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.