Moments after Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as speaker of the House earlier this month, a little-reported supernatural event took place in Congress.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), his arms outstretched, flew into the House chamber, hovered over the dais for a few moments, then gracefully landed at the speaker's podium. A crowd of 50 or so journalists and citizens cheered and jumped up and down as Miller's voice boomed across the chamber, answering questions about the Democrat's agenda for the first 100 hours.
"It was kind of surreal," says Rik Panganiban, a blogger who was in the audience.
Literally. The event took place on Second Life, a virtual 3-D online community in which almost 3 million people have created avatars (graphic representations of themselves) to interact and commune in a virtual world. Put away any conceptions about video games or online dating sites -- Second Life is being used by businesses, educators and increasingly, politicians and social activists as a way to connect with and mobilize people all over the country and the world.
The virtual House of Representatives is the brainchild of Miller, who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which is how he heard about Second Life as a way for educators to hold classes online.
"It dawned on me that this was a way to reach out to a very different audience than would ordinarily be able to watch the beginning of a new Congress," Miller told ABCNEWS.com. So Miller teamed with his friends George Lucas and SunMicrosystems chief of research John Gage to create a virtual House of Representatives on the site. They contacted Internet marketing company Clear Ink, which within two weeks built an entire virtual world for members of Congress and citizens to meet.
"It lets people all over the world communicate and have their views known," says Miller, who answered questions on Net neutrality, global warming and Congress' ethics package during the 45-minute online session. Rep.Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Select Committee on Energy and Commerce, is considering using the virtual world for discussions on global warming, Miller says, and he hopes that Republicans will join the community as well.
Second Life was created by Linden Labs of San Francisco. It allows users to create their own in-world communities colored with images, sound, and video from the "real" world. Drawn from the concept of a "Metaverse" from the Neal Stephenson 1992 novel "Snow Crash," Second Life allows users to form communities for discussion, buy online real estate, and develop businesses and other organizations online -- earning "Linden dollars" that can be converted to real U.S. currency.
According to the Second Life Web site, more than $1.3 million was spent in its virtual worlds in a recent 24-hour span. And while the sites demographics are hard to pin down based entirely on user entries, Linden Labs estimates the median age of their visitors as 32, with 44 percent being female. More than 50 percent of its visitors register as Americans, according to the company.
The communal aspect makes it a good place for politicians to connect with a new group of voters, says Nancy Scola, who managed an appearance by Gov. Mark Warner on the site last fall. Scola recently wrote a report for the George Washington University Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet about the use of virtual communities for online activism.