EU considers going virtual

02.03.07 @ 17:42

  1. By Helena Spongenberg

BRUSSELS - The European Union is looking into entering the virtual world and opening up an office in Second Life - an increasingly popular internet-based virtual world - which the Swedish government and the French presidential candidates have already entered.

  • Will Brussels go virtual? (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

"It is certainly an idea we are looking into," commission spokesman Mikolaj Dowgielewicz told EUobserver.

"But we do not have enough people dealing with the internet - we could but they are bogged down with other work such as for the EU's 50th birthday," he said, adding that the EU executive might look further into it at a later stage.

Second Life is a virtual world in 3D-format built and owned by its virtual residents - called 'avatars' - where they can explore, meet other avatars, socialise, participate in individual and group activities, and buy virtual items and services from one another.

It was launched by the Linden Lab company in 2003 and resident number 4 million moved in last week. Several real-world companies have already created virtual shops in Second Life while Reuters has a correspondent there.

Alternative ways of communicating

Europeans make up the largest block of Second Life residents with more than 54 percent of active users in January ahead of North America's 34.5 percent, according to Linden Lab data.

Mr Dowgielewicz, spokeman for EU communication commissioner Margot Wallstrom, explained that an EU office in the virtual world would be part of the commission's effort to get closer to the EU citizens and communicate better with them, adding that the EU institutions are still quite weak on communication in some areas.

"We're looking at communicating through untraditional channels such as the internet and it is a very serious consideration in the reflection of our future internet strategy," he pointed out.

"Second Life is just one of them but an interesting one," he said. "We're open to new ideas."

No details have been suggested on how the commission could involve itself in Second Life but Mr Dowgielewicz said it was more likely to be a project of the commission's communication department rather than of the entire EU executive.

The European commission is responsible for the 27-member union's EU embassies around the world.

Sebastian Kurpas from European think tank CEPS told EUobserver that it is necessary for any governmental body to look into alternative ways of transmitting its message.

He explained that the commission has lately changed its communication strategy from communication through mainly mainstream channels such as print media and television to a more diversified approach including the internet.

Mr Kurpas said the commission could "reach a different public that may not normally be interested" in its work.

"But the important thing is how you do it," he pointed out. "whether it's tailor-made or just general information."

Swedish embassy and French president hopefuls

In the meantime, Sweden has announced that it is - as the first country in the world - going to open an embassy named House of Sweden in Second Life. It will be run by the Swedish Institute, a promotional body which works alongside the foreign ministry.

"In order for Sweden to reach out in the world we need to work with alternative as well as traditional ways of communication," said Olle Wästberg, head of the Swedish institute.

The embassy's ambition is to attract and provide a conscious and selective young target group with information about Sweden, the institute said in a statement recently.

"Well, it's usually the foreign minister's responsibility to open or close embassies, but in this case I give Olle the green light," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt wrote in his blog, adding that he hoped he would get an invitation to the grand opening.

French presidential hopefuls - the socialist Segolene Royal, centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen - have all opened election headquarters in Second Life sharing out free pizza slices and t-shirts while promoting their campaign.

However, the presence of Le Pen's anti-immigration, ultra-nationalist National Front has proved particularly divisive among virtual users, some of whom protested outside the party's first headquarters until it moved.