On July 22,
a week into
Revolution's Beta Test
The virtual world is a growing environment for civic discussion and debate. One of the most active Iranian protest and discussion spots was Club Habibi, described as a “Middle Eastern Oasis” where avatars can purchase region-themed clothing and command their characters to dance a virtual version of an Arab belly dance.
Some merely explore for a few
minutes and fly off, while others meet up with virtual friends from places as
While places like Club Habibi
provide a free virtual forum for Iranians to spread their message, other Second
Life venues provide a more somber experience. Hundreds of Second Life players captured international
media attention as early as June 25 after announcing plans for a “Virtual
Vigil” in memory of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters killed by Iranian security
Virtual Battle StationsThe active
Iranian protest community in Second Life is more than a curiosity, and downplaying
the importance of virtual societies in our political and social lives, as TIME
Magazine did in August 2007, understates the power of synthetic worlds in
creating viable social movements.
In her feature piece “Second Life’s Real-World Problems,” TIME correspondent Kristina Dell portrays Second Life as little more than a den of “low traffic and raunchy behavior,” and predicts its limited utility as a small commercial sphere. Second Life’s ability to serve as a virtual base for political speech proves this view short-sighted and cynical.
Authoritarian governments that repress real-world demonstrations have difficulty doing the same in the synthetic world. Virtual rallies are so hard to shut off because the mechanics of virtual protest are fluid. Squeeze one part of the tube and, like a massive balloon, the momentum simply transfers to another segment. Unlike actual rallies, there is no centralized base that can be “raided” by security forces, and virtual participants are likely to notice sudden changes in the activity levels of prominent activists.
Indeed, the efforts of real-world governments to restrict the Internet usage of virtual protesters appears to strengthen the rallies as the online community responds to what it views as an offense against expression. So, for instance, Second Life’s virtual protests continued – and even increased in scale - after real-world Iranians started to mysteriously disappear from the synthetic world.
The media coverage of Second Life’s virtual Iranian protests had the unintended effect of drawing a coalition of real-world human rights groups into the virtual fray. United 4 Iran, a group of human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, held a fundraiser entirely in Second Life that solicited donations by way of “United4Iran boxes” freely copied and placed throughout the synthetic world by users.
The donation boxes collected nearly 215,000 Linden Dollars, Second Life’s virtual currency that is freely exchangeable for real-world currencies. When converted, that $800 will maintain United4Iran’s virtual humanitarian presence for over a year.
Real Meaning in Synthetic Worlds
If protests like those in support of Iran’s democratic movement gain credibility as legitimate forms of protest – which, by all rights, they are – the potential for a paradigm shift in dissent speech is fast approaching. The potential exists for a system where undemocratic governments are held accountable through cyberspace even after making domestic political dissent impossible and dangerous for real-world protesters.
Young, politically minded activists coming of age in today’s computerized world will find less and less trouble circumventing government censors through rudimentary routers and proxy systems. This offers the possibility of a world where cyberspace falls beyond the reach of all but the most repressive governments, creating a strong incentive for governments to keep access to cyberspace open.
Synthetic worlds also offer tangible benefits to nations and organizations that become early adopters of future synthetic world technology. A human rights nonprofit with an office in Second Life could receive more accurate information from affected groups that out of necessity can’t be seen physically conspiring with the foreign nonprofit. Conflict regions where governments often restrict foreign nonprofit activity will open as residents circumvent physical borders through cyberspace.
Several real-world human rights groups have already built a presence in Second Life. The Four Bridges Project, an alliance of nonprofits that includes Amnesty International, Imagine Network, Peace Train, and others, manages a large virtual island devoted to spreading human rights awareness.
Large buildings filled with information on human rights abuses, international studies, and awareness podcasts scatter the island. Many of Amnesty International’s reports on human rights are accessible through Second Life’s in-game browser without ever leaving the synthetic world.
Synthetic worlds can be a strong and sustained force for good. Even now, months after Iran’s suspect election, a million digital protestors unafraid of Iran’s notorious prisons defy the security patrols on the streets of Tehran and continue to speak out for justice.