A Second Life in Politics


Jan. 19, 2007— -- 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.

"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.

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.

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.