Burning the Virtual Shoe Leather

Does journalism in a computer world matter?

I was a novice. She—if she really were a she—was an expert. In a computer-generated world called Second Life, the bodies that defined me as the interviewer and her as the interviewee (our avatars) sat in a lounge rendered on my computer screen at my desk in New York City, and on her computer, wherever she was. Second Life looks like a video game but isn’t. It’s more of a meeting place, a hangout, some would say an alternative reality. I had used my mouse and keyboard to walk my avatar to the lounge where we sat. We were chatting. I typed questions. She typed answers. My virtual body had bronze skin the color of a fake tan. My jeans were the same virtual ones I got when I first logged on to the world in 2004. My leather jacket was a hand-me-down from a virtual U2 cover band I’d written about. My hair was brown and spiky, a Second Life default setting. I sat down and stood up like a stiff. And when I typed in real life, my avatar raised his forearms and hands as if to an imaginary keyboard, and wiggled his fingers.

Pixeleen Mistral, red-haired and stylish in a black jacket and miniskirt, sat with her legs crossed. I didn’t even know how to cross my legs. When she typed to me, her avatar remained seated and suave. “I got an animation override,” she told me when I acknowledged the obvious fact that I was a foreigner in her land. “Most girls get them so they don’t walk like complete dorks.” She pointed out another sign of her form-fitting comfort in this world: her boots. Second Life is streamed to the computers of the thousands of people who “live” and work there, or just visit, by the servers of a company in San Francisco. Mistral said her boots—also black, with metal buckles and studs—were so complex that they sometimes crashed one of Second Life’s servers if she walked into the wrong place.

Her boots, though, aren’t Mistral’s most compelling feature. She is the managing editor of the most popular in-world newspaper, The Second Life Herald. She, like a handful of other pioneering Second Life reporters, covers the virtual beat, one keyboard-driven step at a time. We met in this lounge so that she could tell me what it’s like to do this, and how the dozens—maybe hundreds—of mainstream media reporters who have been stomping through the world of late, wearing boots that are decidedly less cool than hers, have been getting the story wrong. But first, I should tell you that journalism has defined the four-year-old land of Second Life as it has few places that exist on real soil. In the early days, Second Life reporters were stars of an experimental online culture, the Web-based town criers of a place where every innovation—the first gun, the first hug, the first recreation of Hiroshima as it was minutes after the bomb—was worth writing about. Those journalists wrote mostly for digital newspapers and blogs created specifically to cover Second Life, and although some also wrote for mainstream publications, they bought into the experimental and evolving nature of this virtual world and attempted to cover Second Life as a distinct, self-contained place, even when it meant jettisoning real-world journalistic conventions.

In a second phase that began about a year ago, a new wave of reporters, representing big media outlets and with a somewhat different agenda from the pioneers, came in. They shined a spotlight, asked for real names, and were generally more interested in the phenomenon of Second Life—in the wow factor and the growing number of ways it mimicked real life—rather than the liberating possibilities of building a world from scratch. In October 2006, this new wave of media attention helped draw Second Life its one-millionth new virtual resident—even though the actual import of that is a matter of some debate—then its second, third, fourth, and fifth-millionth, all by the end of February. To the reporters who were there at the start, this new wave wasn’t exactly welcome, and the clash of journalistic styles raises interesting questions about why we do what we do, and about what’s important—journalistically—in a place that isn’t quite real, but where what happens can have real-world consequences.

I’ve reported in this other world during both phases. This spring I spoke with many of the Second Life reporters who have worked the hardest to define journalism in their virtual land. I’ve been told, as I think about Second Life and what is happening here, not to get distracted by the wrong weirdness. I’ve been told why real names don’t matter here and why understanding someone’s virtual self does. I’ve been told to think clearly about a place where the government is also the god, the maker of the land upon which we walk, and a private company. I’ve been told not to witness the virtual beat through eyes that see a proliferation of obscuring masks, but those that see an abundance of revealing truths about how people might live if they got a chance to start over. I’ve been told this in a place where you can fly to a story with the flap of your butterfly wings, and I’ve been told that’s a liberating thing.

Beyond the journalists who have set out to cover this virtual world as a beat, Second Life has been “explained” in dozens of articles. It was a 2006 cover story in Business Week and has been featured in at least eight stories in The New York Times and dozens more in other major papers. Second Life has been profiled on CBS’s Sunday Morning and serves as an occasional host location for NPR’s The Infinite Mind. This little, virtual place gets a lot of shine. I’ll take some of the blame for that—and it is blame I hear in the rising backlash against this world from reporters who cover it and virtual world-watchers who think it’s all a bit much. I wrote the first of those Times stories and I’ve covered Second Life online and on air for MTV News, where I write about video games. But Second Life isn’t a game. It just looks like one because, like the worlds of Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario 64, it’s a digital place rendered on a screen. The ways Second Life differs from a game are what propel all this interest.

Launched in 2003, Second Life is the product of Linden Lab, a San Francisco company, and its blond, wide-eyed CEO, Philip Rosedale, a former chief technical officer at RealNetworks who as a teenager tried to build a hovercraft powered by lawnmower blades. He never saw Second Life as a game, but as an extension of real life (“RL” in Second Life parlance). “We were trying to create a living space that you could just go into and it would be real,” he told me recently. His new world would provide people who communicated through the Internet with something more vivid than an e-mail address or chat-room nickname: a virtual body. A new user of Second Life would customize an avatar, and maybe what you created as a representation of your RL self would say something about who you are—or who you want to be.

(Rosedale was also creating a business. Second Life makes money by charging users fees for land that they purchase and build on. It also gets funding from investors, including $11 million in March 2006 from a group led by Globespan Capital Partners, and another $8 million in 2004.)

Users or residents—pointedly not “players”—could build themselves a house or a tower or a car or anything else they could alchemize from the Second Life tools of creation. Linden Lab added land as more people moved in. The rest of Genesis would be the work of the residents. Eventually, they were able to create new physical movement for the world’s bodies and objects. Someone invented hugging. Someone else invented a Native American war dance. Somebody made motorcycles that worked. There was no high score to be won, no competition. People could just socialize and work and explore. Some built games—casinos and areas for adventure—but they also built book clubs and places for virtual romantic liaisons (a lot of the latter, actually). Perhaps more important, there is an actual economy in Second Life, and people are making real-world money. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From the start, Rosedale envisioned people creating golf courses and shopping malls (which they have). He expected reporting, too. “The big strategy was always that it would be emergent like everything else, and, in fact, as journalism in Second Life emerged it would be a sign to us that we were doing something right,” Rosedale says. Though he saw journalism as an inevitability, and a useful way for this new world to be explained to its residents, he worried that Second Life’s early population was too small to produce a good reporter. “We had to make calibrated bets early on that were sometimes risky,” he says, “where we would try to do something to be a seed kernel for something that we hoped would happen.” So he made journalism happen. He tapped a freelance tech reporter named Wagner James Au to be the Adam of Second Life journalism—paid on Rosedale’s Linden Lab government dime.

On April 22, 2003, writing as Hamlet Linden for the New World Notes blog on Second Life’s Web site, Au introduced himself. “For the next few months, Linden Lab has invited me to set aside my journalist cap, and instead, don the digital beanie of their in-house virtual correspondent.” He wasn’t paid to keep it positive. He wrote about builders and eccentrics, but then in August of that year, he reported on a tax revolt against Linden Lab (a complaint about the fees it charges users who build stuff) led by a resident whose avatar was a big cat.

It was a great beat. “Being in Second Life is sort of like underwater lucid dreaming,” Au told me recently. “It’s got this weird silence to it, like being underwater. And the dreaming part is just everything happens at the same time and has no internal logic.” A reporter can fly through his beat or teleport instantly to any public quadrant of Second Life’s ever-expanding map, and report on anything interesting that he encounters. (One of the first times I entered Second Life, I flew through a Hiroshima awareness exhibit, met people at a virtual casino, explored a chamber designed to simulate the medically recorded symptoms of schizophrenia, and climbed a giant half-open refrigerator that made me feel the size of a mouse.) Reporters can hold office hours, as some do in their virtual headquarters, and welcome a colorful parade of residents who come to tell them what they’re up to. There is much to explore: a castle, a cluster of people re-enacting a war, a popular nightclub, or a recreation of the United Nations’ General Assembly room floating in the virtual sky. “It’s kind of one strange wonderful thing after the other, at its best,” says Au. “I just realized that’s the experience, so I have to write it with a straight face.”

Au wasn’t alone on the beat for long. Before I fluttered into Second Life in late 2004 to describe for readers of the Times a world that had at the time just 15,000 residents, Peter Ludlow, a University of Michigan philosophy professor, had jumped in to practice his brand of journalism. He’d already been in the Times himself, featured in a front-page article in January 2004 for having been booted out of another virtual world, The Sims Online, for either violating the terms of service of operating in that world—which is what Electronic Arts, the company that controls The Sims Online, claims—or, as Ludlow contends, for raking a little too much muck about in-world scams and cybersex through his Web-based newspaper, The Alphaville Herald. After his eviction, Ludlow brought his avatar, Urizenus Sklar, and his newspaper, now renamed the Second Life Herald (secondlifeherald.com), to Philip Rosedale’s world. The paper remains a chronicle of the more ribald and ingenious creations of Second Life residents—those often being innovations in avatar-to-avatar or avatar-to-object sex (a recent Herald headline: 100 POSITION SL SEX BED—IN 70’S PLAID!). It also continues to take on the “government.” “The big issue in these worlds is always how is the corporation managing the world? What are the conflicts between the user and the management?” Ludlow told me recently. “Inevitably you end up writing about that. And if you’re not writing about that you’re not writing about the world.”

In late April and early May, the Herald published a story about an open letter signed by more than 4,000 Second Life residents addressed to Linden Lab, detailing a laundry list of administrative complaints, and a series of op-eds attacking Linden Lab’s new identity verification systems. The paper also reported on the supposed inefficacy of Linden Lab’s recent effort to run off users who participated in “ageplay,” or sexualized encounters involving avatars that look like children.

In 2003, Daniel Terdiman, a tech reporter then freelancing for Wired, heard about Au’s work and began trying to convince editors at Wired, and later C-Net, to let him cover Second Life. Last October, Terdiman engineered the creation of a C-Net bureau in Second Life, where he used his avatar to conduct town-hall-like interviews with Second Life newsmakers in front of an avatar audience. At one point, this oh-so-modern endeavor was interrupted by an audience member who mischievously triggered a rain of virtual male genitals, a protest against Terdiman’s controversial interview subject, an in-world real-estate mogul who had made a lot of money and a lot of enemies.

Then, in early 2005, the Brooklyn-based freelancer Mark Wallace was tired of reporting about equity markets in the Persian Gulf and about millionaires for Details. He wanted a new beat. He logged on to Second Life, discovered an ad for a job at Ludlow’s Herald, and signed on as Walker Spaight, Urizenus Sklar’s reporting partner.

Susie Davis, a copy editor in Connecticut, also jumped into Second Life. She started reporting there in April 2006. She could have been anything in that world, which she visited outside her eight-hour copy-editing shifts. She thought she’d join a Second Life book club. “The book club I picked hadn’t met in six months,” Davis told me. She could have spent her Second Life time dancing in discos, but, she said, “If you’re going to dance you might as well dance for real.” Reporting seemed the most interesting. “The art of chasing a story is what kept me in Second Life,” she says. By the middle of 2006, her avatar, Ute Hicks, was hired as editor of the Second Life Business Magazine, a monthly publication that lasted roughly six months, until its publisher shut it down (according to Davis, the publisher was wrapping up a stint as a defense contractor in Afghanistan, and returning to America where he would have less free time to log on to Second Life). Davis had a fallback though, because while Ute Hicks was editing the business magazine, another avatar that Davis used, one Marvel Ousley, was helping to start the Second Life News Network, a contender to take on the world’s dominant media outlet, The Second Life Herald.

Those were the small engagements. Then Reuters got involved, and phase two of journalism’s evolution in Second Life was firmly under way. Last summer, Philip Rosedale met the Reuters CEO, Tom Glocer, at the elite Allen & Company media and technology conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Glocer heard Rosedale speak about Second Life, and, according to Rosedale, the two brainstormed over lunch about having a Reuters reporter enter that world full-time. One rationale for Reuters was the business angle of Second Life. There was an economy in there. The Linden dollar, the currency of Second Life, was freely transferable to U.S. dollars (as of June 13, the exchange rate was 266 Lindens to every U.S. dollar). A resident who built cool virtual motorcycles could sell them to other residents for Lindens. Then Linden Lab would transfer that “fake” money into real money in the resident’s credit card account. (Money can be transferred either way). As in the real-world economy, someone who makes things that people want or need could turn a profit. People were trying to make careers in this world. (Of the more than 12 million transactions in May in Second Life, some two hundred were for upwards of $2,000.)

Glocer bit, and in August 2006 Adam Pasick, a London-based reporter for Reuters, was assigned the Second Life beat, with a virtual Reuters building and a special feed on Reuters’ Web site to showcase his efforts. “Honestly, it sounded like a career killer,” Pasick told me. “The whole idea sounded faintly ludicrous that we’re going to cover this world that doesn’t quite exist.” The bureau opened in October and Pasick quickly warmed to the concept, finding rich material in the crackdown on casino advertising, profiles of entrepreneurial builders, and protests against the invention that allowed users to copy anything they encountered in the virtual world (Second Life’s own copyright infringement problem). “The more I got used to things in Second Life,” he says, “the more it just felt like another reporting job.”

This infusion of journalists was just one of the migrations altering the Second Life landscape. Businesses were coming, too. Pontiac and BMW bought land and opened virtual shops. Major League Baseball built a stadium where you can sit and watch the All-Star game home-run derby on a giant in-world screen. Sundance Channel built a movie theater that shows the occasional film free. Last summer, I flew into Second Life to sneak through an American Apparel store that was a day away from its grand opening but already well publicized by the clothing company’s PR folks, who were eager to promote this new way of buying virtual versions of the company’s clothing as well as the real-life inspirations.

The spill of real-life brands into Second Life became a major technology/pop culture story of 2006. The New York Times, USA Today, Time, and more than a dozen other major news outlets, including MTV News, found it worthy of coverage. But to Wagner James Au and the other resident journalists in Second Life, this incursion of real-life commercialism and the attendant media attention were a distortion of what is significant in the world. In December 2006, the tech blogger Clay Shirky gave voice to this backlash, first in a post titled “A story too good to check,” and a follow-up called “Naming names: the tech reporters who flack for Second Life.” In the latter, he charged journalists from CNN, Fortune, The New York Times, and USA Today with a willful or sloppy tendency to misread the population count of residents posted on SecondLife.com (then topping one million) as a measure of the number of people actually using the world. In the interest of selling editors or readers on the relevance of something—anything—happening in Second Life, he wrote, these reporters failed to mention that the number of residents was arrived at by counting avatars, not the people who have avatars. So Ute Hicks and Marvel Ousley were being counted as two residents, for example, even though both are controlled by Susie Davis. Second Life wasn’t quite as popular as the multimillion statistic suggested.

Shirky had a right to be skeptical. Log on to Second Life today, when the official resident number exceeds five million, and the population of people actually in the world at any given time is only about 20,000 to 30,000. Rosedale estimates that there are about 180,000 unique users of Second Life each day, and says that of the five-million-plus people who log on at some point, only about 10 percent return after one month.

Reporting about this world for MTV News, I wasn’t susceptible to the numbers hype. Our young TV audience and Web readership don’t need dazzling statistics to sell them on the relevance of online worlds. But what I was susceptible to was corporate-driven novelty. For every homegrown Second Life tribute band that I discovered, I was pitched pieces on banks or brands coming to the virtual world. But after doing stories on American Apparel and Universal Music’s exhibition space, I decided that was enough. Some of this corporate innovation/invasion had no more novelty than the dairy industry’s creation in the late 1990s of an official Web site for milk.

I’m not the only one for whom 2006 was the year to get both excited and jaded about media attention to the influx of companies coming to Second Life. Listen to Philip Rosedale: “Is it totally irrelevant that big brands are in Second Life? No. It’s a sea change. They weren’t around a year ago and now they’re here. That tells us something. It especially tells us something because I didn’t do those deals. We don’t do any deals. We didn’t ask them to come. Personally, I wish people would write more about education [several universities offer classes in Second Life]. I really wish that people would write more about the life-changing stuff going on, write more about that oppression support group that meets on this island every couple of days and sits on prayer cushions and talks about themselves. That’s a big deal. Do I wish people would just write about that? Sure. But I also wish everybody would read every night.”

But the criticism of this second-wave journalism’s treatment of Second Life is more fundamental than just hype and factual disputes. Au believes that journalists who come into the virtual world thinking the hot story is how the real world is planting a footprint here miss stories that are just as good, maybe even better, but don’t hinge on a connection between the real and the virtual. He’s one of several influential Second Life reporters who think that the real-life media’s obsession with the “real” dismisses the importance of what is happening wholly on a virtual plane. “People go here to create an alternate identity that a lot of times will be totally different than who they are in real life,” he says. Respect that spirit and embrace it, is his philosophy. So Au typically doesn’t even ask the people he interviews in-world to give him their real names. It’s the best way he knows to capture what is going in the world.

Au’s attitude invites an immediate howl from us real-world reporters. Doesn’t the full truth matter, even in a place where so many real-world conventions are irrelevant? On April 17, I wrote a story for MTV News about a Second Life memorial for the previous day’s shootings at Virginia Tech. The piece was potent because the resident I met at the memorial was a teacher at the university. He said he’d been on campus that awful Monday. Au has interviewed residents who claim to be veterans of America’s current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If our interviewees are lying to us, we’re in trouble. I fact-checked the teacher by getting his real name and confirming his status with Virginia Tech. Au has mostly relied on instinct to confirm the veracity of what his sources say about their real life.

Reporting on the puppet without observing the person pulling the strings can seem like a willful dismissal of an important part of a story, an invitation to be duped. To the extent that what happens in Second Life has real-world consequences—such as comments by a faculty member about an all-too-real shooting at his school, or the opportunities to make real money—it seems risky, and potentially irresponsible, to dismiss the broadly agreed-upon journalistic convention of verification. The counter-argument I heard from Second Life journalists is that in real life, many articles do not describe what their flesh-and-blood subjects do when they are not in the mode that made them a topic for, or character in, a story. (In this article, for instance, do we not have an understanding of who Au is without knowing what he’s like when he’s eating dinner at home or on vacation with family?)

Peter Ludlow maintains that people role-play and use avatars in real life, anyway, that there are masks on us all. “If I get in front of class, I’m in a sense presenting an avatar,” he says. “I dress a certain way and I present myself in a certain way.” This happens in real-life reporting, too. “I think it’s probably the case when Christiane Amanpour is in front of the camera she’s probably presenting a different side of herself than when she’s, I don’t know, chilling out at the bar.”

And in fairness, Au and the others tend to write about people’s lives in Second Life, rather than their lives outside it. (Au told me that in writing his forthcoming book about Second Life, he had to fact-check one of the vets he wrote about, and the story held up.) Second Life reporters ignore the artificiality of the artifice on their computer screens. Without noting their subjects’ real-life names, they confidently report on residents who are at war with each other, on residents who have flooded an area with virtual water to make a statement about global warming, on residents who have built virtual pot plants, and so many other activities that just seem interesting on their own merits. This is a new society forming here in Second Life, they argue. Can’t incoming reporters just focus on what’s being done in this new world?

No one I met in Second Life challenged my own reluctance to ignore the real world and unquestioningly accept the virtual one more than Pixeleen Mistral, the reporter with the server-crashing boots. I’m not the first person she has vexed. A year ago, when Mistral sought work at the Herald, Mark Wallace interviewed her for the job. He preferred to pay Herald reporters in U.S. dollars transferred to them online. For that to happen, Mistral would have to surrender some real information about herself. She asked to be paid in Linden dollars instead. She would convert them into real money herself. Wallace balked. Mistral started reporting—and reporting well—for the Herald anyway, for free. Wallace relented. Mistral got her Linden bucks, and Wallace never found out who was behind the avatar. These days, Wallace says he doesn’t mind. Her virtual self is real enough. She gets the job done.

Which is Mistral’s point, exactly. “You RL journalists always want to get RL verification, but if this is its own world, in-world verification here is what matters,” she typed to me when we met virtual face to virtual face in the Herald’s Second Life office. “The people reporting from the outside miss most of the nuance and assume that recreating RL in SL is a good thing.”

Her goal is to be a “gonzo Maureen Dowd” in Second Life. (For a taste of what that means, check out her April story in the Herald, for which she profiled an in-world casino developer who also ran an automated sex school, which Mistral suspected was his real money-maker. As Mistral chatted her way through the interview, she simultaneously took a, um, lesson.) What does it matter who she or anyone else is or wants to be in the flesh? She and I chatted in the Herald offices for over an hour. Only once did I push for identification. I asked if she’d tell me her age, her gender, or even her hometown. “St. Paul, Minnesota,” she wrote back. “I think it is fair to know time zones. It’s snowing here by the way.” It wasn’t in Second Life.

Editing the Herald has invited attention, and Mistral says she regrets the loss of privacy that has resulted from her work in Second Life. Some of that attention comes in monthly virtual fire-bombings of land she owns in Second Life—done sometimes as a demand for attention in the paper. Virtual paparazzi stalk her. “I was sitting in a hot tub with a friend with my top off and they were taking pictures,” she said of the screenshots the paparazzi took. One threatened to publish them if she didn’t put a specific number of words in one of her leads. She ignored it. The threats went away. She also misses sailing in Second Life. She misses free time. Do these details accurately represent the person who created Mistral? More importantly, does it matter? I think she’s a dedicated reporter. She could be a reporter-hating, spurned politician or PR flack in real life. I don’t know. I felt I learned enough to take her seriously.

It’s worth noting, too, that not every avatar is camouflage. “There’s not a whole lot of distance between Adam Reuters and Adam Pasick,” Pasick said, referring to the bylines his stories carry when they appear on the Second Life Reuters feed and the main, real-life Reuters feed, respectively. (His bosses bought the reality of his virtual beat only up to a point—on the Second Life Reuters site his pieces are datelined Second Life; on the main Reuters site they’re datelined London or New York, wherever Pasick was sitting when he filed.)

But the opportunity for metaphor and role-play is so rich that some Second Life reporters can’t help but blur the lines. Mistral is adamant that she’s a real reporter (“I’m trying to report as if SL was a self-contained world”), but Peter Ludlow says that sometimes in Second Life he’s a reporter, and sometimes he’s just playing one. “If I feel like my writing is getting too serious I’ll write something kind of silly,” he told me, “or I’ll do a report on some sort of ridiculous mafia war inside of Second Life or something.” He likes playing up the tabloid shtick. “If the deal is partly to role-play it’s way more fun to role-play as a tabloid reporter than a New York Times reporter,” he adds. When should his readers think he’s straight and when is it a put-on? “I think when we’re at our best is when we’re right on the edge, when people aren’t really sure if we’re playing a reporter or if we’re being serious reporters. And people hate that. They want to know. ‘What are you doing? Are you being serious or pretending? Let us know.’ The answer is we’re not going to let you know. We’re trying to transcend that boundary.” He wants to spark debate. He wants to entertain. These are the tools he uses, he says, to get readers to pay attention.

That’s an extreme way of handling Second Life’s blurring of truth and artifice. None of the other reporters interviewed for this story went quite so far. But for all the potential for slipperiness, for hamming up the reporters’ voice or overlooking the inability to touch or smell these things and people manifested in a virtual place, for all the chances to miss the true motivations of the puppet masters behind the puppets, the virtual world has also proven to be a laboratory for an unusual form of accountability. In a land where conversation is typed chat, and chat can be saved in Microsoft Word, the reporter has little room to misquote and not be busted—there is a transcript of every interview. In real life, a reporter in a far-flung bureau can tell the readers back home what he sees and hears, and the readers have little choice but to accept the journalist’s account. In Second Life, the places I write about—that American Apparel store, the Herald office, the casino, the sex shop, the virtual UN—can be visited by any reader who cares to check my story. Outside of Second Life, the reporter who sweats about having blogs and online comment sections and other creations of the digital age undermining and second-guessing his work certainly understands how all this can both strengthen and aggravate the reporting process.

In early 2006 Linden Lab and Au parted ways. Au was focused on writing a book and could make more money not working for Linden Lab. Rosedale saw enough reporting elsewhere in his world that he was content to let Au go. Both told me the split was amicable. Au has continued reporting about Second Life through his New World Notes blog. Linden Lab gave him a parcel of land and rights to his old articles. He had to drop the Linden last name and now reports as Hamlet Au. He estimates he has 25,000 to 50,000 unique visitors to his site a month. His book will tell the history of Second Life and will be published by Harper Collins later this year. Terdiman is also writing a book, on how to succeed in Second Life as an entrepreneur. Ludlow and Wallace are crafting a history of The Alphaville Herald and The Second Life Herald. Mistral wants to write a book, too, but only when she’s done with Linden Lab’s world. “What I would write would get me in trouble with the Linden’s [terms of service] and get me banned,” she says.

Undeterred by the limited financial rewards, people keep applying to become reporters in Second Life. Despite offering only about $3 a story, Mistral says she is inundated with applicants seeking to write for Second Life Herald. So, too, is Susie Davis of the Second Life News Network, who says good help for her volunteer outlet is hard to find. (Au pays the most, $25 apiece to contributors to his blog.)

Some reporting ambitions have changed. The in-world Wired, C-Net, and Reuters bureaus—places that Second Life experts say cost thousands of dollars to build—do not get much traffic. “We had an idea that it would be all about getting people to the [Reuters bureau] island,” Pasick says. “It was a foot-traffic game.” Aside from big interview events, like his virtual sit-down with Arianna Huffington during last year’s G8 summit, however, the place is anything but packed. The bigger marketing success has been the advent of free in-world gadgets that residents can install in their virtual homes or just have hover over their view of the virtual world. These gizmos flash an alert when a new Pasick story arrives, and provide links to his pieces.

Nevertheless, rumors abound that other big media outlets are coming in.

Mistral considers the reporters who are in Second Life for the long term to be the “village storytellers.” They are the small-town press, the people who understand the locals better than the national media that rumble into town only when there’s a sensation, dragging along their stereotypes and biases and preconceptions. A lot of sensation has been happening in the virtual world lately. It’s a sensational place. Connecting people from around the world, it’s a new community—a new city—with new possibilities as well as plenty of chances for the archetypal stories of life, love, and dreams to be chronicled. The avatars may lie. They may offer valuable insights. The numbers may confuse. The controls that move the avatars through this world may confound. You’ve got to breathe it deeply to get it. And you’ve got to answer this question for yourself: In a brand-new world inextricably tied to, and simultaneously free of, the one we were born in, what truly matters?

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Stephen Totilo writes about video games for MTV News.