Five Lessons On Virtual World Protest From The Second Life Tax Revolt of 2003
This is the day in July when we Americans celebrate Independence Day, but five years ago, July became a significant month for everyone in Second Life. That's when outrage against the Linden's tax policy, which penalized excessive building by deducting L$ from the creator's account, began festering toward open revolt, finally breaking wide at the end of the month. Buildings were razed, giant tea crates were deployed, declarations were written (by Fleabite Beach, above), and within the year, the Lindens had canceled the policy, replacing monthly subscriptions with what we have now: land use fees where building is no longer taxed. And though the tax protest wasn't directly the cause for this change, as I write in my book:
The subscriber-based model wasn’t working, and the tax revolt was the clearest demonstration of that fact, mentioned by staffers time and again, when they explained the policy revision. Without the rebellion, these course corrections might have come later. Without such a vivid reference, however, the need may have seemed less pressing; without the fundamental contradictions heightened to such surreal levels of wackiness, identifying the reasons for their lack of paying subscribers may have seemed less obvious.
New Resident-run rebellions break out on a regular basis, but excepting the Copybot Boycott of 2006, few have measurably succeeded. Why did the tax revolt triumph where so many have failed? And what can rebellion-minded Residents learn from it?
In my view, there were five essential stratagems Fleabite and his cohort employed:
Attack The Policy, Not The People Who Enforce It
Fleabite's declaration (and fellow rebels' accompanying rhetoric) was directed against "Mad King Linden"-- decidedly not any specific individual with Linden Lab. This was partly done (Fleabite told me later) to keep in spirit of the American revolutionary theme, but also to prevent it from seeming like a personal attack against members of the company. This made Lindens far more likely to fully listen to the grievances, without defensiveness, or suspicion that the movement was really just an aggregate of personal grudges against them ginned up to seem like revolt.
With the giant tea crates and exploding rockets, the Tax Revolt was very much a Second Life phenomenon, fully leveraging user-created content and the improvisational play of SL's Bebop Reality. It's a large reason why so many Residents were eager to participate-- and the Lindens, watch the revolt play out with laughing admiration, and even join in.
In 2003, Second Life's population was almost exclusively from the US, so modeling the tax revolt after the American colonists' resistance to British taxation had a unique emotional power, and made it immediately easy to understand. This was true of both Second Life users and non-Residents reading about it on blogs and other publications. By directly associating it with a major real world historical moment, anger over an otherwise-obscure subscription policy suddenly gained an epic, transcendent appeal. Which is probably why the first blog to cover the revolt outside New World Notes was... one run by Yale Law Review.
Hold The Company To Its Stated Ideals
What ultimately drove Fleabite and his cadre was the belief that Linden Lab's tax policies were betraying its own vision, conflicting with the company’s rhetoric of an improvisational, collaborative, community-minded world. (Making this more easy in general, most companies now have a mission statement they can be held to.) It's also what pushed the Linden's to recognize the justice of the rebel's claims.
By September of 2003, the tax revolt was beginning to generate a backlash (some Residents dubbed themselves "Linden loyalists"), and infighting among the activists was threatening to undermine its general thrust. Before enthusiasm over the tax revolt had entirely waned, the revolutionaries and the Lindens had a joint celebration of Revolution-era events-- Burr/Hamilton-style duels, debates, costume balls, and more. In doing this, the Lindens were acknowledging the protest; in participating, the revolutionaries tacitly recognized that fact. Revolt, in other words, ended in a party.
These are my insights as an outside observer, at least. If you're a veteran of Second Life's many rebellions, what lessons did you take from them?