Virtual Lobbying

Democrats' groundbreaking appearance in Second Life opens the door for what might be the Internet's next political battleground. And I even made a virtual appearance.
Posted January 15, 2007
By

Roy Mark


I went virtual the other day and ended up in real life on CNN. Things like that can happen when you teleport into the Virtual Capitol Hill at Second Life, the online virtual world site where users create their own universes.

The Internet has already brought e-mail, fund raising, blogs and virtual grassroots movements to political campaigns. In a virtual world, all those elements come into play with -- oddly enough -- a human touch.

Clear Ink, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Internet marketing firm, owns and developed the virtual Capitol Hill space in Second Life with "some" financial help from Sun. Steve Nelson, the 50-person firm's executive vice president and chief strategy officer, said the business model is not to rent out the space but to make it available for political forums.

"The purpose of virtual Capitol Hill is to encourage bi-partisan civic discussion. We welcome members of Congress, policymakers, press and the public to participate in these ongoing discussions," he said. "It's a ticket to participate in the democratic process wherever -- or whoever -- you may be.

"After an hour or so, you have a memory of being in a place with these people," he added. "That's what going to make this medium work."

The by-invitation only event Jan. 4 was a forum for U.S. Rep. George Miller, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee and first-ever congressman to make an appearance "in-world" at Second Life, to present the party's agenda for the 110th Congress. The forum was in real time, but nothing before our eyes was real: an imagined place full of imagined people doing real things.

And I was one of them. I was the avatar named Tofusticks Chaplin aimlessly floating high above the splendid 3-D structure of the U.S. House chamber.

Tofusticks
Roy Mark is Tofusticks Chaplin.

Avatars, for those of you with your feet firmly planted in the real world, are Second Life users' 3-D representations of themselves fashioned from a small array of body types, features and clothing. I chose the boy-next-door look since they didn't have a standard issue old-balding-guy-with-a-gray beard.

As Tofusticks soared overhead, about 70 other avatars waited below for Miller's appearance. The avatars -- randomly, haplessly -- bumped into walls, lit their hair on fire or flew smack into the two jumbo screens that were live-streaming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's swearing-in ceremony.

Tofusticks could sympathize with the other newbies' clumsy movements. He just didn't know how to stop flying. He wanted to sit on the virtual ground floor of what might well become the Internet's next big impact on the political process. Oh look, a "Stop Flying" button! He landed with a thump.

While I tried to make Tofusticks sit, Congressman Miller's avatar, created by Nelson, walked into the chamber with moves, including a quick fly-around, as smooth as a Second Life veteran.

"I'm the canary in the coal mine," Miller told the audience. "Second Life is the next frontier and hopefully other members will use it to expand the [public's] interest and participation in Congress. I'm going to report back to my colleagues about how all this works."

Miller and Nelson were in a Capitol Hill office building glued to a computer screen, controlling Miller's avatar. The other avatars were doing the same thing, wherever they were in the real world. "I took over his hand gestures and things like that and just let him talk," Nelson said.

George Miller Second Life
A Second Life for Rep. Miller.
Source: Clear Ink

Nancy Scola, a former aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), recently wrote an essay (PDF file) for George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet about the social uses of Second Life.

She was also a policy adviser to Virginia's Mark Warner for whom she coordinated an appearance in Second Life.

Scola imagines a virtual world where campaign volunteers go for training to view videos on a campaign, candidates make appearances and, perhaps most importantly, money is raised.

"In the real world we might say that we are only limited by our imagination," she wrote. "In the political context, Second Life's most obvious benefit is one of geography. Virtual locations are not tied to any offline place. Participants don’t have to be proximate; in fact, it matters not a whit if they are or not.

"For all the up-ending of traditional presidential politics brought by MeetUp in 2004, that model still required that Howard Dean's supporters be located in the same city or town as one another. Second Life changes that."

Second Life's influence on the political landscape remains to be seen.

If Miller has anything to do with it, the virtual world will play a big role in the fast-approaching 2008 election and the political events leading up to it. For now, it's gearing up, even making it to CNN.

This article was first published on InternetNews.com. To read the full article, click here.






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