September 27, 2007
Union Strike in Second Life

A lot of discussion focused on Second Life of late has been about the overhype--how the economic and cultural implications of late have exaggerated the impact that this space is having. I, however, take the same approach that Henry Jenkins has at times, noting that Second Life is interesting inasmuch as it is a testing ground for interesting behaviors. In short, it's an interesting place to study, even if it is not necessarily a major piece of the economic puzzle for the mainstream.

The latest example of interesting things happening in Second Life? See this post from Wagner James Au, who reports from Second Life, about labor union protests spilling over from the first life into this world. Workers who are part of the RSU Italian labor union are in a struggle with IBM, and the picketing and other protest behaviors have made their way into the virtual world.

Au writes, "At this point, it's too early to determine how effective such a mobilization will be, and whether it'll involve any of the IBM staff who work at the Second Life campus." The site includes images of shirts designed as part of the protest, picketing signs, and other parts of the struggle.

What I mean to emphasize here is that this is a stark reminder that the people who populate these virtual worlds are the people who live in the physical world as well, and the social processes, community-building behaviors, and social and economic concerns of this world spill into Second Life as well. Sometimes, in our fervor to talk about ways in which we transcend the local, escape our geographic boundaries, and connect based on affinities and common worldviews, we leave out the myriad interesting ways these technologies are used as another platform to connect with people who we share physical spaces with, and for our concerns in this life to manifest themselves in new and interesting ways.

I've been interested in how ties to the local and the concerns of our "regular life" spill into spaces like social networks and impact issues like the future of journalism. These protests in Second Life emphasize these same behaviors, proving that it is not the space itself that is interesting--just as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube is worthless without users populating them and providing content and community--but rather all the cultural activity that people bring to it.

The amount of civic and political organizing and energy that are poured into these activities run counter to the concerns of books like Bowling Alone, that these virtual communities and new forms of media circumvent or destroy real community, and these are the concerns at the heart of our new Center for Future Civic Media here at the Program in Comparative Media Studies.

Finally, as I linked to earlier this week, check out C3 Consulting Researcher Aswin Punathambekar's piece about New Delhi users of Second Life. Some of his quick analysis and musings bear a striking resemblance to what we are seeing here with this employee strike in the virtual world.