Taking New World Notes
First Monday

Taking New World Notes An embedded journalist's rough guide to reporting from inside the Internet's next evolution by Wagner James Au



Abstract
In 2005, persistent online worlds — sometimes saddled with the unwieldy acronym MMORPGs, for “massively multiplayer online role playing games,” or somewhat less clumsily, MMOs — made the leap from niche entertainment to global mainstream medium. On a popularity metric, Worlds of Warcraft became the first game to surpass a million U.S. subscribers, while gaining a global audience over 4.5 million and counting (with a third of that from mainland China.) On an innovation scale, Second Life suggested the potential for MMOs to also be a development platform for commercial, educational, and research projects. As broadband and high end PCs saturate the international market, it’s time to consider MMOs as the likeliest candidate for the Internet’s next generation, supplanting the two dimensional, semi–interactive portal of the Web for an immersive, three–dimensional, fully interactive Metaverse of data.

But a new medium requires new guidelines for understanding it, and it is here that many questions loom. What happens as users continue to employ MMOs for purposes beyond gaming or light socializing, when they become the first true meeting space for the world, where cultural, commercial, and political intercourse is conducted in real time in an immersive setting that feels real, even hyperreal? When they have a direct, measurable impact on real world news? And who will do the reporting to understand this profound shift?

Unlike the Web revolution of the ’90s, documenting the emergence of online worlds is something that will be conducted from the inside, immersed within the media itself.

Some tentative guidelines are therefore proposed, a new kind of journalistic ethics for a world where reality and identity are mutable and anonymity is both hazard and godsend. Based on nearly three years as Second Life’s official embedded journalist, the author suggests several principles, with the object to preserve a separation between real life identity and virtual being, while sustaining the fantastic, otherworldly nature of online worlds. Paradoxically, it’s argued, maintaining the illusion increases the value of online worlds as a journalistic tool, enabling a direct, intimate form of communication with diverse people throughout the world. At the same time, it enables us to see these worlds as model and microcosm for the socioeconomic realm of the world at large.

In either case, these worlds can help us understand the conflicts and values of our own material world — and for good and ill, begin to shape them. To emphasize how crucial the need to understand this next dramatic shift for the Internet, the author offers five likely futures in which online worlds directly impact national and international politics and the global economy — a time when MMOs help decide the outcomes of real–world elections and influence long–established jurisprudence, while authoritarian government attempt to repress them, and they become the next theater for terrorist and counterterrorist infiltration.

Contents

Introduction
The Case for Virtual World as Internet 3.0
The Case for Virtual World Reporting as Blog 2.0
Platonic Caving: Virtual World Reportage as Journalism by Metaphor
Making it up as I go: First rules of in–world reporting
Disembedding: Virtual World Reporting as Real World Journalism

 


 

Introduction

Most times, I do my reporting in a crisp white suit, my tribute to Tom Wolfe; in the war zones, I’m more apt to look like Hunter S. Thompson, with aviator sunglasses, Colt .45, and an open bottle of Jim Beam. In those guises, I’ve reported on an anti–tax protest featuring tea crates and dancing rats (see figure below),

 

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All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

and a hellish dreamscape recreation of a post–nuclear Hiroshima, created by a large–breasted Eurasian in her off–hours from the Tokyo sex industry (see figure below);

 

figure2.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

I’ve interviewed strippers and Catholic priests, combat veterans and peace activists, socialist utopians and midget warmongers. I’ve profiled entrepreneurs who own whole continents and earn six figure incomes from the buying and selling of virtual land, and a homeless hacker who built a virtual mansion while squatting in an abandoned building.

Other places I’ve conducted interviews: from the observation deck of a space station; from the virtual campaign headquarters for Senator John F. Kerry; on the soundstage of a film studio lot; sitting on a giant leaf at the edge of an Elven village; in a Wild West saloon; at a telecom control station; from a battleground draped on either side with Confederate flags and anti–Bush posters; in a hospital ward where disembodied voices whisper “death”, and the floor suddenly opens into the sky. At an online Burning Man and an in–world Oz; in the office of a private detective who sting unfaithful lovers in honey trap operations; at weddings, funerals, and heart–breaking memorials [1].

And even though none of these events or persons really exist, except as data bits in a San Francisco server farm, they’re part of the best story I’ve ever been lucky enough to cover as a journalist. Because I’ve come to believe that it’s an inadvertent advance report on the future of the Internet, and how we’ll interact in it in decades to come.

In the spring of 2003, Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, a massively multi–user online world (or MMO), offered me the oddest assignment in my eight years as a writer. They wanted me to join their virtual community, not as a fellow resident but as an embedded journalist. The closest thing we have to the computer–created universe envisioned in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, MMOs are persistent, self–contained Internet worlds that people across the globe simultaneously inhabit, through alter egos called avatars (from the Sanskrit for “incarnation”). The fantasy MMOs Worlds of Warcraft and the Lineage franchise of South Korea are two of the biggest, with well over 10 million users between them [2].

Ordinarily, this is the kind of thing I’d write about as a freelance journalist for magazines like Wired and Salon, in my passion to explain this new phenomenon to a mainstream audience [3]. The worldwide growth of MMOs is one of the most misreported technology stories in recent years, pigeonholed as mere online entertainment when it is really the harbinger of the new global economy and culture, in ways that even noted thinkers like Thomas Friedman don’t understand. (In Friedman’s The World is Flat, he gives just passing mention of Asia’s computer game industry, and says nothing about MMOs. Just two points to suggest how great an oversight this is: in South Korea, an estimated one in twelve members of the entire population have played an MMO called Lineage [4]; in China, a whole cottage industry is devoted to “gold harvesting”, the acquisition of gold coins and other fictional money in MMOs [5].)

In South Korea, an estimated one in twelve members of the entire population have played an MMO called Lineage.

In any case, after I visited the Linden Lab office for a demo of Second Life, I learned they didn’t want not me to write about their world, so much as write for it, as a journalist — an embedded journalist, as it were.

So the company hired me as a contractor to cover this place, my role a cross between historian, ethnographer, and sole editor and reporter of a frontier town newspaper. And in my capacity as “Hamlet Linden” — my alter ego’s chosen name — I began reporting on the online community of Second Life, for a Web log I dubbed New World Notes (secondlife.com/notes).

Because unlike most MMOs, Second Life encourages its subscribers (the preferred terms is “Residents”) to literally build the world with the construction and programming tools provided for them. What starts as a vast, untamed continent of mountains, meadows, and lakes (see figure below)

 

figure3.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

is transformed with their into cities, suburbs, and landscapes (see figure below).

 

figure4.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

From open oceans spring sailboats, submarines, and cruise ships; from the plains come racing tracks, clothing–optional nightclubs, and Resident–made games of all size and style. From the mountains appears sprawling, Frank Lloyd Wright–style homes, tree villages, and heavily–armed World War II fortresses. In all this, there’s a distinct sense of an expanding wilderness being settled.

At the start, I assumed my role would be more or less “advertorial,” an indirect means of promoting Second Life. (And, in full disclosure, it is that, at least in the broadest sense.) I figured I’d mostly interview game geeks and chat room socializers — typical denizens of virtual worlds — and write innocuous profiles of Residents whose avatars “married” each other, and so on.

But I began my beat just as major combat operations in Iraq were winding down, and the real–world conflict spurred a brutal culture war among the Residents. At the time, the regions where player–versus–player combat was allowed were separated from the rest of the continent by an imposing, Cold War–era wall. On one side were the Residents who enjoyed combat–oriented mayhem, and they tended to support going to war with Saddam’s Iraq (many were veterans or active–duty military); on the wall’s opposite side were a loose contingent of antiwar advocates, many of them artists and dreamers who see Second Life as a creative palette. In the weeks after George W. Bush’s remarkably ill–advised “Mission Accomplished” victory speech, that wall, where the war gamers had erected a sign enjoining everyone to “Support President Bush and the Troops,” was now papered over with new posters — depicting Bush as a turtle. Even more politically divisive posters followed.

And then the shooting started (see figure below).

 

figure5.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

And like that, the wall and the war around it had transformed Second Life into a kind of immersive blog, each side wanting to impose their world view on the other by literally walling them into it. And when that didn’t take, they simply moved to virtual bullets [6].

And right about then, I decided this was something very much like journalism, in something that was starting to seem like what the Web would become, when it grew up.

 

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The Case for Virtual World as Internet 3.0

My assumption that online worlds will become the next evolution of the Net may require some background, especially for those accustomed to thinking of them only in terms of orc bashing. To be sure, the idea was unthinkable even a couple years ago, when the most anticipated MMOs had fallen far short of the million subscribers expected of them — after The Sims Online plateaued at scarce 100,000 users, and Star Wars Galaxies reached just twice as much. All signs suggesting that the medium would remain a niche entertainment. (Lineage’s extraordinary popularity seemed like a cultural anomaly, a function of South Korea’s Internet cafes and the overpopulation that drove people there, in search of space and relative solitude.)

But the market for broadband expanded and the retail cost of a home PC capable of running 3D graphics kept dropping; coupled to the entrance of renowned game developer Blizzard into the MMO space, last year was a perfect storm for online worlds. From its holiday debut in late 2004, World of Warcraft (affectionately acronymed “WoW”) has expanded throughout 2005 to far surpass a million U.S. subscribers, where even the most optimistic analyst’s expectations were pegged. As I write this in mid–November 2005, WoW boasts 4.5 million subscribers around the globe — 1.5 million in China alone [7]. To be on a World of Warcraft server is to share the same virtual space with thousands of people from over a dozen countries, living a lucid dream of adventure and heroism.

It is a dream that continues to sweep others into its embrace. Notwithstanding the underperformance of particular games, the worldwide popularity of MMOs doubles every two years, more or less, with no sign of flagging, as if Moore’s Law had made the leap from computing power to the growth of a whole computer–driven medium.

As that figure grows, so, too, does the demand for using these worlds for more than their intended purpose as entertainment. The informal industry of selling virtual gold and treasure on eBay and other Web sites is already well established, but is growing into something even more permanent and lucrative [8]. (I recently heard a rumor that a virtual currency business was about to announce an actual IPO. I’ve not a clue of its actual veracity; I also have absolutely no trouble believing it.) Meantime, other non–game applications emerge organically; my colleague Cory Ondrejka recently dubbed WoW “the new golf”, considering all the informal get–togethers business and academic colleagues have within it, preferring their shop talk with broadswords and chain mail, than nine irons and plaid pants [9].

 

figure6.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

But these are scattershot activities in a genre MMO; when an MMO gains recognition as a development platform, as I’ve found in my Second Life reporting, serious projects emerge with a snowballing regularity, most recently, in a law school–funded “Democracy Island” educational project [10], and a disaster preparedness simulator (see figure above) funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [11].

It’s difficult to imagine online worlds not becoming the next real leap in the Internet’s evolution.

Many of these projects capitalize on academic research that seems to validate the sense people familiar with MMOs already grasp intuitively: the experience of one’s alter ego being in an immersive space is experientially different from any other kind of Net–mediated interface that has come before it. Different, and in several key ways, better, than the limited, distanced, largely asynchronous interactivity of the Web as it exists now. An MMO quite literally offers a direct pathway into data, and global collaboration with an international community through avatars that afford each individual a high degree of anonymity, and paradoxically, an equally high degree of self–representation. With so much potential, and the technical/commercial infrastructure in place to make it feasible, it’s difficult to imagine online worlds not becoming the next real leap in the Internet’s evolution.

Even if the two dimensional Web remains the standard interface, some form of persistent online worlds will almost surely enhance or entirely supplant Instant Messaging systems, most surely when the very young come into their own. The South Korean Cyworld [12], a Web–based, user–created universe of chat rooms, transforms the homepage into a customizable 3D space. It now boasts 15 million members — a breathtaking one in three of the entire population. The Swedish Habbo Hotel [13] has a staggering 30 million characters registered with it; Neopets, roughly the same number [14]. All three worlds, it should be noted, are dominated by teens and pre–adolescents. (90 percent of all South Koreans under 30 have a Cyworld account [15].)

One still another level, the case for online worlds becoming the next generation of the Net is over–determined. For Linden Lab staffers, the easiest summary of Second Life is just to say, “We’re trying to build the Metaverse,” because devotees to Neal Stephenson’s novel are numerous, knowledgeable, and disproportionately influential. Much of the Internet’s development in the ’90s was fueled by the cyberpunk–tinged, Bay Area techno–utopianism of Wired, and the sexualized, neon–hued visions that made the Web seem so necessary, long before it ever really was. If in a few short years online worlds become synonymous with the Internet, it’ll large be because it’s what we want it become.

 

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The Case for Virtual World Reporting as Blog 2.0

In addition to New World Notes, there are by now nearly three dozen blogs focused on Second Life society as their primary or sole subject. There’s one devoted to Architecture Digest–style reviews of Second Life’s virtual buildings; another, to the in–world meetings of the virtual chapter of a noted future studies group; yet another, a group–published blogzine on every conceivable subject, from the political ideology of SL residents, to a feminist–tinged appraisal on the size of female avatar’s feet, to an essay on technological competition between Linden Lab and its own subscribers. “Gwyneth Llewelyn” blogs expansive, thoughtful analyses of the world from a cultural and technical perspective, while “Torley Torgeson” turns the SL experience into a uniquely personal (and uniquely lovable) journey full of Joyceian digressions and watermelons; “Urizenus Sklaar” and “Walker Spaight” cheekily treat it as tabloid fodder, including gossip and soft–core Page Six avatar cheesecake — while also conducting field research for freelance stories in the New York Times, and preparing for an upcoming book based on their blog. There’s a journal devoted to artificial life in an artificial world and there’s a journal on the internal voting system. With the appearance of every quality SL blog, I feel not the pull of competition but a quiet sense of relief; my beat was hard enough when the world had the population of a small town, let alone the size of a small city. (As of February 5, 2006, total population stands well over 130,000.) [16]

My guess is it won’t be mainstream media journalists who readily embrace reporting from an MMO. (With some exceptions; indeed, the very first Associated Press story with a virtual dateline ran last October.) Given the variety, quality, and number of blogs that have already emerged around the online world I’m most familiar with, I want to make the case that this is ripe and naturally ideal territory for bloggers in particular to explore. Though it was never really its primary intent, New World Notes has become a conduit for mainstream media coverage of online worlds in particular. Earlier in 2005, for example, my story on private detectives (see figure below) [17] in Second Life was picked up by Ren Reynolds of Terra Nova [18], the influential academic–oriented group blog on online world issues, and from there, popped up on the radar of a BBC reporter [19], whose coverage then ricocheted to several other mainstream publications.

 

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All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

This phenomenon really isn’t surprising, considering how important blogs have become in the general media cycle; the fact that the original story emerged from a virtual interview of avatars simply becomes an extra step in the germination process. Blogging about online worlds capitalizes on the strength of both mediums, bloggers being generally best at computer–mediated conversation and argument, online worlds providing the source material to shape into narrative (and usually, the chatlog/video/screenshot capture technology to make the stories accurate and evocative.)

Of course, the subject matter is most immediately appealing to technophiles and gamers, but that’s really just the surface material. I am talking about seeing the citizens of online worlds as a cross–section of the world itself. I am talking about online worlds as a transmission space for “hard” news, first page material on subjects that have enormous and widespread impact on the global community.

Because Second Life rolled out in a time of war, I have tried to make the conflict’s impact and its fallout a recurring theme of New World Notes. In specific terms, that includes an ongoing dialogue with service members who have made SL a part of their R and R. Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did from the balcony of my office on Shipley cliffs, sitting with “Dane Street,” who had just returned from his first tour of Iraq as a U.S. Marine in the first aborted siege of Fallujah (see figure below):

“We had the whole city quarantined. No one enters. There was a lot of civilian casualties. But like I said, they all had warnings. Our rules of engagement were anyone male, military age outside their house after 1900 was to be killed. And I guess they didn’t think we were serious. For the most part we took prisoners, but when we suspected they had weapons ... or when they were suspicious, running around and s***, that’s when we took them out. [Doing that, my mind] kinda shuts down. Goes into survival mode. Sorta [feel] a hatred toward them ... I like to tell myself that, you know, he didn’t have a gun but he was probably on his way to get one. Or he had a gun earlier. You know, kinda hard to explain. Just try not to think about it.

Yeah, got pretty crazy. But when is war ever pretty? People die in war... [I] try not to think about death, period. Blissful ignorance.” [20]

 

figure8.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Here, the potential for MMOs as a journalistic resource is even greater in the larger fantastical worlds. In Second Life, it’s typical for an avatar to be a stylized version of what a person looks like in real life; in the past, some Residents have been reluctant to reveal aspects of their first lives for that very reason. Men and women with hard stories to relate may be able to better speak the deepest truths of their lives through the maw of a hobgoblin.

 

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Platonic Caving: Virtual World Reportage as Journalism by Metaphor

In late 2005, the creators of World of Warcraft released a plague–spreading monster into their kingdom, and apparently without their intent, unleashed a viral epidemic on their unwitting subscribers. Players infected by the monster bolted through the realm, in a panic, begging others for medical assistance — which, in turn, caused the would–be healers to get infected themselves, and turn them into part of the spreading chaos. Whole cities were quarantined. For spite or nihilistic thrills, some of the infected looked for ways to spread the disease. And just like that, the crown jewel of a major global media corporation had been transformed into an active simulation of a biological terrorist attack or an avian flu–style pandemic, launching complex emergent behavior patterns that would have been invaluable to government and academic researchers to study — had they known about it in time. But without an established network of WoW bloggers, the story was largely confined to the game’s Web forums, and only gained after–the–fact coverage from blogs [21] and mainstream media [22] by second or third–hand repetition of the event.

Missed opportunities like this speak to a need that goes way beyond the assumption that online worlds are the next Web. They speak to the reality of online worlds as a model for our own, a collectively shared and collaboratively created thought experiment, or something resembling the parables of magic rings, dungeons, and eternal cities that Plato spun out for his students to help them discern the real principles of right action through the filter of the fantastic.

There is so much to learn. MMOs can teach us things about the real role of gender and sexuality when hearts are engaged, before bodies [23]; or the expectations of race, when that quality is no longer skin deep [24]. There’s things to learn about how spirituality survives in a post–belief, hedonistic society [25], or how a new world can alter the prejudices of national identity [26].

As with established real world bloggers, a handful of online world bloggers will gain enough of a readership to advertise and make at least part of a living covering this phenomenon. Educational and government initiatives may sponsor a handful more.

But so much more needs to be known. This is part of my hidden agenda when I tell colleagues in the game industry to hire an embedded journalist for their own MMOs. To be there in scribe’s robes when the virtual Black Death hits their empire — or when a procession of caped superheroes convene an impromptu memorial at the passing of Christopher Reeves [27]. By contracting someone to chronicle events like these, the game companies create a kind of shared meta history that exists apart from the circular, top–down narrative imposed by their designers [28]. Having a history in common builds and sustains a community — which in naked terms, keeps paying customers around longer, while encouraging new ones to immigrate. In return, the rest of us gain another resource for insights into the essential human condition when it’s made digital.

 

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Making it up as I go: First rules of in–world reporting

In the hopes I’m making a strong enough case for an explosion of blogging and journalism in online worlds, I should share some of the principles I’ve formulated on–the–fly for my own reporting, usually on a case–by–case basis. For the most part, I’m able to report on Second Life by applying the same ethical standards I’d use for any other medium. Other times, the boundaries of the medium force me to improvise new ones, too — a first attempt at journalistic ethics of reporting in a virtual world.

1 — No peeking at the mind of God.

I came to this principle pretty early on in a story I wrote only weeks after starting New World Notes. “Home for the Homeless” [29] is a profile of “Catherine Omega,” (see figure below) a young woman with a sprawling, glass and stone mansion overlooking the water — who explained to me, almost parenthetically, that she happened to have built it while she was homeless in real life, like the heroine in a William Gibson story, hacking together a computer from parts found in the dumpster behind a computer store, MacGyvering a coffee can into a wireless Internet receiver, then squatting in abandoned apartment building, using her multimeter to find an exposed power line to plug into this alternate world where she wasn’t homeless but among the elite.

For awhile there, I was tempted to pursue the story offline. It would be easy enough to ask the company to trace her IP route, requisition her account information, and so on.

But it would also be tantamount to Bob Woodward riffling through the file cabinet of heaven. What does a reporter do when he finally has a direct, absolute means for knowing the truth of things? (Ontological fact checking?)

To do so, I decided, would come at the cost of violating the reporter’s trust created by the context of a person–to–person press interview, suddenly turning it into an act of bird’s eye surveillance and interrogation.

So no asking Linden Lab (in this case) to pull chat logs from the servers, or fact–check the IP traceroute of a Resident who claims to be in, for example, China or Iraq. (As much as it’s especially tempting when reporting on a dispute between Residents, knowing full well that a trip to the chat server would forever end the “he said–she said” ambiguity.) Instead, I report only what my avatar sees and hears, from screenshots and chat/IM logs.

2 — Treat real life as role–playing.

Just as I realized it would be a violation of the journalist–subject trust for me to suddenly play sysadmin, in a case like the Catherine Omega story (see figure below), I realized that the backstory she described was important in itself, whether or not it was empirically true. What did it matter, in the end, if it turned out she had invented the story she told me? If someone had created an elaborately detailed role–playing persona of a hacker girl squatting in an abandoned apartment building, and sustained that narrative with an online community — that was almost as interesting and enlightening as if it were entirely true. (Just in different ways.)

 

figure9.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

For that reason, I treat real life details that are mentioned up in interviews as another level of role–playing, and try to focus on what their biographical aspects say about their in–world persona. Which is not to put forward a pomo axiom on the order of “real life and the virtual are indistinguishable in meaning”; it’s to acknowledge the limits of fact checking beyond the boundaries of the consensus illusion. (To be sure, I’d hesitate to report biographical details which stretched credulity, or were self–contradictory.)

3 — No real identities, names, no faces. (Well, almost never.)

This principle really began with Linden Lab’s Terms of Service rules for Second Life, which forbid revealing real life personal details of any Resident without their consent. In the course of reporting, I began to see the value of maintaining this confidentiality — never mentioning real names of Residents, or even where they lived, saying “the West Coast” instead of “Los Angeles,” for example. A Resident confident that their real life won’t be unveiled by me is a Resident free to talk openly, perhaps for the first time with anyone.

But there was more to my motive than confidentiality. Every time I had an opportunity to depict Residents’ real life photo, I hesitated, even when they’d given their permission. In retrospect, I believe this was motivated by an unconscious resistance to fully rip away the theatrical backdrop of what we were calling a world. Breaking this implicit social contract would reduce Second Life to nothing but a 3D Web, taking away the sense of immersion, and the chance to embody whatever persona you had in mind, no matter how much it differed from the reality beyond the cathode.

 

figure1o.gif

All images from Secondlife.com. Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

One exception was my profile of Wilde Cunningham [30], an avatar controlled by nine profoundly disabled people, who controlled their avatar by democratic vote and the help of their caregiver (see figure above). Given their extreme circumstance, in my judgment, it was essential to depict the reality behind their persona.

4 — No explicit promotion of the world itself as a commercial enterprise.

This principle that may seem obvious. To deal with the obvious tension of my relationship as a paid contractor, I have tried to go out of my way to write stories that involve Residents being critical of Linden Lab or Second Life — if they are arguing a point of fairness, or stating valid concerns on the consistency of company policy on the world, and the technical changes that impact it.

I came to describe this as an ombudsman role, and as with any newspaper, that role ensures readers that there is someone within the organization to air their grievances with them to. Paradoxically, some of my stories that are most critical of Linden Lab, like the Boston tea–party style tax revolt against “Mad King Linden,” or depiction of a world that’s not eternally happy utopia, as in the story of adulterer–ensnaring private detectives, tend to be the most popular. And anecdotally at least, their popularity helps boosts subscription numbers, new users seeking the freeform anarchy they’ve read about, owned by a company that’s so liberal, they actually pay a journalist to report on stories that are critical them. (True, this arguably leaves my role as company–paid journalist open to a similar critique that left–wing intellectuals often make against the U.S. media: that I report on surface–level dissent against the government and corporate hierarchy, giving the appearance of democratic opposition while never genuinely challenging their fundamental power.)

For similar reasons, I avoid quoting Residents effusively praising Second Life or the Linden Lab staff, preferring instead to encourage them to discuss what they do that excites them, and let readers judge for themselves what that says about the world at large.

Earlier I suggested that all commercial MMOs should strongly consider hiring an embedded journalist. No doubt, paying a freelance writer to report with a wide latitude puts the company of an MMO in the awkward position of financing someone to publicize their failures; fortunately, it also puts them in a position of sponsoring free speech, in the hope we all supposedly share, that an open press is ultimately healthiest for a society (i.e., their customer base.) More important, companies do need an ombudsman for the same reason other media employ ombudsmen: to establish themselves as responsive caretakers of the world they expect its subscribers to pay a monthly fee for the privilege of inhabiting. With so much competition among MMOs, a corporate stonewall is an incentive for paying customers to vote with their avatar’s feet, walking off in search of better worlds.

5 — No coverage for the breakers of the social contract or consensual reality.

That is to say, no press coverage of “griefers” — people who harass or annoy other Residents, often in a way that doesn’t strictly violate Terms of Service (leading to no end of frustration, for the company trying to respond to customer complaints against the griefer.) Griefing is at heart an attempt to violate the implicit social contract needed to sufficiently maintain the consensus reality necessary for an online world to function.

By looking for flaws in that implicit agreement, griefers often force the company and the community to examine basic assumptions in its structure — something potentially valuable in itself [31]. But to do this, I believe, threatens to reward bad behavior by publicizing it, encouraging more of the same and worse from others.

This press embargo applies just as much to hackers who attempt to crash or otherwise compromise the world’s technical performance. The same concern for rewarding bad faith actors with attention applies to hackers whose antics damage the world’s architecture, only doubly so. More fundamentally, their behavior breaks the world itself, in a way that’s inexplicable from within the context of a world. Again, a shattering of the consensual reality not intended by the owners or the inhabitants, often through external, artificial means. Reporting on the hacking of a world is tantamount to a reporter from the Times suddenly announcing that the latest earthquake in Central Asia was caused by fairy dust.

 

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Disembedding: Virtual World Reporting as Real World Journalism

Rather than reiterate the case for covering online worlds as the next story for the Internet, let me suggest three possibilities for online worlds in the very near future (that is, this year or next), roughly arranged according to their plausibility (though all of them are, in my judgment, quite plausible) and their real world impact:

1 — An E.U. or U.S. court fully deliberates on a virtual property dispute within an online world

Last year, several criminal cases provoked by ownership disputes within virtual worlds occurred in Asia, leading inevitably to a court’s ruling that enumerates some legal rights in this medium [32]. What is still forthcoming (but certainly imminent) is a civil suit brought by one subscriber against another, where the owner of the world is effectively a witness for either party (or both.)

Foreseeing this very possibility, an established lawyer built a law office in Second Life this fall, a Greco–Roman affair with fountains, marble columns, and large books helpfully describing the terms of copyright, trademark, and patent throughout the G20 states. For now, her law office is an information resource and general advice center. But she is already forming plans on take on real clients that come to her in SL, looking for solutions — and real contracts to sign, and potentially, real torts to file [33].

2 — A mainstream political party creates an official campaign headquarters in an online world

I reported on an unofficial Second Life campaign headquarters to John F. Kerry a couple months before the last election, the work of a young Democratic activist who created the thing on her own, and ran it with as much diligence as a real life staffer for the Senator. (The anti–Kerry phalanx was also working diligently: days after the Kerry campaign HQ was in business, an equally energized Kerry opponent acquired building rights on neighboring land, and encircled the Senator’s platform with looming anti–Kerry billboards of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” variety.)

So the construction of the headquarters is feasible; all that remains is for MMOs to follow the trajectory of blogs, in this regards. It was unthinkable in 2000 that the major candidates would invest any amount of attention in Web logs run by amateur enthusiasts; by 2004, it was unthinkable to campaign without them.

3 — Authoritarian governments and terrorists recognize online worlds as having the potential to threaten or empower their interests

As I write this, there are 59 Second Life Residents who log in from mainland China. Three are in Iran; twelve are in Saudi Arabia [34].

In late 2005, the Chinese government sought (and was granted) access to Yahoo’s e–mail servers, so they could track down the location of an anti–government message writer. The upshot was a dissident in jail [35]. As shocking a moral compromise as this was, it was not an unexpected one; the “Great Firewall of China” polices Web–based traffic moving across the country’s geographic region. As of this date, the firewall does not evidently block counterrevolutionary speech transmitted within online worlds. So far, Chinese authorities have not cracked down on political expression in MMOs (though they have imposed limits on play time, arguably an indirect abridgement of free speech.) With over a million paying Chinese subscribers in World of Warcraft alone, however, sheer numbers make it inevitable that some will soon directly test the limits of political expression there, too. Picture a solemn online memorial to the students killed at Tiananmen Square, convened by a few dozen survivors of the massacre (now tech workers in the enterprise zones) offering to their fallen comrades a procession of torches and prayers in Stormwind Castle [36].

There’s an even darker side to this. From what we can discern, the war on Islamist terrorists is largely a Net–based operation; face–to–face meetings among cell members of al–Qaeda and its many franchise operations are rare; rarer still the actual horrific attacks. The al–Qaeda operation is for the most part a virtual one, conducted in the intersection of encrypted cell phones, pagers, and most of all, the Web. On that trajectory, the obvious next step is for them to plan and organize with an MMO, especially those that allow some level of customer–created content. Especially since U.S. Homeland Security is already there, training to prepare for their next attack. What better way to explore strategies, simulate their execution, all the while studying the weaknesses of the enemy? [37]

When this happens, the next plausible scenario is a sudden influx of Feds and international legal authorities joining the MMO in question. And just as likely (and I’m indebted to Cory Ondrejka for this speculation), subscribers will form anti–terrorist coalitions, and conduct genuine counter–strikes in the form of “white hat” griefing against them.

A battle against terrorism conducted from entirely within an online world. This was once just a scenario for a science fiction novel, but by now, the time to be astounded is long past.

No matter how much they use their phone for work, no reporter says they’re embedded in their Nokia.

These are likely futures we are hurtling toward, the kind that make me believe it’s time to approach these worlds with the seriousness they deserve — to treat online worlds as an essential, inseparable part of our contemporary experience. No matter how much they use their phone for work, no reporter says they’re embedded in their Nokia. It’s just that somewhere in the last decade, the device became an essential medium for their reportage.

Then again, a secret part of me suspects there’s no reason to advocate this, because it’ll eventually become apparent on its own. My blog’s tracking software tells me that more than a few readers arrive at it via Google searches that have nothing whatsoever to do with online worlds. Seeking to learn more facts about “number of offspring of Clown fish,” “armless midget,” or “Maslow’s hierarchy,” they instead find these things in a place that exists only digitally. Like the fanciful encyclopedia from Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the very act of documenting an alternate world infects our own reality with its values, its conflicts, its folk tales. And eventually consume ours.

But an encyclopedia so powerful that it would bring a parallel world into being requires many contributors. Which is why I extend the invitation here. End of article

 

About the author

Wagner James Au is the author of New World Notes (secondlife.blogs.com/nwn), and is also a game designer and screenwriter. He reviews computer games for Wired and has covered gaming as an artistic and cultural force for Salon. He has written on these subjects for the Los Angeles Times, Lingua Franca, Smart Business, Feed, Stim, Game Slice, Computer Gaming World, and Game Developer, among others. He’s spoken about his work at South by Southwest, Education Arcade, and State of Play II. He is now developing New World Notes into a book.
E–mail: wjamesau [at] well [dot] com

 

Notes

1. New World Notes entries referenced in the preceding couple paragraphs:

“... more apt to look like Hunter S. Thompson”: “Aliens and Indians Attack at Dawn” (February 3, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/02/aliens_and_indi.html.

“an anti–tax protest featuring tea crates and dancing rats”: “Tax Revolt in Americana!” (August 12, 2003), available at http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_08_11_archive.php#20030812.

“hellish dreamscape recreation of a post–nuclear Hiroshima”: “The Hiroshima Memorial of Snakekiss Noir” (September 27, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/09/the_hiroshima_m.html.

“interviewed strippers”: “Private Dancer” (November 7, 2003), available at http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_11_03_archive.php.

“Catholic priests”: “Where Two or More are Gathered” (April 19, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/04/where_two_or_mo.html.

“combat veterans”: “Post–War Reconstruction” (April 26, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/04/postwar_reconst.html.

“midget warmongers”: “The Wedding Planner at the Axis of Midgets” (April 21, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/04/the_wedding_pla.html.

“entrepreneurs who own whole continents”: “Anshe at the Gates” (March 2, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/03/anshe_at_the_ga.html.

“sitting on a giant leaf at the edge of an Elven village”, “Falling for Eddie” (July 26, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/07/falling_for_edd.html.

“a hospital ward where disembodied voices whisper ‘death’”, “A Lever to Move the Mind” (September 9, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/09/in_the_minds_ey.html.

“online Burning Man”: “Burning Life ’05” [multi–part entries] (September 12, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/09/burning_life_05.html.

“in–world Oz”: “The TAZ of Oz” (July 13, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/07/the_taz_of_oz.html.

“weddings”: “The Wedding Planner’s Wedding” (April 4, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/04/the_wedding_pla.html.

“funerals”: “Missing Melts” (December 8, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/12/missing_melts.html.

“heart–breaking memorials”: “Living Memorial” (May 13, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/05/living_memorial.html.

2. Estimates derived from MMOG Chart, the industry–standard “census taker” of online worlds, available at http://www.mmogchart.com/.

3. Wagner James Au, “Showdown in cyberspace: Star Wars vs. The Sims,” Salon (July 9, 2002), available at http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/07/09/mmorpg/index.html.

4. At peak, Lineage owner NCSoft reported four million subscribers, almost all from South Korea, from a total country population of some 48 million.

David Becker, “Newsmaker: Resetting online gaming’s future?” News.com (June 25, 2002), available at http://news.com.com/Resetting+online+gamings+future/2008-1082_3-939003.html.

5. David Barboza, “Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese,” New York Times (December 9, 2005), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/09/technology/09gaming.html?hp&ex=1134190800&en=d5d225932e8ebecb&ei=5094&partner=homepage.

As it turns out, even during the composition of this paper, the mainstream media began to catch up on the potential of online worlds. Significantly, this story was run on the front the Times’ Web site.

6. “War of the Jessie Wall” (July 7, 2003), multi–part story available beginning at http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_07_07_archive.php#20030707.

7. “World of Warcraft Storms Asia,” Red Herring (November 9, 2005), available at http://www.redherring.com/Article.aspx?a=14394&hed=World+of+Warcraft+Storms+Asia.

8. Barboza, from “Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese”: “By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 young people working in China as full–time gamers, toiling away in dark Internet cafes, abandoned warehouses, small offices and private homes.”

9. Thomas Malaby, “Class Begins in...” (Oct 24, 2005), Terra Nova, available at http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2005/10/class_begins_in.html.

10. “Democracy Island” Web site available at http://dotank.nyls.edu/DemocracyIsland.html.

11. “Homeland Security Comes to Second Life” (October 19, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/10/homeland_securi.html.

12. “E–Society: My World Is Cyworld” (September 26, 2005), Business Week, available at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_39/b3952405.htm.

13. “Sulake To Expand Internet Habbo Hotel Into DVD & TV” (April 19, 2005), Animation World Network, available at http://news.awn.com/index.php?ltype=cat&category1=Video&newsitem_no=13674.

14. David Kushner, “The NeoPets Addiction” (December 2005), Wired, available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.12/neopets.html?tw=wn_tophead_6.

15. From “E–Society: My World Is Cyworld.”

16. Blogs mentioned in the preceding paragraph:

“Architecture Digest–style:” Virtual Suburbia, available at http://virtualsuburbia.blogspot.com/.

“future studies group”: Second Life Future Salon, available at http://slfuturesalon.blogs.com/.

“a group–published blogzine”: SLOG, available at http://secondslog.blogspot.com/.

“Gwyeth Llewelyn”: Gywn’s Home, available at http://secondlife.game-host.org/.

“Torley Torgeson”: Torley.com, available at http://torley.com.

“Urizenus Sklaar and Walker Spaight”: Second Life Herald, available at http://dragonscoveherald.com/blog/.

“journal devoted artificial life”: Life Experiences in Second Life, available at http://alifesl.blogspot.com/.

“internal voting system”: Second the Vote, available at http://slvote.neologasm.org/.

17. “Watching the Detectives” (March 22, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/03/watching_the_de.html.

18. Ren Reynolds, “I Never Touched Her” (April 4, 2005), Terra Nova, available at http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2005/04/i_never_touched.html.

19. Mark Ward, “Life Lessons in Virtual Adultery” (April 11, 2005), BBC Online, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4432019.stm.

20. “The Soldier’s Mistress” (February 1, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/02/the_soldiers_mi.html.

21. Clive Thompson, “A Bioterror Attack in World of Warcraft” (September 20, 2005), Collision Detection, available at http://www.collisiondetection.net/mt/archives/2005/09/_dig_this_an_eb.html.

22. Mark Ward, “Deadly plague hits Warcraft world” (September 22, 2005), BBC Online, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4272418.stm.

23. “Man and Man on Woman on Woman” (January 10, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/01/man_and_man_on_.html.

24. “White Like Me” (October 24, 2003), available at http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_10_20_archive.php.

25. “The Sacred and the Profane” (August 9, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/08/the_sacred_and_.html.

26. “Into the Arms of America” (July 6, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/07/into_the_arms_o.html.

27. Tim Surette, “City of Heroes players memorialize Christopher Reeve” (October 12, 2004), Gamespot, available at http://www.gamespot.com/news/2004/10/12/news_6110338.html.

28. As I completed this essay, I received the launch announcement of “WoW Insider”, a World of Warcraft blog published by the editors of Joystiq.com. Available at http://www.wowinsider.com/.

29. “Home for the Homeless” (May 9, 2003), available at http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_05_05_archive.php#20030509.

30. “The Nine Souls of Wilde Cunningham” (December 15, 2004), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2004/12/the_nine_souls_.html.

31. A possible exception is “Impeachable Offense” (December 6, 2005), the story of a Second Life landowner who created extremely large, garish “Impeach Bush” posters all over his small 200+ plots, and leaving them for sale. If a neighbor wanted to take down the poster, in other words, they’d have to buy the land from him, at a not insignificant cost. Since this was a significant test of free expression in Second Life, I compromised and wrote the story without mentioning his SL name. Available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/12/impeachable_off.html.

32. “Student Held over online mugging” (August 20, 2005), BBC News, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4165880.stm.

“Online gamer killed for selling cyber sword” (March 30, 2005), ABC News Online, available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200503/s1334618.htm.

33. “Laying down the Law Office” (December 12, 2005), available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/12/laying_down_the.html.

34. By author request, country origin obtained from Linden Lab server database search. Since IP addresses do not reveal national identities of individual residents, it’s impossible to definitively verify that real life origin of any individual subscriber. Not a peek at the mind of God, in other words, though a definite glance out his window.

35. “Yahoo helped jail China writer” (September 7, 2005), BBC News, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4221538.stm.

36. Interestingly enough, when Thomas The Pentagon’s New Map Barnett appeared to promote his latest book in Second Life, he ruminated on a future when an MMO would simulate the military overthrow of a dictatorship, and in doing so, would terrify the dictator sufficiently enough to send him fleeing; cf., “New World Mapmaker: The Second Life of Thomas P.M. Barnett,” available at http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/2005/11/new_world_mapma.html.

37. Lieutenant Colonel Timothy L. Thomas, USA Ret. “Al Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of ‘Cyberplanning’” (Spring 2003), Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly. Available at http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/03spring/thomas.htm.


Editorial history

Paper received 16 January 2006; accepted 18 January 2006.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Taking New World Notes An embedded journalist's rough guide to reporting from inside the Internet's next evolution by Wagner James Au
First Monday, Special Issue #5: Virtual Architecture at State of Play III, 6–8 October 2005
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1562/1477





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