Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Because last week was so hectic, what with the election and the cross-country flying and such, I haven't had a real chance to offer some post-talk comments on State of Play II, hosted by New York Law School. My talk, for a panel hosted by Julian Dibbell, also featuring Peter Ludlow and Andrew Tepper, is available in streamed video here. (NYLS thoughtfully put video streams to all of SoP II's talks here.) Much thanks to the most excellent Beth Noveck and the ambidextrous Chun Li for putting the event together with such grace. I also had engaging conversations after the talk (and after hours) with folks too numerous to mention, but why not try: the great hive mind of the Terra Novites (who of course already have extensive coverage of SoP II on their blog) featuring most especially Richard Bartle, Betsy Book, Ren Reynolds, and T.L. Taylor, and assorted improvisational sessions with Aaron Delwiche, Celia Pearce, James Grimmelmann, along with a host of equally charming, witty, insightful folks that I would also mention now, if I had already finished unpacking and had dug up all their business cards. In any case, the links above are your ticket to getting the bigger picture that New World Notes in its makeshift way contributes fragments to.

After my talk, an audience member asked about my relation to Linden Lab, and how it impacted my role as the embedded journalist. How can I expect to be an impartial observer of Second Life's world, when I'm a contractor of the company which runs it? A fair question which deserves a decent answer, and more extensive than the one I gave him then. So more after the jump...

At the time, I made the analogy of being the publisher of a small town newspaper in a company-owned town, but that doesn't quite convey my relationship to Linden Lab accurately enough. (Maybe people picture the company owner in his silk bathrobe, ringing up me up at 2AM from the drawing room of his mansion on the hill, complaining about my paper's coverage of an upcoming union strike, which is subsequently moved from the front page to behind the obituaries.)

Truth is, New World Notes stories are conceived, researched, written, and published by me, without any mandatory pre-screening by Linden Lab. On the handful of occasions over the last eighteen-plus months when I did discuss an upcoming NWN story with LL beforehand, it was over concerns that the subject matter might clash with community standards or terms of service rules (which I agreed to abide by in my coverage, from the get go.) So, not so much the publisher in a company-owned town.

There's a left wing criticism of the media which goes like this: major newspapers and other news sources cannot be objective and impartial, because they are owned by giant corporations, which in turn are owned or invested in by even larger conglomerates with government contractors and investments in countries around the world. So, this reasoning goes, most media outlets are necessarily biased by the assumptions of corporate interest, and unconsciously slant their coverage accordingly.

I personally think that's a fairly simplistic view of the media which has little do with how it actually operates-- but then, it does have some explanatory value to describe what I do, in New World Notes. Because NWN's survival (and my career with it) depend on the financial well-being of the owners, as a journalist, I do see the world through a filter of corporate interest.

It's just that in my case, there's one corporation, and it also happens to own the world, too.

So while I share the larger company's overall interest-- a mandate to get the world to grow and thrive commercially-- that has little impact or influence on my week-to-week coverage. My interest is to write about fascinating, provocative, cool, strange events and the residents who make them possible, hopefully in a way that illustrates larger social trends in the Second Life community as a whole. Fortunately for me, my interest is exactly parallel to Linden Lab. Even when I write stories featuring residents who are critical of company policy, as it impacts the world. (See, for example, my tax strike coverage.) The residents gets to air their grievance, the company gets a chance to realize the seriousness of the controversy, and address it-- and I get to fly out and talk about it at New York Law School.

Having a free press, it can never be said enough, rocks.

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Tracked on Nov 9, 2004 3:54:57 AM


I think the critique of corporate owned media is more subtle than you suggest, Hammie. The Chomsky line, for example, is that the corps hire people that have internalized certain values, the people they hire do likewise and so on down the line. So there is no media control in the sense of them having to tell people what to say -- they don't have to! They've already hired like-thinking people. Applied to your case, the Linden's don't have to worry about controlling you because they already know how you think and that's what they want. Nothing wrong with any of this in the case of NWN. Why shouldn't they hire fellow-travellers. It only becomes an issue when we have the national media all owned by a handful of corporations.

By the way, I don't think there are any stories you could write that could possibly undermine the success of SL, so I don't see what that worry is all about. And I sort of doubt that the Lindens would care if you got all critical on them. They might be surprised but I doubt they would can you as long as your stories continue to be interesting and well written.

Posted by: Peter Ludlow at Nov 9, 2004 3:36:28 AM

Good points, Peter. It's also probably true that I was brought in because I already share some fundamental assumptions with Linden, expressed in previous articles for Salon, where it was made clear that I'm a passionate advocate of mod culture and the potential of MMOs with user-created content. This is partly why I chose Tom Wolfe as a role model, because he's the great journalist who covers the wild, strange, and wonderful aspects of American culture in a bid to understand it. In that very effort, however, he's also an advocate for American culture-- just as I'm ultimate an advocate for Second Life culture, and the residents who make it possible.

I also wanted to mention the possibility of a radical critique of Second Life, which chaellenges the assumptions of stability and the status quo-- the premises that make me a centrist journalist. I'm very willing to cover residents who express that view, and link to SL bloggers who push it forward. For example, Peter Ludlow, whose thesis at SoP II was basically, "Do we even need Second Life anymore, and why?" That's like what a Trotskyite journalist would write in Ramparts, and that's great, because we need a left wing, so to speak, to create that tension, and expose those assumptions. (Then again, Wolfe was and is the great skeptic of radical chic.)

Posted by: Hamlet Linden at Nov 9, 2004 11:55:56 AM

radical journalism is hard in mmorpgs because if the game sucks the temptation to leave becomes overwhelming. I couldn't get anyone over age 18 to stay in TSO as a reporter -- they all *hated* it. I think I only stayed as long as I did because people were trying to get me to leave. If something supersedes SL I will probably move on to that rather than sit in SL and bitch about it. The net effect of all this is there is a natural propensity towards boosterism in these journals, whether we work for The Man or not.

Posted by: Peter Ludlow at Nov 10, 2004 6:54:10 AM

I'm surprised that this is the first time this obvious issue is coming up here(which I've raised a few times on SL Herald's blog)--unless I'm just tuning in -- and even more surprised that the question comes *after* the meeting by the seemingly timid audience member tip-toeing up to Hamlet instead of him feeling free and curious enough to ask the obvious in public.

The role isn't really like a newspaper in a company town, where the silk-robed magnate summons the editor. That presupposes that the editor is independent, but under pressure. But in this model, the company starts out by hiring its own editor to run its company's newspaper. In the company-town model, the company doesn't actually pay directly for the editor's salary -- subscriptions and advertisers do, and however dependendent they are on the company, they are at least one step removed.

The role is more like the newspaper "Stars and Stripes" in the US Army, or perhaps writing for TASS or Pravda in the Soviet era, where you wouldn't even get the job unless you were a Party member and "like-minded". There's nothing wrong with playing such a role -- every company needs a good writer, and the more sophisticated the entertainment company, the more independent-seeming the court scribe will be. It's OK. I just wonder what it does to Hamlet's long-term conception of himself as an independent journalist. I'd have to take out a microscope to find anything that really seems "tilted" in his coverage as it is, which as he describes it, is devoted to finding interesting life-forms.

There's no question that there's selectivity however, and the tendency is to cover the "positive" in the form of fashion shows and first-person shooters, rather than hard-hitting, probing pieces about why the Linden is dropping in value on GOM, and why land barons seem to be taking over -- more in the direction of Urizenus' muck-raking hehehe although IMHO he takes it too far into tabloid-land with all those pieces about escort-services and BDSM.

Or maybe we should think of it in grander terms, that a cutting-edge game company at the top of its game has bought itself an interesting reporter, the way Microsoft bought Michael Kinsley to edit Slate?

The left-wing critique is silly because it cedes away what the left should be celebrating as its own "people's power" to mythical, large, evil corporations guilty of "media concentration," without envisioning any corrective role of competing media and customer selection. In fact, even giant oligarchic media companies have to have some public trust or the public does not purchase either their own media products, nor does it favor their advertisers. Even tabloid newspapers have to have a little bit of public responsibility or people turn away. The customers/readers still have some power in this equation.

There's another, liberal critique to be had of the leftwing media, especially the "new alternative" media celebrated by indymedia and its friend Chomsky. This leftwing media is just as guilty of the "Christian rightwing" in gathering around itself "likeminded" and becoming participatory in radical movements without any critical distance, and elevating their beliefs as "truths". I find some of the media reporting on games to be just as celebratory and uncritical as that RL leftwing media is about its own leftist movements and ideologies.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Nov 10, 2004 7:21:38 AM

Hmmm...why is my SL name getting a redirect to our Zelda site?

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Nov 10, 2004 9:47:13 AM

> rather than hard-hitting, probing pieces about > why the Linden is dropping in value on GOM, and > why land barons seem to be taking over

I actually did a piece that touched on both issues:


I was hoping the quotes from various "land barons" in that article would provoke a discussion in the comments section, because to the extent that New World Notes is journalism, it's *blog* journalism, a medium that relies on an interactive conversation with writer and reader. My goal has always been to report on Second Life's controversies, try to report on them fairly, then let residents and readers come to their own conclusions-- and post them here.

Posted by: Hamlet Linden at Nov 10, 2004 12:13:19 PM

Hamlet, I read that article back when it came out, found it very thought-provoking, and it made me hungry for more. I noticed others commented that they'd like to see more economic reporting (i.e. an analysis of Linden's latest economic statistics and the forum discussions of their meaning). I thought your essay was thoughtful and a good piece of reporting, because you contacted and got live quotes from the top 5 on the list "most wealthy" list -- not an easy job. Maybe I've been reading SL Herald too long LOL, but I guess I was hoping to have more coverage of the barons/baronesses not on that top 5, who are more controversial, and often the subject of forum queries and comments. I suppose I'm imagining a hard-boiled city newsroom editor sending out an eager cub reporter hungry to make it big with his first real story, and coming back with a scoop like "Baroness Uses Bots Sez Ex-Partner; Land-Crawlers Lagging Sims" or "Baron 'Has No Life,' Gazes At GOM 24/7, Neighbours Claim" or some such headline.

You clarified your vision of your role by talking about "blog journalism" and "interactive conversation" which presupposes a community with a shared purpose, a different construct even than a company town, where people are working for a living, not playing. And I imagine you couldn't go trolling for details about a baron's "lack of RL" or grill ex-partners about bots in the small hothouse of a community-under-glass because a) you would violate notions of privacy that people feel they should not cede merely because they enter a virtual world and b) you would be introducing a interrogatory, crusading spirit into what is viewed as a collaborative, conversational, generally constructive project.

There are different layers of culture in SL, of course, and more than "red" and "blue". Some people live in the stratosphere where they create at a high-octane level and hold highly-stimulating creative discussions and give their work away for free, just to see it reproduce and modify and improve, like collaborative artists or teams of scientists. Others treat SL as an entertainment commodity and a business opportunity with a passive customer base that can make them rich if only they provide good events or attractive internal games. The existence of these very different communities within SL make it a challenge to engage in what is essentially "community journalism" on behalf of the owners and the subscribers.

Still, I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about the economy of SL and its ramifications and one could address them without getting too specialized. I couldn't seem to get a straight answer on the forums even from seasoned players as to whether the Lindens burn all that currency we pour into their coffers in the form of upload fees, whether they plough it back into weekly stipends and deserving events and projects, or whether they and/or their relatives and friends play GOM, too. Although the style is one of a collaborative conversation on a blog, I think there's still room for some discussion of these types of issues.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Nov 10, 2004 3:54:24 PM

"Having a free press, it can never be said enough, rocks."

Hahaha! Yeah, the very definition of free press.

Posted by: Deklax Fairplay at Nov 11, 2004 5:36:25 PM

> as to whether the Lindens burn all that
> currency we pour into their coffers in the form
> of upload fees, whether they plough it back
> into weekly stipends and deserving events and
> projects, or whether they and/or their
> relatives and friends play GOM, too.

Well, those are also questions which could be directed at Cory and Philip Linden by residents during one of their many (many) town hall meetings, and their replies would be a matter of public record. Linden Lab already has such a transparent operation, in the sense of publicly seeking and responding to resident feedback/input at events like the regular town hall chats, I'm not sure I'd have much use in a public editor/ombudsman capacity. (We're seeing this issue play out on the issue mainstream reporting, versus blogs. Now that anyone can go to the Whitehouse.gov website and find a daily transcript of all the administration's press briefings, what's the point of waiting to get the interpretation of what was said from the Times or the Post, the news' "official" interpreters? Especially when some plucky bloggers can skim through the transcript, and pick out interesting tidbits the mainstream press misses or under-reports?)

I have been keeping an eye on the state of Linden currency. Early this week there was a brief splutter of Forum topics about a decline in L$'s value on GOM, and I considered investigating, but since then, it seems to have stablized. That's the other problem with my take on current events: since NWN operates on a weekly magazine format, it's difficult to keep abreast of current events that have a shelf life of less than a few days. I do hope other SL blogs take up gauntlet for more day-to-day coverage, and at least one blog (run by Lordfly Digeridoo) is specifically devoted to economic matters.

Posted by: Hamlet Linden at Nov 12, 2004 2:55:32 PM

Not to beat a dead horse, but I wonder if you have ever tried going in with an alt as a "civilian" to attempt to go to a town meeting with the Lindens. The actual places where they are rapidly fill up and the server is loaded for that sim. You can't get near it. The protocol requires that you ask your question in IMs anyway, so being in person isn't so much of a boon. So you go to one of the repeater sites -- and even those are so crowded that people are actually willing to pay you money to leave the repeater site, they want to hear the meeting live so badly. To be sure, you can IM the Lindens moderating the discussion, but they're overwhelmed and can hardly deal with the numerous questions. There's a mixture of curious, penetrating, and sycophantic questions and the result usually leaves you hungry for more. To go to your analogy of the whitehouse.gov transcripts, the way to make those more interesting is to manage to get accredited to the White House and get your question in to the briefing, to force officials to go in deeper into the briefing books. They always live in fear of penetrating press queries and over-prepare, but reporters don't always know to ask deep into the book. Sometimes they do, and you'll get an official just shrugging and saying "I have nothing more on that." So the equivalent in SL is to get a question into these briefings somehow -- but that's very difficult until, I suppose, you get in good with the hosts of lots where the Lindens actually are, and get teleported in especially.

I take your point about the weekly format and Lordfly's blog, and yes, it is a specialized topic -- though gripping for a lot of the population. Indeed, the Linden is dropping again as I write.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Nov 12, 2004 6:51:14 PM

> Not to beat a dead horse, but I wonder if you > have ever tried going in with an alt as
> a "civilian" to attempt to go to a town
> meeting with the Lindens.

Nope, I decided from the get go that using an alt account would be unethical, because I would inevitably discover information about residents that might otherwise remain private, if I had not first identified myself as the in-world journalist. So that's just not doable.

However, I have, in fact, sought feedback from Linden Lab about this or that policy, for various NWN stories, such as this multi-part interview with Philip Linden:


That one was over the pricing change, where LL ended the monthly subscription fee, replacing it with a land tier system, and a laissez faire policy on the buying and selling of L$ on third party sites. It was a huge tectonic shift that influenced the whole community, and so it really demanded an extended conversation with LL. When other policy shifts on that level happen again, I intend to be waving the mic in LL's face again.

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