Democracy in the metaverse: What can we learn from Second Life?

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

Find it on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Tor Karsvalt is an unusual head of state for several reasons. 

For one thing, Tor Karsvalt is not his real name. And yet it’s the name his constituents voted for. 

For another, the “state” he leads is entirely contained within the metaverse. 

“We adhere to the principles of a democratically run society in Second Life,” Karsvalt said.

Karsvalt, whose real name is David Ben (“But that’s more or less irrelevant in this world,” he said), is the elected head of Confederation of Democratic Simulators, or CDS, the oldest running democracy within one of the oldest running metaverse platforms. 

Decades before Facebook’s name change to Meta, the pandemic-era “Web3” hypecycle, or the announcement of the Apple VisionPro, there was Second Life: a 3D open-world virtual platform released in 2003 which, unlike other video games at the time, had no clear objectives or goals. 

Instead, the platform’s creators, Linden Lab, promised an immersive utopian vision of “a new society, a new world, created by you.” Second Life’s state-of-the-art creation tools would allow users to generate their own objects to populate the world – clothes, furniture, buildings – that could be bought and sold on a marketplace using in-world currency swapped for real-world U.S. dollars. 

Partly inspired by Burning Man, the internal economy would fuel innovation and spontaneously spark novel organizations. Users could buy virtual land, a virtual house, and virtual clothes. 

As the internet boomed, Second Life  seemed to hit at the right time. 

Early imaginings of the metaverse in science fiction envisioned users driven into virtual worlds by real-world collapse and decay. Second Life sought to lure users in rather than wait for the apocalypse. Over 20 years later, many are still placing bets that, however it all goes down, the mass migration into the metaverse is not a matter of if it will happen —  but when? 

As American skies turned a visceral toxic orange for the second time in three years due to wildfires supercharged by climate change, now seemed like a good time to check in with metaverse pioneers who asked a different question: if we’re all one day going to be crammed into the metaverse together, how do we live with each other?

The Rise of Confederation of Democratic Simulators

A year into Second Life’s existence, as CDS citizens explained to me, familiar patterns had emerged. 

Because the owners of virtual land in Second Life got to set the virtual rules on the land they owned, benign dictatorships were the norm. 

Everything from what you could wear or what you could create was often up to a single tiny tyrant mayor who could afford the investment, said Karsvalt.

“Enforcing covenants and things like that. So residents [were] feeling pretty abused,” Karsvalt said. 

On the other hand, lax enforcement could lead a community of users to fall into disrepair, like having an absentee landlord. 

“They never show up and they don’t answer emails and things like that,” Karsvalt said. 

  • January 8, 2024
  • Articles,
  • This post was written by