On SL Government

For a while now there has been discussion about government in SL, mostly from the Neualtenburg group, who have a town formed high on the sides of a mountain in Second Life. This was recently reprized in the excellent Second Life Herald, and got me thinking.

While discussions have wandered back and forth about the purpose and role of a government in Second Life, there’s one point I’ve never seen adequately answered, and that is, why bother?

In the real world the government is essentially a force for compelling us to do things, whether that be follow rules, pay taxes, drive on the left (or right!) and whathaveyou. Government also handles our relations with other states, nominally, to further our own interests (thus, if you drive a big car and are against war for oil, then in my books, you’re a hypocrite).

But in Second Life a player government will have no power of compulsion and its citizens live such transient lives that rulings would be nigh-impossible to enforce. How would a government be able to govern without power or a populace?

In the real world government, essentially, solves problems for us that we are unable to solve ourselves. When government is working well, this is what it is doing, in my book. Government ensures we don’t crash into each other too much through enforcing certain rules. It makes sure we have a variety of services and that the weakest are never left to rot. It tries to ensure that other people can’t come and take our stuff, and that other nations can’t come and take our land.

And none of these or related useful functions government in Second Life will ever be able to do under any conceivable scenario.

So why bother? Well, I think there are useful roles for central leadership in Second Life, but it’s not through some circle-jerk of player government where wannabe politicos and revolutionaries can practice for the day they work in the lofty heights of local government, or dream of their utopias. Instead, those forming an SL government should focus on what they can do to make SL resident’s lives better. And I think there are a couple of options.

Having a bonded sellers program would be a start. What if a central body or government signed up retailers to a program where the retailers agreed to stick to a code of practice and dispute resolution process in return for being able to display the ‘bonded retailer’ logo on their stalls? The retailer would pay L$500 or-so as a bond, in case they failed to uphold a dispute resolution against them. This would be one really useful way SL government could solve problems related to trusting retailers and consumers getting value for money.

Another way might be to lend government ‘district planning officials’ to groups wanting to agree on rules for residential areas or suburbs. The officials could have a stock of standard agreements between players and again, perhaps hold a bond centrally in case of dispute. The official would also impartially hear disputes in a tribunal of some kind, thus helping players who are part of a controlled residence feel confident it won’t just fall apart.

However, there’s one problem with this kind of thinking. The problem is it’s just not sexy enough for many people interested in SL government. It is however, eminently useful, modest and practical. What’s more, it’s also doable and an inclusive way to involve more people in the bigger idea.

In the end, if SL government focuses on how it can solve problems it will be successful. If it spends its time talking about charters, organization, a constitution and bill of rights then really, it’s just a waste of time as it’s only purpose will be to inflate the egos of those involved. None of these sorts of discussions actually help players and they’re just not necessary for government to work, despite what certain educational backgrounds might imply.

Fix problems. And over time the government will grow, maybe even into something meaningful. Flying in government, fully formed, as if from outer space, will never interest or be of use to anyone.

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  1. Anonymous

     /  March 5, 2005

    I’d been thinking kinda the same things, but hadn’t been able to really put it into words. Nice job! ^_^

  2. Pirate Cotton

     /  March 5, 2005

    Thanks for your compliment!

  3. Of course, Pirate, I must disagree, at least partially, with your ideas.

    Think about long-term longevity of projects in SL. When people leave groups – especially the ones most involved with it at the beginning – what happens? If you have a very small group (recent example: SL Exchange) you can argue, fight it out legally, and eventually sort things out and continue the work. If the group is large, the tendency is for the project to slowly die due to disagreements about the “succession”. And the remaining people will seriously think twice about staying in a “rotten” project anyway – they will most likely turn towards other projects.

    While the SL platform was designed for collaborative work, technically speaking, SL is, socially, mostly individualistic. It’s hard to design a long-term project which not only makes it interesting for the group members to stay, as well as having a way to mediate conflict between them.

    It’s all psychological.

    The suggestions about “government” for dealing with long-term projects follow the general guidelines that Open Source projects have dealt with in the software/internet industry. Things like USENET news have been going on for over 20 years with “elections”, “democracy”, “submitted proposals”, etc. The RFC system also works like that. All major Open Source projects – say, GNU/Linux, the Debian distribution, whatever you care to name – are “organised” and have some sort of democratic organisations inside the developing team. Requirements for participation are sometimes very high; proposals are highly formalised; voting is thoroughly done. In the chaos and anarchy of the Internet, it’s these projects, which have organisation, that are the most successful and quite long-termed.

    Some residents think that the same applies to projects in SL as well. You can think of a long-term project in SL as an Open Source project – a collaborative work done by volunteers. Their time is limited, inconstant, and their mood varies. New members join up, old members just quit (for any reason), but the project needs to be kept. Human history taught us that a democratic institution is one of the least bad ways to do that – because the focus is not the “individuals and their egos” but the project as a whole. As long as the project is working, you can forget about what the group’s composition is, and stifle down overbleated egos easily.

    Is that the only way a long-termed project can be successful and resist the test of time? No. Almost all projects which have a strong RL counterpart – an entity funding it (or funding people to stay in SL and do things) or, the reverse, being a finantial return to someone (GOM and Anshe come to mind, and probably SL Exchange as well), will be around for a long, long while. But this may mean the sort of commitment that for many is impossible (even if they really liked to have it).

    For volunteer projects, where the major reason for existence is “having fun with it”, making them long-term is a challenge – not a technical one, but a sociological one. Leader-based groups are great for initial efforts. But once the leader quits the project, it dies – succession is hard, if not impossible. That’s what SL’s history tells us. In RL, you have seen how often countries or companies too tied to their leaders (eg. dictators, even if “benign”) tend to disappear when there is no clear succession path.

    “Government”-based projects are trade-offs. In exchange for some limitations on your anarchistic drives – you can only build whatever the majority of people allow, you have to pay taxes according to what the majority has find to be a fair value, etc. – you get, in return, a mechanism where you can have a saying and a vote, and participate in the project with the time you have allocated for it. If you’re tired of the “management group”, simply vote them out (ie. you don’t need to leave the project in disgust, you have power over the ones that you dislike). If the “management group” is tired of spending their efforts in a long-term project and wish to move out, it’s easy to replace them by electing new members (or even a new government).

    Neualtenburg calls the “management team” a “City Government” but really, that’s just role-playing. It could be a Corporation instead – different rules, different voting systems, but also feasible (if it works in RL for long-term projects – and in SL terms, any RL company is a long-term project! – it should work in SL). Or call it an Association, a Charity, a Commune, whatever your fancy is.

    The basic issue is, in long-term projects, members cooperate towards a common goal (beyond ego-bloating), exchanging some liberties for a long-term strategy, but keeping the control over the “management team” by being able to vote them out of office.

    200 or so countries in the world think this is a good idea, as well as hundreds of Open Source projects, and literally millions of companies and entities. All have found out what it takes to make long-term projects successfull. They can’t be all wrong ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Pirate Cotton

     /  March 13, 2005

    Thanks Gwyneth for your interesting thoughts. I think you have some very valid points, but I also think you highlight a couple of problems as well.

    Firstly, the thing is that all of those projects you list which have governments have the agreement of all those involved that a government or leadership group is a good thing (or tacit agreement is required as part of joining).

    Furthermore, each online organisation in particular has a very tightly defined remit that serves a fairly defined audience and goal. Perhaps I’m missing something but I hadn’t seen that the SL plans.

    I still stand by my point though, that there are really useful functions player bodies could fullfill in Second Life, and if people will try those first we might learn a lot about online government and how it will differ from the real world.

  5. You are very right – you cannot have “organisation” if the WHOLE group does not view it as a “good thing”. And staying focused on a project is also a key issue!

    If you have a “mixed” group – one where people view the “organisation” as a way to stifle creativity – and where the project goal is “fuzzy” or not well defined, I also don’t think it would work.

    That’s why I’m also reluctant about “overall SL government”. While I can certainly see some merits and benefits, I also think that it will never fullfill those two points. On the other hand, organised things on very targeted and focused goals, might work. Evolving the RATE group (or something in those lines) to encompass all merchants in SL would probably be one of those goals that might work – meaning that as a consumer of SL products, you’d be trusting a whole organisation instead of independent merchants. I’m just not sure if this will ever happen…

  6. Ulrika Zugzwang

     /  April 8, 2005

    An opinion piece with several misspellings, poor grammar, and awkward phrasing (including a group masturbation reference), that serves to reinforce misconceptions about virtual governments while avoiding factual discussion. I give it a “C-“.


  7. Pirate Cotton

     /  April 14, 2005

    So, other than my spellings I was right then. There is no point to current virtual government offerings in SL, they do offer nothing to anyone who isn’t interested in the charade of a government without a polity.

    And you talk about group masterbation like it’s a bad thing!

  8. Ulrika is just being sarcastic, I hope ๐Ÿ™‚

    I still agree that it’s hard to start any sort of “organisation” where people don’t really want to be “organised” themselves.

    However, may I also arrogantly point out that most people don’t really know what’s best for them ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. Pirate Cotton

     /  April 24, 2005

    Perhaps true, but the reason governments worked in the past is that they were either forced on people or they offered something people wanted.

    In SL the only option is to offer something people want. Hence I suggest devolving government to a series of useful functions that people care about and then, over time, those functions can be drawn together into one, central organisation.

    People will always be apathetic towards a government which does nothing for them and seemingly just adds layers of complexity to their second lives.

    Work out what the government can do to help people at a basic level and then I think people would get excited.


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