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?
No one I met in Second Life challenged my own reluctance to ignore the real world and unquestioningly accept the virtual one more than Pixeleen Mistral, the reporter with the server-crashing boots. I’m not the first person she has vexed. A year ago, when Mistral sought work at the Herald, Mark Wallace interviewed her for the job. He preferred to pay Herald reporters in U.S. dollars transferred to them online. For that to happen, Mistral would have to surrender some real information about herself. She asked to be paid in Linden dollars instead. She would convert them into real money herself. Wallace balked. Mistral started reporting—and reporting well—for the Herald anyway, for free. Wallace relented. Mistral got her Linden bucks, and Wallace never found out who was behind the avatar. These days, Wallace says he doesn’t mind. Her virtual self is real enough. She gets the job done.
Which is Mistral’s point, exactly. “You RL journalists always want to get RL verification, but if this is its own world, in-world verification here is what matters,” she typed to me when we met virtual face to virtual face in the Herald’s Second Life office. “The people reporting from the outside miss most of the nuance and assume that recreating RL in SL is a good thing.”