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On the Way to Virtual Democracy? Avatar Activism in ‘Second Life’

Date & Time:
10:00:00 - 12:00:00,
Friday 6 June, 2008


Introduced in 2002 by Linden Lab, Second Life, often regarded as the first ‘metaverse’, hosts a virtual world in which its users (also known as residents) take on a so-called avatar persona with which they can interact with other avatars and the virtual environment.

Second Life provides a few rules and structures as well as a simple interface for customizing one’s avatar and for building objects within the world. SL has not only been used as an image platform for commercial marketing, it is a place for political marketing as well. Various politicans have their personal ‘look alike’ avatars, from the French presidential candidate Le Pen to the presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A number of states (States of Baden-Württemberg, Sweden) also run virtual embassies to attract cyber visitors.

In addition to being a place for political marketing and campaigning, SL is also starting to have a political life of its own. Avatars engage in demonstrations, in protest marches, human chains and ‘smart mobs’. Causes are many: for human rights in Burma, against the right-wing French Le Pen, against nuclear energy and more. More recently, rising problems of a virtual society have become an issue: sexual assualts, child pornography and vandalism.

How avatars (and their human counterparts) try to organize and (perhaps) democratize their newly created world, will be presented, by applying digital ethnography methods. The talk will also discuss consequences for social identity and the formation of virtual states.

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  • Name: Professor Caja Thimm
  • Affiliation: University of Bonn
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  • Bio: Caja Thimm studied Communication, Linguistics and Political Science at the Universities of Heidelberg, San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. She received her PhD in Linguistics in the year 1989, her habilitation (second book) in 1999. She was appointed Professor of Media Studies at the University of Bonn in 2001, where she has been head of the Institute of Communication since 2005. She has been a visiting professor at the Universities of Cardiff and UC Santa Barbara. Her publications have focused on online media, political communication, and gender and media.