Governance in online worlds

The most recent First Monday focuses on a great topic: The Emergence of Governance in Cyberspace. As we interact more often and deeper in a virtual environment, new mechanisms of conflict resolution have to emerge: Some kind of governance, hopefully beyond some dodgy and restrictive EndUserLicenseAgreement (EULA) as the ones we have to agree to whenever we install, update, buy, test or use any kind of software or service.

In the above-mentioned issue of First Monday, Thomas M. Malaby takes a look in who owns the world of SecondLife and what’s in it:

“Most obviously and importantly, Linden allows and encourages Second Life’s users to build, program (“script”), and paint (“texture–map”) simple to complex 3D objects in world, and these users then own the intellectual property rights to these creations. In contrast to many online world companies, Linden Lab has thus ceded to a great extent its governance of the content of Second Life by forgoing its own property rights claims to what its residents make. In its going against the grain in these and other respects, Linden Lab has put itself in an unusual and constantly changing position vis–à–vis its creation, and understanding this position is important for anyone interested in how ethics and governance are both implemented and emergent in, to use Edward Castronova’s term, “synthetic worlds” (Castronova, 2005).”

Malaby also points out the clash of interests of the different stakeholder groups:

“In the case of Linden Lab, governance is complex, given the degree to which it has turned content creation over to its users. Linden increasingly limits its own creation of content to providing more landmass — bringing additional land (and with it, more servers) online to accommodate the growing population of users (“residents”). Residents can buy this land and not only build on it, but literally re–shape it themselves (raising hills, adding lakes and trees, etc.), meaning that the production of content in Second Life does not stop at ground level. But more broadly than this, governance in and of Second Life is complex because it is a world that generates, out of the collective actions of those connected to it, unexpected social patterns and phenomena, emergent qualities that outstrip the capabilities of anyone — however well–positioned — to observe or to predict with complete confidence. Governance in Second Life is at least four–fold, produced by the meeting point of Linden Lab’s attenuated vertical power, its employees’ access to and competence in manipulating code, the nature of Internet control, and the social conventions generated around and within Second Life itself.”

This is great, surely one of the soon-to-be-classic issues, and one that’s going to be refererred to a lot in the coming months.

(First Monday: Coding Control: Governance and Contingency in the Production of Online Worlds by Thomas M. Malaby)

Leave a Reply