Citizenship is an interesting tripartite concept, which involves protection, participation, and obligation. How that all interacts with virtual worlds in the 21st Century is something of a perennial topic.
The concept of citizenship has changed considerably over the centuries, and different states define citizenship slightly differently, but the core concepts are fairly fundamental, if a little recursive.
First, there is the state. The state includes the government and all of the citizens. Actual territory isn’t – strictly speaking – a requirement for statehood, but historically all states have territories.
A state is constituted; that is it has a constitution, a formal agreement by which all elements of the state agree to abide. In practice, constitutions tend to be rather dated and tangled affairs, full of ambiguity. That’s pretty much just how things worked out.
Now we get to the essential elements of citizenship. We’ll start with participation.
A citizen is an economic participant in the state. That’s an easy one. They can give and receive currency and generally have ownership of property.
A citizen is a participant in government. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they serve as a part of the government, or that they vote. In some cases government simply overlaps into the rest of the state. In the feudal system serfs were not citizens, but knights and farmers (a specific kind of land-holder, under the feudal system) were.
In a sense, the government is properly indistinguishable from the citizens, in that the process of government includes all citizens – even if the citizens don’t actually have much of a say in the constituted government, they’re a part of the process.
The next part is protection.
The state protects its citizens from other states, either from military threats, from harm or danger, from loss of liberty or from criminal charges – though the state, as constituted, has leeway in choosing to do so. A state may constitutionally make agreements with another state that forgo the option to protect citizens from some criminal charges in exchange for having the right to lay similar charges against the citizens of another state or for other considerations.
These arrangements tend to be fairly tricky in practice, and many criminal charges do not survive crossing state borders because of it.
The state also is bound to protect its citizens from each-other, from danger, harm, and unfair or discriminative treatment; a process which – in an ideal world – should rightly come from the individual actions of its citizens to not harm each-other, but in practice almost never does.
A citizen has obligations.
A citizen is obligated to pay taxes and to vote, if it is required of them. A citizen is also obligated to serve on a jury or be subject to lawful conscription if these are required.
Additionally, of course, a citizen is required to obey the criminal code of the state, both within the state, and when operating outside of the state.
Put that all together and you’ve got the core of citizenship. While it might be dressed up a bit differently here and there, those form the essence of it. Not everyone that we would think of as a citizen of some states necessarily passes the test. Some people are, in reality, no better than serfs or slaves. Non-citizens within their own states.
How does that all interact with virtual environments (commonly called virtual worlds)?
Well, quite simply, the citizenship tests fail for them. That is, you cannot rightly be held to hold citizenship in a virtual world.
Yes, the virtual state has territories, even if they are not really the traditional sort. You can usually be an economic participant… well, up to a point. What you own is a matter for some dispute.
The virtual state may confer obligations and protect you to some degree from others, but provides no protection whatsoever from any other state.
Also the virtual state is not constituted – the government (if the term is even meaningful – it isn’t really, let’s say the ‘management’) need not adhere to any overarching constitution.
The notion of genuine citizenship of a virtual world is, in the first half of the twenty-first Century, as practical as having genuine citizenship in IBM, or in Seiko Epson.
The virtual state is not a state, and its constituents are not citizens. There’s no “One nation, under Rod,” for Second Life users, if you will.