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.)
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.