Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Iranian Opposition's Second Life


by Max Burns

On July 22, a week into Iran's foreign media reporting ban, a group of Iranian protesters gathered on a grassy hill to speak out against Supreme Leader Khamenei's continued support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some wore black T-shirts with a blood-spattered slogan: "Where Is My VOTE?" By midday, the protest had attracted several hundred attendees. One woman arrived wearing little more than a thong swimsuit and a pair of purple angel wings.


second lifeIran's security forces, however, were absent. In a nation with a frighteningly effective intelligence service, Supreme Leader Khamenei was entirely unaware of this protest because it took place in cyberspace. The protesters were concerned citizens from dozens of countries who logged into a synthetic world called Second Life, where millions of users worldwide share one virtual landscape. The protest, planned several days before, traveled around the world by way of virtual word-of-mouth. Those who wanted to voice outrage only needed Internet access.

Second Life is one of many synthetic worlds, places that exist only on computers, where users create avatars — virtual representations of themselves — and interact with users worldwide as easily as if they were in a single room. The technology behind Second Life makes its synthetic world flexible enough to fit any interest. There are thousands of unique worlds-in-miniature in Second Life, all created by individual users who pay Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, for the privilege of creation.

One of the most active Iranian protest and discussion worlds is Club Habibi, described as a "Middle Eastern Oasis" where avatars can purchase region-themed clothing and command their characters to dance a virtual version of an Arab belly dance. Over 9,200 avatars pass through Club Habibi every hour. Some merely explore for a few minutes and fly off, while others meet up with virtual friends from places as far-flung as Damascus and Denver. Unsurprisingly, conversation often leads to Iran's electoral problems, where real-life Iranians can express themselves and carry their message beyond the locked-down borders of Khamenei's temporal dominion.

While places like Club Habibi provide a free virtual forum for Iranians to spread their message, other Second Life venues provide a more somber experience. Hundreds of Second Life players captured international media attention as early as June 25 after announcing plans for a "Virtual Vigil" in memory of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters killed by Iranian security forces. The vigil, which lasted nearly two hours, relied entirely on word-of-mouth to sustain the flow of virtual candle-holding mourners.

The vigil proved so successful that its organizers, a Second Life group named "Support Iran," announced ambitious plans to continue the vigil indefinitely. Nearly two months later, a casual visitor can still find several Second Life avatars diligently holding candles and placards in support of Iran's nascent democratic movement.


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