‘Virtual’ Journalism in an Online ‘Second Life’

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By: Brian C. Howard

Last October, British media giant Reuters made global headlines by opening an all-digital bureau within the online virtual universe (or “metaverse”) program Second Life. The bureau is physically modeled on its New York and London offices, and is staffed by veteran reporter Adam Pasick, whose in-world character name is Adam Reuters.

At the virtual Reuters bureau, users can meet and chat with the character Adam Reuters, gather in comfy niches to discuss the news of the day and pick up a device that displays headlines either directly on their computer screen while visiting Second Life or on in-world monitors they can install on their own digital land.

Some of those headlines relate to events within Second Life, while others concern the outside world. Adam also writes articles for the website Secondlife.reuters.com, which also features a mix of virtual and real-life (known to many metaverse dwellers as “meatspace”) news.

Launched by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life is a 24-hour virtual universe that has become a thriving Internet community. Building upon years of advancement in video game technology, Second Life allows users a tremendous range of freedom in communicating with other live players and interacting with ever-changing digital landscapes.

Users create characters known as “avatars,” which are widely customizable in terms of body type and dress (many have wings, grossly exaggerated or animal features or even rainbow coloring), and then navigate through rich 3D environments, buying property, building elaborate structures and forming friendships, families and societies.

The number of created avatars in Second Life has been showing double-digit growth in recent months. with more than 1 million logins within the past 60 days, according to Linden Lab. At any given moment, one can expect to encounter 15 to 25,000 active users. As Reuters reported in October, people shell out an average of $350,000 a day, or $13 million a year, in real money that buys them enhancements within Second Life — although users can also enjoy the virtual world without spending a dime.

One of the Reuters site’s more popular features is a steady tracker of the exchange rate between Linden and U.S. dollars.

There’s also a Second Life newspaper. A rival paper recently shut down.

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At his office in San Francisco, Daniel Terdiman spends an average of an hour a day as his character GreeterDan Godel in Second Life. However, Terdiman doesn’t have to worry about getting in trouble with his boss, because his time spent in the virtual world is part of his job as a reporter for the technology-focused media company CNET.

While Terdiman says he does enjoy visiting Second Life for fun during his spare time, he primarily logs in to do research and interview sources. “With our virtual CNET bureau, and all the real-life companies that are opening up operations and hosting press conferences within Second Life, there is a lot for me to cover these days,” said Terdiman, who specializes in writing about cultural and business aspects of the Internet.

CNET’s Second Life bureau closely resembles an immaculate, polygonal version of the company’s San Francisco brick-and-mortar home, at least on the outside. “The only functioning part so far is on the top floor, where there’s a theater,” explained Terdiman.

About once a week, Terdiman’s avatar GreeterDan Godel hosts in-world (meaning in Second Life) interviews in the virtual theater with prominent people from both the real world and within the program. Subjects have included Philip Rosedale, the CEO of Linden Lab, and DigiBarn’s Bruce Damer, who is a historian of virtual worlds. A recent interview featured the chief gaming officer of Fortune 500 company Sun Microsystems.

Also, according to Terdiman, “Because it’s 3D and interactive, people can express themselves in ways they couldn’t in a chat room. It’s also good because we get a verbatim transcript, so you don’t have to take notes. And it’s fun.”

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In addition to established news sources, Second Life citizens have a growing number of options for finding out about their virtual world. Legions of blogs and websites devoted to the metaverse have sprung up, including the leading blog New World Notes. The site is run by real-world journalist James Wagner Au, who works under the avatar name Hamlet Au.

Au had spent three years serving as Linden’s official “embedded” journalist within Second Life, but his site is now affiliated with Federated Media Publishing, which runs the popular site Boing Boing. Recent New World Notes stories include an announcement for an in-world lunar lander design competition, discussion about the implications of the program’s rapid growth and coverage of the virtual exhibit “13 Most Beautiful Avatars.”

The Second Life Herald is a web-based newspaper focused exclusively on the metaverse. Within Second Life, users can click on a kiosk to bring up the publication’s website, which is funded by advertising just like most other content websites. According to Second Life Herald Managing Editor Pixeleen Mistral — who prefers not to use her real-life name for her work — the paper covers a wide range of topics, from Linden policy and technical issues to sex, crime, lifestyles and economics within the virtual world.

A would-be rival, The Democrat, which sought to provide in-world content through the program’s “notecard” feature, folded in early November after a four-month run.

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Print reporters aren’t the only journalists working in Second Life. Marco Manray has spent the last few years documenting the metaverse through screen-capture “photography.” Manray the avatar is controlled by Marco Cadioli, a photographer and college lecturer from Milan, Italy.

“I apply the rules of photography in my artworks in virtual worlds, in terms of point of view, compositions, language,” Cadioli explained via e-mail. “We are constructing a new world, but we don’t know what the result will be. That’s the reason why I take photographs in the Metaverse, to understand how this all started.”

These days, Cadioli is so busy with his work in Second Life that he says he no longer has time to take photos in real life. Besides prominent display within the virtual world, Cadioli’s computer-generated images have appeared in traditional paper magazines. He explained, “For Ecrans, the magazine of [France’s] Lib?ration newspaper, I shot a wide reportage exploring Second Life. For the Italian Casamica, Corriere della Sera’s interior design magazine, I shot a cover and a series about living in Second Life.” Cadioli says he makes money selling his metaverse images at the same pay scale he earned for his real-world work.

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Those who wish to reach a sizable audience within Second Life need to “learn to think of communication as visual, experiential and in 360-degrees, rather than as flat, printed content,” according to Linda Zimmer, a blogger and CEO of Internet marketing and communications company MarCom:Interactive. In many cases, this means companies and organizations are getting their messages across in the program through streaming audio and video, 3D modeling and direct demonstrations.

In terms of reporting technique, interviewing sources within Second Life often means people will be more at ease, versus having to meet face to face with real-life journalists or even talking on the telephone. The extra sense of anonymity can compel some sources to open up. Since Second Life’s chat feature retains a log of exchanges, sources may be less worried about being misquoted, suggests Pixeleen Mistral.

Still, Terdiman admits that interviewing sources in a virtual world also presents some ethical challenges. “The stuff I do is largely cultural — I’m not trying to catch people — so we tend to accept calling people only by their avatar names,” said Terdiman. Reuters’ current policy is to ask sources within Second Life to provide their real-life names for verification purposes. If the source declines disclosure, Reuters doesn’t necessarily rule them out as a potential contact, however, and will instead rely on the avatar’s standing within his or her localized Second Life community, as well as the entire network.

For wholly virtual reporters like Pixeleen Mistral, the question of real-world identities isn’t even addressed — perhaps not surprising for a journalist who herself is only known by a handle. “My reporting is about the world inside Second Life, and I confirm with the sources in world,” she explained in an e-mail. “It introduces more confusion to drag the real-life person into the scene. It might depend on the story, but if you want to cover transgendered furries [avatars that look like the plush animal costumes of theme parks], getting a real-life name and contact might be hard.”

Mistral also warns journalists to be wary of Linden Lab’s Terms of Service document, which lists restrictions on sharing Second Life conversations with the outside world without explicit permission. Further, she pointed out, “Since Linden Lab can potentially monitor any conversation in world, sensitive things are discussed via something they don’t control, like e-mail or Yahoo instant messaging.”

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