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.