(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.”