The Metaverse Code

City Hall on SanFrancisco Zoo Sim in Second LifeIt was only a matter of time. Throughout history, whenever people have come together and formed a dependence on each other for their physical, social, and economic well-being, they've eventually had to create some form of governance. The Old Testament, a type of code that governed a group of people no matter where they lived, is one of the oldest examples we have of a document of governance. We have also seen people develop documents of governance intended to be implemented based on a physical location such as a nation, state, or city. And this need for governance is also found in organizations and businesses because the framework in which people interact is not the trigger – it's the interaction that triggers the need for governance. And so today we are watching as this age-old practice of establishing rights and responsibilities becomes an essential need in our virtual communities.

Over the weekend, Vanish Firecaster posted an excellent beginning to an "Avatar Bill of Rights," and I encourage anyone involved in virtual worlds to read through it. While rights are important, they are not the only part of the equation. To be successful, people need their rights to be balanced with responsibilities. Last year I helped facilitate the development of a participation agreement for people who want to access the MOSES grid. During the open discussions we held to develop the document, we covered expectations, behavior, responsibility, and rights. While the choices made for each of these in MOSES is much different than what would be developed for a public and social virtual world, the process is the same. And the final agreement, which provides for a type of governance, is necessary to ensure the grid or virtual world operates in a successful and organized manner. In the case of MOSES, it also ensures those who enter and interact with others in that setting do so with a clear understanding of everyone's role and responsibilities.

It's really no different from what we have in the places where we live. I'm not sure how it is set up in other countries, but in the United States, we have federal laws to define and protect our rights. But those are not enough. The founders of our country realized each state and local region would need to further refine and develop rights and responsibilities in order to maintain order and protect people and meet their specific needs. So each of us in the U.S. accepts a different set of rules and resonsibilities based on the state and/or city where we live. And if we don't want to accept them we can either try to change them, or we can move.

Hill Valley Courthouse Mall

Perhaps in developing virtual rights and responsibilities, or a Metaverse Code, we could follow a similar type of framework. We could begin as Vanish has done and define the rights including those identified by the founders because they are "natural and inalienable rights." Then each grid, which is a type of city or region, can develop and further define these rights and responsibilities based on the culture or population dependent on that place. It would function as specific code for that grid and fit within the umbrella of the Metaverse Code and any laws imposed by the physical world. And the people who make up the population of a specific grid, even if owned by an individual or company, should help develop the code because a "government" only gets its authority from the people. And yes, I realize a private grid is owned by a private person, and they certainly can try to make up their own rights and responsibilities to impose on everyone, but without acceptance of their authority, they will face an empty grid. So it is in the best interests of their grid, if they expect people to invest time and money there, to allow those same people to have a voice in the governance of that grid.

Knight Sculpture

In the spirit of exploring the idea of governments and virtual worlds, Vanish set up a meeting on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at 4 pm CST to discuss the topic. If you have an interest in either government or virtual worlds, I highly suggest stopping by to add your voice to the conversation or even just to observe. The site is currently set to be held in OSGrid on the Public Works sim. But because some people who want to attend are banned from entering OSGrid, he will probably move it to another grid. So make sure to keep checking the listing to see the final location.



Virtual Worlds: The Next Level of Government

Crowd by davidChief on FlickrIn small numbers, people can usually self-govern themselves. But as the number of people in a group grows, better control is needed. So history has shown anytime a large number of people start hanging out in a particular place, a government structure is formed. In our world today, we have nations which then have further divisions of government down to local or neighborhood levels. And while most of these levels of government are considered public, a small number are privately held and yet still considered a governing body by upper levels of government. So applying this to virtual worlds, have these digital places evolved to the point that another type of government level needs to be formed?

I would expect many people, particularly those who have not yet ventured into a virtual space, would scoff at the idea of creating a new type of government subdivision for computer-generated worlds. During my first few years of hanging out in places like Second Life, I had not considered the need for governance. But during those years, I observed many parallels between the growth of Second Life and the development of a city. And recently, the discussions surrounding the struggles of Linden Lab to address the needs of Second Life "residents," have me more closely analyzing the governance idea.

Although I don't think Linden Lab started Second Life with the intention of creating another governmental entity, it is interesting to see elements of local governance in the early days of the grid. Philip, the creator of Second Life, was labeled Governor Linden, and the users were called residents. Experiments in zoning took place on at least one of the first sims. And the subdivision and sale of land and payment of tier (tax) for that land is an emulation of land ownership in the U.S.

Second Life has gone through phases regarding these issues: tier is still paid and users are still residents, zoning has been created on a much larger scale with the division of adult, mature, and PG spaces, Philip is no longer referred to as Governor although public land is still held by Governor Linden. And as the Lab struggled to determine their policies in these areas, similarities between the problems faced by Linden Lab and those we face as city officials grew. Today there are demands by residents for better functioning infrastructure and platforms through which to voice opinions. Businesses are continually pushing for economic tools, incentives, regulations, and opportunities. All issues faced every day by those of us working in local government.

Server Farm photo from Sugree Phatanapherom on FlickrPost-Victorian water mains by Lars Plougmann on FlickrAt this point, Second Life has evolved to where the primary differences I see between its digital space and the physical space are in the type of infrastructure and the international population. And even the infrastructure, while different, still has many similarities to the operation and maintenance of infrastructure in the physical world because it is part of that physical world. Cities have water mains and roads; Second Life has computers and code.

So, the most challenging difference I can see is the International aspect of the Second Life population; governments in the physical world are based on geographic boundaries. Cyberspace has no geographic location in the physical world. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can access places like Second Life. So if a digital space became a governmental entity, into which governmental structure would it fit and in which country? And whose laws govern each person's behavior in that world?

If I travel to another country, I follow that country's rules and yet I am still bound by some of the laws in my own country. If I visit a digital space, I follow the terms of use for that world no matter where it is based in the world. Yet, because I am in the U.S., the U.S. government could argue I need to also follow laws of this country because I am using federally regulated bandwidth to access that world. So some might question, if there are already terms of use for visiting virtual worlds, why aren't those rules good enough?

Terms of use seem to work well for regulating behavior in digital spaces when user freedoms and choices are limited. For example I don't see Blizzard dealing with the same issues facing Linden Lab. Both companies have created virtual worlds, but the MMORPG offers a more structured space with well-defined and limited abilities for its users. While in Second Life, the users have many more freedoms and choices. I compare the MMORPG to a museum I would visit in a city like Chicago. My museum visit is structured and defined by the rules and environment created by that museum. While my behavior and actions in Chicago are only bound by the laws of the city, state, and U.S. government.

City Hall by Editor B - Bart Everson - on Flickr

Even with the growing similarities between digital and physical places, governance in virtual worlds is probably not on the immediate horizon. People are still just getting used to the idea of a digital world. But this concept of a virtual world functioning as an actual place could help companies like Linden Lab better understand what they have created. And as the Lab is finding out, running local government is not easy. But it is an age-old practice with thousands of years of models and literature available for guidance. Maybe what Linden Lab needs now to sort out all their issues is someone with a background in public administration.