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.
Reporting on the puppet without observing the person pulling the strings can seem like a willful dismissal of an important part of a story, an invitation to be duped. To the extent that what happens in Second Life has real-world consequences—such as comments by a faculty member about an all-too-real shooting at his school, or the opportunities to make real money—it seems risky, and potentially irresponsible, to dismiss the broadly agreed-upon journalistic convention of verification. The counter-argument I heard from Second Life journalists is that in real life, many articles do not describe what their flesh-and-blood subjects do when they are not in the mode that made them a topic for, or character in, a story. (In this article, for instance, do we not have an understanding of who Au is without knowing what he’s like when he’s eating dinner at home or on vacation with family?)
Peter Ludlow maintains that people role-play and use avatars in real life, anyway, that there are masks on us all. “If I get in front of class, I’m in a sense presenting an avatar,” he says. “I dress a certain way and I present myself in a certain way.” This happens in real-life reporting, too. “I think it’s probably the case when Christiane Amanpour is in front of the camera she’s probably presenting a different side of herself than when she’s, I don’t know, chilling out at the bar.”
And in fairness, Au and the others tend to write about people’s lives in Second Life, rather than their lives outside it. (Au told me that in writing his forthcoming book about Second Life, he had to fact-check one of the vets he wrote about, and the story held up.) Second Life reporters ignore the artificiality of the artifice on their computer screens. Without noting their subjects’ real-life names, they confidently report on residents who are at war with each other, on residents who have flooded an area with virtual water to make a statement about global warming, on residents who have built virtual pot plants, and so many other activities that just seem interesting on their own merits. This is a new society forming here in Second Life, they argue. Can’t incoming reporters just focus on what’s being done in this new world?