Estimated reading time: 6 minutes —
Like a half-blind newborn, we begin our Second Life rather aimlessly bumping into things as we learn to walk, learn to speak, and learn to interact with these seemingly fully formed people around us. Slowly but surely, we begin to realise why (at least for the past couple of years) we have the word Resident appended to our chosen first names. Even then however, I’m sure the concept of Citizenship is very far from most of our minds.
What began as a comment to Bathsheba’s thought-provoking post on Digital Citizenship became so lengthy and tangential, that I instead decided to write it as its own post. If you can stick with me on this one, you’ll see why.
First, thank you for sharing your perspective Bathsheba, and asking us to think about these challenging questions!
What is the process of becoming not only a citizen of Second Life or of World of Warcraft, but a good one? What virtues and values must one cultivate, and how can those values and virtues of your digital citizenship collide and correspond with our physical world citizenships?
I too have pondered similar questions to the ones she poses, in terms of what it means to myself, and to others in Second Life. Be warned, I have until only recently done the vast majority of my in world thinking while spinning half-naked around a dance pole in less than reputable strip bars, which should make you wonder how fringe-tinged my experiences actually are… But anyway, we can’t always control when, and where, our minds wander, can we?
How does one become a Good Digital Citizen in Second Life?
I think it often escapes people that they are living with each other in virtual places, as opposed to playing with them. I don’t blame them. One turns on a computer, launches an application, enters a username and password, and then proceeds to interact with others through a screen, keyboard, and sometimes a microphone and headset.
From the very moment a new avatar is born into this world, it looks like a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing game (MMORPG), sounds like a MMORPG, and feels like a MMORPG. Isn’t it just a MMORPG? Clearly, it is much more than this.
How? Might it be that Residency, and its younger albeit more mature sibling Citizenship, might be two of the more important concepts that distinguishes a game from a world?
Bathsheba makes a distinction between being a citizen and being a good citizen, and I couldn’t agree more that there is a significant difference. I think that even before that however, there might be a distinction between being a Resident and a Citizen.
I know that by putting a capital C before it and italicizing it, I might be taking the word citizen perhaps more literally than it was first implied in Bathsheba’s post, especially when coupled with the word Digital. However, I think there is use in exploring the depths implied in the language we use, as it has such a powerful effect on our ability to attach meaning to concepts.
Further, I’m not proposing that one can truly become a Citizen (in the political sense) in a virtual space in the same way one might be a Citizen of one’s country. However, as the borders blur between states or residency and states of being, I think these are worthwhile questions to consider.
Digital Citizens vs Digital Residents in Second Life
Citizenship is distinct to Residency. In a sense, because we are all de-facto ‘born’ into our worlds from the moment we open an account and first rez inworld – one might consider oneself as an automatic citizen with the “right of soil”. Both technically and figuratively, I do not believe that is the case.
First, because we don’t have ‘parents’ in the virtual space (outside of role play scenarios where one effectively ‘adopts’ a parent inworld), this grandfathered approach to becoming a Digital Citizen doesn’t sit well with me.
Second, having recently begun investigating Second Life Weddings, I have also confirmed that marriage and partnerships carry no rights to Residents beyond the ones given to vanity license plates. So there goes Citizenship by marriage.
Finally, the only viable route that one might become a Citizen in Second Life is by the process of social (as distinct from legal) naturalisation.
As an expat in RL, I have had to put in significant share of my life time, a considerable amount of money, and more than small degree of effort in passing knowledge tests, towards becoming a Citizen of the United Kingdom. Even after 5 years of living here, despite having ancestral roots, I’m still considered a mere Resident in the eyes of the law.
I understand and accept this because, again, I believe that a true Citizen, with their inherent bundle of rights and duties, is distinct from someone who resides in a place for an undefined period.
How might the virtual world change if we were to apply that similar distinction to Second Life? And more pointedly, would it be better?
What is Citizenship, anyway?
Citizenship, virtual or otherwise, is a complex balance between civic duties and rights. Theodore Roosevelt wrote:
The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight.
Before one can understand how to become a Citizen, we would wise to define what a Citizen actually is. Looking at what a Citizen is in the non-virtual space may be helpful:
I think that anyone who has lived in Second Life long enough to give these concepts any thought would agree that residents mainly have a Liberal-individualist conception to Citizenship, if one exists at all. Where it does exist, this concept of citizenship is shown by the following observations:
We are economic beings.
As far as Linden Lab (the business behind the creation and maintenance of Second Life), is concerned, residents exist in Second Life to have an economic impact by owning or renting virtual land.
Apart from selling Premium Memberships (which as far as the economics go might as well be a wash), this is the business model behind our existence in this virtual world. Barring the charitable contributions of the pure hobbyists, land owners and renters must generate products and services to pay rent or tier. This generates an unlimited amount of opportunities to be economically active in Second Life, whether one imports funds into it, or generates funds within it to buy and sell more products and services.
Our politics are impotent.
Clearly, the only political power that can be effectively wielded over Second Life as a whole must be linked to economics. We can, in the end, vote with our feet. Doing so on mass would certainly influence policy because it would have an economic impact. Short of that, whilst we can complain all we like, we’re at the mercy of what is effectively a benevolent dictatorship.
Within our own sub-nations (our regions and parcels) however, there is no lack of political structure ranging from the my-way-or-the-highway approach to living with each other, to highly complex social organisations with their accompanying rules and processes. However, I would argue people involved at the centre of simple or complext political structures within Second Life are the exception, and that only a very small percentage of residents are active politically.
We are sovereign, autonomous and self-interested beings.
Without a doubt, and arguably more so than any other virtual environment, we shape our virtual destinies with every decision we make.
We pay taxes (if we own land), we obey the law, we engage in business, and we will rise up to defend (the little piece of) our nation if necessary.
Apart from land tax (tier), we don’t pay sales or income tax in Second Life, although I personally believe services might be considerably better if we did.
Nearly all of us engage in business activities, as either buyers or sellers.
Given that any threats to the “nation” are more from within than without, I believe that we do defend our sub-nations and have the powers to do so.
Are we in the pursuit of enlightened self-interest? I suppose it depends on what you call “enlightened”. Nevertheless, self-interest, whether social, emotional, psychological or economic, may be in fact be the defining characteristic of nearly everyone that resides in Second Life.
We need to become barn raisers.
Does the liberal-individualist conception of Citizenship lead to a degeneration of public spirit in Second Life? Might good citizenship be encouraged by public spirit? The type of public spirit that can be seen in barn raising, even today?
Yes, I believe it can. Similarly, I believe that more visible and participative manifestations of public spirit would make for a considerably better virtual world.
One might see the odd glimpses of it here and there (SL9B, Relay for Life, Culture Shock and the Ashraya Project are a few examples) of genuine and cooperative public spirit, but in my experience, these are the exceptional events that prove the rule. They are, however, all examples of good citizenship.
I have very few facts to back this up, but I would predict that the majority of Second Life Residents enjoy very little public spirit during their time here; instead living lives within relatively tiny social circles, or even in quiet solitude, and lacking much purpose beyond the self-gratification.
I believe that this lack of public spirit may be one of the biggest challenges to developing a sense of civic duty, and therefore good citizenship, in most Second Life residents.
For example, if it were to exist in RL, it would be a snap to save the Hosoi Cluster, given our abilities to raise awareness over the internet, the collective resources at our disposal and the very real precedents in preserving similar structures in RL. In Second Life, however, its future is in serious doubt. And how many times have we seen this happen time and time again? It’s enough to make you think that people just don’t really care, isn’t it? Enter good citizenship, and we’d find a way.
We could go a lot further towards participating in the public sphere. We could do much more to “channel legitimate frustrations and grievances and bring people to focus on matters of common concern”.
We are all aware of the rewarding power of contribution, even beyond the very real benefits of building and belonging to a community, and how it may be one of the most important human needs. Just imagine the joint and synergistic effects of thousands (or even millions) of good citizens aiming to give to something beyond ourselves, whether to help those in world or out of it?
Clearly, we can at least expect to be good social citizens of Second Life (as it is now politically conceived) as opposed to merely Residents? I am confident that we’d enjoy a better virtual world as a result.