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Virtual Darfur, and why I don’t get invited to technology conferences anymore

Mom always said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Mom doesn’t come to conferences with me. (It’s too bad. She’s good company.) Which was probably a good thing at the Metaverse Summit.

I was invited to the summit because I’m a metaverse skeptic. (Not the whole metaverse. I firmly believe that the sort of real-world metadata applications Michael Liebhold is interested in are important, and that three-D simulations of the real world are very important. And I can certainly acknowledge that lots of people are finding MMO games interesting and exciting.) Specifically, I’m very skeptical about Second Life, the platform which garners the most attention when people talk about the immersive web.

A few months ago, I picked a fight with Sibley Verbeck, the founder of the Electric Sheep Company, a company that builds games and environments inside Second Life and other metaverse spaces. I wondered how Sibley, a guy with a tremendous social conscience, could be so excited about a platform that involves so few people and has such high barriers to entry – if Sibley really believed in global inclusion and economic development, why work in a walled garden occupied mostly by highly wired alpha geeks?

Sibley is a gentleman, and responded to my jabs by inviting me to the Metaverse Roadmap conference, of which Electric Sheep was a lead sponsor. I’m guessing he invited me so I could try to add some thinking about how these new spaces can and can’t be useful to users in developing nations. But so much of the conversation was so speculative – and focused on problems with defining the metaverse we were supposed to be roadmapping – that I was able not to go into full-scale “ICT in Africa” mode. Well, not until the morning of the second day…

Wagner James Au – a guy I like a great deal, and whose journalism has helped me understand a bit of what people find exciting about Second Life – was talking about the potential social impacts of Second Life. He made reference to a virtual refugee camp built in Second Life to call attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and suggested that, in the future, these sorts of virtual spaces could be updated with real-world data from crises around the world.

And I lost it.

Specifically, what bothered me was the reference to using real data from Darfur in Second Life… because it’s so damned hard to get actual data on what’s going on in most conflicts. Three years into the conflict in Darfur, there are photos coming out of the region… but it was a major problem for reporters to cover the situation in Darfur for the first two years of the conflict, as Sudan successfully kept most journalists out of the country. Real-time data is still extremely difficult to get given an absence of power, telecommunications infrastructure, and a security situation that makes it extremely difficult to cover what’s happening outside of guarded refugee camps. (We all hope this will change in Darfur as a result of the recent peace agreement, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.) In conflicts not consistently on the editorial page of the New York Times, there’s often no journalists on the ground capable of transmitting data to an international audience. And citizen’s media requires citizens who have access to the Internet…

When I consider the issues I’m most interested in, collecting information – especially from people who are actually affected by these issues – is a much higher priority than presenting this data in a 3D format. Given that roughly 100,000 people log into Second Life in a given month – compared to roughly one billion using the Internet as a whole – I suspect people trying to call attention to global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space.

I told James and the rest of the crowd that I thought they did themselves a disservice by trying to tie an early stage emerging technology to social issues like the crisis in Darfur – that it was a poor rhetorical strategy to suggest that this Second Life space had relavance to the situation on the ground. I suggested that projects like the schizophrenia simulator, which tried to replicate the experience of the disease for Second Life viewers, probably represented a better use of the technology that building a virtual Darfur. That it was presumptous for people who hadn’t been to Darfur, or weren’t working with Darfuri refugees, to represent the refugee experience. That they were doing themselves no favors – in rhetorical terms – by taking on issues like Darfur in a superficial way.

Needless to say, this wasn’t a popular stance with much of the crowd, though several people thanked me for my remarks and putting these subjects on the table. Some suggested that it was unfair of me to criticize people trying to use the Second Life technology to do something socially responsible. Others suggested that the 3D aspect of Second Life made the Darfur experience real in a way that it hadn’t been to them previously.

I’ve visited “Camp Darfur” in Second Life three times since this argument. Twice I’ve been the only avatar there. Once I had a pleasant chat with a very earnest avatar who told me that “lots of people find this place very moving.” The total emptiness of the place seems at odds with the reality of a refugee camp – those that I’ve visited are extremely busy places and the sheer number of people there is the main impression I came away with. This is a product of building this space in Second Life – while it’s easy to build things, the engine doesn’t support ‘bots – objects that look amd behave like users – which makes it hard to populate the refugee camp.

There are human figures on the photos that make up one of the walls of the camp – personally, I found them more moving than 3D tents stacked with crates marked USAID, but your mileage may vary. (Indeed, I think there may be an inverse correlation between the sophistication of the technology used to produce an image and its impact. I still haven’t found anything more affecting than the crayon drawings of Darfur produced by children who fled Janjawid attacks on their villages.)

One detail about the camp really bothered me – the campfire and the pile of firewood nearby. At the center of the camp is a pictureque wood fire with a cooking pot. You’re encouraged to sit on the huge fallen tree trunk and contempl ate the posters and images that surround you. I kept getting distracted by the big tree stump holding a lantern and the pile of logs as thick as my avatar’s legs.

Firewood is a major problem in Darfur’s refugee camps. There’s not much firewood in Darfur to start with. There’s little or no firewood left near refugee camps – refugees routinely walk five to ten kilometers from the camps to collect fuel. If men leave the camps to forage for firewood, they run a very real risk of being killed by militants or soldiers. If women forage, they run the very real risk of being raped. So families engage in a terrible calculus – sending young girls out in the hopes that they’ll neither be raped nor killed. Yoo-Mi Lee and Mark Jacobs are giving workshops in Darfur to help women cook with less fuel so they can reduce their trips outside the camps, exposing themselves to danger. In Mark and Yoo-Mi’s pictures, you’ll see small, thin sticks, not huge piles of firewood…

It’s possible that simulations will be a valuable tool for communicating the reality of situations like Darfur… if and when they get the details right… which they can only do if data is coming from the places they’re trying to simulate. The creators of virtual Darfur – who I suspect are smart, well-meaning people – probably put in this firewood not because they thought it was authentic, but because it was an object easily available elsewhere in Second Life which they didn’t need to custom create. But it ends up masking one of the more powerful details about the conflict, which you’d get from any competent newspaper account or from looking at photos of refugee camps.

The problems of virtual Darfur doesn’t mean that Second Life and other metaverse spaces won’t have a social impact in the future. But asking a technology to rise to this social purpose as this stage of its development may be unfair and unwise. It’s possible that hundreds, possibly even thousands of Second Life users will encounter this space – James speculates that, for some, it will be the first time they’ve ever thought about Darfur. This worries me – if you’re so deeply disconnected from the reality I live in that a Second Life space is the first time you’ve encountered this issue, then we don’t have much common context. (Do such people exist? Do they vote?)

The reason Second Life bugs me is not the fact that it slows my computer to a crawl, that most of my fellow characters are impossibly thin girls with overinflated breasts, or that most of the activity of the world seems to rotate around real estate and sex. (It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.) No, it’s the cyberutopianism. What bothers me is the fact that every presentation I’ve heard from Linden Labs has focused on the social implications of the space, the ways interaction in these new spaces will change fundamental economic and social dynamics of people all around the world.

These guys sound a lot like I did a decade ago. In the early days of Tripod, I spent a lot of time telling people that personal publishing on the Internet would change politics and communications all around the world, helping increase international understanding and bring universal peace… or something like that. My CEO finally convinced me to shut up and tell people the Internet would help corporations sell cars and mutual funds to recent college graduates. That let us raise money, which let us develop a technology that now, a decade later, looks a little like the precursor to blogging… which is helping some people start to change communications and politics… though only those with the money, knowledge and language skills to publish on the ‘net.

The fact that Second Life and immersive web technologies won’t revolutionize the world tomorrow isn’t a reason to stop working on them. Perhaps ten years from now, we’ll be able to see a line that connects from Second Life to whatever we’re all using everyday, the same way we can trace a path from NCSA Mosaic to today’s web tools. Or perhaps Second Life will look like a mistake and a dead end, like VRML, the last 3D technology I remember people getting this excited about.

In the meantime, wars will be fought, natural disasters will drive people from their homes, and political dissidents will be arrested and imprisoned. The web, now twelve years old, will help draw attention to people affected by these situations, improve reporting and give us voices from people on the ground… though we’ll still need professional journalists, real-world NGOs and, possibly, military forces to intervene in situations like Darfur. It’s not that the metaverse doesn’t matter. It’s just not a very high priority yet.

James Au tells me he’s interested in the virtual Darfur less because of its emotional impact and more because of the emergent behavior around it. You see, shortly after virtual Darfur launched, it was destroyed by “griefers”, people who get pleasure from annoying other Second Life users. (Au reports this situation with the lead: “Second Life has a Darfur, so it’s sad (though not surprising) that it has its own janjaweed, too.” This is another example of something I’d term a potentially unwise rhetorical strategy…)

Au reports that a group of Second Lifers who enjoy portraying comic-book characters – the Green Lantern Core – decided to patrol “Camp Darfur” and prevent future griefer damage. Their intervention wasn’t opposed by the Sudanese government, didn’t require the UN to organize a blue-helmeted security force and didn’t require US troops… if only it were so easy to solve problems in this life.

50 thoughts on “Virtual Darfur, and why I don’t get invited to technology conferences anymore”

  1. I don’t have much to say except “wow” and I’m glad you brought all these issues up, even if it means you will not get invited back again :-) In my brief life, I’ve witnessed enough fashion shows organized by sorority girls seeking to help children in developing countries get free plastic surgery for their cleft palettes to know that superficial attempts to an engage an issue that are devoid of real understanding are more irksome – and potentially more dangerous – than sheer ignorance.

  2. Wow. Thank you for that. I’ve been having the same debates with the people at Linden labs for a while. Also, best line I have read this month so far: “It reminds me of Reagan’s America, without the cocaine.”

  3. so ethan, does this mean you won’t be playing second life this weekend at beyond broadcast?


    but seriously, a great read, man. i had a somewhat, kinda similar discussion at sxsw over the concept of building blocks; like how exactly does/can CC and microformats positively affect the relative degree of independence for people on the other side of the divide. i didn’t make a friend of tantek celik with the question, but hey, sometimes you have to ask the question no one else will.

    see you friday.

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  5. My disjointed early morning thoughts:

    “(Do such people exist? Do they vote?)”

    I’d guess that the number of Americans who could tell you anything about Darfur if pressed (besides that it is a tragedy) numbers only in the tens of millions. (I can’t find any American survey data, but I did find one survey saying that only 36% of Africans said they had read a ‘great deal or fair amount’ about Darfur.) So yes, such people exist, and vote, even if most of them have never used Second Life. (Since the ignorant are likely the majority of Americans, they are likely the majority of Second Life users too.)

    I wouldn’t say that it is ‘unfair’ to criticize the people building the virtual Darfur, exactly, but it is a waste of time and energy. Like the sorority girl fundraisers mentioned above, the effort is shallow, and weirdly out of place, but the other option, 99.99% of the time, is going to be ignorance and/or inaction. So let them feel like they are doing something, let them raise some awareness (however little, however skewed) and spend your energy doing the right thing (or providing helpful critiques like the one about the logs) instead of skewering them.

    And as to the suggestion that these folks build a website… there are a ton of those already, Ethan; one more really won’t help anyone. Should the web be the first place people seek to spread information in the first world? Of course. Asking them to stop there seems shortsighed, though.

    “It’s not that the metaverse doesn’t matter. It’s just not a very high priority yet.”

    I’m glad someone is doing it, though. If we stopped doing things because they weren’t doable in Africa, and we waited to do them until all the problems of Africa were solved, we’d be waiting a long, long time before we made any progress anywhere. :/

  6. Hi Ethan,

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the core team involved in the virtual Camp Darfur have been intimately involved with real-world Darfur protests across the US, including the major rally that happened recently in DC. They’ve also been creating websites trying to raise awareness and demand action, like CampDarfur.org, along with other virtual activities. So it’s not like they’re isolating their activities just to raising awareness in SL. They’re all complementary activities.

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Camp Darfur over the last few weeks with my avie Abdi Kembla, whom I coincidentally modeled on a Somali refugee and former child soldier. I was attracted to Camp Darfur largely because I know a lot of the people building it, and they’re no strangers to real-life anti-genocide campaigns. I would imagine they’re as frustrated as I am when I visit Camp Darfur and find almost no one there. On several occasions they’ve schedule events there, but there seems to be some kind of policy feud going on that keeps getting the events de-listed. And with griefers now attacking the camp multiple times a week, there’s very little time for them to do much besides clean up the mess.

    I agree there’s a lot more that could be done to make it accurate – places in SL are always too pristine and lack the necessary chaos of RL. Your firewood comment is a perfect example. But the camp is still an experiment, a work-in progress. Given the insane amount of people-hours that get put into designing islands in SL, I can’t fault a small group of anti-genocide campaigners for spending time trying to learn how to build so they start modeling a virtual refugee camp. Hopefully some day in the near future they’ll get it looking more accurately and organize events where people can attend, learn more about refugees and genocide, and hopefully be motivated to get involved. And for the millions of people who aren’t second lifers, I’m hoping the parallel websites they’re designing will do some good as well.


  7. Luis, your comments are a reminder of why it’s taken me so long to get this post up – I knew I was going to get it wrong in several places. The “do they exist?” question was meant to refer to “Do people who will learn about events only through Second Life, not through newspapers exist?” I certainly agree that many people don’t understand or know about the situation in Darfur – I was wondering whether anyone well connected enough to spend much time in Second Life is so disconnected from the rest of electronic media that they’ve missed this story.

    On the issue of whether people should just build another website – my point was simply that the web reaches far, far more people than SL at this point. I agree that lots of the Darfur awareness efforts are running together – I wish we were focusing on the other side of the story – helping refugees in Darfur, Chad and outside the African continent tell their stories if the “awareness” space is already overcrowded. That was the core issue that got me thinking about this issue – that collecting new data is more important, in my opinion, than disseminating data.

    On the “If we stopped doing things because they weren’t doable in Africa” point – that’s really not my point, and I’m sorry if it reads that way. I’m glad people are working on Second Life and this set of technologies. I hope that, a decade from now, they’re useful for the people I’m most interested in hearing from. They aren’t now, and I think SL and other projects do themselves a disservice when they claim they are. If, in 1994, I’d focused my rhetoric on the early web on its potential benefits for Africa, people would have given me as hard a time as I’m currently giving the SLers.

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  9. Wow. As someone who knows nothing about metaverse and not as much as I should about Darfur – but I do care -I’m very glad you’re in there challenging assumptions that this is unproblematic.

  10. Andy hit on a number of the challenges we faced when trying to create a “realistic” refugee camp in the virtual world Second Life. In UNHCR camps there is no big hunk of firewood, no abundant aid packages overflowing while everyone gets the food they need. We talk about that disconnect in the stories and scripted items hidden throughout the camp. In our beta build we could not recreate the fear and struggle that the displaced face, nor did we want to trivialize it by whitewashing it and making it look nice and neat for our virtual guests.

    Instead we chose to create an abandoned camp, one where janjaweed had chased everyone out and nothing was left but the infrastructure. We kept in the stories and tried to show more of an “idealized” camp. To balance that we are adding videos shot from the iACT series in Chad’s refugee camps, so that visitors can see more of this life from the inside.

    We cannot presume to tell the Darfuri story in full nor can we get millions of displaced folks online to share…..but we can bring in more storytellers and help more refugees share their stories through videos and other means. Camp Darfur is part of a much larger effort, just one way that we are trying to illustrate a very complicated situation in simple ways. We do not pretend to be the last source for info, instead linking to over a half-dozen sites from the BBC to sudanreeves.com so that those interested can learn more from news sources.

    We are not raising money; there are many other worthy aid organizations doing that and we also link to other campaigns like the Genocide Intervention Network, which recently raised over $250,000 to fund peacekeepers to stabilize the region.

    The builders on Camp Darfur in Second Life spent months researching and learning as they built this space; this is a team that is deeply engaged in educational work around these issues. I have witnessed them set up live camps in LA, DC, SF and now in cities around the US as we bring speakers to schools and spiritual centers to raise awareness on this issue. Some of the Camp Darfur team plans to travel on a humanitarian mission to the region later this year, while others traveled there in 2005 and will be sharing their photos and videos at Camp Darfur in Second Life.

    But yes….we are still limited by a medium that understands abundance more than scarcity, a disconnected metaverse where we cannot begin to understand the horror of being chased from our homes. I’m glad you’re here pointing out the discrepancies and encouraging us all to think about ways to make this experience more real for all of us.

  11. Evonne, thanks for taking the time to explain some of the thinking behind the SL “Camp Darfur”. It wasn’t very clear to me whether the camp was abandoned as a consequence of how SL’s restrictions on ‘bots or whether it was a conscious decision. I’m glad that the experience of building the space was helpful for the builders and connected you with the other “Camp Darfur” projects. And I’ll be interested to see how future releases of the space change to deal with challenges like the firewood problem I pointed out.

    That said, I’m still unpersuaded that the months you and fellow builders spent on the space can have the impact you’d like given the current state of the medium – the small userbase, the difficulty with creating realistic spaces and the problems with getting users to explore the space.

    My original reason for engaging with the question was to suggest that these sorts of spaces are not yet what Second Life does best, and that Second Life’s potential as an advocacy platform shouldn’t be the focus of the cyberoptimist rhetoric around Second Life. The goal wasn’t to suggest that it’s not worth engaging in the sorts of experimentation and exploration you’re doing in the hopes – in the long term – of making this a better medium. I’ve obviously chosen to focus my work on another part of the problem – getting inputs from people around the world – I acknowledge that these inputs need to be synthesized and that, in the long run, synthesizing them in virtual spaces may be a worthwhile goal. At the moment, I think the tools and the audience are in too early a stage for this to be a space with much impact.

  12. Excellent post, Ethan. Thoughtful and challenging.

    NGOs and activists are always trying to figure out how to use their time most efficiently to raise awareness for their given cause. Sometimes we, as a whole, engage a medium that pays big dividends, (email, blogs) and some times we chase white rabbits.

    I think you are right to bring attention to the shortcomings of the Darfur activists in their efforts to create a SL Darfur. The cause is definitely an important one to me personally, but I wholeheartedly agree with your points that they are targeting a too-small audience and unintentionally coming across as presumptious. (In defense of the Darfur activists, I think they are doing an excellent job of bringing the issue to the public’s eye, and seem to be creative, risk-taking thinkers).

    Those of us who work for NGOs need to be aware of the failures (and the successes) of causes successfully utilizing new technologies so we can learn how to better leverage our time. Coming across as flip does no one any good, and by reading critiques like yours, we can learn better for next time.

  13. “…and why I don’t get invited to technology conferences anymore.”

    Do you mean why you *do*? It was great to meet you this past weekend, Ethan, and I look forward to it again. Remember, I know where you live online and will be tapping you directly for input on the roadmap, detailing the challenges and roadblocks around just this issue. You are needed.

    It might be interesting for you and some of your readers to check out some recent non-SL “serious games,” most of which I haven’t played so I’m not passing any judgement, just passing them on as this is a growing area.

    A few recent entries: The USC Center on Public Diplomacy just announced the winners of their Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games contest; mtvU just released Darfur Is Dying, and the Game Design Challenge at this year’s Game Developers Conference was to create a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize. Also check out Games for Change, “An organization dedicated to bringing together non-profits and their partners to explore the use of digital games to advance organizational missions and societal change.”

    You’re right that it’s early, but time keeps on slippin’, slippin’ into the… and gaming is growing bigger than Hollywood, so you know this isn’t going away. I’d love to see some more constructive criticism, from everybody, on how these interactive efforts can be made better, more impacting, more pro-active, and better linked to real life communities (this is criticism the designers desperately want!).

  14. By the way, I’d like to respond to Jennifer’s comment as well.

    There is a big difference between the tangible benefits of “fashion shows organized by sorority girls” and the SL Darfur. Such events raise the money that directly pays for the surgeries. It’s not about awareness, and it’s not very theoretical. People are raising money to change the lives of others. Frankly, I can imagine sorority girls spending their time/money on less important things than changing the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in the poorest countries.

    I don’t view such events as irksome or dangerous. They have a valuable goal which they often meet: raising money. There’s lots of wonderful causes and ideas out there, over one million NGOs are registered in the US alone. Sometimes awareness can only go so far, money is needed to implement ideas and turn them into reality.

    What can be more irksome than people wanting to give money is people wanting to get involved if their skills are not relevant. People that hopped on a plane to SE Asia the day after a tsunami to help out took up food, shelter and attention from NGOs that were supposed to be focused on local. Ditto Katrina. I agree with your sentiment that misplaced intentions can harm causes. Unrestricted funds via non-staff-intensive fundraising, however, is always appreciated.

    Disclaimer: I work at Interplast, the first international humanitarian organization to provide free reconstructive in devloping countries (yes, we do lots of cleft palates). Interplast has never, to my knowledge, raised any money through a sorority or fashion show. We really focus on education of health providers in developing countries, as our model has changed from one based more on mission trips to one that focuses on local empowerment.

  15. Thank you Evonne, well said. I am, also, one of the co-creators of SL Camp Darfur; there is really not much I can add to what Evonne has already said. Except maybe, to echo her thank you. To you, Hamlet Au and the other journalists/bloggers that have taken the time to make comment on and bring unique perspective (not always flattering) to Camp Darfur and our SL effort to raise awareness about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. We appreciate any and all feedback, positive or negative, it only helps us to make it better and clearer.

    I was encouraged to read that you have been out to the camp several times. We appreciate repeat visitors. We are updating the camp, adding new information and posting current action opportunities, on an ongoing basis. For example, new to SL Camp Darfur this week:

    *Camp Darfur, Hollywood: May 13th & May 14th, 2006
    *Links to the i-Act Videos (in fact some of our members have been to the region)
    *Fast for Darfur, take part in a global action

    Keep stopping by, there are a number of events and releases in the works to engage you further in our Save Darfur effort.

    [ … ] Given that roughly 100,000 people log into Second Life in a given month – compared to
    roughly one billion using the Internet as a whole – I suspect people trying to call attention to
    global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space. [ … ]

    You question the wise-ness of spending so much time reaching out to a virtually ; ) small audience. As Evonne has already commented, SL is only one of the directions we have taken our awareness raising efforts. We also have a web presence (two sites), a roving real life Camp Darfur, public speaking engagements and rallies. That aside, I believe that in order to make a difference we need to collectively raise our voices ’till they reach such a volume that they can’t help but be heard. Every voice counts, every voice matters, no matter where it comes from. I
    think Second Life is worth the effort to gather those voices. During the build and subsequent maintenance of SL Camp Darfur I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some of our visitors. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them had not heard of Darfur or the Sudan and what was/is happening there. We’ve reached an audience that otherwise would not have learned of this humanitarian crisis. We’ve given them information and opportunity to act that they otherwise would not have been aware of. I know some of them have gone on to sign postcards, attend rallies, join us in real life and more. That, for me, makes it worth the effort. Where do you draw the line? When do you say that audience isn’t big enough? Where do you stop when it is innocent human life that is hanging in the balance? We have crossed the line in to Second Life, and I for one am very happy we did. Who knows? Maybe that one last voice that puts us over the top will come from the smallest of small in SL Whoville.

    Instead of mourning a genocide, what if you could stop one? Visit StopGenocideNow.org;
    CampDarfur.org; Second Life Camp Darfur to find out what you can do today to help end the

    Thank you for providing one more opportunity to keep spreading the word.

    ~ Zeke ~

  16. Ciao, spero di non arrecarvi troppo disturbo.. Ho pensato che si debba porre fine al silenzio dei media italiani sul genocidio in atto nel Darfur, così sto lanciando questa iniziativa: Italian Blogs For Darfur. Mi sembra che possa essere efficace l’idea delle email alle emittenti televisive. Se trovate l’iniziativa interessante, vi sarei veramente grato se poteste iniziare un tam-tam, in modo tale da creare un piccolo gruppo…

    How to join Italian Blogs for Darfur

    People die in Darfur!
    Join Italian Blogs for Darfur now!
    __________________________________________________ ________
    Send an email to Italian Blogs for Darfur with your web address.
    Then, add our logo on the front page of your blog with a link to us(you can take the code here).
    Call your friends too, and tell’em what’s happening in Darfur.
    Thank you!


  17. Ethan makes some valid points about investing time in Second Life when there are other places to focus attention. For our team we decided to build virtually because it offered us opportunities we could not otherwise afford. Dozens of new visitors from around the world visit Camp Darfur in Second Life every day and we have another tool for educational media.

    I like the Second Life platform as a tool for building new media; today I finished a comic book based on the Camp Darfur experience that can help teach kids about genocide and displacement. By using the Second Life medium in innovative ways we bring more attention to Darfur, in hopes that our little ripples will bring faster peace and stability. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start….we encourage all of you to share your resources. global voices and stories so that we can make this a more authentic experience!

    We are bringing in new videos, speakers and events to Camp Darfur and we are constantly refining our work. I agree with the believability of the firewood that Ethan mentioned….it’s amazing how hard it is to find scarcity in the metaverse!

    Our impact may not be much, reaching a few hundred or maybe a few thousand here and there through blogs, articles and events. Then again, in less than a month of launching Camp Darfur we saw thousands in cities around the country gather on this issue and enough pressure to get peace moving on the ground. The Camp Darfur banners we painted in LA ended up in the NYTimes and Washington Post and we hope to take those messages directly back to Darfur later this year.

    We can see impact and there’s no reason to stop until those communication gaps Ethan mentioned are thorougly bridged. We can see enough to know that we aren’t seeing much and there’s a lot more to this story than meets our second eyes.

    Virtual activism is not without its difficulties: we have had at least four griefer attacks in Second Life along with multiple hacks to our other websites at crucial times just before live webcasts and launches. We have had griefers flying around with idiotic names like Jewish Barbeque. We’ve also welcomed legislators, writers, CEOs, artists and activists to keep up the pressure and get involved @ Camp Darfur. I’ve never witnessed this type of public dialogue before and we’re glad to see people talking about it.

  18. I completely agree with you about SL’s lack of applicabiity to the developing world (ie most of the world). A few months back I wrote a similarly critical post about an SL project called Democracy Island. I even tried to get Jerry Paffendorf to comment on it, but without luck (although I see his on this list). There’s a difference between being a nay-sayer and a not-this-way-sayer. One negates the other reforms. Or am I not making sense? Here’s the SL post:

  19. Fascinating and valuable post, Ethan. My attempt at a reply worthy of it here:


    I do want to add that you’re totally right that my describing Camp Darfur griefers as “virtual janjaweed” was a poor word choice. It was shorthand to capture the story quickly, but in retrospect, it may seem to diminish the grave danger posed by the real janjaweed. Totally not my intent, so I regret that sloppiness.

  20. ‘m glad you took up the challenge here, Ethan.

    I don’t think the issue is to say it’s a waste of time to work in new technology and virtual worlds just because people can’t have access to them in Africa or Eurasia. It would be wrong to say that just as much as it would be foolish to say that you can’t be a fellow at Harvard University and run an Internet site and blogs to facilitate international communication when there are still so many people in the world without even clean drinking water, let alone Internet dial-up. Facile guilt-tripping about people in shiny electronic virtual worlds with disposable income and DSL lines being irrelevant to, or even responsible for, people up to their necks in blood and mud in the thirld world does nothing for the people in the mud and doesn’t harness any of the power of the people in the shiny VWs.

    As I noted before in the debate about Cory and Pathfinder Linden’s first presentation to you all, it’s beside the point to dismiss the gated techno VW of SL — you might as well bitch that many white North Americans have cable TV with hundreds of channels while many black Africans don’t even have television sets or something. The existence of the Global South is no justification for such Global North paralysis, nor is the existence of the Global South merely a function of the Global North failing to transfer all its wealth and knowledge, or a call to equalize all technological accessibility. It’s far more complex than that, and facile denunciations of the have-nots on behalf of the haves doesn’t add to the possessions of the have-nots one wit.

    I also think it’s premature to dismiss SL because the sheer acceleration and growth of this and other worlds and the sheer amount of man-hours and money put into them are making them forces to conjure with that will make them attractive to more serious institutions (and even increasingly accessible to all the people whose interests you represent).

    I agree that Hamlet appearing to rhapsodize about Camp Darfur as an inworld happening complete with the Green Hornet guards and his horribly inappropriate analogies of griefers to the Janjaweed really come off wierd when he’s prepared simultaneously to cynically blog in the vein of “it’s a nice day to march against a genocide, bring your dog”. He’s essentially declaring such marches ineffective and pointless and the people doing them vain, heedless creatures, but yet it’s ok to celebrate an inworld happening just because its on his beat. “We’re studying the emergent behaviour” is a chronic Linden comment these days — and this from people who really have no credentials to study behaviour — they aren’t sociologists, anthropologists, or psychologists, any of them, but technicians gathering server statistics.

    I visited Camp Darfur several times. I’ve been in refugee camps and had the same impression you did — this was so *clean* and the tents so *neat* and it was empty. It’s inevitable that it’s hard to make things look sick, broken, and distressed in these really geometrical and shiny synthetic worlds – the organic quality of messy life is always missing. Still, the pictures and facts presented had some resonance. As I was there, several people flew in to visit who were new, and had never heard of Darfur — yes, a good share of Americans probably don’t know what it is, given poor education and the funnelling of the foreign news.

    Marshall McLuhan talked about television being a great reducer, reducing events to the size of a box and relativizing them. I worry that SL has that effect, and also has the wierd effect of amplifying and emotionally gripping people out of proportion, too. It’s very easy to get the bends coming in and out of Second Life. That is, for that newbie, learning how to get the box off his head became as compelling and confusing as comprehending the news that people were dying in the dust a world away.

    But if we’re going to get down to it, any kind of technology around Darfur in the advocacy sense is inadequate. I’ve been in RL campaigns where various youth groups, now totally accustomed to doing everything on email, get frustrated when the mail begins to bounce from addresses like the African Union’s home page . They’re used to having everything *work*. And as you know from these distressed places, things *don’t work* and that’s why you’re there. The “not-working” of these places is often the hardest thing to convey.

    Faxes, phone-calls, ok, marginally better but…is this situation going to be fixed by having a million Americans pressure Bush, some of whom will come from learning about it in virtual worlds, who then pressures NATO to intervene? Hardly. A much more complicated advocacy strategy with all the players from the Arab League to China to Russia to the EU must be devised — and even that will likely prove ineffective given the long-term complex disaster that this involves. It’s THAT long-term complexity of the multilateral context that something like SL may be of greater server in.

    And, if along the way, we enlighten a few people here or there to think a little bit about something besides their orc-killing and cybering for the day, I suppose it’s worth it.

    I’m going to say something you’ll probably hate. And that is that I don’t think the socially interesting features of these virtual worlds, or the very exciting possibility of Second Life per se, is about trying to hitch this laggy and clunky thingie up to RL (it will get better technologically; RL tragedies like Darfur will get worse). In fact, I think the Lindens are just doing all that way too soon and in far too biased a manner — today, let’s bring in the Suicide Girls, tomorrow, let’s buy virtual trees that will enable real trees to be planted in San Francisco.

    No, I think the value is in building and interacting and studying the world in its own terms, and gradually folding into that world the virtual presence of various institutions and people. The problems the world over, whether Darfur or increasing erosion of civil rights in America, are rooted in the human heart and human relations and human institutions. It’s too facile to say they can be fixed with this or that external debt-relief or educational program or troop interjection. All those things help, but they can’t work until the consciousness itself is changed and the forms of cooperation themselves are changed. The value of SL comes in working out those inworld issues that are actually supremely basic. How can I get along with others on a sim? How can I balance my need for freedom and their need for freedom and not have it clash? How can I find the right mix of security and openness? These seem trivial if looked at as a tiny avatar problem, but they’re actually quite important if seen as the microcosm of the real world that never got left behind, and which permeates the virtual world. Remember how Darfur got started? The Darfurians rebelled about research-sharing against a tyrannical government.

    It’s good you represent their interests and you’re there for the people of Darfur. With that kind of intensity, you’re going to see other people as pale and limp in their response, no matter how you slice it. I suggest it’s not the Metaverse that’s not ready, because it already got started without any of us, it’s you that aren’t ready simply because you’re preoccupied with very important work elsewhere. It’s going to happen without you, however. Why, even your own Berkman Institute bought a private island LOL.

    Jerry Paffendorf said elsewhere, high on the Kool-Aid, that soon we’d have this big mash-up of SL, Google-Earth, what-all, and it would deliver all these statistics like health information instantly in 3-D replicable prototypable format so that governments couldn’t hide from the facts of various crises. Well, as David Rieff has written eloquently in all his books about the humanitarian response, the problem is never failure to have information. While it’s true we can’t even get a handle on how many people have actually died in Darfur, we do have copious, copious amounts of information from everything from the human rights groups to the UN people who are engaged there. And the issue is not getting such information to the Security Coucil to pass a resolution — the problem is the age-old problem of their clashing interests, and their clashing worldviews and their stakes.

  21. > Well, as David Rieff has written eloquently in all his books about the humanitarian response, the problem is never failure to have information.

    But there are breakthroughs to be made in how to display information and engage people around it. A media-rich Google Earth (or similar projects from Microsoft and others) will go a long, long way. I fully believe that and want to work to make it happen. It’s building an interface to the real planet in realtime. Think about that. That goes so far beyond a speckled explosion of blogs, web pages, news reports and video clips. The system of the world comes into focus, and its blockages will be *very* apparent. More apparent than just posting on blogs.

    > Jerry Paffendorf said elsewhere, high on the Kool-Aid, that soon we’d have this big mash-up of SL, Google-Earth, what-all, and it would deliver all these statistics like health information instantly in 3-D replicable prototypable format so that governments couldn’t hide from the facts of various crises.

    Sheesh, I’m not nuts :), change come from many sides, hard and soft, new technologies and new outlooks, new kinds of collective action that aren’t all “tekki wikkinista”–but, I have to say, humans are so darned hardwired to do the same things over and over again that transformations in the technological environment are, as you know, what most often end up changing behavior, often so subtley we don’t even realize it. Gotta work together on these various sides. One foot in front of the other (the right foot walks! no the left foot walks! wait, they both do it together).

    And hey, high on Kool-Aid, have you ever read your blog? ;) Love it.

  22. Jerry, you seem to be making a case for new technologies to deliver enhanced human compassion and motivation for action along with enhanced graphical representation. I’m not really prepared to endorse that claim yet. They can indeed deliver enhanced immersiveness and emotionality, but I’m not sure that translates to enhanced compassion and motivation to action.

    After all, we already do have a great deal of pretty emotionally wrenching stuff. It seems to me that you (and Hamlet who has called for this in a recent blog) may not realize, but what Ethan surely knows, is that the U.S. State Department had the satellite photos of the “before” and “after” of the Darfurian villages, for example long ago, long before they even made a determination of genocide to have taken place. And there were some people within State who quietly gave these images to NGOs to start to get attention going. And eventually they were published all over. If you need more details about this contact me. The before and after photos of utter devastation, showing thriving and green villages with huts and cattle one day and brown, burnt holes the next day are out there on websites, on CDS, in booklets, in brochures, in UN reports, in live events, in videos, and on TV. The presence of all this multi-media effort in and of itself has raised awareness, has raised money for the AMIS troops, and has perhaps mitigated slightly here and there the plight of people, but we honestly can’t say it has “saved Darfur” by any stretch of the imagination. Media doesn’t save people. People save people. They save them not with media. But with concrete help. Media is just a medium : )

    You think that if you can do a kewl and mashed-up groovy GoogleSLice or whatever you will call your mash-up of Google Earth-SL-whatever and put it out in front of the public, or present it to the right people, why, they’ll just “get it”.

    So they see a kewl thing? What will they do? If anything, the danger is in creating even more disaster porn than we already have glutting the Internet. The danger is in objectifying or commodifying or undermining the meaning of the suffering of others, dehumanizing the inhuman further.

    It’s never the lack of information; it’s the lack of political will; this is what Rieff’s and all the other books like William Shawcross’ work are about. We’re in a global village, sure. Now you’re going to put the global village’s statistics and images right into the palm of our hand, literally, in a palm-pilot or a hand-held thingie or an SL screen. So?

    Like Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts:

    “About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters: how well they understood
    Its human position; how it takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood:”

    Take this poem literaly, if you will, and imagine that while someone is dying in Darfur, you’re putting their death on Hi 8 and feeding it to an ipod, but guess what, the people you are trying to reach have literally opened another Window on their computer, Jerry, they’ve opened up WoW, or their spreadsheet, or a pron site, or ebay, and they may glance at your Window, but how will you get them to stick…to do something?

    You get an email to Kofi Annan’s or George Bush’s or Tony Blair’s assistants themselves, just a heartbeat away from the powerful decision makers, but…they weren’t moved. They were dully walking along.

    The children are always skating at the edge of the pond when something miraculous is trying to be born. You’re going to secondlife the global village’s state of health to…somebody…anybody…everybody…and guess what, Jerry, they aren’t going to care and they are going to keep on skating at the edge of the pond.

    They secondlifed Darfur, and it got griefed by the goons. Perhaps this will teach the builders something, or all of us something. It’s a good thing to secondlife Darfur. But let’s not pretend a better presentation of Darfur is going to do the firstlifing needed. What happened to change the hearts of the Janjaweed or the goons? Nothing.

    The speckled explosion resolves into place, and it turns out to just be like Neal Cassady said in “On the Road,” “It’s all about the big grab from Washington to Moscow”. What really do you think you’re going to see when the world’s speckled explosions come into focus like tea leaves?

    I really do think that your work on the outside of the world-Metaverse and the mash-up has to match more work on the inside of the world.

  23. Great discussion.

    My only addition to this is that people have difficulty dealing with the horrors of situations like Darfur or Bosnia or Rwanda. In the face of stories of armed militias committing atrocities against others and starving refugees it’s hard not to shut down your ability to empathize with the plight of other human beings. You feel somehow guilty and powerless at the same time.

    So creating a space where people can encounter some of the reality of a horrific situation while also being empowered with information and ideas for how they can make a difference starts to look like a reasonably important contribution to the fight. People who might never surf over to “Save Darfur” website or watch a CNN special on the Sudan might visit a virtual Darfur camp just for the novelty of it.

    It’s just another way of meeting people where they are instead of where you wish that they were.

    More long-winded comments at:


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  27. Ethan, your comment:

    “When I consider the issues I’m most interested in, collecting information – especially from people who are actually affected by these issues – is a much higher priority than presenting this data in a 3D format.”

    OK, I’ll buy that. You have your priorities and interest; other have theirs. However, maybe a little parallel experimentation and discovery might turn up something we haven’t expected.

    I suppose there is a place for folks to determine the One Correct Way, set priorities, and then Execute With Precision the most appropriate way. On the other hand, maybe there are other ways as yet undiscovered.

    I guess criticizing the camp for being unrealistic is a little like presuming that “See Spot Run” is about dogs, not reading. Immersive spaces are a new medium of communication, and we are just beginning a literacy/literature spiral that is just as unpredictable as when folks learned to read and write after Gutenberg. So maybe we can cut this project a little slack and just call it an experiment in exploring immersive environments for better world activities.

    My wanderings around the world indicate that there is a very active use of video games by kids of very modest family income. Are we going to export Mortal Combat and Grand Theft Auto to these kids, or is there something else that we can offer? I don’t hold much hope for “beating people over the head with virtue” but at the same time, think we need to figure out an attractive model to deal with some of the finer qualities of humanity that we seek to promote.

    Maybe Virtual Darfur isn’t the silver bullet you seek in your priorities, but it seems to me that it is a good experiment and learning experience.
    I don’t see how the SL activities in any way collide with your priorities… different

  28. Thanks for the comments, Tom. My point with the post wasn’t to dismiss Second Life as a whole, but to question the utility of the tool for that specific purpose. I don’t disagree that the tool could be helpful for some users. It wasn’t useful to me, and I think it’s less helpful that some other ways to present that information.

    I decided to post the piece because I’m interested in taking critical looks at what does and doesn’t work in using technology for social change. Given how much time and money is spent on using technologies for social change, I think it’s important to take a close look at what does and doesn’t work so that people can decide what tools to use for their purposes.

    Could Second Life be a useful tool for social change? Yes. Would I recommend it now to someone doing a social change campaign? No – because I think there are better ways to spend limited resources.

  29. Pingback: The Skeptic الشكاك » Darfur, the Video Game

  30. Ethan:

    Good on you. I just stumbled on this post via searching around for social justice commentary on Second Life. You’ve said everything I want to say, but better.

  31. Ethan and everyone, thanks for your comments and for helping us refine the Camp Darfur experience as a virtual campaign and as a live series of awareness events happening around the country. Here’s a breakdown on the effort, time and $$ that go into this work:

    A team of four volunteer avatars spent about a month to build the virtual refugee camp. We add new items, links to videos from the border camps in Chad and action items as they become available and as our skill in scripting and content development improves. We currently spend very little time there and attendance has dropped significantly once we stopped hosting tours and events — for the summer we chose to let the camp evolve on its own as our team took off for Africa, Camp Darfur live installations, major conferences and events for our other projects.

    For most of us Camp Darfur was a meaningful way to learn the Second Life platform while participating together on a project that means a great deal to us. We volunteered our time as it gave us time to learn and gather images as we dug deeper into the Sudanese experience. The Second Life land was donated and we spent less than $1 to import in textures. Later my NPO spent $1500 (donated by supporters) to print 3500 copies of the Camp Darfur Comix to be distributed at schools, conferences, festivals, ComicCon, Burning Man and Camp Darfur installations around the country.

    The live Camp Darfur experience has been written up in dozens of papers and local TV/media outlets and future camps are planned for New York, Washington, Nevada and California. Connecting people with active groups like the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition we have seen a tremendous upswelling in attention and support given to Darfur at a critical time in their history. Camp Darfur, one piece of that puzzle, has happened with almost no staff and small sponsorships from genocide awareness and humanitarian initiatives that participate in the camps’ awareness activities.

    Tomorrow July 19th we will launch a smartmob action in conjunction with bloggers, youth activists, Darfur advocates and others who are requesting that UN support forces be allowed to enter the country as the African Union forces pull out this fall. Since the May 5th peace signing the violence has grown worse in Darfur, tremendous tribal cleansing continues along the border, in Chad and in Darfur. Only a handful of aid groups, reporters and news sources are able to get in and out of the area, but friends of the Camp Darfur campaign have been traveling to the region to build partnerships to secure humanitarian shipments and future repopulation/redevelopment plans that can help put an end to this crisis. There are many good people caught in a despicable situation and we have an opportunity to do many little things RIGHT NOW by speaking up and continuing to blog DARFUR.

    Right now we need advocates willing to call on their leaders, at home and around the world. This genocide has continued for three years and continues today. Here is one easy way to get involved.

    Jason Miller: ACTION FOR JULY 19

    I know it’s hard to internalize, but it is only because of unprecedented grassroots activism on this issue that the US has taken as much action as it has to date (including billions in aid). But Sudan’s unwillingness to allow UN troops into Darfur to establish security could mean all the US’s efforts to date will be worth ziltch. As a result, it’s critical that those who care about this issue continue to participate in these “activist” requests/events.

    1. On July 19th, ask President Bush to appoint a Special Envoy to Sudan whose only job is to focus on developing an effective policy to solve Sudan’s genocide and oversee reconstruction of the South after its devastating civil war with Khartoum:

    In the past few months, most of the major officials in the executive branch in charge of helping resolve the Darfur genocide have all left, including Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, White House advisor Mike Gerson, Ambassador Mike Ranneberger (Director of the Office of Sudan Programs at the State Department), and the Director of African Affairs at the National Security Council, Dr. Cindy Coureville. At the same time, the situation in Darfur is WORSE than it was when the Darfur Peace Accord was signed on May 5th. It is therefore time for President Bush to assign a prominent, high level Envoy who would help coordinate State Department policy on Sudan. The last Envoy appointed for Sudan, Senator John Danforth, was instrumental in helping end Sudan’s 20+ year civil war between the North and the South.

    Call President Bush to ask for a Special Envoy on Wednesday, July 19th at the following number: 202-456-1111. The paragraph above can serve as a script for the message.

    2. The Save Darfur Coalition is trying to push for more op-eds and letters to the editor to be published in the next few weeks. It is quite surprising how effective op-eds and letters to the editor are in getting people to care about an issue. If you are interested in writing an op-ed or a letter to the editor, please e-mail me and I will send you all the info you need- including a template you can use (you don’t need to know ANYTHING about Darfur to write this op-ed or letter to the editor since the template contains the facts and the places you fill in are those based on your own opinion and personal experience). I am happy to work with you if you are interested in submitting.

    (I will not publish Jason’s email here, but he posted it on our discussions at the Omidyar Network: http://www.omidyar.net/group/sudancrisis/news/56/)

  32. PS — I am sorry to publish only US contacts on this reposted action; there are many leaders worldwide who need to hear what the public would like them to do about Darfur. As with any complex situation please read, explore and ask questions. Talk with your local leaders, media, government and aid groups and ask why we continue to let such senseless violence go without response. Share links with friends, blog about it, go to the Second Life camp and ask why its empty, why the whole space is surrounded by ghosts. Help us make Camp Darfur more interactive; get involved and offer suggestions to help us improve.

    evonne heyning
    AMO Studio

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  36. Ethan, thanks so much for this thoughtful discussion of the many issues and challenges around trying to use SL for social good. I have many of the same concerns, but it seems to be a matter of HOW – not WHETHER – social action will happen in SL. You’ve already got politicians visiting, etc.

    In fact, there are a group of nonprofit-types who have been meeting in SL weekly to discuss the various ways that NPs can establish a presence in SL and use it ti advance their own missions. I wonder if you’d be willing to come join us as a guest speaker some time?

    Finally, regarding the following comment, they’re called “Bush voters.” They live among us.
    if you’re so deeply disconnected from the reality I live in that a Second Life space is the first time you’ve encountered this issue, then we don’t have much common context. (Do such people exist? Do they vote?)

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  39. ethan, i don’t know if you know, but there was a relevant article in the atlantic monthly a few years ago, below is the intro…just an fyi:

    The Atlantic Monthly | April 2002
    Seeing Around Corners

    “The new science of artificial societies suggests that real ones are both more predictable and more surprising than we thought.”

    “Growing long-vanished civilizations and modern-day GENOCIDES on computers will probably never enable us to foresee the future in detail—but we might learn to anticipate the kinds of events that lie ahead, and where to look for interventions that might work.”

    by Jonathan Rauch

  40. That looks great, Jordan/Maria – it’s behind a pay firewall on the web, so I may need to get to my local library to read it, but it looks worth the trip…

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