But the opportunity for metaphor and role-play is so rich that some Second Life reporters can’t help but blur the lines. Mistral is adamant that she’s a real reporter (“I’m trying to report as if SL was a self-contained world”), but Peter Ludlow says that sometimes in Second Life he’s a reporter, and sometimes he’s just playing one. “If I feel like my writing is getting too serious I’ll write something kind of silly,” he told me, “or I’ll do a report on some sort of ridiculous mafia war inside of Second Life or something.” He likes playing up the tabloid shtick. “If the deal is partly to role-play it’s way more fun to role-play as a tabloid reporter than a New York Times reporter,” he adds. When should his readers think he’s straight and when is it a put-on? “I think when we’re at our best is when we’re right on the edge, when people aren’t really sure if we’re playing a reporter or if we’re being serious reporters. And people hate that. They want to know. ‘What are you doing? Are you being serious or pretending? Let us know.’ The answer is we’re not going to let you know. We’re trying to transcend that boundary.” He wants to spark debate. He wants to entertain. These are the tools he uses, he says, to get readers to pay attention.
That’s an extreme way of handling Second Life’s blurring of truth and artifice. None of the other reporters interviewed for this story went quite so far. But for all the potential for slipperiness, for hamming up the reporters’ voice or overlooking the inability to touch or smell these things and people manifested in a virtual place, for all the chances to miss the true motivations of the puppet masters behind the puppets, the virtual world has also proven to be a laboratory for an unusual form of accountability. In a land where conversation is typed chat, and chat can be saved in Microsoft Word, the reporter has little room to misquote and not be busted—there is a transcript of every interview. In real life, a reporter in a far-flung bureau can tell the readers back home what he sees and hears, and the readers have little choice but to accept the journalist’s account. In Second Life, the places I write about—that American Apparel store, the Herald office, the casino, the sex shop, the virtual UN—can be visited by any reader who cares to check my story. Outside of Second Life, the reporter who sweats about having blogs and online comment sections and other creations of the digital age undermining and second-guessing his work certainly understands how all this can both strengthen and aggravate the reporting process.
In early 2006 Linden Lab and Au parted ways. Au was focused on writing a book and could make more money not working for Linden Lab. Rosedale saw enough reporting elsewhere in his world that he was content to let Au go. Both told me the split was amicable. Au has continued reporting about Second Life through his New World Notes blog. Linden Lab gave him a parcel of land and rights to his old articles. He had to drop the Linden last name and now reports as Hamlet Au. He estimates he has 25,000 to 50,000 unique visitors to his site a month. His book will tell the history of Second Life and will be published by Harper Collins later this year. Terdiman is also writing a book, on how to succeed in Second Life as an entrepreneur. Ludlow and Wallace are crafting a history of The Alphaville Herald and The Second Life Herald. Mistral wants to write a book, too, but only when she’s done with Linden Lab’s world. “What I would write would get me in trouble with the Linden’s [terms of service] and get me banned,” she says.
Undeterred by the limited financial rewards, people keep applying to become reporters in Second Life. Despite offering only about $3 a story, Mistral says she is inundated with applicants seeking to write for Second Life Herald. So, too, is Susie Davis of the Second Life News Network, who says good help for her volunteer outlet is hard to find. (Au pays the most, $25 apiece to contributors to his blog.)