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In 'Second Life,' the ring of revolution?

Spotlight hits political activism in virtual world. Naturally, mainstream media wants to know if terrorism is next. Images: In-world griefing attacks

I was sitting at a picnic table Thursday afternoon talking with a revolutionary who last year bombed an American Apparel store.

I didn't think she was all that dangerous. As far as I could tell, she was just a big-time radical in the Second Life virtual world.

My Second Life alter ego, Caro Zohari (an avatar who has much nicer hair than I do), was interviewing a spokeswoman for the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA), an "avatar rights" group that has sprung up in the Linden Lab-created virtual world with the objective of fomenting a "democratic revolution" to oppose Linden's supposedly authoritarian rule.

Across the table from me, the avatar/activist Solidad Sugarbeet was demanding her virtual rights.

"Avatars can form relationships in Second Life--human bonds," Sugarbeet explained. "We can work and play and fall in love. There's just one thing missing. We can't vote."

As more and more mainstream politicians--like Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards--begin , the question arises of whether more radical political parties, grassroots groups and activist organizations will also take root in the virtual world. And if they do, it raises the possibility, as comical as it may seem, that these online groups could carry their activities over into the physical world.

"The use of new media for political action has a slightly longer history than just these things in Second Life," said Alexander Galloway, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University, and author of the book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Cultures.

"There's a rationale for it to the extent that in this day and age, the powers that be have migrated into the Digital Age," Galloway said. "For concerned citizens who want to agitate and express themselves politically, it makes sense that they will also migrate into the digital realm."

The SLLA, at least at first glance, is devoted to "avatar rights." It was founded by a Second Life member whose avatar goes by the name Marshal Cahill and has been in the news a fair amount for a string of online-protest actions since late 2006.

Most notably, SLLA members took over the stage at the World Economic Forum's Second Life presence and set off "atomic bombs" of companies like Reebok and American Apparel's virtual stores.

Protests like the SLLA's bombs are purely visual effects. Some can temporarily freeze avatars, and graphics-heavy attacks can crash residents' computers or Linden Lab's servers. Some people do worry, however, that more sophisticated tactics will emerge that could prove more dangerous to avatars and in-world property.

Linden Lab didn't pay much attention to SLLA's attacks, and the incidents didn't incite much of a stir on the virtual world's message boards and discussion forums--until the mainstream media heard about it.

Several news outlets, most notably the Los Angeles Times (registration required), picked up on the story in late February. An article published by Agence France-Presse even claimed that "virtual-world banes now mirror the havoc of the real one, as terrorists have launched a bombing campaign in Second Life."

Suddenly, the SLLA found itself bombarded with press inquiries. Within the virtual world, the SLLA had protesters picketing its headquarters and "griefers" defacing its property with Nazi symbols. (In fact, while my avatar was interviewing SLLA members, an unidentified griefer--that's someone who harasses other people in-world--barraged us with hordes of Super Mario cartoon figures.)

The real-world media exposure of the SLLA, in other words, made the group more prominent in-game than it ever would have been otherwise.

Some Second Life residents, like freelance writer Wagner James Au, are hesitant to believe the hype. Groups like the SLLA, he said, "do these very brief and not very damaging attacks. It's cute." Au has expressed the opinion on his blog, New World Notes, that there's a big difference between a radical group in a virtual world and one in the real world.

"My sense is that (Second Life radicals) tend to be like college students or people who are politically active in real life, and they want to role-play being on-the-fringe activists and radicals," he theorized. "There are people who role-play being humanoid furry squirrels or robots. This is just another extension of that."

Au has a point. But SLLA representatives are quick to note that the majority of their members are involved in leftist causes in the real world--though they often decline to be more specific.

Solidad Sugarbeet said the SLLA is comprised of people "from all across the left in Second Life and real life, as well as people whose primary concern is avatar rights in Second Life." Another SLLA member, with an avatar by the name of Hythlodaeus Uggla, claims to belong to the former group.

"(The) SLLA is a platform (for) the right to elect and have influence on your world," Hythlodaues Uggla said. "If we criticize that people are allowed to own our virtual world, maybe people will get their eyes opened to the absurdity of people owning our real world."

That said, most think it's a serious stretch to think the poseurs will be joined by real-life menaces. In fact, the bigger concern for some is drawing real-life government interest.

"I think it's very plausible that in the next few years, there's going to be at least some limited government presence, if there's not already," Au said. In 2005, after all, he used his blog to highlight a U.S. Department of Homeland Security experiment in Second Life.

The SLLA scoffs at the terrorist talk.

"Honestly, that's such a red herring," Sugarbeet said. "All political organizations use the Internet, both left and right, extremist and mainstream. Further, concealing one's identity is hardly a new thing on the Internet."

Undoubtedly, the future of grassroots politics in Second Life--both mainstream and fringe--depends on the future of Second Life itself. And that's still a question.

While some are optimistic about the future of the virtual world as a new platform for everything from big media to the boardroom, many critics dismiss Second Life as overhyped at best and at worst.

Grassroots political activism, of course, has found a stable home on Web forums and blogs, and if Second Life manages to continue, it will likely stay there as well--provided that participants can deal with the occasional Super Mario griefing.

As for Second Life's terrorists, the best that can be said is that anyone who uses the avatar name Hythlodaeus (which means "knower of nonsense" in Greek and is the name of a character in Renaissance author Thomas More's Utopia) is at least rather well-read.

"Show me the proof," Galloway said. "Where are the terrorists in Second Life? I think at this point, it's basically vaporware."