Comments on Content Theft

Yet again, butting in on the debate, I thought I would post some of my thoughts on content theft.  Coming up are two campaigns, the Step Up campaign, and the Artist's Voice.  Both campaigns request merchants to take action against content theft this week.  There is debate about whether either a moratorium on uploading or a moratorium on all commerce will have any impact.  I am not going to enter that debate; however, I can offer my opinion about what types of things tend to work from a sociological/anthropological perspective.

I believe that content theft and other forms of deviant behavior run rampant in Second Life because it lacks a sense of community.  Criminologists today argue that there are two things that really protect a society or group from deviance and crime - social cohesion and collective efficacy.  Social cohesion is a sense of community, and Collective efficacy refers to the willingness of members of a community to look out for one another and to intervene for social control.

In RL, societies develop slowly and laws develop as needed.   The speed at which SL has grown and its degree of complexity is, I think, historically unique.  Rapid growth, heterogeneity, and poverty are criminogenic in the real world, and SL has all three of these characteristics, at least in some form  So, it isn't a surprise that we're seeing crime in the virtual world.  Thus, at least in some sense, the struggles that content creators are experiencing are growing pains.

I don't know how many people are logged into Second Life on average at any given time, but if it is around 60 - 70 thousand people, that is the size of a small city.  Yet, unlike most small cities, there is no sense of community, no police force, no justice system, and few laws.  In fact, we don't really have very many forms of informal social control, other than banning avatars or publically shaming them via chat or in blogs.  Formally, we can file DCMAs and abuse reports but there is no one who will come to one's aid immediately upon spotting a TOS violation.  There is no 911 system.

In terms of social cohesion, some residents have called for review boards, which may possibly be the first step towards forming a community.  The question, though, is how much social control do residents want in Second Life?  How much control are you willing to give up before you decide to leave?  On one hand, we can have the near anarchy we have now, on the other, we can have a police state.  And, there are many possibilities in between those two extremes.

In the real world, social controls work best when one has a strong moral compass, has something to lose (i.e., has a stake in conformity), is emotionally attached to others who hold conventional values, and believes the rules are fair.

I believe that even if the technology is not available to stop content theft, there are real steps that Linden Labs can take to ameliorate the problem.  The following are some brainstormed ideas based on my experience with what works in the real world.  First, give new avatars more choice in determining their initial appearance.  This includes a choice of quality designed outfits, skins, and hair.  I'm sure many designers would be willing to contribute to this.   Second, before leaving the orientation section, a new avatar should be introduced to the general expectations regarding behavior in Second Life.  I don't think coming up with a list of basic norms would be too difficult.  Third, new avatars should have to acknowledge receipt of and a willingness to adhere to an honor code.  Fourth, new avatars should automatically become a member of a community.  Communities can be built around interests.  There should be mentors automatically assigned to new avatars rather than just throwing someone out to the grid to fend for themselves.  Finally, verification of identity upon registration would give Linden Labs the information they need to deal with complaints and would give residents more of a stake in conformity.  I think these steps would reduce the amount of anomie experienced by new residents and would set them on the right path from the beginning.

Residents can take steps to reduce content theft by forming voluntary associations based on area of expertise or interest.  These associations can serve a group of voluntary members who enact ethical standards and resolve disputes.  Those who are accused of wrongdoing should have basic due process rights including the presentation of evidence and the right to defend themselves against accusations.

I don't see the process of increasing social cohesion and collective efficacy as a quick one.  This is something that residents will have to work towards over the long haul.  There will be debate and disagreement as this process moves forward and these are lofty goals.  I suspect that a real crackdown by Linden Labs might be more formal control that what many people would want.  Ultimately, the responsibility lies in all of us.  If one isn't up for the fight, it may be time to throw up your arms, walk away, and say, "It's just a game."


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