Media coverage of the virtual world Second Life tends to fall into the s-x/gambling/corporate marketing continuum, but there’s an enormous range of activities going on, including enough politics to satisfy any Crikey reader.

With Americans going to the polls late next year, the virtual campaign has already begun, with a range of Democrat and Republican candidates in Second Life. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama are well and truly established and the Republican Party are no slouches either with a candidate line-up for Second Life residents to vote on. All that said, it is very much a combined polling and marketing exercise for the candidates – lots of show and passive information you can get via traditional websites anyway.

The Europeans on the other hand, have taken to political activity in Second Life in a much more immersive way. There’s been everything from a referendum debate between Romanian Second Life users to Venezuelan protests over President Hugo Chavez’s closure of an opposition-controlled TV station.

The four main candidates for the recent French presidential elections had Second Life headquarters. There was even a virtual clash between protesters and supporters of far-right nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen involving barrages of exploding pigs and other “digital weapons”.

It’s very easy to write such interactions off as gimmicky posturing by some very technically savvy people. The “reality” is that virtual worlds are growing steadily in popularity, and not just amongst the younger demographic. More than 70% of Second Life users are over 25; 12% are over 45. These are well-educated people who have a stake in political discourse.

Even pessimistic estimates put the active Australian Second Life user base at around ten thousand – that’s a damn big focus group even by real-world polling standards. So you’d think Australian politicians might have tested the waters in Second Life, but there’s not been a single foray by any Australian political party that I’m aware of.

Any party that set up in Second Life and adopted some of the European approach to virtual politics might find they’d gain exposure to a whole new voter base. There’s no increased likelihood of a politician of any persuasion being welcomed with open arms, but it does give a candidate unique access to voters spread across the whole country, simultaneously.

I’ve emailed Senator Coonan (Minister for Communications) and her shadow, Senator Conroy, to gauge any interest in a Second Life-based policy debate between now and the election. Surely Australia can match the Romanians in virtual world democracy?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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