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.