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.)
Some reporting ambitions have changed. The in-world Wired, C-Net, and Reuters bureaus—places that Second Life experts say cost thousands of dollars to build—do not get much traffic. “We had an idea that it would be all about getting people to the [Reuters bureau] island,” Pasick says. “It was a foot-traffic game.” Aside from big interview events, like his virtual sit-down with Arianna Huffington during last year’s G8 summit, however, the place is anything but packed. The bigger marketing success has been the advent of free in-world gadgets that residents can install in their virtual homes or just have hover over their view of the virtual world. These gizmos flash an alert when a new Pasick story arrives, and provide links to his pieces.
Nevertheless, rumors abound that other big media outlets are coming in.