What’s Missing from Governance in Second Life

In the past week or so, two of my favorite thinkers about Second Life have written about governance – Gwyneth Llewelyn’s post Humble Governance is typically lengthy but worth reading, and Prokofy Neva responded on How to Improve Governance in Second Life.

This has long been a topic of interest, I was a polisci undergrad after all, and I’ve been trying my own hand at governance with varying degrees of engagement, success, and failure with the Chilbo Community on the mainland.  In fact, I presented about Chilbo’s model at the Governance in Virtual Worlds conference  back in March 2010, and I’ll never forget the upbraiding I received from a fellow panelist who simply could not believe that governance could exist without constant disagreement and strife, or that any system that didn’t include a parliament or direct democracy could be feasible or representative.  I begged to differ then and now.

Governance in Virtual Worlds 2010: Virtual Self Governance – Fleep Tuque

View more presentations from Fleep Tuque

I’ve never claimed that the Chilbo model of participatory consensus was scalable or feasible for all communities in Second Life – I think our system developed to suit our specific community, our specific geography on mainland rather than private sims, and to suit the personalities of our specific members – but I certainly think it has been a viable model that others might learn from as one example of a long lasting, self-governing community.  We’re coming up on our 5th anniversary, which in Second Life terms is a pretty long time!  But I remain a big believer in the old adage “those who show up make the decisions, those who are willing and actually do the work get to decide how its done” and so long as that is tempered by a fair, open, and transparent input process where those who don’t have the time to show up or do the work get to put their two cents in, we’ve found in Chilbo that it mostly works pretty well.

And even though in the past year or so I’ve been much less active myself, and some of the more administratively heavy processes we had in place have been eliminated or downsized to accommodate people’s changing schedules and time availability, the fact that we continue to iterate, flex, and experiment without carving immutable laws into virtual stone is one of the very reasons I think Chilbo has lasted as long as it has.  From my perspective, the biggest issue with our “real life” political institutions right now is their inability to cope with the rapid pace of change in today’s crazily quickly changing world.  Being flexible and nimble is crucial to ensuring that governance is responsive to actual reality and actual problems rather than continuing to run on auto-pilot addressing problems from previous decades or, at this point, a previous century.  I have come to hate the buzzword “agile” because it’s so overused in the IT industry, but governments need to have the capacity for agility when necessary and neither the real world nor most Second Life government systems I’ve seen in practice have demonstrated that capacity.

In any case, there were several points in Prokofy’s post that absolutely resonated with my experience as a Second Life Resident and community organizer.  My favorite quote was the following:

Governance in SL will do better when it’s a verb, not a noun.

I couldn’t agree more!  Further, Prokofy goes on to say:

What is needed isn’t a parliament, a resident body that the Lindens fete somehow, or self-appointed busy-bodies who want to run *your* land. What’s needed is functionality — the ability to minimize grief in groups and get better traction on mainland complaints revolving around neighbours’ and Governor Linden land.

This is something I’ve been saying for years.  Back in August 2008, I wrote an open letter to Jack Linden when they first proposed changes to the Mainland to deal with litter, griefer objects, ad farms, and the all-too-common abandoned first land plots.  In that letter, I wrote:

Linden Lab has for years claimed that they eventually wanted to put more governance in the hands of residents since they do not have the staff or the time to resolve all disputes. So do it. Where organized communities exist, empower long-term residents with established records of good payment, good stewardship, and good relations to manage the sims instead of Linden Lab. Enforce our community-generated standards or allow us to enforce them. Whether through appointment or elections or petitions or through some other means, give community managers the ability to remove offensive ads, griefer objects, and banlines. Put your money where your mouth has been for the last 5 years.

I absolutely agree with Prokofy that the biggest issue is the need for group and land management tools to better allow us to govern our OWN communities.  I don’t need that argumentative fellow from the Confederation of Democratic Simulators to come and inject his contentious brand of politics into our easy going consensus-based community, what we’ve long needed in Chilbo is better mechanisms to enforce our own community standards – better data, better management tools, better and more flexible group permissions and management – those are the things that would genuinely help our community.

Having said that, I’m not sure I agree with Prokofy that there’s no need for larger governance structures.  While I very much like the concept that participation should be tied to some kind of stake in the grid – if not direct land ownership, then some kind of representation on behalf of those who rent or play on group owned land or systems like Chilbo’s – the fact that we are all at the mercy of a privately held company and have done little to effectively organize ourselves in ways that can leverage our power as customers of Linden Lab has been to our detriment.  As Gwyn rightly pointed out, the forums become a cacophany and the JIRA was never intended to be a voting mechanism, and so we’ve been left to individually or in small groups try to fight for the changes we hope to see with the platform, the interface, or the policies that Linden Lab adopts.

Gwyn wrote:

I think that there was always a need for mechanisms to represent residents’ opinions in a systematic and inclusive way, and that the “fear of corruption and drama” has been just a convenient excuse to avoid a democratic forum. The consequence of this way of thinking is that it’s far easier to blame the Lindens for making the wrong decisions instead of organising a grid-wide method of aiding their decision process.

I think that’s pretty spot-on.  And applicable to more than just Linden Lab and Second Life, in fact, since increasingly more and more of our interactions and civic life is conducted online in virtual spaces that are owned by, “governed” by, and controlled by third party private or publicly owned corporations who are not accountable in a democratic sense to their constituents, er customers, er.. whatever label you call us.  For another example, see the Nymwars with Google.

This is a 21st century problem that we must solve, and it will require 21st century solutions and institutions to do it.  Many of us have long said that Second Life is merely a precursor of the things to come, that in many ways it portends the future of our physical world and other online spaces, and I find myself agreeing with Gwyn that it is time we tackle these issues and stop passing the buck.  If we can find workable solutions for dealing with governance in Second Life, perhaps we’ll find structures and systems that will be useful in dealing with other service providers who forget who they’re serving, too.

So.. where do we start?

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3 comments

  1. Fleep, I think you bring some great perspectives to this issue. You don’t have to have unwieldly confederations, you don’t have to have top-heavy legislatures sitting to govern in SL.

    But I hasten to say precisely because you unabashedly describe yourself as a “progressive” (I most definitely *don’t* like that term and describe myself as “liberal but not progressive” for that reason) that I don’t think this informal system is viable for real life. That is, I don’t think we need something “new” or “special” because it’s “the 21st century” that involves basically a lot of geeks running things by fiat from their smart phones bypassing elected representatives.

    There are a lot of groups like moveon.org that would love if life ran that way, where they could just buy a CREDO phone and fast-track their policy into notions. But no thank you. You’re not elected.

    You have only to study what happened to the obscene-Twitterer Anthony Weinstein, a Democrat, who lost his seat to a Republican, to understand the people change, issues change, certain forces come to the fore, life goes on, and you need responsible and *elected* politicians for government, not just people with smart phones.

    By suggesting governance in *Second Life* should be “a verb not a noun” I’m trying to solve the problem of an illegitimate power in the first place.

    That is, sure, a private company that put their own money in gets to decide what it wants to do — on my sim level, that works for me, too, as Ravenglass. (Gwyn used to call me a “tyrant” merely because I ran *a company* instead of a “parliament” and because I had “customers” instead of “constituents”. That was ridiculous because I set the goals as limited — you pay, you abide by a notecard of rules, then you refund if you don’t like it any more.)

    Government by notecard and refund works great for me, and I’ve often said you only need two scripts to run things really in SL — “give notecard” and “take notecard” — if you have consensus to start with.

    And that’s really the issue, identifying the initial group of consensus. Chilbo works as you yourself explain because it is like-minded people on a like-minded task. You have the tekkie-wiki edu-punk open-source technocommies in a huddle, and they get along.

    But I don’t endorse their politics or prescriptions, i.e. over-reliance on freebies, etc. etc. So the “noun” of Chilbo is not something I want to support, belong to, or confederate with, even though some of the “verbs” of Chilbo, like the idea to be able to remove “grief prims” is an interesting thesis.

    I’ve discussed it many times — can the Lindens give us estate-manager powers on Governor Linden land, since it’s all basically in a few groups? There should be no reason why they can’t. If I’ve paid tier for 7 years, can’t the Lindens deputize me to remove screaming particle spewers from either Linden Land or no-show land or ban people from infohubs?

    But these are all acts that seem straightforward, until griefers begin to fret and Fisk and edge-case them and demand equal rights and harry the Lindens to death, on the one hand, or until just the ordinary person wonders if any of these land barons are going to get too heavy handed in the welcome areas if they have that power. (And I still think welcome areas should be policed by clearly-marked circuit-riding Lindens only).

  2. Fleep —

    It might all become a moot point. Eventually, Second Life will drop its garden walls and allow people to hypergrid in and out to other grids. Each grid can decide on its own how it will govern itself, and will have every tool available to grid owners to do just that — namely, all the tools currently reserved to the Lindens in Second Life, plus as many others as OpenSim developers and grid owners can invent.

    A parallel would be complaints about how AOL managed its forums back in its heyday. Maybe people are still complaining — who knows? — but anyone who has a problem can move over to a different forum site, or start their own.

    — Maria

  3. Formal or informal, I personally don’t care about what works best; flexibility is certainly much more important.

    So long as the following is in place, I’m happy:

    1) Free access to the policy-making decisions with the Lindens by anyone who wants to have that access; the model we know that works best is simply to elect them out of all the population, but I’ll be willing to be persuaded by any alternatives that work as well as general elections 🙂
    2) Transparently set agendas. All residents should have the right to know what’s being discussed with the Lindens and by whom.
    3) Public scrutiny. All discussions and decisions to be publicly available, and allowing freedom of expression to debate and criticise those discussions and decisions. The current model doesn’t even allow for public scrutiny because we don’t know who decides what!

    The rest, to be honest, are mostly details.

    Also note that people always misread me and believe I somehow want to “supress” LL and Lindens and replace them by a body of residents who will arbitrarily set “laws” and “rules” to constrain others to think or behave in a pre-ordained way — and arbitrarily remove their right to do whatever they wish on their own land. That’s definitely *not* something I subscribe to. On the other hand, participating in LL’s policy-making decision process is definitely something which I would love to see residents more involved — in a transparent and democratic way.