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  ‘Metaverse Justice Watch’, Elitism, and Muzzling the Press  
Posted 2005-09-01 by Tony Walsh
A group of Second Life residents known as the Metaverse Justice Watch has assumed the role of "stakeholders," differentiating themselves from "casual" community members. Metaverse Justice Watch member Prokofy Neva has published a lengthy explanatory blog post about his group that illustrates, for me, the audacity of this self-styled elite class, the critical mistake Linden Lab has made in giving them an official audience, and disregard for the public's "right to know."

While there are numerous debatable points in Neva's post, I will highlight the ones I find most objectionable. Neva's commentary follows in bold, and mine in unstyled text.

"We're people with a major stake in SL. Look at the officers' list as you see most of the people who pay most of the tier in SL, and therefore pay a sizeable chunk of Linden Lab's revenue, including salaries." The Metaverse Justice Watch apparently believes that land is the key indicator of one's stake in Second Life--that those who pay more in land fees deserve more status. In the world of Second Life there are lots of ways to become invested. Not all are as tangible as land ownership, but the power of emotional investment in cyberspace cannot be denied.

Neva adds that "We're also people who are new or not wealthy or merely interested in the issues -- if you care about justice in this world you'll find it worthwhile joining." I suppose everyone has a different definition of justice. Mine doesn't involve entitling wealthy land owners to more power than the average citizen.

"No one elected us because we do not make any claim whatsoever to any representation of residents." Except that petitioning the Lindens to make changes to Second Life may result in changes that affect all residents. We already have a Linden-operated Feature Voting system. I'm not sure lobby groups are a better solution.

"I can't speak for Philip, but I think he agreed to meet with the group -- 10 signatures representing the group were put on the letter to him -- because we are indeed major stakeholders in the world he created." And here's the essence of the whole matter. By agreeing to meet with the Metaverse Justice Watch, Linden Lab given them a sense of rightful entitlement to special treatment.

On the subject of the press (who were neither invited nor allowed at the meeting), Neva writes that it seemed to be "just some grave misundertanding that occurred because one member of the group simple arrogated themselves the function to hold a straw poll/voice keep out press because she did not understand the point of having a publisher there." A majority of those polled evidently felt the press should be kept out. "We made the meeting off the record simply to have a give-and-take discussion in which both sides didn't come with precooked pasteable theses to put out in the world, which happens at town meetings." The group seemed to feel hindered by the presence of the press, which I sympathize with, but if this group considers Second Life a sort of country (which it does), they're setting a dangerous standard. I'd even be happy with a rule like "no direct quotes," but a complete barring of the press is no good for anything but making secret deals.

"There's no requirement that every single working meeting have a transcript in the press," writes Neva, adding that "The press is welcome to cover the group after it completes something -- this is normal in any normal civil society where you don't have the flood of camera lights going 24/7 on every single process." In Canada, where I reside, parliament is televised--and I think Canada could be considered a "normal, civil society." The press in Canada hardly ever publishes transcripts of government meetings because such events are extremely boring. Instead, the press publishes summaries of newsworthy events accompanied with short quotes. In a virtual world, it's not for Linden Lab or the Metaverse Justice Watch to decide what is newsworthy. That's the job of in-world journalists.
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Comment posted by csven
September 1, 2005 @ 7:49 pm
This smells more and more of people concerned about their real world financial investments in Second Life.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
October 15, 2006 @ 10:25 pm
I don't know how I missed this piece at the time, but I'm going to give it a thorough answer now -- it's a tendentious, and wrong-headed account of the formation of a lobbying group, and these meetings with Lindens, which were perfectly legitimate and not the nefarious thing that you attempts to portray here, Tony -- evidently to pursue your own anti-big-business agenda.

csven, why would there be something untoward about people concerned about their real-world financial investments in SL? Why would that "smell"? It's a perfectly normal and legitimate matter to care about what happens to the money you put into SL, and to seek meetings with Lindens to discuss this with them. Don't you think Sun Systems, Harvard University, and the New Media Consortium have those meetings with Lindens? Where are you all with your clucking then???

The Lindens take meetings with a huge variety of people who consider themselves stakeholders -- they even organize elitist groups to meet with them in programs like Second Life Views. Tony, you simply refused to cover this when I kept bringing this outrage to your attention last summer; he was just too busy with other stories. When programmers and designers and island developers were all hand-picked to meet with Lindens, Tony had nothing to say about elitist groups; it was only when those "elitist groups" were land dealers -- there is always this notion that people in real estate are somehow "sleazy". I guess this is a holdover from real life.

The meeting of September 1,2005, in fact was not a session to negotiate any deal about telehubs or any other deal of any sort. It was a protest meeting. We had a letter and a list of issues -- all publicized at the time. The letter raised the chronic conflict of interest we saw with Lindens selecting certain long-time beta-era residents for special contracts, "feting," etc. and endorsements of various types. We asked for -- and got after 60 days -- some kind of written guidelines for how Lindens -- and more importantly their resident alts who were not always publicized -- engaged in business and promotion of their projects in SL.

This was and is a terribly important cause to be fighting, and I'm sorry that you don't see the relevance of trying to gain accountability for Lindens in all their dealings with residents, influential or not, as something the whole society gains from. That it was landowners including the major land baron Anshe Chung who came to do this tells you something about the degree of difficulty and risk involved in trying to wrest such power-sharing from the Lindens. It was about making a level playing field; you make it seem that it was about tilting the playing field to one group.

The other elements in the letter in fact involved this very voting feature -- we complained that the votes never got attention; that there was no way to make it coherent; that answers weren't coming, etc. The Lindens actually cleaned up their act on this after the meeting with us and another group called Resident Action Committee -- again, it was by seeking meetings with Lindens that this was accomplished.

I'm curious as to why you envision a group that has wealthy landowners in it, wealthy in SL terms if not RL, as somehow incapable of fighting for justice and fairness for the world as a whole, not just some special favours for itself. Of course it is. And it is just this kind of counterweight to the power of the company itself that is needed, and just this counterweight to the power of the inhouse favourites who are programmers and designers inworld.

Nowhere did MJW claim it should be the best or the only group or the group with the most power or get any kind of special treatment. In a civil society, thousands of such interest, lobby, civic groups are formed. This often seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon, the wide variety of groups like this, but of course there are Canadian counterparts, even if they aren't as well-financed or covered in the media. You seem to imply that there is something inherently unsavoury about forming an interest group and lobbying government.

But there isn't. Lobbying should be regulated -- even taxed depending on the issue and group. But forming an interest group is universally protected by the principle of freedom of assembly. Most democracy states have the notion of groups of people assembly and petitioning the powers that be. Parliament is one thing; groups are also needed.

To my point that "no one elected us and we make no claim to representation," you say, "Except that petitioning the Lindens to make changes to Second Life may result in changes that affect all residents. We already have a Linden-operated Feature Voting system. I'm not sure lobby groups are a better solution."

This is actually a frequent complaint of my own about those in the Feted Inner Core, the group of beta-testers, bug-testers, IRC channelers and the like who constantly lobby the Lindens to change -- or sometimes more importantly NOT change -- features of the platform. And I see it as perfectly legitimate for that group of programmers and tekkies to form; but also for other kinds of groups with other values to form as well to serve as a counterweight to them. I'm not at all for abolishing them; the Lindens are grown-ups, they can hopefully hear all the concerns, and at any rate, they're going to do what they want to do -- they refuse to consider themselves as a democracy.

Some years ago, I remember having this very same debate in RL with a Canadian on the left -- she simply couldn't accept that groups of wealthy Americans could form to work on human rights or social causes and then get funding from private foundations and lobby international bodies or the U.S. government. The entire process was suspect to her. She was on the left, and she seemed to have in the back of her mind some fantasy of row upon row of marching workers who should be springing up from the streets to petition government -- that sort of mass movement-y, socialist sort of protest was OK for her, but little groups -- especially if they involved wealthy people -- were somehow at root illegitimate.

What you're saying about our lobbying groups in SL seems to me cut from that same cloth -- it's a political assessment springing out of your own political belief system. But it's not one I accept as any kind of mandatory template for how you organize relationships with the software company that makes the virtual world.

All my life, I've been in all kinds of non-governmental groups, social movements, associations, and they very frequently have met with governments of all types, or international institutions. You don't always bring the press into such meetings. It's not out of a desire to cut some nefarious evil deal, but merely to have a normal working meeting. You issue the press release afterwards; journalists do their homework and talk to you before or after, or get to the official sources themselves -- you couldn't get the meeting in the first place if the people you are trying to petition felt they were put on the spot in an on-the-record meeting. Such groups lobbying government can't serve as a substitute for parliament or Congress; such bodies are elected and do have records for the public and do have press coverage, but not everything can be handled through these bodies, which are of course, as prone to corruption as the lobbying groups you seem loathe to legitimize.

And in fact, the first meeting with Philip on Sept. 1 was in the presence of not one but two journalists as I mentioned. Some people in the meeting thought M2 shouldn't be there as covering the meeting but should be there as a business, accepting that it was off the record. But those of us who thought the press should be there for that historic meeting prevailed, and they stayed. And as noted, one crashed the meeting and wasn't asked to leave.

Surely you *do* concede that all kinds of groups -- business, non-profit, academic, international -- can appropriately -- and even necessarily -- have meetings with government officials off the record, Tony?

If SL were a real country with a real functioning independent mass media, and a real functioning parliament that was elected and representatiev, perhaps you could cock and eyebrow at this or that interest group meeting with government officials, but frankly, that is even subject to debate.

In fact, this heavy, censorious and even furious attitude toward this group Metaverse Justice Group, and its subsequence severe griefing by a handful of political prankers and opportunists, helped crush it. The Lindens were able to co-opt most of the other remnants of civil society that were just starting to thrive in a process called "the Community Round Table" -- and the development of the world was set back another age.

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