Shirky had a right to be skeptical. Log on to Second Life today, when the official resident number exceeds five million, and the population of people actually in the world at any given time is only about 20,000 to 30,000. Rosedale estimates that there are about 180,000 unique users of Second Life each day, and says that of the five-million-plus people who log on at some point, only about 10 percent return after one month.
Reporting about this world for MTV News, I wasn’t susceptible to the numbers hype. Our young TV audience and Web readership don’t need dazzling statistics to sell them on the relevance of online worlds. But what I was susceptible to was corporate-driven novelty. For every homegrown Second Life tribute band that I discovered, I was pitched pieces on banks or brands coming to the virtual world. But after doing stories on American Apparel and Universal Music’s exhibition space, I decided that was enough. Some of this corporate innovation/invasion had no more novelty than the dairy industry’s creation in the late 1990s of an official Web site for milk.
I’m not the only one for whom 2006 was the year to get both excited and jaded about media attention to the influx of companies coming to Second Life. Listen to Philip Rosedale: “Is it totally irrelevant that big brands are in Second Life? No. It’s a sea change. They weren’t around a year ago and now they’re here. That tells us something. It especially tells us something because I didn’t do those deals. We don’t do any deals. We didn’t ask them to come. Personally, I wish people would write more about education [several universities offer classes in Second Life]. I really wish that people would write more about the life-changing stuff going on, write more about that oppression support group that meets on this island every couple of days and sits on prayer cushions and talks about themselves. That’s a big deal. Do I wish people would just write about that? Sure. But I also wish everybody would read every night.”
But the criticism of this second-wave journalism’s treatment of Second Life is more fundamental than just hype and factual disputes. Au believes that journalists who come into the virtual world thinking the hot story is how the real world is planting a footprint here miss stories that are just as good, maybe even better, but don’t hinge on a connection between the real and the virtual. He’s one of several influential Second Life reporters who think that the real-life media’s obsession with the “real” dismisses the importance of what is happening wholly on a virtual plane. “People go here to create an alternate identity that a lot of times will be totally different than who they are in real life,” he says. Respect that spirit and embrace it, is his philosophy. So Au typically doesn’t even ask the people he interviews in-world to give him their real names. It’s the best way he knows to capture what is going in the world.
Au’s attitude invites an immediate howl from us real-world reporters. Doesn’t the full truth matter, even in a place where so many real-world conventions are irrelevant? On April 17, I wrote a story for MTV News about a Second Life memorial for the previous day’s shootings at Virginia Tech. The piece was potent because the resident I met at the memorial was a teacher at the university. He said he’d been on campus that awful Monday. Au has interviewed residents who claim to be veterans of America’s current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If our interviewees are lying to us, we’re in trouble. I fact-checked the teacher by getting his real name and confirming his status with Virginia Tech. Au has mostly relied on instinct to confirm the veracity of what his sources say about their real life.