Can You Really Study the

World-system in Second Life?


Christopher Chase-Dunn and

Hiroko Inoue

Institute for Research on World-Systems

College Building South

University of California, Riverside

Internet Cafe, Ollantaytamboo, Peru

To be presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, Tuesday August 11,2009, 2:30 pm Hilton Hotel, San Francisco. Session title: Social Science research ON the Internet: Virtual Worlds, Net Usage and Publications. 10158 words, v. 7/22/09     IROWS Working Paper # 51.

Keywords: internet research,  participant observation, ethnography, multi-cultural communication, global survey research, world politics, democratic global governance, IT-enhanced group decision-making, transnational social movements, e-democracy, global governance, global democracy, political attitudes, world citizenship

Thanks to James Love, Ellen Reese, Christine Petit, Linda Kim, Rebecca Alvarez, Toi Carter and Roy Kwon for their help on this research.


Abstract: This paper reviews recent methods for using the Internet to do social science research on world-system issues and also discusses the uses of the Internet for doing world politics. Research projects and political groups can easily hold meetings inside virtual worlds using avatars that represent real-world participants from distant locations. Global web surveys, network studies of web contents and the use of multiplayer virtual worlds for social and economic experiments are discussed. Ethnography and focus group discussions in virtual worlds on global issues are examined, including those that seek to improve the abilities of people from the global north and the global south to solve problems together. The use of wiki processes for democratic group document production and decision-making are also discussed. Participant observations in social movements, strikes and other collective actions in virtual worlds are also considered. We discuss the results of research that uses counts of web pages to study the sizes of transnational social movements and their links with one another. We also discuss a project that will bring people from the global north and the global south together to discuss the idea of a global peoples’s parliament.


            The Internet is both a vast trove of information and a global interaction network for producing new information about how people think and their capabilities for transnational collective action. For those social scientists who are interested in global phenomena this makes feasible the extension of older research methods into new realms, and this extension is fraught with issues that need to be resolved so that we can know how much to trust the information generated by Internet research. This paper will explore some of these issues.

Metatheoretical Issues

            World-systems studies have tended to be historicist because of the focus on past centuries and concerns for the present and the future. But a more analytic, formally theoretical and quantitative approach is of great value for systematic research (e.g. as contended in Chase-Dunn 1998: Chapters 14 and 15). World-systems concepts that are formally specified and measured, such as core, peripheral and semiperipheral locations, are especially useful for studies of global processes. We agree with Salvatore Babones that the question of what is and what is not global research is primarily an analytic question regarding the processes one is studying, not a question of the spatial coverage of the data collected (Babones 2006). So for example, a study of street vendors in Trinidad can be a study of globalization (or the world-system) if the processes under study are theoretically conceptualized as aspects of global or world-systemic structures.

            In his seminal article “Can you really study an army in the laboratory?” Morris Zelditch Jr. (1969) argued persuasively that an analytical approach to sociological theory (ala George Simmel)  is what makes it possible to use formal experimental methods to study large-scale organizations. We contend that an analytical approach to world-systems theories is what makes it possible to use formal experiments on individuals and small groups for studying world-systemic and global processes, a methodology that we will consider below in the section on virtual worlds. This is relevant for issues discussed in this paper because the emergence of the Internet and interactive virtual worlds makes it much easier to do experiments with subjects from all over the Earth. The relevance of true experiments depends on our abilities to formulate hypotheses using world-systems and globalization theories and to employ the core/semiperiphery/periphery distinction systematically.

            We employ two somewhat contradictory metatheoretical stances in this essay. The first is what Michael Burawoy (2005) has called “professional sociology.” It embraces a postivistic stance on evidence, tries to be objective, and attempts to theorize sociocultural processes from the perspective of natural science. The other is what has been elsewhere called “global public social science”  (Chase-Dunn 2005). It is quite similar to what Michael Burowoy (2005) terms “public sociology.” The purposes of global public social science are to participate in, and to serve, the contemporary global justice movement by using the tools of social science to help promote beneficial collective action in the global public sphere.[1]

The Internet in Sociocultural Evolutionary and World Historical Perspective

                The long-term falling cost of communications has had an important impact on economics, politics and culture itself since humans first began using vocal sounds to signify abstract concepts. Words allow humans to categorize themselves and others and so language was the virtual basis of culture and social organization, and was the first institution. Writing allowed language to be used for record-keeping, for designating authoritative versions of stories and eventually for codifying norms as law. Iconography carved in stone allowed empires to make claims on the future, while text on clay tablets, papyrus and paper allowed codified messages to be transported across great distances (Innis 1950). Phonetic alphabets made reading easier to learn and printing made mass literacy economically feasible and facilitated peoples’ identification with nations (Anderson 1993). The telegraph was the 19th century Internet (Standage 1998), and efforts to control global communications networks have been intimately linked to both hegemony and challenges to hegemony since at least the 19th century (Mattelart 1994; Hugill 1999). The Internet simply takes this very long trend in the fall of long-distance communications costs to another level.

            Here we will breifly discuss the Internet as an important phenomenon of the modern world-system and using the Internet to study the system. The history of the Internet has been told repeatedly. It owes its existence primarily to U.S.-funded “military Keynesianism.” Financial support for the original research was provided by the U.S. Defense Department, as has been the case for many other new lead technologies.

            Contrary to the popular perception that cyberspace has no “real world” location, Matthew Zook (2005) has carefully studied the changing geography of the Internet industry while developing new tools for studying the growth of the Internet itself (Dodge and Zook 2008). The Internet is a big physical grid of wires, cables, transmission towers and sattelites connecting computers that is supported by massive investments in infrastructure. As such, it has been an important part of the ability of the United States to maintain global supremacy despite relative decline of U.S. economic hegemony in manufacturing and other important sectors. The private sector of the Internet industry also has a geographical aspect that is similar to that of other industries in that there are a few ‘growth poles’ in which most activity is clustered. As such, the Internet is theorized by some in the “global capitalism” school to be the quintessential institution of an emergent global information society (e.g. Castells 1996) .     Zook shows the particularities of where the Internet is and where it is not, and where the money comes from. The potential liberatory aspects of this new cheap form of communication are undoubtedly great, but the vulnerability of such an expensive-to-build and complex to maintain system needs to be kept in mind by those who may want to use the Internet to challenge the powers that be. And funding the continued future existence of such a system, dependent as it has been on cheap fossil fuel energy, is a matter that will depend both on its political uses and on its ability to provide carbon footprint payoffs in a world in which cheap energy is coming to an end.


Studying the family of antisystemic movements on the Internet

            A recent research paper by Chase-Dunn and Love (2009) examines the organizational space of contemporary social movements by counting Web sites that mention pairs of movements by name.  They seek to understand the structure of connections among progressive social movements and how those connections may be evolving over time. For this purpose they analyze results obtained from using the Google search engine to count the number of web sites containing certain phrases and pairs of phrases. They study the contours of the social movement connections found on web pages, and how these have changed over time.  The tricky problem is that the findings probably reflect other things as well as changes in the structure of the network of popular movements in the global public sphere. Their study uses only English language sources. This, and the vagaries of Internet search engines, may also be consequential for the findings.

            Chase-Dunn and Love assume that the number of published sites on the Web is to some extent a positive function of the number of people who support each movement. This should be the case because popular support should provide more resources and more activity, resulting in more publication. But there are undoubtedly other factors besides popular support. Wealthy individuals or political groups can pay for the production of Web publications. Official government agencies and political campaigns also sometimes use the discourses of social movements. Nevertheless it is plausible that the amount of publication on the Web should be related to the size and strength of social movements.


The Relative Sizes of Social Movements

         Christine Petit (2004) conducted a Google search engine project to study networks among social movements as represented by texts available on the World Wide Web in 2004. Petit described her Google searchs performed on July 28, 2004 as follows:  “…I typed in the phrase ‘civil rights movement’ and noted the number of websites containing that text.” The parentheses return pages that have all the words together, whereas a search without the parentheses would return all pages that contain the words even though the are at separate places in the web document. Petit did this for each of the seventeen movements listed in Table 1 below. And then she typed in pairs of movements e.g. “civil rights movement” “anarchist movement” and recorded the numbers pages containing the movement pairs.

             Table 1 shows the total number of hits and the percentages for each movement for 2004, 2006 and 2008. It should be noted that the total number of hits increase from 2,055,310 in 2004 to 39,377,900 in July of 2006, and then decreased to 12,556,340 in October of 2008. We suspect that the Google search engine methodology became more selective between 2006 and 2008. It is quite unlikely that the number of pages on the Internet decreased. But Table 1 shows that the relative percentages of most of the movements are quite stable between 2006 and 2008. Chase-Dunn and Love contend that it is likely that whatever difference in search engine methodology that was implemented between 2006 and 2008 did not much affect the relative distribution of movement presences on the Web.



July 28, 2004

July 18, 2006

October 22, 2008

civil rights




























gay rights




human rights












national liberation/sovereignty




fair trade/trade justice




global justice




slow food












Total %




Total Number of Hits




Table 1: Movement sizes as indicated by relative numbers of Web pages


            These movement categories were originally designed by Christine Petit for her 2004 study, and in order to be able to study changes over time Chase-Dunn and Love held to her original categories. Civil rights in the United States is associated with the struggle for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. It has rather different connotations in other countries. Nevertheless the “civil rights” movement has by far the largest presence on the Web and this presence is rather stable. Indeed it increased from 28% to 34% between 2004 and 2006 and then dropped back to 31% in 2008.

            The big five movements in Table 1 are civil rights, labor, peace, feminism and environmentalism. Below these, the movements are much smaller. Table 2 below shows movement sizes based on a survey of attendees at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005. These results are only partly comparable because of differences in the movements that were included, but there are nevertheless important similarities in the two sets of results and this supports the validity of using web page counts to estimate movement sizes.

            We have already mentioned changes in the total number of hits between 2004 and 2008 and the up-down trend of the civil rights movement. Seven of the seventeen movements were quite stable over time in terms of relative percentages: feminism, environmentalism, anarchism, fair trade, global justice, and the indigenous movement. Peace and gay rights demonstrated an up-and-down pattern across the three time points, as did civil rights. Labor went down, as did anti-globalization, fair trade, global justice and anti-corporate. Socialism and communism went up in the last period, as did human rights and slow food.

            Should we simply equate the relative sizes as an indicator of movement strength, and should we interpret increases and decreases as changes in the popularity and power of movements? It is well-known that Internet usage and the publication of Web materials has been increasing geometrically since the mid-1990s, and that both usage and publication have been diffusing across the globe (Zook 2005). The growth and the trajectory of diffusion probably affect the distribution of movement hits differently. Some movements were early adopters and some have come later to Web publication. Thus trends are likely to reflect the diffusion process as well as changes in movement strength. Late adopters should increase their percentages of Web publications over the time period studied and early adopters should go down in terms of the relative percentages of web pages as late adopters expand their presence on the Web.

            But seven of the movements did not much change their relative scores, and three others went up and then down. Labor, anti-globalization, fair trade, global justice and anti-corporate went down. Were these early adopters or did they actually decrease in movement strength relative to other movements? Socialism, communism, human rights and slow food went up in the last period. Were these late adopters or did they increase in relative movement strength, or both?

            The geographical pattern of diffusion may also have affected the Web activity of movements. As mentioned above, the civil rights movement has been connected with the campaign for racial equality in the U.S. And the U.S. was the region of the world where Web usage and publication got its start and increased early. Per capita Internet usage is well-correlated with GNP per capita in cross-national comparison, but there is another factor as well. Those places that are far from the centers of power and information are often early-adopters of inexpensive techniques of long-distance communication. Many small towns in rural regions of the Global South now have their Internet café. One way that activists from the Global North have been able to help movements from the Global South is in establishing new web sites. But there is still a “digital divide” in Internet access, and this continues to be part of the causation of the relative distribution of movement publications.

Comparison of Web Page Count Results with Survey Research on Movement Sizes

            In 2006 Christine Petit replicated her study in order to make it possible to ascertain change over time and so that she could compare the results with the survey evidence from the Porto Alegre World Social Forum of 2005.










July 04

Web hits

% of total



selections at WSF05

July06 web hits

% of total July06

% 04-06 change in hits

anarchist movement







anti-corporate movement







anti-globalization movement







global justice movement







human rights movement







communist movement







environmental movement







fair trade/trade justice movement








gay rights movement







indigenous movement







labor movement/labour







national liberation/sovereignty movement









peace/anti-war movement







slow food movement







socialist movement







women's movement/feminist














Table 2: Internet hits in 2004 and 2006 compared with movement sizes obtained from survey questionnaires at the World Social Forum in 2005[2]


            The comparison between web hits and movement choices at the WSF (Columns B,C and E) shows that the relative sizes are rather similar for ten of the sixteen movements that are compared. This establishes a baseline of comparability between these two very different sources of information about movement linkages and generally supports the validity of the web page counts as a proxy for movement sizes.

            Six of the movements display what appear to be significant differences between web texts and numbers of activists at the World Social Forum. Human rights, global justice, indigenous and fair trade are better represented at the WSF than on the web.  Labor, peace and feminism are significantly less represented at the WSF than on the web. 

            Looking at the change scores for the web hits in Column F, we see that the biggest increases are in gay rights (4.5%) and the peace movement (5%). The women’s movement and the labor movement have gone down by 3%, but the rest of the movements have stayed about the same in percentage terms while the total numbers of hits increased dramatically between 2004 and 2006. The general stability of the relative sizes despite the rapid growth over the two year period and fairly good match with the WSF survey data increases our confidence that the web page counts are measuring something significant about the discursive space of transnational movements.


Movement Topic Size as Reflected By Web Search Activity

            Chase-Dunn and Love also used Google Trends, a tool for estimating the number of searches performed by the Google Search Engine.[3] We used this tool to examine the size relationship among movement topics for the largest movements in our study above. The number of searches is a different kind of indicator from the number of web pages published. It shows how much interest the public has in topics and how this has changed over time. Google Trends uses weekly data on searches since January of 2004.

            When we submit whole phrases such as “anarchist movement” in Google Trends  the program states that: "Your terms - "anarchist movement" - do not have enough search volume to show graphs." Only “civil rights movement” has enough search volume to return a graph. This shows that searches for civil rights movement varied over time and that the relative volume of searches tended to decline over the period from 2004 to 2009 (See Figure 1).


Google Trends scaling

According to Google, data are standardized based on the average search traffic of the term you enter.  Rather than producing raw search results for the term, Google averages the weekly search counts during the selected period and denotes this average as a 1.  For example, if we searched “civil rights” from 2004 to 2009 the graph would produce a baseline average for all searches requested during the given period, represented as 1.  However, if we observed that in early 2005, the graph spiked to 3.5, this would inform us that searches during early 2005 were 3.5 times greater than the average searches attempted from 2004-2009.  Google calls this relative scaling. When multiple search targets are included in the same graph the user is allowed to specify which of the items will be used to scale the rest of the items. We chose to standardize the search counts on the “civil rights” movement topic. The Google methodology does not make it clear how searches are compared across different languages.



Figure 1: Relative volume of searches for "civil rights movement", 2004-2009


For our study of the relative size of movements we want to compare search volumes for the different movements. We were not able to do this for the whole phrases containing the word “movement,” but we were able to do it for main topics of the five largest movements listed in Table 1 above based the sizes of published web material. That is, we submitted the topics “civil rights,” “labor,” “peace,” “feminism,” and “environmentalism” to Google Trends to examine how the search volumes for these movement terms compare with one another. This worked in Google Trends and produced the results shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Relative volume of  searches for movement topics, 2004-2009

Figure 2 uses the civil rights as unity (1) to scale the relative volumes of the five movement topics. Civil rights is the blue line with diamonds and produces a trend similar to the one shown in Figure 1 except that now we can see the relative sizes of the search volumes for the other movement topics.

            Whereas the study of numbers of web pages for social movements discussed in Table 1 above reveals that the civil rights movement is considerably larger than the labor movement based on the number of web pages published, when we examine the volume of searches we find that the topic of “labor” is far larger than is the topic of “civil rights” based on comparing the number of web searches by individuals using the Google search engine. So in relative size terms numbers of web publications and the volume of searches are somewhat different animals. The question for this paper is what do these indicators have to do with the relatives sizes of social movements in terms of numbers of adherents and other resources?  We surmise that the web page counts are better indicators of relative movement size than are the search volumes. A large number of web searches that contain a particular movement topic may only mean that something has happened that has piqued the public’s interest in that topic.  It is more akin to popularity than movement size. Of course popularity can be a resource. But it may also be a liability. It all depends on the meaning context. Searches for labor or civil rights may be launched by both proponents and opponents of the the associated movements.

            Nevertheless it is interesting to compare the search volumes displayed in Figure 2. By far the highest are “labor,” which is cyclical with annual high peaks in August or September, and annual low points in December or January. The “peace” topic is similar in volume to labor, but without the annual spiky peaks and low points. Civil rights is much lower in volume, but is still higher than feminism, which is itself higher than environmentalism.  It is probably unfair to use the topic of “environmentalism” to assess the amount of public interest in environmental issues.  When we substitute “global warming” for “environmentalism” in Figure 3 we see that global warming starts off at about the same level as civil rights, but then in late 2006 it shows a large wave of search volume and stays fairly high until 2008. In 2009 the wave has fallen off somewhat, but it is still twice as high as civil rights.

Figure 3: Movement topic search volumes with global warming, 2004-2009Figure 3: Movement topic search volumes with global warming, 2004-2009


We also use evidence from the Internet to study the interconnections among different social movements.

          Chase-Dunn and Love (2009) also used web page counts to study the network structure of links among the seventeen transnational social movements, replicating earlier studies that use surveys of attendees at World Social Forum meetings to study movement links. As with the other studies of movement network structures based on survey research responses, the networks reveal a rather consistent pattern of both movement size distributions and the network of connections among movements.  In all cases there is a single multicentric web in which a few more centrally located movements connect most of the rest to one another. This is a robust network structure that is unlikely to experience major splits despite that often large contradictions among the goals pursued by the individual movements. The web network results confirm our findings based on individual commitments to movements in that there are at least some links among most of the movements. This structure bodes well for the emergence of a new global left that may be able to effectively contend in world politics.


Virtually-Enhanced Popular Global Collaboration and Decision-making

Large conferences of social movement activists from the global north and the global south have been meeting in South America, South Asia and Africa since the founding of the World Social Forum in 2001 to formulate collaborative approaches to global justice and environmental issues. These large meetings are expensive to attend and so participation depends on mobilizing resources that can allow poor and underrepresented individuals and representatives of groups to travel long distances. One solution to this problem is to make it possible for such diverse groups to communicate and collaborate with one another remotely in a setting that is realistic and that allows for high quality interactions. Three dimensional interactive digital worlds hold the possibility of dramatically lowering the financial and carbon costs of north/south and south/south collaboration and of using information technology to enhance the quality and democratic nature of small group and large group interactions.

      A future research project could involve participants from the global north and the global south in an effort to develop a three-dimensional interactive virtual setting in Second Life (SL). This would involve computer-aided interaction enhancements that facilitate communication, collaboration and democratic decision-making in small, medium and large group interactions. Experimental group interactions could be carried out in different media in order to develop, improve and evaluate information technologies. Currently, Second Life and other virtual environments have several limitations that prevent large group interactions – both structural limits on the numbers of participants, but also more subtle constraints that prevent non-verbal and informal communications modes among both listeners and speakers.  These non-verbal and informal forms of communication are known to play a large role in consensus-formation.  To this end, such a project would develop a new Client-Server system that would augment virtual group communication.  In addition, the project could employ different spatial settings  (rooms, outdoor meeting venues, etc) within Second Life, and engage participants in the redesign of settings that are conducive to good communicating, collaboration and democratic collective decision-making.  Such a project could also compare Second Life encounter outcomes with encounters that use a simpler blog-based interaction media to see what difference the 3-D interactive environment and the new enhancements of it make.

Such a project would focus large and small group discussions and collaborations on issues of democratizing global governance. These contentious issues will challenge participants from the global north and the global south in their efforts to come to consensus and to formulate positive visions and collaborative plans for actually moving in the direction of more democratic institutions of global governance. Contemporary huge global inequalities and issues of global justice will be both the context and the focus of these deliberations. The topics of challenging existing powers and reforming, abolishing or replacing existing institutions will provide exciting issues for discussion and will motivate participants to help the researchers develop and do experiments on new information technology that will facilitate such long-distance collaborations.

Such research would develop new and more useful information technology for popular cross-cultural collaboration and would shed new light on the expansion of global civil society, transnational social movements and democratic global governance.

            Democracy is a contested concept but it has become the central legitimizing discourse that supports or undermines contemporary structures of governance. At the global level the existing governance structures are under attack at the same time that new challenges require coordinated action on a global scale. Large numbers of people feel that they have been left out of the miracles of technological change, while others see new technologies as symbols of domination. At the same time the rapidly declining cost of communications has allowed large popular networks to mount transnationally organized campaigns that have challenged the major institutions of global governance, especially the G-8, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

            Whether or not one approves of these developments, what is happening is the emergence of a global polity in which non-elites are increasingly participating directly in world politics.  This is not an entirely new development. Global political parties such as the First, Second and Third Internationals have challenged the powers that be since the 19th century. But increasing numbers of activists have “scale shifted” to the global level as it has become clear that local and national mobilization have little hope of successfully confronting the problems of global inequality and environmental degradation (Reitan 2006). This transnationalization of social movements has been greatly facilitated by the Internet. After the 1994 uprising of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, huge numbers of young people in North America, Europe, and eventually South America and Asia, mobilized a decentralized network of local affinity groups that came to be known as Peoples’ Global Action.  In 2001 activists who had unsuccessfully sought a voice in the World Economic Forum that meets yearly in Davos, Switzerland, formed the World Social Forum as an open space for movements that oppose neoliberalism.

            These developments have raised new issues about the legitimacy of activists who claim to represent the poor and oppressed. How does one legitimate that claim? Within the “movement of movements”  this has proven to be a most contentious issue. Politically engaged popular singers as well as NGOs with professional staffs and funding from governments and foundations have claimed to represent the interests of all kinds of groups. The Via Campesina, an intercontinental alliance of small farmers, has excluded non-farmers from participation in their group decision-making because of the perception that NGOs were unfairly dominating the agendas. But even mass-based social movement organizations have legitimacy problems. Have all the constituents been consulted? Who decides on who gets included and who gets excluded? The notions of participatory democracy and grass-roots organizing that are widely accepted by many in the global justice movement favor leaders who are “servants of the community.” But who has defined the community, and have all the members had their say? Democracy is an idea that can be used to critique the activists as well as the powers that be.

            Communication technologies have long been important in both facilitating authority and hierarchy and in mobilizing challenges to authority that have produced the evolution of global governance (Hugill 1999). And this set of processes is continuing. The Internet makes possible a much greater level of popular communication and collaboration than has ever existed  before.  The ultra-democrats are the most motivated and the most goaded by their own principles to take advantage of the new information technologies and to develop new ways of facilitating group decision-making and collaboration.


Popular Participation in Global Mobilizations

            The digital divide is still an important limitation on the ability of poor and rural people to access the Internet (Netchaeva 2002), but nearly every town in the world now has an Internet café. And wireless cell phone networks allow even those who do not read to talk with distant others. As pocket-sized wireless screens (such as the IPOD Touch) become much less expensive, the digital divide will be pushed much closer to outer edges of humanity. Those who will remain outside of the global web should not be ignored, but they will eventually be a small percentage of the world’s population.

            Global meetings such as those held by the World Social Forum (WSF)  involve intercontinental travel by large numbers of individuals who attend small meetings and large gatherings. These meetings are expensive in both money and carbon terms. A much cheaper and cleaner alternative to flying humans from continent to continent so that they may communicate face-to-face is emerging in 3-d interactive digital worlds.

            From whence did the participants in the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre come? Based on the 520 survey responses for which we were able to ascertain the respondent’s home city, Figure 4 shows a global map of their home places.[4]


Figure 4: Residences of participants in the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre


            Obviously the “tyranny of distance,” despite the long-term declining costs of long-distance transportation, continues to be a major factor in shaping the geographical nature of participation in the World Social Forum. This can even be seen within South America. Fifty-six percent of the participants came from Brazil.[5]


            Table 3 shows the number and percentages of WSF respondents from the core, periphery and semiperiphery and compares these with percentages of the world’s population in the countries in these categories.


Number of WSF05 Participants

Percentage of WSF05 Participants Porto Alegre

Percentage of world population in 2005

Number of WSF07 Participants

Percentage of WSF07 Participants Nairobi

























Table 3: Residence of WSF respondents by world-system zone


            At the Porto Alegre WSF in 2005 the core was somewhat over-represented in terms of proportions of the world population (20% at the meeting but 13% of the world population, see Table 1 above). The semiperiphery was over-represented because Brazil, the site of the meeting, is a semiperipheral country and is adjacent to semiperipheral Argentina (see the Appendix for our categorization of countries into world-system zones.)  The periphery, which contains 32 percent of the world’s population, was seriously under-represented at Porto Alegre (8%). As mentioned above, this was an important part of the rationale for holding the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. Table 1 also shows the distribution of attendees at the WSF07 in Nairobi across world-system zones. At the Nairobi meeting the periphery is over-represented (56%), rather than under-represented as it was in Porto Alegre, because Kenya and the surrounding countries in East Africa are in the world-system periphery. The core countries at the Nairobi meeting were ironically even more over-represented (29%) than they had been in Porto Alegre (20%). The semiperiphery at the Nairobi meeting was seriously under-represented. Only 15% of the attendees at the WSF07 were from the semiperiphery, which has 55% of the world’s population.[6]


Virtually-enhanced popular global collaboration and decision-making

            One solution is to make even more use of the Internet. Virtual communication will never completely replace face-to-face encounters. But recent developments and new possibilities can greatly expand popular participating in democratic global governance.

            We propose to organize discussion encounters in three-dimensional virtual worlds in order to educate people from the global south about the possibilities of working out group strategies and coordinating action by means of enhanced communications in 3-d metaverses. And we will involve these same people in designing and testing these new communications enhancements. At present the best available platform for these experiments is Second Life, a virtual community that is designed by its participants (Ondrejka 2005). Bainbridge (2007) contends that 3-d virtual worlds are fertile spaces for social science research and we agree, especially when the experiments can bring together people from very distant locations. The economics of being able to carry on group interactions among distant participants in settings that can be altered to make participants more comfortable portend a large future for encounters of this kind.

Internet Access in South Asian Village

            We will put together small, medium and large group meetings to discuss contentious issues of global governance.  The first proposed discussion topic focuses on critiquing and redesigning George Monbiot’s (2004: Chapter 4) proposal for a global peoples parliament. Ideally we would like to include people from all the countries of the global south, but in this pilot phase of our project we will focus mainly on three countries in which we have already done research and have local collaborators: Kenya, Brazil and the United States. We will bring together people from these three countries and other countries to discuss issues of global governance and to design new institutions and to create and test new communications and information technologies. We will involve all of our discussion encounter group participants in the use of wiki collaboration methods. Participants will learn to lead wiki collaboration projects.[7]


The Global Indigenous Movement of Movements

            We will also bring together distant participants in indigenous movements to discuss issues of collaboration and democratizing global governance. The New Zealand Maoris went to the United Nations in the 1930s to demand sovereignty for native nations. The Zapatista rebellion in 1994 and the growth of pan-indigenous movements in many countries have inspired a global network of indigenous peoples and allies who are communicating, collaborating and challenging neoliberalism. But indigenous peoples in different countries have rather different local issues and different positions on global issues; and many of these differences are structured by global North/South inequalities (Hall and Fenelon 2009). This project would involve the indigenous students and faculty at the University of California-Riverside who are connected with the UCR California Center for Native Nations as well as indigenous community members from Southern California in blog and Second Life discussion encounters with indigenous movement activists in New Zealand and Australia, and perhaps other areas where native peoples speak english.  These participants will be asked to focus on issues of democratizing global governance, and will be encouraged to author IT enhancements for communicating and collaborating in 3-d virtual locations.

            They would also be taught how to construct environments in Second Life and how to use wiki processes for authoring documents. Scheduling of online meetings of participants from different time zones will be done fairly so as to minimize and balance inconveniences. In real-time Second Life meetings between indigenes in California and the far side of the world someone will end up being temporally inconvenienced. Meetings will need to be scheduled in a way that balances these inconveniences.

            Political organizers have already moved in to Second Life. Diplomacy Island is a place that is available for meetings, though the style of this setting is intended to be comfortable for diplomats and representatives of governments.  Commonwealth Island is a meeting place for NGOs and social movements. It has small, medium and large outdoor meeting spaces that would seem to be more comfortable for the movement activists we have in mind for our project. But one of the things we will experiment on with our participants is the setting. We will encourage our participants to help us design places in which they can communicate and collaborate comfortably, without big distractions.[8]

Commonwealth Island4, Second Life

            There are currently some technical issues in Second Life that will make it difficult to convene large numbers of people. At the present time the total number of avatars that can be on one island is 50 because that is the biggest number of individual actors that can be activated by one server.[9] In Phase 2 we will convene groups as large as 600 that could compose a virtual global peoples parliament, but for the present that will not be possible.  However, besides the imposed constraints of the existing Second Life architecture,  there are group interaction limits that have to be managed. These will be addressed first in smaller groups and then scaled to larger ones.  The enhancement and democratic management of large group communication is a main focus of this study.  To that end, we will convene groups of five, ten and twenty-five for our experiments and innovations will be tested on the small groups first and then scaled up. 

            Second Life is an ideal locus for our efforts for several reasons.  First, it is a well-established, stable virtual world where ten’s of thousands of participants are online at any given time.  Next, with the ability to purchase and own virtual land, many features for governance of the land and its specialization are possible.  We will augment the location (the meeting room or outdoor meeting space, if you will) with features that support enhanced communication and decision-making. This is possible because Second Life made a bold move early in 2007 to make their user front end (Client) available and open source – so we can modify the interface to the virtual world with our own functionality.  With these mechanisms, the Second Life setting is ideal for our proposed experimentation and development.

            We want to develop spatial settings and enhanced interfaces that make Second Life group collaborations as realistic and effective as possible. We will utilize both the standard text writing mode of communication used by avatars in Second Life and the recently introduced voice communications, testing to see the advantages and disadvantages of both. Generally voice is better, but text communications are easier to analyze because words and sentences have already been typed. Conversation texts in Second Life are easily captured in the “history” of local conversations. Voice can also be captured, but needs to be turned into text to be useful as data.[10] Text communication can more easily be instantaneously translated, and so our Phase 2 development of multilingual communication will start with text.

            During the first phase of this proposed project we would develop an architecture that will allow members of large audiences to communicate informally with each other and with the main speaker during presentations. Real group interaction is more than just a number of individuals listening to the same channel. Listeners also communicate approval, disapproval, boredom and excitement to each other as well as to the main speaker.  Part of face-to-face group communication involves body language and informal vocalizations during a speech. Cultures differ in the ways that they use such side channels. A meeting of the British House of Commons sounds like a bar room brawl to many Americans. So part of our challenge will be to work out side-channel communications protocols that are useful to people from different cultures without becoming distractions or insults.

            Ideally the project would be able to purchase an island in Second Life where the participants could design our own meeting venues, schedule meetings without having to coordinate with other users, and implement our new client and server protocols without disturbing those residents of SL that are not participating in our project. Our property will be called Grassroots Island to symbolize the bottom-up purposes of our information technology enhancements. We will involve our participants in the construction, design and testing of our new techniques in a respectful and participatory manner in the spirit of the grassroots social movements of the Global South and the participants in the social forum process.


Recruitment of Participants

            Our plan for recruiting participants will involve three different but overlapping approaches. We will advertise in Second Life for existing in-world avatars who may be interested in joining our project. Umbrella groups within SL and members of the many NGOs that inhabit Commonwealth Island will probably yield a number of participants. The goal would be to have a balance of participation from all of the areas of the Earth, and to do better than the World Social Forum at approximating the spatial distribution of peoples as seen in Figure x  and Table x above. We would also target particular countries, as appropriate. Eventually it would be desireable to use technology that can facilitate multilingual communication. But for now communication would need to be in only one language at a time. For this the project would target, for example, english-speaking indigenous individuals in New Zealand and Australia for encounters with the native nations participants from Southern California.  We would also use the overseas connections of the undergraduate and graduate students at University of California-Riverside (discussed below) to recruit participants.

            This project would use two main motivations to get people to participate in our encounters. The first will be their existing interest in the topics of global governance and democracy. The second motivation will be monetary. We will pay all of our participants Linden dollars for their time. The use of Linden dollars, which are tradable for real currencies, will allow us to pay small amounts without the huge transaction costs that accompany the use of Western Union or other international money transfer services. We will pay our subjects the Linden dollar equivalent of 10 U.S. dollars per hour for their participation in our encounters. After we run out of money we will continue the project with those who are willing to contribute their time for free.

            Each of our participants will be asked to complete a web-based survey at the beginning of their involvement with our project. The survey will ask about knowledge of global governance institutions, attitudes toward existing institutions, levels of political participation, basic demographic characteristics (age, gender, education, etc), and involvement in social movements.[11] When a participant decides to leave the project (or when we conclude the first wave of discussion encounters) they will be asked to complete another written survey composed of questions about their participation, knowledge of Second Life building skills, the wiki process, and their evaluations of the IT enahncements and the outcomes of group communications and collaboration.


 Human-centered Computing and Human Subjects Issues

            Research in virtual worlds might seem to pose unique challenges regarding ethical and legal issues regarding the use of human subjects. The same standards of consent and anonymity that are used for surveys of World Social Forum participants can be adopted for use virtual world research. Participants can be protected by securing the links between their real identities, the survey results and the records of what is said and done in experimental meetings.

            Ideally participants should create avatars that represent their real world identities,[12] but if they prefer to create completely fictional identities in Second Life, that should be their option. Identities that reflect real life allow participants to bring their cultural and social capital into the virtual world. But it may be difficult to require this of participants and some may prefer the anonymity of a fictional persona. In a course entitled “World-Systems and Globalization” at the University of California-Riverside this kind of research paper has already been offered (see


Research Design, Data Gathering and Analysis

            Outcomes of encounter discussions can be evaluated by improving upon methods that have been developed by other researchers for studying e-democracy and e-participation.  The European Science Foundation Programme (2005, 2006) at the Manchester Business School has carried out a multiyear “Towards Electronic Democracy (TED)” project in which several of the participating scholars focus on the issues involved in evaluating the outcomes of Internet-based collaboration. The basic strategy will involve estimating how well participants have communicated and the outcomes of their efforts to collaborate in the production of a document that critiques and reformulates a proposal for a global peoples parliament. Discussion encounter groups will be compared on communications successes or failures and on their collectively produced documents that record the ideas expressed in the group discussions and the results of efforts to redesign Monbiot’s peoples’ parliament.  The ability of each group to form a consensus will also be scored based on how much disagreement is expressed in the early meetings, and hom much consensus emerges over the set of virtual meetings.  

            These estimations will allow the comparison of groups with one another for the purpose of testing the efficacy of the Second Life client-server enhancements and for comparing the blog and Second Life venues.  Groups should be approximately matched in terms of the demographic makeup and countries of residence of participants.  The case problem for each group will be held constant – the critique and redesign of Monbiot’s proposal for a global peoples parliament.[13]  Matched groups will each carry out a set of seven one-hour discussion encounters in SL.[14] Each participant should be asked to complete the presurvey and to read and think about Monbiot’s proposal before the first meeting. Each of the seven meetings of each group should be supervised and facilitated by a graduate or undergraduate research assistant working on the project.



            The main job of the facilitator would be to remind participants what they are supposed to be doing – discussing and reconfiguring Monbiot’s proposal. The facilitators should also train participants to use the IT enhancements (in those treatment groups that use the enhancements) and to use wiki processes. In the early trials the facilitators would also ask participants to evaluate the IT enhancements and the design of meeting spaces in Second Life and to suggest improvements.

            At least  30 discussion encounter group sequences for each of the groups of five, and 30 for the groups of ten, and fifteen for the groups of twenty-five should be completed The smaller groups would be organized first.  Each of the size classes would be divided into thirds. The first third would carry out blog meetings. The second third would carry out SL encounters without the IT enhancements, and the last third would carry out SL encounters with the IT enhancements (see Table 4).

Group Size


SL (no IT)


Total # of groups

5 participants





10 participants





25 participants





Total groups





Table 4: Proposed Number of Discussion Encounter Groups by Size, Media and Treatment

            Data gathering would consist of pre and post surveys from each participant, text histories of discussion encounters on blog, wikis and in Second Life, video recordings of group meetings in Second Life, and the resulting documents developed by those discussion encounter groups that succeed in producing a final document.  As mentioned above, the anonymity of participants will be carefull protected.

            Analyses would be designed to test for differences between the blog and the Second Life venues and between the treatment and control groups in SL. All the groups would use wiki processes to collaboratively produce documents. We anticipate that the Second Life venue will be superior in facilitating communication and the ability of groups to produce consensus, but we have no idea how big a difference the virtual world will make. That will be one important outcome of this kind of research.



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[1] Ruth Reitan (2007: Chapter 2) thoughtfully examines the issues that confront an activist-scholar engaged in participant observation with the global justice movement.


[2] Table 2 combines the fair trade movement and trade justice movement web hits to make the Petit study comparable with the WSF survey, and did the same with national liberation movement and the sovereignty movement. 


[4] There were 163 cities plotted on this GIS map.This survey of attendees at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil was carried out by the University of California-Riverside Research Working Group on Transnational Social Movements. The project web site is at

[5] The apparent lack of attendance from Canada in Figure 1 is due to those attending coming from cities that border the U.S. Eighteen of our respondents were from Canada, representing 2.8% of the total number of respondents mapped.

[6] The 2009 World Social Forum was held in Belem, Para, Brazil.


[7] Wiki web-based software allows groups of people that are distant from one another to create and edit a document, and can be managed democratically by the whole group rather than by a ‘wikimaster.” For producing consensual statements, manifestos, etc. the wiki process allows participants to be at remote locations and yet to have an on-going and influential role in the production of a text. We will teach our participants how to set up their own wikis using the free or inexpensive services of “wiki farms.”

[8] Some distractions may actually enhance communication. At the World Social Forum group meetings are often impinged upon by the carnival atmosphere created by marchers, dancers, drummers, bands and etc. It is possible that similar settings, where others are attending for other purposes, may turn out to be more productive than settings that are completely isolated from outside interference.


[9] This number can currently be increased by joining islands but the island subgroups are not really interacting with one another.

[10] The conversion-to-text can be automated, but the results need to be checked because the voice-to-text programs make errors.

[11] This first survey will be a revised and adapted version of the ones we have used at the World Social Forums. The english version of our Nairobi WSF survey is at


[12] Linden Labs, the owner of Second Life, has announced the development of a procedure that will allow for verification of the identity behind an avatar. Avatar authentication will facilitate the use of the virtual world for concluding real world agreements.

[13] In later phases other global governance issues  could be sued in order to see how much the outcomes may be altered depending upon the degree of difficulty that is presented by a case problem. 

[14] The blog “meetings,” which involve group email discussions, will each occur over a three-day period in order to allow people in different time zones to participate.