Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Are you a metaverse citizen?

Here's my October column for AVENUE magazine, which relaunches this month with a brand new look to celebrate its fifth birthday.  Photography is by Ziki Questi.



A couple of Facebook posts by friends of mine recently have got me thinking about the notion of Second Life® citizenship; that is to say, the issue of being an SL citizen as opposed to just an SL resident. We’re all of us SL residents, I suppose; but which of us are citizens? What does an SL citizen do (or not do) that’s different from a plain resident? Is it even possible to draw any sort of meaningful distinction at all?


Before political philosophers set about brutalising me with rolled up copies of The Leviathan, I should add the disclaimer that the complex technicalities of whether or not it’s actually possible to be a citizen within an essentially non-government locality (let alone a virtual one) such as SL aren’t really of particular interest to me right now. I’m just assuming that it is. I’m sure there are arguments that could be mounted both for and against the notion that Linden’s authority over SL is comparable to some sort of real life governmental structure. If it is, of course, it’s a decidedly non-democratic structure. In SL, we don’t reside in a world where we have any sort of say over decision-making at the top: so long as it doesn’t actually break the law, Linden can pretty much do whatever it wants to with its world and there’s no five-yearly ballot box for us to clobber them with if they get things massively wrong. For the purposes of this discussion, then, we reside in a virtual community, albeit one which few of us might seek out politically in real life. That said, in exchange for being able to fly, teleport instantly from place to place and create objects out of thin air, I might well be tempted to surrender my voting rights. Tempted.

So what would differentiate someone who was an SL resident and citizen from someone who was just an SL resident? In real world legal terms, the distinction is relatively straightforward: a resident simply lives in a place, whereas a citizen has numerous additional rights. These include the right to continue living in the place for as long as one wishes and the right to vote in elections. But neither of these elements have any relevance to SL: none of us have any right to reside there and – as I’ve mentioned already – we have no political system in which to participate.

At an emotional level, however, it could be argued that citizenship is about more than just the possession of rights. Being able to stay in a place for as long as you want and having a say in its administration could be said to be fundamental elements to a sense of belonging. Perhaps, then, a citizen – fundamentally – is a person who both resides in a place and has a greater – a more valid – sense of belonging in it than someone who is just a resident. For sure, sense of belonging is a concept we can apply to SL. 

There’s something else we could apply also. Citizenship is often spoken of in terms of responsibilities as well as rights. Some of those responsibilities we are required by law to take on – Jury duty, for example – whilst some are roles we voluntarily assume – charity work, perhaps, or school governance. When we hear the term ‘a good citizen’, we infer someone who has acted in some way selflessly and with the greater good of the community in mind. In and of itself, of course, the phrase bestows no particular virtue on the mere state of being a citizen – a ‘bad citizen’ would still, presumably, be a citizen – but the implication of this phrase is that a good citizen is fulfilling their citizenly duty, somehow; behaving in a manner that citizenship expects. A good citizen ‘gives back’.

There are, of course, many ways in which we can give back in SL.  Countless people I know give and have given to so many, from building the beautiful sims we love experiencing to organising and hosting free events to greeting new residents and helping them get their second lives established. I want to take this opportunity to name a few of them: Persephone Phoenix, for running SL’s longest ever open mic poetry event (and, on a more personal level, for teaching me how to write poetry); Jilly Kidd – who has to be perhaps one of the most consistent people I’ve known in SL – for dedicating friendliness and time every week to the Sounds of Poems poetry event and the Wednesday night Writers’ Circle; Philippe Pascal and Karli Daviau, for their work promoting art and the amazing job they did running the weekly ‘Predicate’ improv workshop; Flora Nordenskiold, for pouring endless time and resources into Nordan Art and the Nordan om Jorden blog, her mission to bring a wider audience to metaverse art. And Dizi Bergbahn, my oldest SL friend, for teaching me how to build.

This is just a small list of people I know. If I worked my way through my friends list, I’m certain I could find many, many more examples. I did worry a few sentences ago, actually, that some of those people might feel left out by not being mentioned; getting tied up in knots like that about who we might inadvertently upset, however, is one of the reasons why we so rarely make a fuss about Good Things in life. Recognising good SL citizens, in fact, is a good deal harder than we like to think it is, a realisation that Linden came to when they abandoned their profile rating system in 2007. Alongside all the genuine positive ratings, came the manipulated ratings: ratings parties, I’m given to understand, is just one example of the way in which the Linden system was abused before it got pulled. It’s hardly an SL-only phenomena: soliciting popularity is something we see all the time on Facebook with those intensely annoying images that extoll some virtue of parents/siblings/offspring/teachers/the military and then ask you to share if you feel the same way (usually with an added sentence or two to imply you’ll be some sort of heartless bastard if you don’t). Take a moment to consider how much energy, bandwidth and storage capacity is being squandered on these empty statements (a single 50k image viewed by 1% of Facebook’s 800 million users would use up 400GB of bandwidth; that’s 40 times a family 10GB monthly limit): all because people want to feel popular.

There’s also to consider the old philosophical issue of whether people can actually be genuinely selfless. I give my SL novels away for free on my website, for example; to say I get nothing out of this personally, however, would be patently untrue. Getting messages from people who’ve read and enjoyed my books is one of my very favourite things in life. The strategy has also helped build me a small fan base and a reputation inworld – which, in turn, has helped land me such wonderful opportunities as writing for AVENUE. Is just doing stuff for free in and of itself an act of citizenship, or do we need to take into account the wider personal benefits of such actions? Does a cigarette company sponsoring a major sporting event ‘make up’ for the human and economic cost of smoking?

When I say ‘consider’, the implication is that such considering would be part of a decision. We’re each of us entitled to our own decisions on whether the actions of a resident constitute good SL citizenship, of course. Beyond that, though, do we actually need any sort of system which decides on or measures positive acts? Or is the issue of SL citizenship not a debate about how appropriate recognition should be delivered, but one instead of highlighting our own responsibility to give something back if we are committed to the metaverse future?

The recent story of Linden pulling the plug on its JIRA bug reporting system has caused quite a number of bloggers to speculate that the end is now finally approaching for SL. They might be right.  It annoys me, however, when authors use issues such as this as a personal platform from which to seek attention and glorify themselves, such as the blogger who declared now was the time for everyone to cash in all their Lindens and leave. Angry mob tactics never did all that much for me. A far more intellectual exploration of this issue, however, came from Fleep Tuque (www.fleeptuque.com/blog/2012/08/why-anyone-who-cares-about-the-metaverse-needs-to-move-beyond-second-life-now-not-later/). Tuque argues in this post that our personal responsibility lies not to SL, but to the metaverse as a whole; that SL is ultimately only the first step in an online evolution.  There, after all, are lots of online worlds out there now. I’ve spent a little time looking around in InWorldz myself and was impressed at how far it had come since its early days. In fact, InWorldz is run by a company just like Linden runs SL. Of potentially far greater significance is the OpenSim project, a metaverse effectively run by the people who use it. Perhaps, then, the metaverse government we don’t have in SL is closer than we think elsewhere.

The issue of SL citizenship, then, becomes one of metaverse citizenship. Whilst the decay of SL is something we will all feel sadness over, this could ultimately become the issue which forces us to look elsewhere and to broaden our consideration of what it is to be a citizen of online worlds. If you want to be regarded as a metaverse citizen, then, perhaps the best place to start is by asking yourself what you can do to help shape it. HH



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