Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Back to Building a Country

The most famous of all of Philip Linden's pronouncements about Second Life is: "I'm not making a game, I'm building a country." This citation, which has been endlessly commented upon, in fact contains two separate parts.

The first part of the statement says that Second Life is not a game. While most 3D virtual worlds are combat games, Second Life is a simulation of the type of day-to-day activities we carry out in the real world, such as producing objects, selling them and socializing. There seems to be general acceptance of the truth of this statement that Second Life is not a game, at least not in the usual sense.

The second part of the statement says that Linden Lab is building a country. How this is to be interpreted - or whether it is valid at all - seems to be at the center of many of the past and present conflicts within the Second Life community.

Being new to Second Life, and ignorant of its history, I set out to review the evolution of this question of "building a country." Using Google I found so much relevant information on the blogs and forums that it made my head spin. But curiously I was unable to discover precisely when, where and why Philip Rosedale made the original declaration.

When did Philip Linden say he was "building a country"?

Gwyneth Llewelyn in a post from November 2005 says that Philip had repeatedly made the famous statement "early last year," which seems to mean early 2004, although with this wording she might have meant early 2005.

Prokofy Neva in a post from July 2005, mentioning Philip's vision of our "world-that's-not-supposed-to-be-a-game," refers back to the SL Herald's June 2004 interview with Philip Linden . In that interview Urizenus Sklar said to Philip: "It sounds like you aren't thinking of SL as a game at all but rather as a platform for different kinds of collaborative projects." But during the interview neither Urizenus nor Philip mentioned the word "country," which would be odd if Philip had already made the famous statement. This might suggest that the quote dates from early 2005, instead of early 2004. So the available evidence leaves the question open. It is strange that Google fails to turn up any precise information on the date and the circumstances of Philip's original declaration.

Robin Linden inspires Ulrika Zugzwang's Neualtenburg Democracy

However, in that June 2004 interview Philip did state the following:

"Also, I think that various structures for governance, etc can be tested here quite well. I think it is possible that as SL grows, we will learn better how future societies might best be governed."

Philip was therefore definitely thinking of "structures for governance" in June 2004. This obviously has something to do with the question that Robin Linden put to residents a short while later. In August 2004, when Ulrika Zugzwang and Darwin Appleby were competing for the title of "President of Second Life" in a mock forum-based election, Robin Linden asked publically if residents were interested in self-rule. The idea appealed to Ulrika Zugzwang, who promptly created the Social Democratic Faction (SDF), Second Life's first political organization. But the suggestion caused a near revolt among the general populace. As Hamlet Linden reported in a post from August 18, 2004 called Missing Conventions, the Second Life forums were flooded with debates on the desirability of representative self-governance in the world. While Ulrika did have supporters, the overwhelming response was opposition to any in-world government. A new group called Anarchism, which quickly gained over 240 members, stated in its charter: "We believe in maintaining freedom from all forms of resident governance … and a promotion of individual rights. Let those that wish to be governed, achieve this through Group membership-- we will walk our own path."

Hamlet Linden's post from that time gives links to Robin Linden's original statement and to some of the forum discussion threads. Unfortunately, all of the forum archives from this period now seem inaccessible, even to residents who are logged onto the forums.

Gwyneth Llewelyn shortly thereafter presented her analysis of the resident reactions. Gwyneth reported that an overwhelming majority of residents conceived of SL to be a sort of Utopia where they could "be whatever they want to be, without any interference," and where "no one has power over anyone else." In general, residents refused to trust their fellow Second Lifers with the exercise any kind of "authority" (they also tended to distrust all real-world governments), and preferred to let the Lindens manage their Utopia for them, which most felt the Lindens did pretty well most of the time.

So the idea of systematic in-world self-government was rejected by the residents. Ulrika Zugzwang however went ahead and initiated a small experiment in local democracy, her Neualtenburg Projekt (described in my Second Life Loudmouths post). On November 15th 2004 Ulrika opened a forum thread announcing "Government comes to SL." The forum thread, which is still accessible, begins as follows:

"On Sunday the 14th of November 2004 the city of Neualtenburg instituted a provisional government based on its first-draft constitution. That's right. Government has come to SL. It's time to dust off that 'no government' T-Shirt."

Ulrika's small local Neualternburg democracy took root and grew, surviving a painful transition about a year and a half later, which lead to the departure of Ulrika herself. Relocated and renamed Neufreistadt, and more recently expanded into the Confederation of Democratic Sims, this small democracy has hosted a succession of competing projects concerning in-world government. But let us return to the chronology.

Aimee Weber's Two-Axis Graph

More than a year after Robin Linden had raised the big self-government question, by late 2005 political discussion among Second Lifers had advanced to the point where Aimee Weber could produce her useful two-axis graph, charting the political tendencies that she observed in Second Life at that time. One axis ran from "SL is a country" to "SL is a company," and the other ran from "Less intervention" to "More intervention." Aimee Weber identified four separate parties, which she avoided distributing precisely to the four corners of her graph, the better to chart their relative positions. But for easy comprehension it will help to simplify the picture by placing one party in each of the four corners of the square, as follows:

* See SL as a company, want less intervention: Platform Party.
Believe that Second Life is a software platform privately owned by Linden Lab. The Lindens should intervene only to maintain order, not to influence economic conditions.

* See SL as a country, want less intervention: Freedom Party. Believe that Second Life should be a country, but with as little government as possible. The Lindens should stick to writing software and leave the community to us.

* See SL as a company, want more intervention: Gamer Party.
Believe that Linden Lab is a gaming company. The Lindens should exert any influence needed to make SL fun for all users, not just the high achievers.

* See SL as a country, want more intervention: Nation Party.
Believe that Second Life is a country and that Linden Lab is its government. The Lindens should intervene both to maintain order and to favor democratic economic conditions.

This four way split can be further simplified by collapsing it into a simple bipolar conflict. On one side, the "platformers" hold that SL just provides the platform, and should intervene as little as possible in what residents do with it. On the other side, those we might call "interventionists" hold that Linden Lab should intervene to regulate the in-world society.

Aimee Weber named Lordfly Digeridoo and Cubey Terra as example members of the Platform Party, and Ulrika Zugzwang and Prokofy Neva as example members of the Nation Party. Prokofy Neva had made a name for himself in mid-2005 with his denunciation of the Feted Inner Core, by which he denoted the Linden practice of giving business to an insider-group of favored content creators. Prokofy, who calls the platformers "tekki libertarians," has repeatedly called for Linden intervention to foster fair economic competition, to fight against griefing, to ban ad-farms and so on.

Within the Nation Party

In late 2005 the "interventionists" fought a losing battle to keep the telehubs, which were nodes which teleporting avatars were forced to land in. Linden Lab had introduced the telehubs in October 2003 under Version 1.1 of Second Life, as a constraint which aimed to structure the landscape (see my post about Funny Money for more details). Prokofy Neva thought that removing the telehubs would bring the Closing of an Open Society, and Gwyneth Llewelyn likewise suggested it would bring the demise of the It’s a Country epoch. Everyone soon got used to Point to Point Teleporting, but urban planning - or rather the lack thereof - remains a critical issue in Second Life.

In early 2006 the Neualtenberg democracy was racked by a conflict between founder Ulrika Zugzwang and a new majority. The upstarts accused Ulrika of being a cyber-terrorist, because she deleted Neualtenberg buildings which she now claimed to be her own intellectual property. The two groups split, the new democratically-elected majority creating Neufreistadt, and Ulrika going her own way, first to Port Neualtenberg, and then leaving Second Life for good.

Around the same time, Prokofy Neva published a curious post entitled King Philip Abandons Throne; Betrays Motherland, reacting to statements made by Philip Linden in a podcast. Prokofy begins his defense of the "Country" interpretation of Second Life by invoking the support that he might have expected to receive – but didn't - from the crowd in Neualtenberg:

"If Justice Soothsayer were a Righteous Man, he would issue a warrant for the arrest of this failed King on charges of treason; yet Democracy Island is silent, its traffic fallen to the lower double digits."

Prokofy seems to have been upset because Philip suggested that the laws that will regulate Second Life will be those of the various groups in Second Life, rather than uniform rules clearly established by the Lindens. Philip notably said in the podcast that Second Life would probably become:

"A place with a lot of different countries in it. The web kind of identity but mostly a big set of differing communities. Not like a country but a place that has its own laws. …its character and its law will be driven more by the groups that are in it than we as the creator of the country could do."

Note that Philip explicitly said "not like a country." Prokofy, in top form, concludes: "The King, the Sovereign, abdicates his responsibility, ceding all power to … various FlashMobs, SmartMobs, and just plain LynchMobs."

Enter the Lawyers

Shortly thereafter, the legal experts come upon the stage. There had already been, in late 2005, a short-lived legal experiment called the Second Life Supreme Court (SLSC). An article in the SL Herald described this as follows:

"The idea is that residents may take disputes to the court to be settled according to The SL Community Standards, Ralph Koster's 'Declaration of the Rights of Avatars', and general 'real world' principles of law and dispute resolution (e.g. international law, trademark law, international decisions that involve gaming, etc). What we especially like is that residents may also bring suit against Lindens!"

This proposal, which fizzled, was lightweight compared to Ashcroft Burnham's ambitious scheme. Ashcroft was part of a group that wanted to enhance the legal system of the Neufreistadt democracy. But Neufreistadt being a tiny backwater, Ashcroft soon set his sights wider. In November 2006 he started a thread called Bringing law to SecondLife. (Why is this thread found on Second Life Home Page, rather than on the official SL forum?) Ashcroft's thread begins:

"Last Saturday, in a quaint little medieval Bavarian-themed island sim somewhere in the West of the grid, a group of people met to discuss, and then agreed upon, a proposal. It had been discussed and debated for the previous two months, and, although had caused some controversy, had garnered considerable support. It was a proposal which many hope will revolutionise parts of SecondLife, and bring law to a hitherto unruly world. The place was Neufreistadt (formally Neualtenburg), and the proposal was the creation of a professional judiciary, and, separately, a means of bringing that judiciary to the wider echelons of SecondLife."

This proposal immediately drew volleys of hostile criticism, worsened by the maladroit presentation of the project. For example, the original post sounds like a job announcement: "We will soon be accepting applications from landowners, or those who wish to become landowners, on the mainland and other private islands to join our Confederation." And an extract from the detailed proposal document (for which the link is unfortunately broken) seems to suggest that landowners joining the group would be putting themselves under *someone else's* jurisdiction:

"People who hold land on the mainland would put their land under the jurisdiction of our government and then have title to that land granted to them by our government."

Ashcroft's proposal was thus vigorously rejected on the forum. The very first resident to add a comment to Ashcroft's thread was Prokofy Neva, who stated: "This is one landowner who will definitely not be joining this strong-armed fake 'democracy'".

Prokofy's position was that the Lindens should provide the missing Second Life government. Around that time, in late 2006, Prokofy wrote a SL Herald article called Resident Government?, reacting to an announcement on the Official Linden Blog, about a planned overhaul of the Abuse Report system. Prokofy noted that rather than adding staff to review the 2,000 abuse reports coming in per day, the Lindens proposed to devolve responsibility for policing the world and adjudicating disputes to residents themselves. Up until then, Linden Lab's main response to griefing had been to add to the menu of grief-fighting tools, such as refining bans by name or payment status, enabling individual responses such as prevention of object creation, muting of unwanted sights and ejection of trespassing avatars, and enabling avatars to hide their online status. Since these technical solutions proved insufficient to stop the griefing, the Lindens again brought up the idea of resident self-management, to deal with the problem. Prokofy noted: "Responses have predictably expressed fears of a resident government coming down the pike." Prokofy obviously shared these fears.

Resident government advanced in the form of Ashcroft Burnham's Local Government Study Group (LGSG). Prokofy Neva attended one of the early LGSG meetings, held on February 17, 2007 in Neufreistadt. Prokofy, who posted the transcript on his blog, noted that the meeting was run by Ashcroft, with the help of "his sidekick Michel Manen, about who I think we have to begin worrying, too." Poor Ashcroft tried to keep the meeting on track despite endless interruptions from a hostile day-old alt, an anarchist who jumped onto the meeting table to hold a demonstration, and a particle attack half-way through. Ashcroft explained that his project was to develop a set of "tools" that could be used by various in-world governments, which might have a range of different configurations. Everyone at the meeting was very concerned about democracy, many objecting to the suggestion that only land-owners in certain governments would be able to vote. As a lawyer Ashcroft brought up the question of how to enforce contracts, proposing that land could be taken away as a punishment for offenses. Prokofy stated that they should all start instead by asking the Lindens for a Magna Carta and a federal government which would establish rule of law throughout Second Life. Prokofy however seemed primarily interested in repeatedly accusing Ashcroft of proceeding in an undemocratic manner. This tried Ashcroft's patience to the point where he threatened to mute Prokofy. But when the meeting finally got to the discussion of naming officers for the group, no one present actually volunteered for the job, showing just how isolated Ashcroft actually was.

Most trying of all for Ashcroft's group was that they even failed to sell their ideas to their own Neufreistadt community. The majority of the elected local government found the proposed legal system entirely too complicated for the little Neufreistadt city-state, the active membership of which hardly surpassed more than a few dozen avatars. So Ashcroft packed his bags and founded instead the Metaverse Republic group, which is still trying to establish an independent virtual-world legal system "with real powers of enforcement originating in user-created tools, and a democratic parliament."

The Full Circle

Meanwhile, what kind of government were the Lindens providing? Up until mid-2007 the general tendency was a long-term evolution towards *less intervention* than they had exercised in the early days. This was well described by Gwyneth Llewelyn in her post From Welfare State To Laissez-Faire Capitalism, written in June 2007. When Gwyneth joined Second Life in 2004, Linden Lab had a policy of subsidizing content. After the introduction of the Linden Dollar and the establishment of the Second Life economy, to promote more content Linden Lab introduced weekly stipends, subsidies for hosting events, and "ratings" whereby stipends were increased for parcels that attracted crowds. These practices were eventually abused and had to be stopped, but they were symptomatic of what Gwyneth calls the "welfare state" approach to stimulating the economy. This approach remained feasible even in the period of the telehubs, when Second Life still felt like one large community.

But Second Life continued to grow, and the extraordinary growth in the number of sims and avatars lead to "balkanisation": the single community split into a multitude of different communities. The "welfare state" approach became infeasible, and Linden Lab abandoned most "regulatory" activities, backing away from any role of intervening in Second Life. Technical support was "tiered," giving only paying customers access to privileged support, which is expensive to maintain. An attempt was made to transfer responsibility for Abuse Reports to the "local authorities" (owners of private islands), who would deal with abuse locally, and to have adult content flagged by residents themselves.

As the population and economy developed, so did cases of fraud. In Second Life business had always been unregulated: there were no central regulatory authorities or abuse reports for fraud. With the growth of Second Life, the frequency and gravity of cases of fraud became alarming. The frequency and gravity of griefing attacks grew at the same pace. Just at the time when Linden Lab was withdrawing from "governmental" intervention, the need for such intervention was becoming more and more obvious. So eventually the balance began to swing back the other way, towards greater intervention.

The past year has seen a steady stream of new measures implemented by Linden Lab to regulate in-world activities. These different measures were recently summed up by Hamlet Au in a blog post entitled Lindens Limit Libertarianism. The first step was a ban on age play (avatars simulating pedophilic sex) and other "broadly offensive" behavior, in May 2007. Then in July 2007 gambling was prohibited (this was primarily for legal reasons, since Linden Lab is located in California, where such gambling is illegal). The biggest step in terms of economic intervention was the banning of unregulated banks in January of this year, in response to widespread fraud related to pyramid schemes with unsustainable interest rates. Then on February 8th of this year Jack Linden announced the creation of a Department of Public Works, aimed at "improving the experience for residents living on or visiting the Linden mainland." This constituted a public admission that the lack of zoning has created ugly urban blight throughout the continental land masses. And on February 13th, in response to an energetic campaign of protest on the part of Ordinal Malaprop, Prokofy Neva and others, the Lindens issued a measure banning flagrant ad farms.

Echoing Gwyneth's analysis, Hamlet proffers: "The Lindens are restructuring the mainland into a communitarian society it once was in 2003." And he predicts that more prohibitions will go into effect soon, such as measures concerning bot farms or camping chairs.

Linden Lab thus seems to have come full circle. After an early period of deliberate invention to stimulate and to structure the Second Life economy, in the spirit of Philip Linden's "building a country," they gradually pulled back from in-world intervention, as the number of avatars and sims exploded beyond their ability to cope. But the spectacular growth in Second Life was accompanied by a corresponding growth in fraud, griefing and other forms of abuse. So Linden Lab has been obliged to resuscitate the policy of active intervention - including in areas where they have never intervened before.

The Lindens seem to have finally realised that they are indeed "building a country."


dyerbrookME said...

This is a fascinating summary, and I'll be back to read it more thoroughly, but I'm fairly certain that Philip Linden said this in an early interview with the mainstream press, possibly even the New York Times or his first Washington Post piece. He may have also said it in a town hall meeting, which is why it may not show up in Google but it will within SL. I don't see any reason to dispute that he said it, but he did double back on it later. It was the kind of enthusiastic thing Philip would say in some moments.

A key to understanding the FIC and the Ulrika Zugzwang adventure is that she did NOT have followers -- this was a tiny sect. But the Lindens, who were prone to socialist experiments themselves, amplified this in an unseemly and unfair way.

They held a contest for anyone to propose a winter themed sim, and they would give them a sim cost-free, with only the monthly tier to pay thereafter. That was a value at the time of some $1000 US. A huge prize, given the newness of SL, and the expense of land, which loomed very high back in those days with few large landowners.

The contest was run by Haney Linden, who left the lab some time later to work for Omidyar's Better World network website, so he was very plugged into the whole LL constellation, he then left there when it was dismantled, not sure where he is now.

Haney was great friends with Ulrika and a great supporter of this government experiment. Ulrika and the few other Neualtenbergers were the only people who submitted anything to this contest, so they won it by default.

Now, you could bang people over the head and say it's their own fault if they don't participate, but again, you had to have resources to take on a burden of $195 US a month even with this prize and it could not be resold obviously (the exact circumstances under which later it was relinquished to the Lindens and Nberg gained an island are murky to me).

Snow was devaluing at the time as the Lindens had overmarketed it as a novelty and it went from a real estate bubble to a crash, perhaps that motivated the contest, not sure of the dates there.

Instead of delaying the closure of the contest and getting more submissions, they just handed the sim over to Ulrika and the rest is history. She stormed the forums and made a total annoyance of herself for years. She faced utter impunity from her nastiness on the forums as no Linden dared to discipline her after her win of the fancy showcase governance snow sim.

Ulrika was ultimately deposed and forced out of the community even by her fellow socialists.

dyerbrookME said...

The links on Hamlet's blog don't work and lead to a "closed" message, but if you go on the forums as they are now today, and just plug in search terms together like "Ulrika" and "Robin" or "Neualtenberg" you get a lot of it.

Here's a good one from blaze Spinnaker:


Danton Sideways said...

Thank you, Prokofy, for this information.

Since writing the above post, I've become aware of additional episodes in the history of Second Life politics. Hamlet Au describes an early tax revolt in the fall of 2003, where the "revolutionary" residents already referred to a "King Linden":

When I wrote the post I thought that "Democracy Island" was Prokofy's name for Neufreistadt, but I since learned that it was a separate project, as described here:

Democracy Island, opened in 2005, attempted to offer an online space to create a virtual town hall where civic groups and government agencies could meet to discuss public issues. The experiment apparently was failure, but details are hard to find using Google.

And the following links tell the story of how Desmond Shang in August 2007 littered the Neufreistadt Praetorium with a single prim decorated with a Caledon flag, in front of numerous witnesses, hoping to be charged in Neufreistadt Court, in order to test the developing virtual judicial system (he was instead granted diplomatic immunity):

Danton Sideways said...

According to Gwyneth Llewelyn, the original "building a country" statement was made by Philip Rosedale in an interview to Wired magazine on 2004-05-08. Philip said: "I'm not building a game. I'm building a new country."