Published on July 7, 2010

Cutting the national debt with avatars

By Janice Thomson

Janice Thomson was Involve's EU Public Engagement Advisor. She left in January 2012. Her work focussed on understanding and enhancing public participation at European Union level. Please email info@involve.org.uk with comments or questions on Involve's work on EU Engagement.

While sensible people watched Ghana defeat America in the World Cup, I wandered into the parallel online universe that is Second Life (SL) to join Americans in confronting their national debt. The specifics were American, but the options would be familiar to Europeans: what public spending to cut, which taxes to increase, for whom and how much.

This virtual SL meeting was an experimental addition to the largest-ever America Speaks event: Our Budget, Our Economy.Nearly 3,500 people discussed public finances in large events in 19 cities and 40 small community meetings across the country. All were connected by satellite video and electronic polling in an energizing special event atmosphere. Their task: cut $1.2 trillion dollars from the national budget deficit in 2025 and articulate the core values underlying their choices. Unlike Europeans, Americans are waiting for their economy to recover before cutting deficits.

The SL virtual event used the same briefing materials, discussion outline, policy choices and voting options as the live groups. However, our event was simplified and shortened to 3 1/2 hours instead of the usual 6 1/2. Plus our small group tables were in an idyllic outdoor island cafe instead of a sterile hotel ballroom or musty public library.

The national debt is not what I’d call a light topic. Yet, using avatars with Barbie and Ken doll bodies and names like Lotta Flux and Giarc Glenwalker, we somehow managed to have an intelligent conversation that was almost as satisfying as a live one. Using avatars takes practice; there’s always the risk of pushing a wrong button and flying off or dancing a jig when you only meant to smile. Yet they helped keep me engaged much longer than faceless conference calls or no-frills online meeting sites. Little personal touches like virtual snacks and chatting privately with fellow participants during breaks humanized the experience. Before I knew it, the SL meeting was over.

Curious about the live meetings, I switched to the event website to watch streaming video of discussions around the country. There I saw echoes of both the strengths and weaknesses of our SL virtual group. While participants represented a range of political views, they were constrained by a process that began with public voting for a limited selection of policy options and then were pushed to quickly reach a small group consensus. However, there was enough flexibility within the discussions for participants to propose new options and frame issues in different ways – – like adopting a single-payer health care system (as in the UK) to cut medical costs or more significantly cutting defense spending than suggested.

Afterwards I learned that this event had become rather controversial, particularly among left-leaning activists. Supporting foundations and partners included conservatives pushing significant public spending cuts on pensions and health care. In reaction, some activist groups mobilized their supporters to either protest outside events or participate in order to block certain options. However, this appears to have had little impact on the outcomes. A blog from Archon Fung describes the phenomenon.

In the end, whatever its imperfections, this America Speaks event engaged large numbers of people in a substantive discussion of one of the thorniest public policy problems facing us today. People could participate in an in-person event or virtual SL event, or just watch discussions live on streaming video. It’s the closest thing to a true national discussion I’ve ever seen. Now the real challenge: actually enacting the suggested budget cuts and tax increases. Perhaps Congress should hold a session in Second Life.

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