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.”
Her goal is to be a “gonzo Maureen Dowd” in Second Life. (For a taste of what that means, check out her April story in the Herald, for which she profiled an in-world casino developer who also ran an automated sex school, which Mistral suspected was his real money-maker. As Mistral chatted her way through the interview, she simultaneously took a, um, lesson.) What does it matter who she or anyone else is or wants to be in the flesh? She and I chatted in the Herald offices for over an hour. Only once did I push for identification. I asked if she’d tell me her age, her gender, or even her hometown. “St. Paul, Minnesota,” she wrote back. “I think it is fair to know time zones. It’s snowing here by the way.” It wasn’t in Second Life.
Editing the Herald has invited attention, and Mistral says she regrets the loss of privacy that has resulted from her work in Second Life. Some of that attention comes in monthly virtual fire-bombings of land she owns in Second Life—done sometimes as a demand for attention in the paper. Virtual paparazzi stalk her. “I was sitting in a hot tub with a friend with my top off and they were taking pictures,” she said of the screenshots the paparazzi took. One threatened to publish them if she didn’t put a specific number of words in one of her leads. She ignored it. The threats went away. She also misses sailing in Second Life. She misses free time. Do these details accurately represent the person who created Mistral? More importantly, does it matter? I think she’s a dedicated reporter. She could be a reporter-hating, spurned politician or PR flack in real life. I don’t know. I felt I learned enough to take her seriously.
It’s worth noting, too, that not every avatar is camouflage. “There’s not a whole lot of distance between Adam Reuters and Adam Pasick,” Pasick said, referring to the bylines his stories carry when they appear on the Second Life Reuters feed and the main, real-life Reuters feed, respectively. (His bosses bought the reality of his virtual beat only up to a point—on the Second Life Reuters site his pieces are datelined Second Life; on the main Reuters site they’re datelined London or New York, wherever Pasick was sitting when he filed.)