Second Life™, Liberty, and the Purfuit of Happinefs

Today is the 4th day of July — when, in the course of human events, a democratically-elected body of representatives of certain geographic regions on the continent of North America once all signed their names to a document which declared them, and thereby the people they represented, as free and independent states.  In doing so, they quite literally pledged their lives, as well as their fortunes and their sacred honour, for what they had determined to do could be construed as treason.  As one of them is reputed to have said, during the months-long struggle to arrive at the decision, “If we do not hang together, we shall assuredly all hang, separately.”

It is important to keep two things in mind: First, that the governing body from which independence was declared had already been attempting, with what military units could be made available, to put down the rebellion for more than a year, resulting in a mostly hit-and-run guerilla war — thus, the majority sentiment of the people being represented agreed with the declaration, and it might be said that the signed parchment merely made de jure what already was de facto.   Second, that in spite of this, not every person who lived in that part of the world desired independence.

It seems an appropriate day, therefore, to discuss a topic that has bubbled up from the miasma of blogs about Second Life; to wit, one particular blogger has raised the issue of Democracy.

I begin with my own declaration, commonly known these days as “full disclosure”:  I refuse to sully my eyes, or the brain cells attached to them, with the utterances of that particular person, who is widely notorious for conspiracism, vitriol, threats of vengeance, a baseless fear of a political/economic system which, to all intents and purposes, died thirty years ago… and a fanatical devotion to the Pope Ayn Rand.  Therefore I will address the concept of democratic rule in and of Second Life in general terms, and not waste anyone’s time responding to “talking points”.

[As a precaution, I will also temporarily enable moderation for Comments to this blog, which I don’t ordinarily do.  I apologize in advance to my friends, and to the casual readers who happen to find themselves here.  On the other hand, their eyes as well as mine will be spared the need for bleach.]

(Second) Life

Fortunately, a great deal of the counter-argument to democracy in SL has already been written.  My first inkling that the topic was even on anyone’s agenda came in one of Honour McMillan’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek “letters to Sparky”: Democracy in Second Life?

I have to start by wondering if you were using “governance” in the correct sense or if you were using it in place of the word “government” which many do. Of course the fact that you coupled it with “democratic” would lead me to believe you mean “government” but since that is patently absurd (Second Life is not an independent country. It is a corporation subject to the laws of the various real countries in which it operates.) I’ll assume you really do mean governance – in the corporate governance sense since we’re talking about a private company.

With a great deal of respect to Ms McMillan: Second Life™ is not a corporation. It is a product of a corporation: Linden Research Inc., d.b.a. Linden Lab. However, I raise the semantics to strengthen her point about consumer advisory panels, not to weaken it. In other words, the idea becomes analogous to people who have purchased — say — toasters from an appliance manufacturer demanding a voice not in how in the corporation itself is operated, but in how that corporation makes toasters.

Honour goes on to point out:

Electing representatives to be involved in corporate governance is something Trade Unions and Cooperatives have used for a long time. You probably got the idea from them.

Given the common — and I believe, correct — perception that “The Lab provides the tools, but the Residents make the world”, I had wondered if any others besides myself recognized the delicious irony in the resemblance between the above proposal and The Workers Control the Means of Production. Surely nothing so like socialism could be satisfactory to the Proponent…

Miss Emilly Orr was next to take up the quill, to expand upon Ms McMillan’s question of the feasibility of organizing a “democracy”. To summarize: representation by in-world subculture affiliation, or by real-world country of origin, would be impractical in the extreme. That second point is of highest significance: citizens of the United States are a minority in SL. Other people in other countries have different ideas about democratic rule. It would seem to me that a constitutional convention would need to be called first, to define the form of democracy… and then all the same matters of practicality apply.

Further on this point: There are, according to Tyche Sheperd’s Second Life Grid Survey, approximately 19.7 million registered accounts, of whom slightly less than 10% (1.4 million, rounded up) logged in some time during the last 24 hours. This statistical chart at Tateru Nino’s website indicates that median concurrency (avatars logged in at the same time) is around 50,000 — while this one indicates a regular periodicity in concurrency compared to time of day, peaking when most people are awake in the Americas and Europe, then plateauing a little on the overnight (in the US) downward slope when the Asians and Oceanians come online.

In short: Even if there were enough people interested in pursuing the issue — when do you get them all together? Not to mention where, when more than 25 avatars in a sim with an alleged capacity of 40 lags it all to Hell.

For the sake of further discussion, let us leave the utter impracticality (nearing impossibility) of an actual meeting of a Second Life Duma and look at those numbers again. On the face of it, you would have a maximum potential 10% of all the Resident accounts that are still on the Lab’s books claiming to represent the other 90%… and of those, only 2% online together at any one time, give or take a few thousand. Check my math: 50 thousand divided by 19.7 million = .0025 = 1/4 of one percent, which would allegedly be a “representative” democracy.


Now let us look at the purpose of such a hypothetical democracy. Honour, as was noted above, took the proposal to mean corporate governance, as opposed to a government “of the avatars, by the avatars”. Irony again: this makes more than one kind of sense, since the proponent is known to believe (nearly single-handedly) that a form of “advisory board” has existed in SL since its early days — even to the point of giving it a name, which has become a well-worn joke, especially among those accused of being a member: “feted inner core”, or FIC in the acronym-laden, agitprop style of its creator. One could assume, therefore, that the call is for an openly-elected “FIC” to replace the alleged secret conspiracy.

But let us surmise that the purpose of the democracy in question is not to advise, let alone govern, Linden Lab’s operation of their product, Second Life™, but to govern the avatars themselves. Leave aside (for now) the obvious fact that Linden Lab owns everything, and has both the right and the power to make the rules as they see fit, and that this whole discussion is therefore moot. I invite you to examine Section 8 of the Terms of Service, and the Second Life Community Standards which it adopts by reference, for signs of oppression — political, behavioral, or otherwise. OK, so it does restrict *ahem* certain activities to regions rated for such — but it does not prevent a region owner from declaring her/his sim “Adult” if she/he wants to.

It is known and accepted universally that a sim owner may set any rules she or he wants to about who gets in and what they’re allowed to do while there. It is also known universally, “If you don’t like the rules, don’t go there.” This is a liberty granted by the Lab to tier-paying Residents: self-governance. There are others, including the liberty to lease fractions of land and make a profit thereby… but self-governance is the important one for this discussion. Quoting Honour McMillan again:

You are in charge of a large amount of land and you have tenants/residents on that land. Implement a “fair and democratic” system in your domain with processes that lead to governance for all of its constituencies and all of their needs. Then you can use that model to demonstrate to the rest of us how ideal and workable your system is.

Crap Mariner commented about this, too, to demonstrate that it can work. I daresay there are plenty of other sim owners — on private islands, groups thereof, or even on certain parts of the Mainland (Luskwood comes to mind immediately) — who could testify to the same.

And yet there are others who are, and have the liberty to be, totalitarians on their own land. There are regions in which a roleplayed form of slavery is the norm. Slavery is outlawed planet-wide in the real world (though enforcement is spotty at best) — would a hypothetical democratic government outlaw certain styles of roleplay? Once begun, how quickly would “the tyranny of the majority” become codified? “Most of us don’t like what you’re doing, so you have to stop.”

Stop, or what? Hand-in-hand with law comes enforcement. Again, sim owners have the liberty to ban anyone they choose from gaining entrance, for any reason or for no reason at all. No one but the Lab has the power to ban an account from the totality of Second Life, and I have serious doubts that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would want that power, and the liberty to use it, granted to Residents, no matter how “duly constituted” they declare themselves to be. We have already seen what happens with self-appointed “enforcers”: Power Corrupts. Absolutely.

And, once again, the irony is inescapable: this all smells strongly of “One-World Government” from someone who would otherwise deny, with all available vehemence, support of such a concept.

The Purfuit of Happinefs

Of course, all of this is beside the point. That point being–it’s still Linden Labs’ playground. We just play there. It’s our right to say whether we play there or not, and to a limited extent, how we choose to play–but we can’t stand up and ‘vote’ that the swing set is taken away and replaced with a bakery, f’rinstance. Because we don’t own the place.

We just hang out and swing. People really need to understand that, once and for all.

The above is from Miss Orr’s post (italics in the original), and she is absolutely correct. Notwithstanding the entrepreneurs who have turned their involvement in Second Life into a business (with varying degrees of success), the overwhelming majority of Residents come to SL to play. That’s what it’s for: to immerse one’s self in a world devoid of all demands except courtesy to one’s fellow avatars; to engage in all kinds of activities unavailable in organic life… to pursue happiness, however and wherever that pursuit might lead.

To summarize: Beyond the region level, “democracy” in Second Life, no matter its purpose, is impractical, unnecessary, and unwanted.

One final, most delicious bite of irony to leave you with: According to Honour’s paraphrase, the original proposal read something like this:

In short, Philip, I can only tell you once again: make a democratic and fair world with processes that can lead to governance for a wide variety of constituencies with different needs.

In other words: it’s a demand that the despised “oligarchy” impose democracy from above. Can you say “oxymoron”?

I knew you could…


14 responses to “Second Life™, Liberty, and the Purfuit of Happinefs

  1. @Honour: It was a distinct pleasure; glad you enjoyed it.

    @Wizzy: Next time I log in… ;)

    There is also a “Feline Inner Core”, of which I am a member. Unfortunately, it doesn't come up in Search to provide a link out-of-world.

  2. I cannot say oxymoron all of the time, for some reason it's right up there with cinnamon and sea anemone.

    I can, however, say oxytocin. Increased levels of oxytocin have been shown to increase trust and empathy. (Note some people are immune to the effects of oxytocin.)

    Empathy, the greatest of all our human abilities, is related to demophilia. (Note some people are incapable of empahty)

    And as Cornel West said, democracy depends upon demophilia, or love of the people. (Note some people have not learned to love)

    Without the ability to love, trust or empathize, it's hard to be happy.

  3. @Brinda: By the way, I had you and Benares foremost in mind when I wrote of others besides Mr. Crap testifying to running a region by community consensus… i.e., what democracy is, after all, without the bells and whistles.

  4. In other words, the idea becomes analogous to people who have purchased — say — toasters from an appliance manufacturer demanding a voice not in how in the corporation itself is operated, but in how that corporation makes toasters.

    You know, that's actually a perfect way to put things. And that I wouldn't so much mind–say, one to five chosen representatives–either sim owners themselves, or trusted estate managers–sent forth to decide on generalized policies on how SL, on the avatar level, is managed. Part of the Labs' problem is that they don't play in the same world we do. Most Lindens log a considerable amount of time in-world–in Linden-held lands only. And that distinction shows when we try to talk to them about our perceptions of their creation.

    Get a group of people in there to act as a bridge–residents on one side, Lindens on the other, the band of EMs in the center, hearing both sides. It may not be an ideal system, but I think it would get things done with much less drama.

  5. Burning Life 07 was a prime example of Lindens letting the community organize and run themselves. There was good and bad to that year. The good was that we felt like we had charge of our own destiny and the outcome of the event, as we were the ones putting content on the playa. The bad seem that in spite of our independence of the Lindens. fought among ourselves. The next yr Lindens decided that wasnt going to work. So they gave us a view of ourselves governing ourselves. I do really wish to see the clique of people that play the PIP card stop.

  6. Hmmm… well, I think you will find that normal corporate thinking is based on consumerism, not democracy….the only issue of import to the corporation (LL) is how to sell more toasters, charge more for em, make them with cheaper materials…etc. They are actually not interested in toast, and may eat cereals for breakfast.
    I have to agree with Lalo, as often before, enjoy your toaster, find an amazing new use for it, redesign your own (e.g. Inworldz) but don't expect The United Federation of Toaster Owners to have any real clout….the members will mostly be people with too much time on their hands anyway.

  7. @Fael: First, apologies for your comment not showing up here for about 36 hours. Something was very borked in Google's Blogspot/Blogger servers; hundreds of people had “comments waiting for moderation” go missing.

    Second… A hypothetical Resident buy-out, even if feasible (asymptotically approaching impossible), would not change any of the demographics of SL, or the timezones people live in, or the maximum number of avatars who can meet effectively in the same region. It might give people more incentive to overcome those impediments and others… it might also result in a board of directors more responsive to the Residents in the first place, but there are no guarantees.

  8. Pingback: Going Nonconcurrent | Telling: Like it Is

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