Thursday, April 22, 2010

Strikes in Cyberspace: Guest Blog

Guest Blogger: Amanda Reilly

In September of 2007 Italian IBM workers went on strike. What was unusual about this event is that it was very widely publicized as a strike in Second Life; Second Life is the most well known of the virtual worlds which are synchronous computer networked worlds where people are represented as avatars.

A video detailing the sequence of events can be viewed here.

The short version is that as events transpired 1853 persons joined “the strike” from 30 different countries for 12 hours by logging onto Second Life as avatars. The IBM business island in Second Life was occupied by these “strikers” and shortly after that closed, and a meeting of IBM executives which was taking place in Second Life was suspended. Twenty days after this event the Chief Executive Office of IBM Italy resigned and a union agreement signed.

There is certainly no doubt that the “strike” was a creative, interesting attempt at utilising new media for purposes of publicizing and communication industrial action.
However, it would premature to suggest that this is the wave of the future as there have not been any subsequent “strikes” in Second Life. Still it is interesting to speculate on the legal and other implications of this event.

One question I have is whether it was really a strike in Second Life? My view is that it was not. A strike is generally understood as a work stoppage. The Italian IBM workers may have stopped work but they did not do so in Second Life. They stopped work in Italy where their physical bodies were located.

Perhaps the so-called strike in Second Life could be seen as akin to a picket? As reported, there some disruption to the affairs of IBM in Second Life when the IBM business island was closed and a meeting occurring there was disrupted by an invasion of avatars. This does raise a potentially problematic issue. Picketing is generally legal in a public space but arguably Second Life is a private space rather than a public space.

Importantly, even if the avatars who invaded the IBM Second Life Offices can be seen as akin to illegally trespassing picketers it would be very difficult to punish or prevent this in any significant way. Participation in this sort of activism is very low risk compared to an actual physical picket which has real potential for violent consequences for participants. The physical bodies of those represented by the invading avatars were safely at their computers dispersed over 30 different countries. In fact, they need not even have been at their computers since it is possible to install a programme to click a mouse button every few minutes which has the effect of keeping an avatar logged into Second Life without the need of any human intervention or observation.

I wonder if perhaps the action taken by the avatars in Second Life was, in fact, more akin to defacing a bill board? The purpose of IBM presence in Second Life is arguably for advertising and public relations purposes rather than it being a genuine place of business. While it’s true a meeting of IBM executives in Second Life was disrupted it seems likely that this could very easily have been reconvened away from Second Life by conference call.

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