A Second Life in Politics

"This is something where people dip their toes in, and they think there's more there," Scola tells ABCNEWS.com. She says that the advantage of Second Life over blogs and chat rooms is the physicality of the experience. By tying real-time interaction to physically embodied characters, the experience allows a nuanced way to interact online.

Steve Nelson, the CEO of Clear Ink, says that Second Life "gives you a strong sense of place while you're participating. … Once you leave a meeting in Second Life, [it] sticks in your memory."

While politicians are still just "dipping their toes" into the community, social activists are already very prevalent in the virtual community. Many have raised money and drawn volunteers for their organizations on Second Life.

Virtual Activism

Scola says one of the most successful nonprofit campaigns on the site was run by Save the Children, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization.

Each year, Save the Children runs a "wish list" program in which contributors can go online and buy animal sponsorships, which fund children's programs around the world. This year, when the organization ran out of real animals for people to sponsor, it decided to create a virtual "Yak Shak" in Second Life in which people could buy a "virtual" yak.

Rosie Jordan, the head of public relations for Save the Children, says the campaign was a big success. "We've got to a whole new audience that we would have otherwise never have talked to," says Jordan. Save the Children sold around 200 yaks, she says, at a cost of about $4 per yak.

Scola says the key to Save the Children's virtual campaign was that it was fun. Users could ride the yaks into social gathering places on the site, or knit fur sweaters from their wool. There was even a yak beauty contest. That brought more users to the Yak Shak, she says. While they were there, they could pick up literature on the organization and follow Web links to their work.

Other organizations have waded into the virtual waves of Second Life as well. An entire community has been built on the site called Better World Island, where social activists congregate and form "drum circles" with their avatars to share ideas.

One group has even created a virtual community to raise awareness of genocide, calling it Camp Darfur. The community is set up like a refugee camp and is supposed to give visitors a glimpse into what it's like to live in the stricken region. Though some visitors have says the site it too morose and doesn't provide any "fun" activities, Evonne Heyning, who helped create Camp Darfur, says, "That's the point."

"We're not going to have any dance parties there," says Heyning. She says educators have used the virtual world to teach their students about genocide.

Virtual Future

In a new media environment saturated with ways for politicians and activists to reach different segments of the community and the electorate, where does Second Life fit in? Scola says that the heavy time investment that Second Life requires is a limiting factor.

"You can't just jump on for two seconds," says Scola, "[so] you're not reaching the same number of people as you would on a blog or at a physical event."

Joshua Levy, a frequent user who blogs about technology and politics at Personal Democracy Forum, says the site still has to iron a few kinks out. When he went to Camp Darfur, for example, nobody was there to interact with. The same is true in many communities, he says.

"The execution is lacking," says Levy. "We're still at the birth of this thing … but the right people are thinking about it."

Miller hopes that more politicians will use the site, although he admits that with more transparency comes more scrutiny.

"I don't know if this will make our lives easier or harder," he jokes.

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