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Teleporting to reality: Reporting in Second Life

In Michael Rosenwald's Page One story about people who have found a steady stream of real-money income from the virtual world of Second Life
, there were a couple of moments that were nothing short of surreal, as the reporter conducted interviews on the beach of a private island--as an avatar of himself. To report on a virtual world, Rosenwald stepped right into that world....

Earlier this week, I wrote about the booming economy in Second Life, the online portal where people spend lots of money to outfit their avatars with fancy shoes, nice eyes, long hair, short hair, tight jeans, business suits, bathing suits, and anything else you could buy in Tysons Corner. Although the stuff in Second Life is digital -- just pixels on a screen -- the materials people buy, and the land they rent to build their houses, seem every bit as real as the place where you are reading this blog.

For a reporter, interviewing people in Second Life offers opportunities that sometimes seem harder to come by these days -- namely, interviewing subjects in their homes.

I say harder to come by not because people trust reporters less these days -- though that could be true -- but harder because with shrinking newsrooms, the demands on our time often require us to do much of our reporting by phone, depriving us of the chance to see how people live and what's important to them. Tom Wolfe calls that essential work "status reporting:" People generally buy things and display them in such a way that reveals much about who they are, if you look close enough. You can't see that stuff on the phone.

But in Second Life, I was at my computer and in someone's home at the same time. (How I will bill my boss for this mileage, I don't know.) In the case of Ray Williams, a Second Life land baron who lives near Richmond, he hit a button and teleported me to his private island. Gorgeous place. White sand. And there, off the coast, was a giant yacht that his first life girlfriend bought him for Christmas. All of this stuff said something to me: Williams had built a life for himself that looked, in pixels, no different from the one land barons build for themselves in their first lives. This had a deep impact on me, showing me that our first lives and second lives can be almost interchangeable. It showed me how Ray Williams sees himself and the deep satisfaction he must get from spending so much time in Second Life.

I wouldn't have seen all that on the phone. I had to go, to be there. Second Life made it easier, and what I learned there should be a reminder about first life reporting too. Go.

By Michael Rosenwald  | March 10, 2010; 11:51 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story  
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Were I doing graduate work in any number of disciplines, most certainly psychology, sociology, or journalism, I would approach Second Life as one of the greatest social experiments of all time. Though the SL "world" is virtual, Second Life contains all the elements of the real world, from commerce to conflict, pathology to pathos. Your observation that an SL "land baron" surrounded himself with all the trappings of a Real Life mogul is fascinating psychology, and worthy of a thesis all its own. It won't be long, I suspect, before there are full-time "news bureaus" in Second Life beaming stories back to the increasingly Internet-based news organizations of First Life. Niagra Pfalz

Posted by: windroad1 | March 11, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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