The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.
This is the second in a two part series.
Several of the '08 presidential candidates have campaign offices in Second Life (SL), an online virtual world. The virtual offices are typically lush and modern, set in locations such as green hillsides and waterfronts. The question, though, is whether there is any real point to campaigning a Second Life.
The Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama SL campaign offices are not officially affiliated with the real life campaigns, although the RL staffs are apparently aware of them, albeit in a somewhat unsure way. The Edwards campaign wrote an angry blog post about vandalism to the SL Edwards office by suspected Republican pranksters, but when they blogged on OneWeb day about Edwards' involvement in the internet, they never mentioned Second Life. While the campaigns undoubtedly never want to turn down an opportunity to have another outlet for publicity, particularly anything that makes them seem cool and Campaign 2.0, they don't seem to have any ideas for how they can use this virtual world to get votes and (real) money. And with the potential for embarrassment in the anything goes, anonymous world of Second Life, they probably want to remain able to run away from any possible public relations disasters.
Mike Gravel is the only candidate whose campaign has an official relationship with its SL office. An avatar going by the name of Astrophysicist McCallister runs the SL Gravel campaign. In real life, he is the Colorado State Director for Gravel.
I asked McCallister about the purpose of having a campaign office in SL. McCallister said they are simply there to provide information. Interested people can just drop by, look around the headquarters, and find out about Gravel and his stances on various issues and plans if elected. The SL campaign has platforms for, well, each platform; each area has a screenshot of the associated Gravel YouTube page that when clicked, will take you to that page. There also is a summary button that will generate a notecard with a short version of Gravel's ideas on that topic. If you're looking for Mike Gravel information, this is indeed the place to find it.
I attended two meetings of the Obama 08 group at the Obama HQ. There are about 300 people registered for the Obama group, but again, as in RL, many people sign up but don't participate; at both my visits, there were only about five or six people there. When I asked them the question about their purpose, the first answer was, "Get Obama elected." I told them the Gravel answer, and they agreed that getting out information was also key.
I talked to the participants about what activities they planned and what they wanted to do to help Obama. One dedicated member, Julles Boucher, keeps a blog on the official Obama website. While I was there, they were planning things like how to get signs out and about in SL more, and putting out more free stuff such as the t-shirts and buttons. They were hoping to raise enough money in donations to be the recipients of a teleconference with Obama himself (in RL, not SL; the campaign was offering the teleconference as a prize to the top fundraisers for various size groups during the third quarter and the SL group qualified as one of the smaller groups).
I asked them if they had planned any events--maybe watching a debate together, or any kind of rallies. I wondered if they had dealt with the other campaigns and if they planned on holding any kind of caucus. They said they were trying to organize a debate watching party for the recent Dartmouth debate and had invited other campaigns. They hadn't thought about any kind of voting or straw poll or caucus.
I dropped in at the Ron Paul campaign headquarters a few times. Paul is so far the only Republican campaign to have a SL office. When I told this to McCallister, he said he was not surprised. I wasn't either--if it's related to the internet, Ron Paul supporters are there.
The Ron Paul HQ looked like the lobby of an office building--pleasant enough, with a reception desk and a comment box nearby. I was looking at the comments that had been left, which were of the "great job/good luck variety" when someone approached me. The avatar looked a little like Wile E. Coyote and the label above his name identified him as a member of the "Anarcho-Capitalist" group. He offered to take me to the Ron Paul hangout. I asked what that was and he said to follow him.
The hangout has a dance floor, a juke box and plenty of Ron Paul signs and flags. It looked like a beachfront bar. My guide, Danny, told me to turn on the juke box, but I couldn't get any sound. He told me about a radio station that had the best political talk around and gave me a notecard with the URL. I stored it in my inventory folder along with all the other campaign notecards that I had accumulated and had only a vague guess at how to access again.
Another person (this time really in the guise of a person) dropped in. He was wearing a tuxedo, and commented that if he had known we were going to be meeting at the beach, he would have dressed differently. Danny was organizing a show that was supposed to start in a half hour. I couldn't stay, but thanked him for showing me around.
Last week Politico co-sponsored a meeting about new media use in campaigns. Panelists included strategists from the Romney, Thompson, Giuliani and Biden camps. They agreed that the Republicans are not at this point making as much use of new technology as the Democrats, but felt there was plenty of time to catch up and that things might be different by the time the general election comes around. They discussed the presence of campaign offices in Second Life and questioned their usefulness.
Non-presidential candidate/GOP fave Newt Gingrich visited SL last week, using a Newt avatar that CNN's reporter called, "somewhat more dashing than the original." He answered questions from reporters about fundraising and campaigning in the virtual world and spoke about an IBM plan to open a "Legislative Life" area in SL, where American legislators could meet and discuss issues. Gingrich talked about how technology such as Second Life had created a forum, "where people could discuss ideas and where we talk with each other, and we have a chance to pull together good ideas...in my judgment, that's the key to the future." Protesters heckled him during the event and a giant cat wearing a Barack Obama t-shirt sat in the front row.
Although Paul is the only GOP candidate with a SL office, there is a Republican Party office. The building is large and grand, with columns and tiled floors. The second floor features a conference room with portraits of all the US presidents lining the walls (albeit somewhat out of order and with two Eisenhowers). On the first floor, there are kiosks with pictures of each GOP candidate in the current race. Visitors could click on an information box to find out more about the candidates. There also was "vote" button. I was standing in front of the Huckabee kiosk so I clicked that button and was informed that my vote had been cast and I had no more votes left. I wasn't sure, though, what exactly I had voted for, or when the voting would end, or who else was voting.
After wandering SL and talking to supporters, I decided maybe it was time to get into RL and speak with somebody involved in the campaigns. I climbed a set of rickety steps to the top floor of the small building wedged in between some stores on a street off Broadway in Soho. Here in the real world, the Obama campaign does not yet have a permanent office in New York City, but a temporary space had been set up to help manage Obama's recent rally in Washington Square. Jeffrey Kurzon, an Obama campaign volunteer let me into the apartment and explained that they were pretty much done here and were just organizing still after last week's event. There was a large screen TV, a desk, and Obama 08 signs scattered around the apartment. One small window faced a garden in the back. I showed Jeff some pictures of the SL Obama HQ to show the virtual version. I suggested that it was unlikely that any campaign office looked that way in the real world. He didn't know where the eventual Obama office was going to be located, but it's a good guess that it wouldn't be in a modern glass building set on a verdant, tree-strewn hillside.
Is there any value in having a campaign office in Second Life? It probably doesn't hurt, provided there aren't any embarrassing gaffes, dirty tricks or other problems caused by the SL members of a campaign group. However, that can just as easily happen in real life, too--a loose cannon is a loose cannon both virtually and in reality. On the positive side, a SL campaign office can be a way to bring people together. It can offer information about candidates and is yet another way to drive traffic to the campaign official websites. But whether any SL campaign activities--signs, t-shirts, the occasional event--can translate into more money and more votes remains to be seen. Can an SL campaign office convert the undecided, or create enough passion for a candidate to encourage someone to vote? It seems unlikely. As in the real world, people in SL often are preoccupied by things other than politics and undoubtedly many are there to escape from the things that worry us in RL. People go to SL to build new lives, places, and versions of reality unbounded by time and location. In SL, an Abraham Lincoln avatar could run for president.
I was walking around the Clinton SL headquarters when a woman suddenly dropped in front of me. She was wearing a strapless gray ball gown and had her blond hair pulled back in a bun. She looked like Grace Kelly. I greeted her and asked what she was doing here. She said that she was a Hillary Clinton supporter, had heard about the SL office and decided to drop by and visit. I asked her, "Why Hillary?" She talked about how she believed that Clinton was the best candidate, with the right kind of experience and intelligence to handle the job and the only Democrat who could conduct a campaign that would beat the Republican nominee. I wondered if she worried that at the last minute, in a general election, whether there still were people who might get cold feet about a woman president. She explained that in SL avatars could be male, female, animal or anything, so she didn't think it would be a big deal.
But the election isn't in SL, I thought.
I thanked her for talking to me and left.