The News From Second Life: An Interview with Peter Ludlow (Part One)

I first became aware of Peter Ludlow and his work for the Alphaville Herald when NPR called me up and asked me to be a pundit commenting on a nationally broadcast debate between the candidates for the leadership of the largest town in The Sims Online -- a debate between a 14 year old girl from Palm Beach and a 20-something airline employee from Virginia. I watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as the mechanisms surrounding the election broke down, some voters were denied the right to cast their ballots, the election technology was manipulated, and charges of corruption and poor sportsmanship flew right and left. The Alphaville elections, in other words, were the game world counterpart to what happened in Florida in the 2000 elections. Ludlow, who was far more deeply emershed in this world than I was, became my expert guide through this whole process. I wrote about these events for Technology Review and later revisited them for a section of my book, Convergence Culture. I lost contact with Ludlow for a while but recently he wrote me to see if I might give him some advice about his own new book project -- his account of his time as the editor first of the Alphaville Herald and then of The Second Life Herald, co-authored with Mark Wallace. Their book recounts a fascinating saga of mobsters and griefers, of civic boosters and would be socialites, and of the challenge of governing virtual worlds. The book will be coming out some months from now from the MIT Press but in the meantime, what Ludlow had to say was so timely, especially given my recent exchanges with Clay Shirkey and Beth Coleman about the value of Second Life and given our forthcoming Beyond Broadcasting conference that I wanted to share some of his reflections with you much sooner than that. When he is not playing the part of a muckraking journalist in Second Life, Ludlow is a professor in the department of Philosophy and Linquistics at the University of Michigan.

In the conversation that follows, he explores more systematically what it means to construct civic media in Second Life and discusses his contributions to the life of this emerging online community. Tomorrow, he will share his reflections on the Second Life Debate as well as his thoughts about the challenges of governing online worlds. Together, these two installments represent a fascinating inside perspective on the nature of civic engagement in Second Life.

Axel Springer announced the other day that they would establish a full time newspaper in Second Life. What do you see as the significance of this announcement? What does it mean to the existing local newspapers which are indigenous to SL?

The Axel Springer virtual newspaper, called The Avastar, launched a few weeks ago, and they have had, suffice it to say, a rough start trying to find their way around Second Life. One problem is that Second Life is a very complex and hard to understand cluster of social spaces, and the Avastar managers don''t seem to understand the world very well. I also don''t think they have had great success in lining up knowledgeable and articulate writers, and if they think people are going to *pay* to read their paper (or, for that matter, advertise in it) they are badly mistaken.

The fundamental problem with their project, however, is their idea that there is some sort of value added by virtue having their newspaper in a PDF format, rather than a blog-like format. PDF doesn't integrate into the Second Life infosphere in the appropriate way (they can't link to other stories, we can't link to them, people can't comment, the stories are stale by the time they appear, etc).

If you think about it, their project is somewhat reactionary. They had an opportunity to come to this strange and fantastic new place where all the rules can be rewritten, and the only thing they could think of doing was coming up with a product that mimics meat space newspapers as much as possible. Far from offering us a new way to think about news and entertainment and how it should be presented, they are effectively trying to make a last stand for static push media by using PDF instead of a blog or some sort of social software.

From the outside, I''m sure they look all bleeding edgy ("oh look, a newspaper in a virtual world!") but from inside they look reactionary in concept, and clumsy in execution.

You've been involved with local newspapers in two virtual worlds now -- SL and Sims Online. What do you see as the importance of civic journalism in imaginary space? How important is it that the perspective be "local" -- coming from the player community itself?

Civic journalism in virtual worlds is very important, and it has grown up a lot over the three+ years I have been involved with The Alphaville Herald, and now the Second Life Herald. When we started in October of 2003 there were lots of fan sites for online games, but the concept of blogs/journals that covered in game events and player/owner conflicts with a critical eye was foreign. People reacted to the Herald like it had come from outer space. I can''t speak for other virtual worlds, but today in Second Life there is a very rich community of dozens of bloggers - many of which are self-labeled as newspapers. It makes for a very interesting media ecology for Second Life.

Some of the sites are merely fan sites, and some are personal journals of some form or other, but there are some that take a serious and critical look at the world and Linden Lab policies from time to time. All of them play an important role in recording and commenting on various aspects of this very rich and complex space.

This sort of journalism is important, and the way I think of it, there are three audiences: the internal audience, the external audience, and the audience that isn''t born yet.

The internal audience involves other players, and the flow of information can be crucial to maintaining a fair playing field. Just as an example, we ran a story about a memo the Lindens had sent to some key land owners, informing them that prices for private islands would be going up shortly and that if they acted now they could grab islands at the current price. That story embarrassed the Lindens into opening the offer to everyone and extending the buy-in period for land at then-current prices. There are lots of instances of this sort - policies and actions have serious economic consequences and virtual journalism can be a watchdog.

For the external audience, we provide a window onto the world that hopefully accurately reflects what is going on there, so that people will come join for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons. Also, if you have thousands of people in a given space interacting, it is important that people on the outside know what is going on. If this isn''t clear, consider the case of The Sims Online, which is a space that is supposedly suitable for children as young as 13. Well, I think it is important that parents and policy makers be informed about what is going on in that space. I''m not going to tell them what to do about it, but I do think there is a kind of civic responsibility to point out some of the adult activities that are taking place.

The future audience: a hundred years from now people will want to know what was happening in the rapidly evolving social web of our era, and these journals provide important records. Sometimes when I write for the Herald I even imagine that I am writing for an audience that won''t come along for a hundred years. (Usually though, I''m just banging something out as fast as possible.)

Some of your critics have argued that your coverage of the issues facing the communities in game world could be used to spur on reform and regulation efforts by outside government authorities. How do you balance your responsibility to the community within the game world (to expose problems so they can be addressed) with what they perceive as your responsibility beyond the community (to not stir up public controversy which could bring outside attention)?

It certainly can''t be my responsibility to cover up in-world problems. I understand that people view critical commentary and exposure of outrageous in-world behavior to be an attack on the community, but of course it is nothing of the kind. The problem is that sites which constantly spin the world in a positive light have no credibility when an outside critic comes along. For example, when Clay Shirky launched his recent attack on Second Life, it was easy for him to dismiss the defenders of SL as a bunch of breathless logrolling fanboiz. He can''t do that with the Herald however, and we are, I think, positioned to slap him down good and hard when we have the time to get around to it.

I should also add that over time people do come to understand that we are not attacking the community, and some of the Herald''s harshest critics have gone on to be good friends and contributors to the Herald. If you stick around, that shows people that you are committed to the community, and that is what really counts the most.

Some people have made fun of your efforts suggesting that these virtual worlds are "only games" and that you are taking them "too seriously." How do you respond to this criticism?

The ""only a game"" meme is of course not merely leveled at the Herald, but at anyone who participates in online worlds (and participatory culture more broadly - it is a species of the "get a life" meme that you have discussed in Textual Poachers and elsewhere). The first thing that has to be said is that as applied to Second Life it is badly mistaken, since Second Life is barely a game at all --- it is a completely open platform the content of which is provided by participants (that is they build, texture, and script whatever they want). The platform can be used for many purposes, but developing and playing what might be called games has never really been a big part of Second Life.

Beyond that, I tend to think that not much in life is *only* a game. Even spaces like World of Warcraft that are pretty clearly designed to be games are also spaces where people socialize, exchange real world information, work on projects together etc.

The more interesting question is why people keep repeating ""only a game"" so much. If you google ""only a game"" and "Second Life" together, you get nearly 12,000 hits. It is like a mantra that people keep repeating to keep some thought or idea at bay - and I think the dangerous idea that Second Life shoves in your face every day is this: our wealth is virtual, our property is transient, and our social lives are mediated by technology, nomadic, and often fleeting. I think that when people keep saying "it''s only a game" they are really saying "the rest of my world isn''t like this: my wealth is tangible and permanent, my friendships are unmediated and also permanent." Saying "it''s only a game" is like saying "this isn''t how things really are, this is just a bad dream." People need to pinch themselves, because this ain''t no dream. This is reality; deal with it.

At various times, you have seemed to struggle with whether you are playing a reporter in a game and taking seriously your responsibilities as a journalist covering real people in a real community. To what degree does the "magic circle" give players --- including yourself -- license to shed real world responsibilities in virtual world? Where should we draw the limits?

I don''t think we struggle with whether we are in or out of the magic circle so much as we intentionally play at the circumference. Sometimes, when I think we are getting too serious, I will post a silly story, and when we are starting to get too silly I will put together a serious interview or offer a polished essay or piece of serious journalism. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable; they want to know if we are serious journalists or just playing at being journalists. But the answer is we don''t respect the distinction and we are constantly trying to flout it.

Playing (sometimes even being) seedy tabloid journalists has helped us to learn the role that tabloid journalism plays in the media ecology of Second Life and the internet more broadly. I''m fascinated by this topic. If you think of media as a kind of eco-system them you see that tabloid journalism plays an important role - churning up stuff that publications with bigger budgets and more time can sift through and investigate.

What is frightening, however, is seeing the number of so-called serious media outlets that pick up our stories (and other blog flotsam) and just reprint them as though it was the word of Gopod. More frightening than that, however, has been the many instances we have seen where major news organizations research their own stories and end up with great big piles of steaming crap. So I am in this strange position of thinking both that (i) people should not be reprinting our stuff without doing their Serious Journalism thing with it and (ii) the content we generate is on the whole more reliable and informative than what they come up with when they do that Serious Journalism thing.

The net effect of this has been that it has made me very pessimistic about the state of journalism in the business and technology sector; it seems to be mostly about recycling press releases without reflection. And it's even worse than that. The *real* problem is that too many people now equate Serious Journalism with the recycling of press releases. Critical journalism is so foreign to people (except maybe on the sports page) that they recoil against it. Well, let me modify that statement. People in the US have this problem. Readers from other countries (Germany, Italy, etc.) find the critical stance of the Herald altogether natural and they are baffled by the Americans who complain about it. So maybe this is just a problem with the American media consumers - they have forgotten what a genuinely critical media looks like.