Virtual world voters shunned

Back in 2008, during the US Presidential Election primaries, all the Democratic hopefuls had a Second Life presence of one sort or another; Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had virtual campaign headquarters, and there were several “Obama for President” resident groups. The GOP were slower to embrace SL, though eventually a couple of Sarah Palin avatars made an appearance.

I had expected to see the current UK elections stir some interest on the grid, but all I could find was this rather disappointing “Election HQ“, which consists of nothing more than a few balloons and a malfunctioning noticeboard outside an empty store:

There is a “Conservative Party Supporters” group, with a grand total of 3 members, led by one “ToryBoy Horatio”. Potential members are greeted with a jolly “Well hello fellow Etonians and the rest of you rabble”, which makes me think that this might just possibly be a parody rather than a serious vote-gathering enterprise.

It’s said that about 7.5% of SL residents live in the UK, which, out of active users, would amount to around 75,000 potential voters, a not inconsiderable constituency. The fact that none of the major parties has felt it necessary to establish a Second Life presence may say something about the how the platform’s profile has declined in the last two years.

Or perhaps they are are just wary of meeting the same fate as John Edward’s virtual campaign (as described in Peter Ludlow’s brief history of griefing in the metaverse).

Taxing issues

My prediction that the election campaign would be “exciting” was perhaps a little optimistic, but the focus has been on the economy, as I was expecting. The debate so far has centred around the issue of National Insurance levels, though this clearly is just a proxy for  the real divide between the main parties, which is on the level of short-term cuts in public sector spending that are needed to stabilise the economy. My sense is that Labour are doing better than expected in the early exchanges, since they seem to have more credible numbers, whereas the Tories are rather unbelievably claiming that the £6 billion they need to cover the cost of not raising NI can be found through “efficiency savings” that won’t have any detrimental effect on services.

There have been comparisons drawn with Ireland, where the government have severely reined in public spending, thus reducing their deficit in absolute terms, but with the result that the economy has shrunk even faster, meaning that the deficit is now actually bigger as a proportion of GDP. This would seem to suggest that the Labour strategy of (relatively) gentle cuts in UK government spending is the right one, or the least wrong one at any rate.

However Labour’s reputation for general economic competence has obviously been undermined by the fact that they led us into the recession in the first place, and the voters’ desire for change may be enough to carry the Tories into power. There have been some signs that Labour may try to play up the class element of the debate, which I would have thought would be the way to go – “No Cuts, Tax the Rich” would be a good slogan – but they have just promised not to increase income tax, while leaving the door open for a hike in the regressive VAT, so I don’t hold out much hope of a sharp shift to the left.

It will be interesting to see the effect that the televised leaders’ debate this week has on the polls. I like to think that the UK electorate is completely focussed on the issues, and is too smart to be distracted by presidential-style personality contests, but I expect I will be proved wrong about that.

Finally, the most amusing story of the campaign so far is that of Stuart MacLennan, the (now ex-) Labour candidate for Moray in north-east Scotland, who was forced to resign after the papers reported that he had made various offensive comments about political opponents and his prospective constituents on Twitter. I would have thought that the first thing to do when standing for public office would be to delete your Twitter feed, since the last thing you want the voters to know is what is really on your mind.

Never Mind the Bollocks

Another week, another of the icons of my generation’s popular culture has passed away. This time we’re mourning Malcolm McLaren, self-mythologising father of British punk.

I’m sure that there will be plenty of obituaries published over the next few days, so I’ll just link to McLaren’s most famous protégés in their finest hour.

There can be only one

One-time internet pace-setters AOL have announced that they are getting out of the social networking business. They have put Bebo, which they paid $185 million for just two years ago, on the market, though no one seems to think there will be any takers. If no sale goes through the service may be closed down as soon as the end of May.

The management at AOL have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent years – the Time-Warner/AOL merger is often cited as the worst deal of all time – but one has to feel a bit sorry for them, as back in 2008 it wasn’t clear that Facebook would come to dominate the market to the degree it has. In 2007 people were still writing papers identifying FB as a service for the upper classes, and youth-orientated Bebo must have looked like a reasonable bet.

I think the demise of Bebo is further evidence that, for Web 2.0, value lies in the network, not in any particular interface. Underlying the story is a much older lesson though; in a maturing consumer market the middle ground tends to disappear, and to survive an enterprise must either be dominatingly large, or serve a specialised niche. If I were running Second Life I’d be tempted to follow the latter strategy.

Electoral outlook

As widely predicted Gordon Brown has set May 6th as the date for the UK General Election. The campaign promises to be the most exciting since Labour came to power in 1997, since there are significant policy differences between the main parties, and it is far from clear who is going to win.

I expect that the main issue will be the economy, specifically the speed and severity with which public spending needs to be cut to bring the deficit under control, though all the mainstream parties are agreed that cuts must be made. As a public sector worker I have a keen interest in this of course, but even those not directly employed by the government will feel the negative effect of reduced services.

While our sorry excuse for a democracy does entitle me to cast a ballot, I, like a large part of the population, live in a constituency that is not going to be closely contested, so my vote doesn’t really count for anything. As with the US elections a couple of years ago I will be reduced to blogging ineffectually from the sidelines.

I, and my like-minded comrades, may be unable to greatly influence the outcome of the wider election, but we should be able to use the increased interest in politics generated by the poll to do some community organising, with a view to getting ready to oppose whatever cuts may be on the way. The problem is that the electoral process, while theoretically an expression of the population’s ability to control the executive, is in practice a demonstration of the illusionary nature of that power, and this tends to have a demotivating effect.

Still, these are interesting times. The financial crisis has caused a lot of people to question the nature of our economic system, in a way that hasn’t really happened since the end of the Cold War, which opens a door for progressive politics. The left may not make a huge impression in this election, but we can plant some seeds for the future.

Second Life demographics – a brief review

We received a rare response to our last piece, from T Linden himself no less. True, T had descended from Olympus to tell us that we were wrong about everything, but still, some attention is better than no attention.

Anyway, one part of his comment caught my eye – “Second Life is a diverse community”. This is a sentiment that is often heard around the SL blogosphere, but how true is it? I did a quick review of the literature to see if there was much evidence one way or the other.

There are three metaverse-related publications that I read regularly (or semi-regularly) – the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and Game Studies – but I couldn’t remember ever having seen a quantatative study focussing specifically on the demography of SL in these journals, and sure enough nothing turned up when I searched their archives. A further search through the biomedical, psychological and sociological databases that I have access to drew a similar blank. The closest thing to a scientific study on this topic that I could find is this piece of work presented back in 2007 on the SL Survey blog. The Second Life wiki does have a page entitled “Demographic Studies”, but this is marketing data rather than academic work.

There are quite a few studies that look at other MMORPGs; three that are often cited are Griffiths et al (2003) Breaking the Stereotype: The Case of Online Gaming, Griffiths et al (2004) Demographic Factors and Playing Variables in Online Computer Gaming and Yee (2006) The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online Graphical Environments. Yee’s study is particularly impressive, drawing on data gathered from over 30,000 players over 3 years in his epic Daedalus Project.

The earliest qualitative work that I’m aware of in this area are the case descriptions of MUD users (who were mostly also psychotherapy clients) in Sherry Turkle‘s 1995 book Life on the Screen. A work focussing more on interpersonal and group dynamics is John Suler‘s 1996 book The Psychology of Cyberspace, particularly the section covering his in-depth study of the early graphical MUD The Palace.

More recent qualitative studies include Yee (2006) Motivations for Play in Online Games, Bessière et al (2007) The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft, Hussain and Griffiths (2009) The Attitudes, Feelings, and Experiences of Online Gamers: A Qualitative Analysis and Williams et al (2010) Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs. Good qualitative work dealing specifically with Second Life is harder to find; in fact I couldn’t find any at all. [Update: There is a good qualitative study; I had unaccountably overlooked Coming of Age in Second Life by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff.]

This brief review is not terribly systematic and certainly not comprehensive, but, having read these papers, as well as some of their references and citations, and a load of other work that I haven’t mentioned because it seemed only tangentially relevant, I feel I can hazard a qualified opinion on the question of diversity within the Second Life population, the qualification being that my impression is an overview based on a general familiarity with the source material rather than a rigorously evidence-based analysis.

SL residents may well vary along several dimensions, such as age, gender, nationality, education level and occupational status, but I suspect that a cluster analysis would resolve this seeming heterogenicity into a much smaller number of discrete groupings. Furthermore, I think that below this apparent diversity there may well be a large degree of psychological similarity; in other words, although residents may be different in terms of the demographic categories listed above, when one looks at their internal mental functioning they may have much more in common than one might expect.

If this last proposition is true then it should be possible to draw up a psychological profile of a typical Second Life resident, and to devise some sort of scale that would measure how likely it is that a subject would take to the SL experience, then see if that correlated with any particular personality types. I’m not aware that anyone has published any work like this, though I may well have overlooked it.

I’d be surprised if Linden Lab didn’t have a psychologist on their staff researching this kind of thing, since it would be very useful for marketing purposes, but I guess they wouldn’t want to put it into the public domain.

I have some ideas about the psychological features that one might expect to find in an average Second Life resident, and I’ll expand on these in a future post.