On July 22,
a week into
foreign media reporting ban, a group of Iranian protesters gathered on a grassy
hill to speak out against Supreme Leader Khamenei’s continued support for
were absent. In a nation with a frighteningly effective intelligence service,
Supreme Leader Khamenei was entirely unaware of this protest because it took place in Second Life.
Revolution's Beta Test
The virtual world is a growing environment for civic discussion and debate. One of the
most active Iranian protest and discussion spots was Club Habibi, described as a “Middle
Eastern Oasis” where avatars can purchase region-themed clothing and command
their characters to dance a virtual version of an Arab belly dance.
Some merely explore for a few
minutes and fly off, while others meet up with virtual friends from places as
Unsurprisingly, conversation often leads to
real-life Iranians can express themselves and carry their message beyond the
locked-down borders of Khamenei’s temporal dominion.
While places like Club Habibi
provide a free virtual forum for Iranians to spread their message, other Second
Life venues provide a more somber experience. Hundreds of Second Life players captured international
media attention as early as June 25 after announcing plans for a “Virtual
Vigil” in memory of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters killed by Iranian security
Virtual Battle Stations
Iranian protest community in Second Life is more than a curiosity, and downplaying
the importance of virtual societies in our political and social lives, as TIME
Magazine did in August 2007, understates the power of synthetic worlds in
creating viable social movements.
In her feature piece “Second Life’s
Real-World Problems,” TIME correspondent Kristina Dell portrays Second Life as
little more than a den
of “low traffic and raunchy behavior,” and predicts its limited utility as
a small commercial sphere. Second Life’s ability to serve as a virtual base for
political speech proves this view short-sighted and cynical.
Authoritarian governments that
repress real-world demonstrations have difficulty doing the same in the synthetic
world. Virtual rallies are so hard to shut off because the mechanics of virtual
protest are fluid. Squeeze one part of the tube and, like a massive balloon,
the momentum simply transfers to another segment. Unlike actual rallies, there
is no centralized base that can be “raided” by security forces, and virtual
participants are likely to notice sudden changes in the activity levels of
efforts of real-world governments to restrict the Internet usage of virtual
protesters appears to strengthen the rallies as the online community responds
to what it views as an offense against expression. So, for instance, Second
Life’s virtual protests continued – and even increased
in scale – after real-world Iranians started to mysteriously disappear from
the synthetic world.
The media coverage of Second Life’s
virtual Iranian protests had the unintended effect of drawing a coalition
of real-world human rights groups into the virtual fray. United 4 Iran, a group of human rights
groups including Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, held a
fundraiser entirely in Second Life that solicited donations by way of
“United4Iran boxes” freely copied and placed throughout the synthetic world by
The donation boxes collected nearly 215,000 Linden Dollars, Second
Life’s virtual currency that is freely exchangeable for real-world currencies. When converted, that
$800 will maintain United4Iran’s virtual humanitarian presence for over a year.
Real Meaning in Synthetic Worlds
If protests like those in support
democratic movement gain credibility as legitimate forms of protest – which, by
all rights, they are – the potential for a paradigm shift in dissent speech is
fast approaching. The potential exists for a system where undemocratic
governments are held accountable through cyberspace even after making domestic
political dissent impossible and dangerous for real-world protesters.
Young, politically minded activists
coming of age in today’s computerized world will find less and less trouble
circumventing government censors through rudimentary routers and proxy systems.
This offers the possibility of a world where cyberspace falls beyond the reach
of all but the most repressive governments, creating a strong incentive for
governments to keep access to cyberspace open.
Synthetic worlds also offer
tangible benefits to nations and organizations that become early adopters of
future synthetic world technology. A human rights nonprofit with an office in
Second Life could receive more accurate information from affected groups that
out of necessity can’t be seen physically conspiring with the foreign
nonprofit. Conflict regions where governments often restrict foreign nonprofit
activity will open as residents circumvent physical borders through cyberspace.
Several real-world human rights
groups have already built a presence in Second Life. The Four Bridges Project,
an alliance of nonprofits that includes Amnesty
International, Imagine Network, Peace Train, and others, manages a large
virtual island devoted to spreading human rights awareness.
filled with information on human rights abuses, international studies, and
awareness podcasts scatter the island. Many of Amnesty International’s reports
on human rights are accessible through Second Life’s in-game browser without
ever leaving the synthetic world.
Synthetic worlds can be a strong
and sustained force for good. Even now, months after Iran’s suspect election, a million
digital protestors unafraid of Iran’s
notorious prisons defy the security patrols on the streets of Tehran and continue to speak out for justice.