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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Get a (Second) Life

If a protest takes place in an Internet-based virtual-reality world, does it resonate in real life? If you're talking about a recent protest by Second Life users regarding the opening of a virtual Front National office, then the answer is yes.

I'm not sure whether to marvel at how quickly Second Life has evolved and at its diverse and rich virtual experience or to stare in disbelief at the entire spectacle. Front National is a far-right political party in France that many of its critics consider fascist, intolerant and racist. As CNET and many others have reported, users who opposed the party's arrival in Second Life's virtual world staged a protest recently that featured machine guns, rainbow explosions and pig-shaped grenades. At least one blogger "attended" the protest and shared his experience:

The first night I arrived at the protest against the Second Life headquarters of Front National, the far right French political party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was ringed on all sides by protesters with signs to wave and statements to distribute. By the second night I came (this was late last week), the conflict had become more literal, for many Residents had armed themselves. Multi-colored explosions and constant gunfire shredded the air of Porcupine, a shopping island which FN had inexplicably picked for the site of their virtual world HQ, in December...

It didn't begin like this. After Front National took root, at least two groups, antiFN and SL Left Unity, rose to oppose them. They had placards and T-shirts, and billboards on the land of sympathetic neighbors, all making plain that FN's arrival in Second Life was distinctly unwelcome. For their part, Front National members-- mostly muscular young men dressed in white T-shirts with the FN logo-- stood inside their headquarters, impassively watching the outrage build outside.

But the SL Left Unity group had press releases of their own. "We have acquired land next to the FN office," one announced, "and will be manning a protest there until FN go or are ejected. Wherever fascists are we will ensure they get no peace to corrupt and lie to decent people."
I'm amazed at the level of importance Second Life has earned in the lives of many people. I briefly signed up and explored the virtual world a few weeks ago. While I found it intriguing, I quickly realized that the giant social experiment was demanding a choice: Either immerse myself to my eyeballs in its world, or flee back to reality. In other words, to have a Second Life, I would have to risk sacrificing my first one. How in the world do users who are this consumed with Second Life have time to do anything else? (Maybe others are asking the same of we bloggers right now, and they might have a point.)

On the other hand, maybe there could be some value out of transferring our differences from the real world into cyberspace. How much of an improvement would it be to shift tragic and life-crushing hostilities such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a world such as this? I know there isn't a practical way to eliminate real-world consequences by relocating them to a land generated by bits of code, but I sure wish there were. I wish we could move the unyielding and hateful fundamentalists on both sides who refuse to look for compromise on this and so many other issues onto a Second Life island and allow the people who suffer in their midst in reality to begin rebuilding their communities and their lives.

We can build a fake world to fill our time, but we can't escape the pain and turmoil of the one we were born in. Unless we address the problems we face, they will follow us into cyberspace and anywhere else we go.

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