Notes from a New World: Interview with Wagner James Au (Part One)

I have been using this blog, off and on, across the past few months, to focus attention and generate debate about Second Life as a particularly rich example of participatory culture. Those who have followed this blog over time will have read my response to Clay Shirkey’s critique of Second Life, my conversation with Peter Ludlow, the editor of the Second Life Herald and the co-Author of a new book on virtual worlds, and my response to questions about the relationship between Second Life and real world politics. Today, I want to continue this consideration of Second Life with an interview with Wagner James Au, the author of a forthcoming book, New World Notes, which describes his experiences as an “embedded journalist” covering the early days of Second Life. Au had contacted me in response to some of my earlier posts on this topic and I asked if he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts to my readers.

Here’s what his online biography says:

Wagner James Au is the author of New World Notes, 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.

Today, we open the interview with some discussion of his experiences covering Second Life and his general perspective about the mix of factors which is pushing this particular corner of the multiverse into the center of discussions about virtual worlds. Tomorrow, he will weigh in more directly on the three way debate between Jenkins, Shirkey, and Beth Coleman. For those who’d like to read more of his thoughts on Second Life, I’d recommend checking out “Taking New World Notes” which appeared in First Monday.

Can you tell us about how you came to become an “embedded journalist” in Second Life?

In the spring of 2003, Linden Lab gave me a demo of SL, then in early Beta. They brought me in, I think, because I’d recently written for Salon about the potential of user-created content in the “mod” culture of games, and Will Wright’s emphasis on that (subsequently discarded) feature for The Sims Online. But during the demo, Linden Vice President Robin Harper suggested something else. What if I wrote *for* them, within the world, as a journalist– an embedded journalist, as it were? (I had full editorial

control on the stories I pursued and wrote about, I should add, with the only prior restraints asked of me that I be scrupulously fair when reporting on disputes between Residents.) In early 2006, I left to write my book about Second Life for HarperCollins, and continue my reporting on my own independent blog, New World Notes .

Can you give us some sense of the shape of your forthcoming book? What are the

key questions you try to address?

It’ll track the develop of Second Life both as a world and a Web 2.0 phenomenon, weaving a lot of the stories I’ve written for New World Notes into a broader and expanded narrative.

Why do you think Second Life has generated such interest (some would say Hype) in recent months? How does this hype distort the actual nature of the experience? Is there any aspect of Second Life that you think has been underhyped and under reported?

Right now there are two conversations about Second Life going on. The first involves all the numerous real world companies setting up shop in SL, coupled to mainstream news reports about the world that are, of course, introductory, and focus fairly consistently on the money-making opportunities. This is almost entirely the source of the backlash and hype in the pejorative sense. It’s also the surface narrative which, while part of the SL phenomenon, does more to occlude the deeper activity going on. The second conversation, by contrast, involves all the grassroots user-created content which is merging the world with the broader web, creating a more robust world in a roleplaying sense, while also evolving it into a platform for real world applications. That’s the main story, in my opinion, the one I try to tell on New Worlds Notes, and the one which accounts for Second Life’s consistent, steady growth. It’s not a function of media and corporate interest. The Sims Online was featured on the cover of Newsweek, was a spinoff to the most popular computer game franchises of all time, and attracted several major corporations who wanted to promote their brands within it, but without Second Life‘s user-created content or IP rights policy or robust virtual-to-real economy, growth stagnated months after launch.

Is there a tension between the corporate colonization of Second Life and the “gift economy” which underlies a vision of the space as a new kind of participatory culture?

For the most part, there is no tension, because the native participatory culture hardly knows the corporations are even there, or care all that much that they are. Residents have scant or limited interest in their “colonization”, which is a strong word for what’s really going on: big name brands on dozens of private islands that few visit for any extended period of time. Consistently, grassroots, user-created events and sites are far more popular.

What do you see as the long term implications of Linden Lab’s decision to open

up the source code of Second Life?

The decision is monumental. Recently, for example, CBS committed $7 million so a metaverse development company could make worlds like Second Life more accessible to mainstream users. Much of this development will almost certainly take advantage of the open source initiative. The decision, I should add, applied only to Second Life‘s viewer software. However, just last week, Linden’s Technology Development VP announced that the company will open-source the back end so servers can run anywhere on any machine . “SL cannot truly succeed,” Joe Miller told an audience of executives, “as long as one company controls the Grid.” Again, this is a vision of a world that is not a niche product, but the Web in 3D.


  1. Henry,

    I’ve always rejected the idea that Hamlet nee Linden Au can speak for anything called “a community of Second Life” — he speaks for a small coterie of beta-era privileged developers and graphic artists who make up the core of the SL privileged class. Every society has such a class, that’s understood, but it cannot and should not represent the sole view of SL and its future. (Of course Hamlet makes his sojourns outside that class and even interviews homeless hobos looking for a dime at Christmas on the NBC-sponsored Rockefeller Plaza sim.)

    The world is extremely diverse, and you have to listen to lots of different voices about it. And even if one sort of “platformer’s party” lobbying for augmentation instead of immersion wins for now, it doesn’t mean that the issues of the immersionists will go away and won’t be re-opened again on the same or other grids. They will.

    Hamlet’s comment that people don’t notice they are colonized and don’t care couldn’t be more off the mark. For those affected by the colonization and for those noticing what impact this “globalization” is having on this fragile indigenous economy, there’s a lot more to say. Start with the LinDex, and the devaluation of people’s labour, essentially, by the decision to print money — a decision basically predicated on the need to push as many free and low-entry-cost customers as possible through the doors to put up “numbers” to impress corporate clients.

    If your wage as an inworld business owner or service worker was $4.25 US per 1000 Lindens in 2005 using the independent currency exchange called the GOM; if your wage plummetted to $2.80 US per 1000 Lindens in 2006; if today it is just barely up to $3.70 per 1000 Lindens now but threatened by a collossal casino cashout, trust me, you are affected by the corporate colonization of Second Life.

    The kind of people Hamlet features have felt this wage shock less, because they either have vendors they easily reset to price their popular clothing at a moment’s notice, and rely on their RL media coverage to do their advertising for them, or they are paid outside of the SL economy entirely, in US dollars for consulting or design work.

    The most obvious impact the colonization has had is to force Linden Lab to implement features faster, and without consulting the community they used to view as a kind of “townspeople” with whom they spoke in “town halls” which they’ve pretty much discontinued.

    So a controversial feature like Voice, which is viewed with a decidedly mixed attitude on the grid, gets pushed over hard by LL because they need to accommodate prominent corporations and universities clamouring for it as a tool.

    The closure of the forums; the ending of the independent currency exchange; the end of Live Help — these are moves that LL has taken methodically in the last 2 years, basically to accommodate the increasingly corporate world in which they are moving. They’ve made a conscious decision to move away from a kind of Well-like or Creative Commons or netrootsy sort of atmosphere of participatory culture with which they avidly interacted, to simply hiding from their grassroots customers and allowing the corporate customers to get the media coverage to spread the SL gospel further — or more important, the metaveral service agencies LL groomed out of the FIC — to handle the corporate invasion. That gives them plausible deniability, and also shields them from failures and bad press over controversial things like the recent ESC “search” which should have been organized on the opt-in principle.

    The corporate invasion has siphoned off the top 10 percent of creative talent in the world; those people ceased their own businesses, ceased their interaction with the indigenous village market of SL in micropayments, and moved to taking payments in RL dollars outside of SL.

    So it turns SL outward to the Internet and makes the corporate-sponsored islands a kind of shallow well just underlying a web page, which may or may not be filled with content, depending on budgets and whims of corporations — and moves away from the concept of the world as a deeply immersive and integrated place accessible to and from, but not flat on the plane of, the World Wide Web.

    That has profound implications for how creative the non-developer 10 percent can be — it is the lure of amateur creativity and amateur monetarization of time online that has been most responsible for the groundswell of Second Life, and that is seriously threatened by the corporate invasion favouring the professional developer on controlled corporation islands over the promotion of the amateur’s internal grid life on his own land.

    Right now, corporate purchase of islands and mainland sims is still overall less than individual/inworld business purchases, but that ratio will shift this year very soon, especially if SL moves up the timetable to open source or provide licenses for hosting your own servers.

    The world that hitherto depended on an emulated concept of private property and world-building on the mantra of “your world/your imagination” will convert to a kind of glorified company town, where people flock to an AOL Pointe or a Sony or a Warner Brothers or an IBM for either entertainment or knowledge or customer service in a loose set of p2p or SLURL links that don’t really constitute a world anymore.

    But I would submit that the view Hamlet and his corporate sponsors are articulating is only one concept of the Web 2.0 and beyond, and there’s no reason even for corporate investors to put all their money in that basket. The 3D Web will succeed when it can enable customers to make worlds in partnership with companies that respect their rights, including property and IP rights.

    The disturbing developments of the CopyBot saga, the open question about how existing land is devalued as soon as the Lindens open source the code; and the search implemented by the Electric Sheep not on the opt-in principle throw open wide the notion of any “world” where people have a sense of integrity and a comfort level of privacy. It means the big corporate scrape of marketing data has begun in earnest, and it’s unclear how much people will go along with this.

    People want worlds, not just web pages.

  2. Maklin Deckard says:

    “For the most part, there is no tension, because the native participatory culture hardly knows the corporations are even there, or care all that much that they are. ” Hamlet Au.

    This boy really needs to get out more…and by out, I mean out and about among the average players (small business owners, RPers, exxplorers, etc). Sure, among the elites he hangs with, such as the Lindens (making money off the corps) and ‘name’ players working for PR groups such as MillionsOfUS and Electric Sheep (selling us out to make money off the corps) its all nice and wonderful…among the rest of us there is an INCREDIBLE amount of resentment ingame for our new corporate overlords.

    We have issues that affect the average player and smaller content creators, untouched after MONTHS to YEARS of reporting. We have a promised upgrade to the physics engine that NEVER materialized. But the big corps come in and want voice chat for ‘virtual meetings’…and guess what we’re getting? And it ain’t bugfixes or the promised engine upgrade.

    Before the corporations came, island owners received good service, I know quite a few of them that own one or two islands. Now, the running joke among my island-owning friends is ‘Linden Concierge help has a 10 corporate island minimum’.

    In my opinion, there are two possibilities here for Hamlet’s postings.

    1) He is utterly out of touch from so much time around the elites of SL.

    2) Hamlet’s just a shill for the Lindens and the corporations they are trying to sell us out to as ‘eyeballs’ for their brands.

    Either way, he might try actually talking to people other other than Lindens, players employed as PR reps to corporations and oldtime beta folks he knew from his Linden days (usually these are also a part of one of the first two groups) before he posts about how the colonization of SL by Corporations and the resulting Linden Lab sellout is viewed.

  3. We ALL love Hams, yes we do. But you gotta realize as the previous commentors mentioned, it is a very narrow slice of the pie that Mr. Au writes about.

    He’s the best one at what he does within is peculiar position – once a lindie – to be sure.

    Just so’s you realize the rest of the pie is out there to be tasted.

    How fare those other companies that come into SL, not on the wings of the feted citizenry, but on their own two feet?

    Cool interview tho. Hams is a doll 🙂