I was flying 600 meters above a region called Janni when my submarine suddenly burst into flames. I’d taken to the sky because the area around my previously remote water compound has been invaded by an army of Brazilians and a small band of nudist Wiccans. Somehow they’ve managed to completely block all water routes. Fortunately my submarine flies. Or it used to anyway.
By now you know that Second Life is a place where anything can happen. What you may not know is that it’s also a place where nothing ever really works the way it’s supposed to. Ask any long-time resident and they’ll tell you that Second Life is broken. For the last couple of weeks group chat — the primary tool that political campaigns use to organize in-world — has been busted. While Second Life clearly has tremendous potential for political mobilization, right now it’s looking like a fragile toy.
This is all just a long way of saying that there hasn’t been much substantial activity among the various presidential campaigns in Second Life since my last post. In the past couple of weeks Mike Gravel supporters created a new group and Ron Paul supporters opened a new headquarters — the later is significant because Paul is the first Republican candidate to have a presence in Second Life, the former is significant because Gravel claims to have been hiding under a rock for the last ten years.
Meanwhile the first Republican and Democratic Party debates have come and gone in real life with next to no acknowledgment by the campaigns in Second Life. It’s curious, really. If you’re going to use the medium to campaign, well, get out there and do it.
My guess is that the in-world campaigns are playing it safe, trying to avoid the early missteps that received negative publicity in hopes that they’ll get the official stamp of approval from their respective candidates. In the meantime, this assignment has become damn boring (except for the nudist Wiccans).
What we’re seeing in this first phase of the campaign is the work of a zealous group of volunteers who have no connection to the official campaigns. What the volunteers of the various Second Life campaigns are producing is part of a larger movement being called “voter generated content“. Or, if you prefer, grassroots politics in the 21st century.
So far the campaigns are taking a (mostly) hands-off approach and are allowing voters to express themselves and use the candidates names without interference. In a recent CBS News story, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki describe the campaigns approach to dealing with modern political activism on the Internet:
“We’re running a different kind of campaign here. There are thousands of people, more, using the Internet to network and spread the campaign and people doing it on the ground, too, and we’re excited about these efforts,” Psaki said. The only regulation the campaign will try to put on using Obama logos or likeness would be if “anything comes across our plates that’s offensive or not aligned with what our priorities are, we’ll deal with that on a case-by case basis.”
So what happens when voter generated content clashes with the campaign’s priorities? We’ve already seen one upstart video make waves on YouTube. While there was a brief effort to link the Vote Different video to the Obama campaign, it’s become pretty clear that it was produced by a lone filmmaker acting independently of the campaign.
The thought that individuals now have the same access to media production and distribution that was previously reserved for only the most well funded candidates is a concept that has to scare the party machines like nothing else they’ve ever seen. The old-line partisan hacks must be shaking in their boots right now — assuming they even realize what’s about to happen.
In this first general election cycle of the YouTube era voters are likely to use those tools to support candidates of the two major parties. It’s only a matter of time before voters realize they can use those same tools to support any candidate — and then we may start seeing some real change.
I doubt the two party system is ready for the long tail of politics.
Over the next 18 months we will undoubtedly witness all sorts of interesting campaign activity taking place throughout the social web. As Psaki of the Obama campaign indicated, the candidates will continue to take a hands-off approach. At least until the campaigns decide that any given platform is too important to leave in the hands of political amateurs. Which is exactly what happened last week when the Obama campaign took control of the Barack Obama user profile on MySpace.
While it would seem apparent that the Obama campaign should have control over the Barack Obama profile on MySpace, the process of gaining control over that profile resulted in rare negative publicity for the campaign.
Obama’s MySpace page was originally launched by Joe Anthony, an ad hoc Obama Supporter, back in 2004. Anthony’s efforts were a classic example of voter generated content. Obama had not yet declared his candidacy, but an excited supporter took the opportunity to setup a public profile for the campaign anyway. Over the course of three years Anothony watched the profile attract in excess of 100,000 friends.
And that’s where the trouble began. The Obama campaign began to see MySpace as a strategic tool for reaching younger voters. They were uncomfortable leaving it under the control of a volunteer who had no real affiliation with the candidate. While the campaign tried to recruit Anthony, the terms offered didn’t meet with his long-term career objectives. The negotiations ended badly, and Anthony ultimately lost control of the page he’d spent months working on.
“I have no background in politics other than this page,” he said. He simply wanted to change the world.
This is exactly what the campaigns are looking for. An enthusiasm for the candidate combined with enough knowledge of new media to generate critical momentum. The problem is, the same voters who are so enthusiastic in the beginning are not always the ones who see the project through to completion, as Joe Anthony found out.
Something tells me we might see similar struggles in Second Life if the virtual world doesn’t implode before reaching critical mass. For the time being the campaigns don’t see Second Life as being important enough to merit an official designation — although I would expect at least one of the major candidates to provide some form of approval, if for no other reason so they could issue the obligatory “First In Second Life” press release.
Curiously, the Barack Obama headquarters in Second Life disappeared several weeks ago. The building vanished overnight and in it’s place were signs indicating the headquarters would be moving to a new location. That was weeks ago and there’s still no new headquarters, or any indication of when the new site might be launched. In the time since, even the signs indicating that a new HQ was in the works have been taken down. Is the disappearance of the Obama campaign HQ somehow linked with the struggle to gain control over the Obama’s MySpace page?
For the record, the Obama building isn’t the first Second Life campaign headquarters to simply vanish. The original Hillary Clinton headquarters disappeared in early April. It’s still not clear whether the deletion was the intentional work of a disgruntled volunteer or the result of a technical glitch. It’s surprisingly easy to set the Second Life land permissions in a way that causes anything built on a piece of land to be returned to the owner.
If land permissions are to blame for the Clinton incident, then we’re starting to see a trend. The defacement of the Edwards campaign headquarters could have been avoided with proper land permissions. All the more reason why candidates who are serious about campaigning in Second Life will ultimately want to employ professionals to build and manage the in-world campaigns. As soon as we start seeing larger numbers in the candidates groups that’s probably what will happen. In the meantime the Second Life campaigns are more like virtual fan clubs for politicians than official political machines.
Over the next couple of weeks I plan on taking a closer look at these fan clubs and I’ll have the full report here on Medialoper — provided I have adequate funds to complete my assignment. As I mentioned last time I spent my initial advance on a flying submarine (now deceased). I’m flat broke and if Lopy doesn’t wire more money soon it looks like I’ll have to take up camping to earn a few extra Linden. As luck would have it the nearest camp site is the Wiccan nudist beach.
Update: 5/16/07 — Two links have been removed from this post. The first was to another blogger’s account of the disappearance of the Obama campaign headquarters. I had originally linked to the post because it mirrored my own experience of teleporting to the location only to find that the building was no longer there. The second link was to a post with background information describing the deletion of the original Clinton campaign HQ. I had hoped to talk to the blogger in question prior to posting my story in order to get some more information on the occurrence, but was unable to. The paragraph regarding the deletion of the Clinton HQ was in no way intended to doubt the accuracy of that bloggers report of the incident.