Challenges to Using Second Life on K Street – Part Deux

Continuing the discussion I began in my last post, I spent the better part of the weekend finishing Clay Shirky’s excellent new book and thinking about how Second Life fits into the larger world of public policy-making. Engaging stuff, I know…

There are any number of ways to engage elected and appointed officials and various social media tools that fit in to the ladder of engagement.

For the uninitiated, the “ladder of engagement” is a wonky term that basically denotes how to get someone involved in your cause. Priscilla Brisbane had a great visual that describes it. With a hat tip to Beth Kanter, here it is:

Beth Kanter's Ladder of Engagement

For example, a supporter who signs up for the group’s e-mail list would fall into the “simple actions” silo. In the classic ladder of engagement strategy, that person would then be asked to “click here to take action” (write an e-mail to Congress, for example). If they performed that action, they’d be asked to “tell a friend,” followed perhaps by “host a house party,” then “donate,” etc. etc. While Meetup has a role in organizing the house parties, MoveOn’s primary means of communication is e-mail which they use primarily as a broadcast medium as it’s best suited to leveraging MoveOn’s several million-strong e-mail list.

I think it’s safe to say that Second Life will not be a broadcast medium in terms of advocacy, at least in the short term. Limiting factors include the smallish base of 195,000 active U.S. users (as of March ’08), the high technical hurdles to using SL (both in terms of computer specs and time invested in learning the tool), and the negative impression SL continues to have in the media (the Jon Stewart rant being only the most visible example).

So is SL ready for advocacy?

In a word, “yes.”

In a second word, “but …”

It’s important to define what Second Life does really well. It provides a robust 3-D environment where anyone can create content and share it with all the ease of a social networking tool.

What doesn’t SL do well? Easily enable mass communication. Make it easy for new users to participate. Produce easily segmentable and reportable metrics.

So what advocacy activities are suited to the tool? The answer is that we’re still learning, but I’ve got a few ideas. The one I’ll go into today is, for lack of a better working title…

Second Life = MeetUp on Steroids

While e-mail is certainly a great tool for the citizenry to access their representatives in DC, that ease has made it a victim of the Tragedy of the Commons. Tens of thousands of constituent e-mails overwhelm Congress and the White House every day, mostly generated by the “click here to e-mail your Congressperson” of online advocacy campaigns. As such, the vast majority of e-mails are ignored as mere background noise, serving only to support a media moment (“For Immediate Release: 100,000 MoveOn Members Told Congress to End the War Today”).

Ask any lobbyist and they will tell you that the most important influencing event for policy-makers is the face-to-face meeting. K Streeters base their livelihoods on their personal access to the hands that pull the levers of power in Washington. I believe that Second Life can give people outside of Washington that kind of access and, more importantly, provide for the kind of direct impact that is the greatest benefit of such meetings.

For example, if someone could get a staffer to meet with even a handful of constituents in Second Life on a semi-regular basis, there would be real efficiencies to be had. One, there is no cost for the staffer to fly back to his District and no cost for the constituents to travel to Washington. Second, multi-media content could be presented in a more immersive way (“The proposed toxic waste dump the Senator is supproting will cause me to grow a third arm. Like this! *Yoink*”). Third, SL’s social networking function provides for an easy way to prolong those connections.

The point of this example is that it suits the state of the tool right now.  The limited number of active users makes it best suited to small group interactions while the ability to present information in a novel way (growing the third arm to show the effect of toxic pollution) underscores its influencing capability and provides a platform for continued engagement.

Any Hill types lurking about who’s like to take me up on this idea and put it into practice, feel free to comment or e-mail me at jammingecono [AT] g m a i l [DOT] c o m.

That’s all I have time for today. I’ll talk about another idea tomorrow. Thanks for reading!


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