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Virtually Campaigning

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

This is Part I in a two part series.

The Barack Obama campaign headquarters is located in a light, airy building, with floor-to-ceiling windows and pale, blonde wood floors. Large pictures of the man himself are posted around the room. Kiosks displaying information about Obama's stances on various issues circle the room, and there is a "register to vote" sign. The second floor features a conference room and offices.

A ringing phone pings in the background. Otherwise it's silent. That's the most obvious tip that this isn't an actual campaign HQ. The other is, of course, the impossible size of the place. In real life, real estate in locations where a campaign would want to set up an office is undoubtedly too expensive to allow a candidate to take over a whole giant building like this. But this isn't real life, this is Second Life and land is just a matter of manufactured pixels.

Second Life is a virtual world where a person can, well, lead a Second Life (or, depending on the amount of time you have, third, fourth, and fifth lives). Founded and operated by Linden Labs, users can buy and sell land, build houses, create objects and sell them, run businesses, and indulge in a variety of leisure activities (I'll leave this to your imagination).

Residents of Second Life select avatars and modify their appearance to create a representation of themselves that may resemble their real personas, or in most cases, an idealized version. There are options to create an animal avatar (and if you do, you'll be welcomed with open arms, um paws, to the well-known Second Life furry community) or have blue skin or green hair or butterfly wings, but most of the people I met during my visits to SL had selected avatars with Ken and Barbie bodies and white skin. If you have good graphics skills, you can create cool clothes, accessories, and hairstyles for your avatar. If you're a clever business person with an entrepreneurial urge, you can use your money (known as Linden dollars) to buy the cool things to improve the look of your avatar.

SL isn't immune from RL (real life). Corporations such as the hotel chain Starwood, and businesses like Coca-Cola, Armani and American Apparel have set up businesses there. Universities and colleges including Harvard, Pepperdine, and the University of Tennessee have run classes in SL. Reuters opened a news bureau and assigned a reporter to work a SL beat.

With all that, it's no surprise that RL politics should come to SL. The French presidential candidates set up offices in Second Life prior to this year's elections. Protesters attacked the SL headquarters of extremist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, resulting in a mini-war of exploding pig grenades that devastated the campaign building (exploding CGI pigs: future WMDs?). On a milder note, former Virginia governor Mark Warner visited SL in August 2006, when he was still considering a presidential run.

In February 2007, Second Life News Network reported the opening of an Edwards '08 campaign office. The event made news in the mainstream media, too, and not long afterwards, the HQ was "griefed" or vandalized, which created an even bigger splash. Although the SL HQ is not officially operated by the Edwards campaign, they are aware of it and a staffer wrote an irate post about it on the campaign blog. The blog writer implied that the attack was orchestrated by a Republican, pro-Bush group; many others, though, suspect it was just done by typical SL pranksters (including, as always, those perennial suspects, wild teenagers with too much time on their hands). A representative of another campaign that I spoke to, when asked whether they had dealt with any similar griefing problems, said they hadn't and suggested that the Edwards campaign had brought it on by so aggressively publicizing their event.

The Edwards office relocated. It's on a beach now, on the waterfront a short distance away from a gray strip mall that features a Hobie surf gear shop. Like the Obama HQ, there are large photos of Edwards in campaign action ringing the wood plank walkways. Clicking on signs will open up a notecard that gives a summary of Edwards' views and asks if you want to go to the official campaign website (the Obama HQ automatically opened the corresponding issue window at the official website). There is a large photo of Elizabeth Edwards, with information about her, and a "free stuff" table. The Obama campaign had offered free t-shirts, caps, buttons, and signs. The Edwards free stuff is mostly buttons and signs. There is no actual building, just a beach hut with some beige lounge chairs scattered around inside. The whole venue has the air of a forlorn, long deserted beach party. I never saw anyone there on any of my visits.

The Hillary Clinton headquarters, by contrast, is a veritable carnival. Also located on a beachfront, you can hear the sound of gently splashing waves as you approach a pavilion with semi-circle sofas where you can presumably hang out and chat with other HRC supporters. The first thing you notice when you walk into the building is a waterfall soothingly trickling behind a reception desk. There are small tables and chairs scattered around the tiled floor. It looks like the lobby of a posh hotel or spa. Ringing the space are the typical information kiosks and photos of the candidate. Walk a little further, though, and you'll find a not-so-typical dance floor and stage with a grand piano; apparently they're planning some pretty big parties here.

Outside the building, you can stand on a dock and watch the leaping porpoises or admire the flowers scattered in the water. A small island nearby features large Hillary pictures and fountains. Day or night, the seascape seems perpetually scattered with stars. There is no other way to describe the Clinton HQ: it's very girly. That doesn't make it bad; in fact, it's a rather pretty place to hang out. But I wonder if this is the type of HQ Hillary Clinton would have designed.

The Obama, Edwards, and Clinton campaigns acknowledge the existence of the SL campaign offices, but do not have any official affiliation with it. The only candidate who has officially sanctioned its SL HQ is the Mike Gravel campaign.

Gravel, as it turns out, is a bit of a techie; he built his own website for his National Initiative for Democracy plan. I spoke with Astrophysicist McCallister, the avatar who runs the Gravel SL campaign. In real life, he is the Colorado State Director for the RL campaign (amongst other jobs).

I asked how the SL office became "official." McCallister explained that he had already been involved in SL and started campaign activity on his own. When others working on the campaign got word of this, they agreed that it would be a good idea to join in and work actively together. As a result, RL campaign staffers have paid visits and met with supporters in SL; Gravel himself (or his avatar, that is) has seen the SL headquarters but hasn't attended any events yet, though he hopes to in the future.

While being an official part of the RL campaign has its benefits--it gives it an imprimatur that makes it seem more purposeful than the other campaigns and can actively get out information the campaign has for it--it did also raise the sticky issue of how SL campaigns need to operate in order to remain within the bound of the FECA (the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971).

When the Gravel headquarters initially opened in May 2007, SL blogger LailaLei Mathilde noted that it featured a corporate logo, that of the SL architectural firm, aHead, that designed the building. The aHead website's blog initially noted that it "sponsored the Gravel campaign," but after Mathilde contacted Cezary Fish, the firm's head, about this, he stated that it was not a sponsorship; they just "supported" the campaign. The blog post was changed to reflect this.

When I asked McCallister, the Gravel SL campaign head about this, he said it was a big deal over nothing. They had been planning to build their headquarters on another location but it wasn't ready when they wanted to open, so they used the building from aHead. Since then they've moved to their new location and have no sponsorships or logos anywhere.

This all raised the question, though, of election laws--would a virtual campaign that accepted internet services from a corporation be in violation of FEC laws? In addition, Cezary Fish is a Polish national, which brings up the problem of foreign donations to a campaign.

Ronin Kurosawa of Medialoper spoke with Adam C. Bonin, a lawyer who had been involved in the FEC hearings that led to the creation of laws for online political activities. Bonin said that free speech online and most unpaid internet political activity is exempt from the new FEC laws, as explained by the Net Democracy guide at the Center for Democracy and Technology. The question of paying for the land for the campaign offices is a different matter, though; although items on SL are bought and paid for in "Lindens," the Linden has value with RL currency (there is a market that tracks the value of the Linden and pegs it to other currencies). Last week, according to the Reuters Second Life news bureau, $286.6L = $1. People pay real money to get Lindens, or make money in Lindens and then cash out in real dollars. The campaign headquarters are located on land, that unless donated, costs money to rent and maintain.

Bonin said that the amounts paid, once translated to US dollars were so small, they probably wouldn't be an issue. Kurosawa studied the land values of the areas where the different HQs were located and determined that they were probably in areas where the cost was low enough that the expenditure would not need to be regulated.

The FEC internet laws didn't explicitly cover the involvement of foreign nationals in campaigns, though. One person Kurosawa spoke with, though, felt that the campaigns still had to be wary of dealing with foreign nationals. A non-US citizen can volunteer for a campaign and participate in campaign activities, but cannot be paid for those activities. A foreign national can be a vendor who provides a service, but must not give those services at a discount. They must not contribute to campaigns (several of the SL campaigns solicit donations for payment of land use fees and other activities).

If the Gravel campaign received their first building from Cezary Fish for free, then it was a contribution. However, they left that building and moved to another location. In addition, the Gravel campaign said they paid the company full price for the initial building; in both cases they would not be in violation of FEC laws. The Clinton campaign, though, is located on an island that formerly. The fact that the land belonged to a foreign national before it was deeded to the Clinton campaign could put it in suspect territory.

The question of involvement by foreign nationals in SL is not a frivolous one--Kurosawa cited comScore statistics from March 2007 showing that North Americans only make up 19% of SL users. That small percentage, though, is actually a majority; SL has users from all over the world, with the UK, Brazil, and Japan amongst the other most active countries.

Statistics about Second Life use are hard to nail down. When you log on, a little box shows the number of total people registered and the number of people who are currently online "inworld." The number of people who have registered is usually up in the millions, but this doesn't really give a clear picture of how many people participate in SL--as in RL, people sign up for things, stop by once and don't come back. Reuters counts active users, those that spend more than an hour in SL. For the month of August, they listed 540,151 active users. This number is tiny compared to other social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. In July, Blizzard Entertainment, the creator and operator of the online game World of Warcraft, announced that they had over nine million subscribers --and those are paid subscriptions.

The number of SL users is important because it brings up a question for the campaign offices there: why are you here? The population of SL isn't really that large. The number of potential, legal voters is even smaller. Can a Second Life office affect the presidential campaign? To find out, you have to go deeper into Second Life.

Read more OffTheBus coverage and get involved by clicking here.