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.