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Q&A with Wagner James Au on his book "The Making of Second Life"

Wagner James Au began writing his New World Notes blog on the virtual world Second Life in 2003. For two years, under contract with the company, he was an embedded journalist. That meant he wrote about Second Life as a character himself, posing as an avatar named Hamlet Linden. Inside the world, he used his avatar to do chat interviews with other avatars in the virtual community, which encourages people to create a new world based on how they want to live their “second lives.”

Spending hours inside the world, he reported on the development of the new world as a participant in it. No longer employed by Linden Lab, he still writes his blog under the guise of Hamlet Au. Now he has distilled his blog posts and stepped back to write a book, “The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World,” (Collins, 2008).

There are a spate of Second Life books now, including the business-oriented “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second Life” by Daniel Terdiman and “Second Lives” by Tim Guest. But Au’s is very deep based on his in-world experience and includes tales about the origins of the world. He debunks myths such as Second Life is just about virtual sex and spotlights the diversity of the community.

secondlifebooksmall.jpgQ: Tell me about your background and your writing experience?
A: Originally from Hawaii, I’ve been in the SF Bay Area since 1992 or so, started freelancing pop and tech culture stories for Salon, Wired, and other places since ’96; currently the games editor with GigaOM.com and maintain my Second Life blog, part of the Federated Media advertising network. Have also done some game development writing for EA and screenwriting for Canal Plus.

Q: What stands out to you about the origins of Second Life?
A: That Second Life was not at all conceived as a user-created metaverse. CEO Philip Rosedale wanted a simulation of the natural world; CTO Cory Ondrejka wanted a game development platform. For a time, they seriously considered using it to run arcade games! They only realized what Second Life was for after they’d created the underlying technology and started playing around in the world themselves– in a very real sense, the world had to tell *them* what it wanted to be.

Q: What are the basic stats on Second Life these days?
A: About 64,000 maximum concurrency, a number that’s currently growing by about 1,000 a week; 550,000 monthly active users who are in-world an average of 40 hours a month; about 1.3 million who use it on a less regular basis.

Q: How many hours have you put into that world?
A: That varies, anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week.

Q: What is your most cherished in-world experience?
A: Hard to select just one, there’s so many, but among them is discovering Lainy Voom, a British SL user who figured out how to turn Second Life-based machinima into works of art. The moment I saw her first movie on YouTube I threw down everything and sought her out online, buzzing with desperate energy to tell the world about her as soon as I could. To me that’s the most exciting thing, and it actually happens once or twice a month: coming across user-made content that is hugely innovative, and deserving of renown.

Q: How would you sum up your experience as an “embedded” blogger?

A: It’s the best writing gig I ever had, and the most demanding, because it means I cover every aspect of a fully-formed society. Just last month, I wrote about the end of Second Life’s libertarian era, a haven for SL residents with autism, a report on the community’s religious beliefs, a prototype “hospital of the future” created by Cisco, a top Chinese artist named Cao Fei who uses SL as her medium, a guy who sells working tornadoes, and a woman who’s made thousands of dollars selling realistically bouncing breasts. Who *wouldn’t* love writing about all that?

Q: Some stories in the book seem unbelievable, like the one about the homeless woman who was logging into Second Life. How can you tell if they are true, given that people are talking to you through pretend identities?
A: In general I look for consistency and common sense, and at minimum, I’ll report what someone *claims* to be in real life, without necessarily asserting it’s true, and leave that up to the reader to decide. (Which really isn’t that different from how real world reporters work, usually.) That skepticism was very much part of my original article on Catherine Omega. In her case, however, the story was confirmed by someone who not only met her in real life, but *hired* her. And now Catherine’s a media figure in her own right. Here she is on Leo Laporte’s show.

Q: You told a lot of stories on your blog. How did you choose what to put in the book?
A: It was difficult, the book could easily be three times the size it is. My editor and agent really helped me pare down and contextualize the stories to provide a rounded view of the world and how it evolved (as an online community and a business.) Then a lot of new writing to provide the behind-the-scenes background of how Linden Lab developed, and where I think it fits into the big picture of the Internet’s evolution. I think maybe just 25-30% of the book is taken directly from the blog, and even that has been extensively rewritten.

Q: You argue that Second Life’s failures led to its success. Please explain.
A: Most of the company’s biggest mistakes inadvertently helped the world. To take but two of many instances: Second Life’s user interface is horrible and confusing, but as a tech-centric company, Linden Lab is culturally slow to understand why that’s such a big problem, or how to fix it. But because of this, there’s a large network of SL users who volunteer and help new users learn it and get situated– sort of like an unofficial Ellis Island. Even bigger a mistake in 2003, the company used to “tax” users with an automatic deduction of the internal currency Linden Dollars, based on how many objects they built– and that led to a user tax revolt with tea crates covering the world. This pressured Linden Lab to change its pricing policies.

Q: Can you explain the idea of Mirrored Flourishing?
A: Mirrored Flourishing is how I describe a core principle of Second Life culture: the belief that positive activity in Second Life can and should lead to positive benefits in the real world. This is most obvious among the entrepreneurs who are making some or all of their real life living creating content in SL, but you see Mirrored Flourishing in more subtle forms among most Residents– people who form real relationships, expand their social/career networks, from just being an active, community-minded user.

Q: Why do a lot of people dismiss the activity in Second Life as insignificant or geeky?
A: Because on the surface, it looks like a video game, and to be sure, many SL users enjoy the world as a social game. But all the criticisms against SL activity were also made about people who pioneered the early Internet– that they were geeks without lives trying to escape the real world by enjoying cybersex or other weird hobbies. Now those people run Silicon Valley and drive a lot of the world’s economy. In 5-10 years, I deeply suspect Second Life’s early Residents will repeat that history.

Q: Where will Second Life go? Do you believe that 3-D interaction in virtual worlds will become the preferred way of navigating the Web?
A: Right now there’s a strong open source movement that’s leveraging areverse- engineered version of the Second Life client software, and it’s partly backed by IBM, Cisco, and other big players. In the very near future, Linden Lab says they’ll open source their own servers, fueling this movement even more, and ultimately, driving wide adoption of virtual worlds running on SL’s architecture. I do think this will lead to 3D worlds like Second Life and its successors supplanting the 2D web.

Q: Just how much sex goes on in there?
A: A lot, but a lot less than is usually assumed: according to Linden Lab, just 18% of the land is designated as having Mature-rated activity, and according to an academic survey, only 13.6% of the user base regularly have cybersex.

Q: How much business?
A: A lot, but again, a bit less than usually assumed. About 10% of the 550,000 active users make a profit from their in-world businesses, and about $1 million worth of Linden Dollars changes hands every day. At the same time, about half of the active user base spends $2 or less a month in-world. Your dollar goes a lot farther in Second Life.

Q: Have you heard much reaction from Linden Lab about the book yet?
A: Not really, no.

Q: Will there be a Second Life movie?
A: There already is one, and it’s great– “My Second Life: The Diary of Molotov Alva”. HBO is going to broadcast it this year. But I’m sure there will be many more of these to come. Who knows, maybe some based on my book.

Q: What do people discover about their identities when they pretend to be someone else, or when they pretend to be someone of the opposite sex?
A: It varies from person to person, but generally they learn how much of other people’s perceptions of them are shaped by their gender/race/age/etc., and how much is derived from the content of their character. When playing the opposite sex, there’s also that extra edge of exploring their sexuality, and experiencing it from the other point of view.

Q: You mention having an ethical dilemma about engaging in or observing virtual sex in Second Life. Can you recount that?
A: At the time, I was still a contractor with Linden Lab and thus my avatar name was “Hamlet Linden” (all staffers have the Linden surname), so it’d be massively inappropriate to be out there horizontally waltzing with the customers. On the other side, in my personal life, interacting with gorgeous female avatars often rankled the living hell out of my real-life girlfriend when she passed by the screen. Explaining that I was talking with them for my work or that it was very likely that the people controlling these hot babe avatars looked quite different in real life didn’t help much. So going to the next level just seemed out of the question for those reasons and more.

Q: What are some ethical principles that drove your reporting?
A: Really, they’re not that different than they are in real life– be fair, be accurate, report what you see, not what you infer. It’s just that you’re doing it in a place where people can fly and create skyscrapers with light rays coming out of their fingertips.

Q: Can you recount the contractual relationship with Linden Lab and when it started and ended?
A: From April 2003 to February 2006. I insisted on remaining a contractor as opposed to an employee, to maintain some level of editorial independence.

Q: Do you think that more people can make careers from embedded journalism in virtual worlds?
A: Absolutely. Judging by the several dozen Second Life books, major blogs and mainstream media beats that Reuters and CNN have already established, internal newspapers like the Metaverse Messenger, we’re talking upwards of 50 or so people who already do make some or all of their living from writing about Second Life. The amazing thing is there’s numerous niches that are still in deep need of more coverage.


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