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. Â In fact, I presented about Chilbo’s model at the Governance in Virtual Worlds conferenceÂ 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. Â I begged to differ then and now.
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. Â We’re coming up on our 5th anniversary, which in Second Life terms is a pretty long time! Â 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. Â 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. Â Being flexible and nimble is crucial to ensuring that governance isÂ 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. Â 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. Â 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! Â 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. Â Back in August 2008, I wrote an open letter to Jack LindenÂ 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. Â 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. Â I don’t need that argumentative fellow from the Confederation of Democratic SimulatorsÂ 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. Â 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. Â 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.
I think that there was always a need for mechanisms to represent residentsâ€™ opinions in a systematic and inclusive way, and that the â€œfear of corruption and dramaâ€ has been just a convenient excuse to avoid a democratic forum. The consequence of this way of thinking is that itâ€™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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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?