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.