Political campaigns are latching on to the virtual world as the latest means of squeezing every last percentage point in close races.
What remains to be seen is whether informed avatars are making a difference.
Pixels and Policy looks at why political optimism about the use of Second Life and virtual worlds might be a bit premature.
In 2006, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner held a political
rally in Second Life to kick off his aborted presidential campaign. The event
garnered next to no mainstream media coverage. Not long after, Warner dropped out to no one's notice.
attention when France’s presidential contenders opened Second Life campaign
offices in 2007. The mainstream media ate it up! By the end of the campaign, all three candidates’ headquarters
were under constant siege by the opposition. It made for great theater, but it sent no political message. And it only gets worse.
Campaigning to Empty Eyes
Flash forward another year, to 2008. A virtual U.S. House of
Representatives now exists in Second Life, but it’s more than a test of one
avatar’s prim skills. No, this building was built by the House of Representatives. Its purpose? To host California
Congressman George Miller’s first political speech in Second Life.
What we see here is a clear evolution of virtual worlds from
places of impromptu political speech
to zones of professional political
speech. The problem is, no one really seems to pay attention.
Most avatars had no idea who George Miller was or why he was speaking. The only thing they cared about whas whether the virtual House of Representatives was interactive.
Owing to the novelty of a politician speaking in Second Life, the building did respectable traffic its first few days. Now it sits vacant, rarely updated, forgotten.
This makes sense: Most Second Life avatars aren't American. Out of 600,000 active accounts, which isn't a huge amount of potential voters, the rules of direct contact say about 3-4% of these will be moved by what you're selling. That's 18,000 eyes, and at least half are not American.
All that effort for under 9,000 potential votes in a national-level campaign? Get real.
Price vs. Return in the Metaverse
From my first-hand experience with campaigns trying to appear tech-savvy and – God help me – "hip," the main draw of virtual worlds is the cost factor. While it's true that candidates can reach out to voters with only a few thousand dollars of real-world funding, I've found very few willing to put in the man hours to keep content interactive and interesting.
John Edwards is a prime example. During the 2008 campaign, Edwards' staff purchased land and a house in Second Life, filled it with free Edwards shirts and hats, and promptly left it to gather dust. The only time the campaign office had any significant foot traffic was when Anonymous vandalized the office with obscenity and flying penises.
Given his current reputation, this may have been an accurate representation.
Campaigns must understand that there is no free lunch when it comes to capturing virtual eyes. Just because virtual world campaign offices are cheaper than their real-world counterparts doesn't mean virtual reality is just a cheap mirror of the real-world. The lower cost of virtual campaigning is offset in the huge human capital investment required to keep things interesting.
Virtual worlds are not an easy out for real, boots-on-the-ground campaigning. Not yet.