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Monday, March 14, 2005

VIRTUALLY TRUE: EMBEDDED JOURNALISM IN AN ONLINE WORLD (A SXSW TALK)

Or, how Hamlet Linden became a way better journalist than me...

Expanded notes from a talk about New World Notes for the South by Southwest panel "Virtually True: Journalism and Blogging About Online Worlds" (Monday, March 14, 10:00am-11:00am)

SECOND LIFE DEFINED: A persistent, streamed 3D reality that simulates a world. Using the building and scripting tools available to them, the paying subscribers (or Residents) create and own all the objects contained in it: homes, public buildings, vehicles, weapons, clothing, etc.

MY ROLE IN SECOND LIFE: I began as a game writer and freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, then was contracted by Linden Lab in early 2003 to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging community for a blog called New World Notes. My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit in tribute to Tom Wolfe. My alternate avatar (while covering wars and other chaotic situations) was inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. (Avatar discontinued in respect to Gonzo's passing.)

New World Notes functions in at least two discrete but often overlapping kinds of journalism.

AS A CATALYST FOR REAL WORLD JOURNALISM-- SOME EXAMPLES:

- In-world technological innovation with social and scientific transformative possibilities:

Science and technology journalism, as in "Lever to Move the Mind", my report on a UC Davis medical doctor and programmer creating a simulation of visual and audio hallucinations, based on testimony of real life schizophrenic patients. Scientists, programmers, engineers continue to use Second Life as a research and development platform-- as do social science academics.

- Enabling story subjects to recount deeply personal issues from the protected anomynity of their avatars:

As in "The Freeform Identity Bebop of Eboni Khan", which takes a discussion of her avatar's racial characteristics to discuss her own personal perspectives on race as an African-American woman. Since Second Life policy forbids disclosure of Resident's real life identities, and the immersive-but-safe intimacy of the 3D online experience, people feel comfortable to tell their stories of their lives, and how they relate to larger issues.

- Numerous opportunities to interview Residents from diverse, newsworthy backgrounds:

As in "The Soldier's Mistress", profile of a Resident just returned US military service in Iraq-- including a period of intense combat at Fallujah, during the first siege. Again, recounting intense, grim subjects behind the protective veil of anomynity.

In the same way, the displacement of real-time interaction in an online world as avatar who represents you (but at a safe remove), enables my reporter character to ask more provocative, confrontational questions I often hestitate to ask as an in-person reporter-- or even via e-mail or phone. At the same time, the immersive intimacy makes me more protective of my subjects, and that much more committed to telling their stories.

AS A MICROCOSM OF REAL LIFE ISSUES-- SOME EXAMPLES:

- Exploring who we want to be, and who we want to desire-- and why.

As in "Man and Man on Woman on Woman", about two (self-identified) heterosexual men who each play female avatars-- and decided to have their avatars fall in love with each other. (See also Eboni Khan's profile, where she discusses straight men she knows who play women-- so they can start relationships with other women, and then later "come out" to them as being straight men.)

- Modeling the role of religion and sexuality in culture.

As in "The Sacred and the Profane", the story of a man who built a Roman Catholic cathedral in-world, and even held recreations of Sunday mass service in them-- then later took the church down, because he felt celebrations of organized religion weren't welcomed in the relatively libertine culture of Second Life.

- Documenting the clash between capitalism and community.

As in "Anshe at the Gates". In 2003, Linden Lab announced a laissez faire policy on the buying and selling of Linden Dollars (Second Life's in-world currecy) for real money, and several third-party sites engage in such commerce. This has opened the door for Residents to make a real income from their activity in Second Life-- including real estate maven Anshe Chung, who recently bought a private island which had been home to a close-knit artistic community-- then got rid of the existing neighborhood (including its tribute to Christo's Gates), and converted it all into a vacation suburb for French and German Residents.

SOME LIMITATIONS TO AVATAR JOURNALISM:

- Objective truth is server side.

Hard to establish anything not witnessed first-hand to any fully reliable degree (chat transcripts can be altered, screenshots can be Photoshopped.) This sets a limit on "investigative" journalism, on the one hand, and threatens to turn stories which involve conflicts between Residents into He Said-She Said. My solution is not to emphasize the particular conflicts, but the larger themes they involve.

- On being paid by The Man...

Problem: how can you be an impartial journalist reporting on a world, when you're paid by the company who makes money from it? Tentative solution: state biases up front, and take on active role as ombudsman, promoting community concerns to Linden Lab. (Example here.) First Amendement irony: New World Notes stories which involve Residents being critical of Linden Lab (such as the tax revolt covered here) tend to be the most well read, and indirectly promote Second Life as a democratic online society.

- Time!

The world has grown so large, it's far exceeded one journalist's attempt to cover it. Fortunately, there are nearly forty Resident-run blogs, and my hope is to become just as much a straight SL blogger, as a journalist, acting as editor for dozens of different points of view.

And that's an open invitation for more bloggers and journalist bloggers to add online worlds to their beat...

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