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CNN ampitheater in Second Life

In May 2006, BusinessWeek ran a cover story on the virtual world Second Life (SL) by Robert Hof called My Virtual Life. The tagline breathlessly said, “A journey into a place in cyberspace where thousands of people have imaginary lives. Some even make a good living. Big advertisers are taking notice.” It didn’t take long for other mainstream media outlets to trumpet the new frontier of Second Life (SL), and seemingly every big company — including some media companies — set up virtual shop there.

But a little more than a year later, in July 2007, Wired magazine turned its largely positive spin on SL on its head, with a negative piece called Lonely Planet that said marketers were “wasting millions on a deserted Second Life.” The media helped build up SL into an overhyped phenomenon, only to turn on its creation and start a massive backlash of bad press, including a recent piece in Forbes that detailed how the hype had outstripped reality in SL.

The hype-and-backlash cycle is eerily reminiscent of the dot-com boom media coverage, where breathless hype turned to “we-shoulda-known” platitudes after the bust. With SL, many reporters often didn’t spend enough time in-world to understand its nuances, leading them to instead replicate other journalists’ assessments of the virtual space. But recently, coverage of SL has shifted, with CBS doing a more balanced piece on handicapped people in SL. Plus, CNN took a more open approach by extending its citizen journalism operation, I-Report, into Second Life so residents themselves could do the reporting.

Joel Greenberg is vice president of marketing innovation at Electric Sheep Company, which creates in-world experiences for corporate clients. He told me it’s about time journalists took a more balanced view of what’s happening in SL.

Joel Greeberg’s SL avatar

“It seems like a lot of reporters were reading a lot of other reporters,” Greenberg said. “So when it’s really positive, everything’s positive. And when we’re in the down cycle, it gets negative. In general, the frustration that people in the SL community have had, especially with the Wired article [“Lonely Planet”], everyone says that when they talked to the reporter they said all these positive things and they didn’t get in the story…The Wired article in particular was the harbinger of all this stuff. It definitely affected our conversations with clients.”

That article was specifically commissioned by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, the man who invented The Long Tail meme. While Wired had run largely positive stories on Second Life over the past few years — including a travel guide that was nominated for a National Magazine Award — they seemed to go from hype to backlash in an instant with “Lonely Planet.”

In an email exchange, Anderson told me that Wired simply was looking at Second Life from two different vantage points.

“The two big stories we did do in the mag were on very different aspects of SL,” he said. “The first (travel guide) was from the consumer side, and we continue to be big fans of that. The second, on SL as a marketing vehicle, was on the corporate/marketing side, and we’re skeptical of that. Additionally, I’ve blogged about my own experience in using SL for marketing purposes [for Wired], and the sobering lessons learned (partly due to mistakes on our part, but partly reflecting structural problems with SL as a marketing vehicle). We’re bullish on SL as a consumer experience and bearish on it as a marketing vehicle. “

So why couldn’t Wired be a little more skeptical during the hype phase and a little more upbeat during the backlash?

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Chris Anderson

“Because we’re not perfect?” Anderson responded. “I wish I could tell you that every story we run touches on every possible angle, anticipating every possible reader question and eventualities past and present…but sadly we’re in the same business you are, trying to do the best we can in telling a story as we understand it at whatever point in time we happen to be writing.”

The Challenges of Covering a Virtual World

The problem for many reporters covering Second Life— myself included — is the steep learning curve and technical requirements necessary to enter the world and explore it. Daniel Terdiman, who has written about SL for Wired News and most recently as a CNET reporter, says that SL’s biggest weakness is the difficulty that newbies have when they first check out the world.

“What happened was that it was really sexy to see Fortune 500 companies going into what most people see as a game,” Terdiman said. “But I don’t think there was a lot of depth to the coverage. I don’t think anyone bothered to ask the question, ‘Why are they doing it?’ ‘How are they doing it?’ and ‘Are they doing it properly?’…Second Life is very hard to use, and it’s very hard to find things to do there. It takes more work than most people who are writing on deadline have time to do. The problem with Second Life is that it’s extremely difficult to use, which is why so many people sign up, try it, and never come back.”

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Daniel Terdiman

Once Terdiman got beyond the initial learning curve, he said reporting on SL was much like reporting in the real world. He gets leads from wandering through the world, hearing from developers and following scuttlebutt on blogs. Terdiman said one of the main differences between virtual world reporting and the real world is that people with avatars tend to blow off interview times — but they do like getting the publicity in real-world media.

Freelance journalist Wagner James Au has been writing about SL since 2003 on his New World Notes blog. For the first few years, he was paid by SL’s owner, Linden Labs, to write about it on contract, but says they only killed one story in that period because it involved nudity. Au told me he finds original stories by spending time within the virtual world, and he’s covered the gamut, from social studies to the entrance of marketers to architecture and art installations.

“Most of my best stories are from wandering around and meeting people,” Au said. “The story you think is going to happen [often] becomes a different story entirely. I was interviewing this guy and he was talking about his SL real estate business. And then I noticed that his profile had him in full Marine uniform. He told me he had his kneecap blown off by a mine in Afghanistan…so he made ends meet by being a virtual real estate guy.”

Au lauds CBS for its story on people with disabilities using Second Life, and he estimates that 10% of residents are handicapped either physically or mentally in the real world and use Second Life as a way to experience movement or social interactions that they can’t have in their real lives. Another story line he’s been following is the way regular SL residents have outdone the real-world professionals who come in thinking they can dominate the virtual world without learning the ropes.

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Wagner James Au

“What excites me is kids in the middle of nowhere who are making amazing art and they would have no other outlet for this creativity,” Au said. “One of SL’s best fashion designers lives on a farm in Georgia, and that’s exciting to me. When the corporations come in, they’re not that serious about it or they’re arrogant and think, ‘The professionals are here.’ And they don’t engage with the community, and when I look at their traffic, I can see that the community is ignoring them too. Shortly after Nissan came in to give away cars, I noticed that a kid in the Midwest had a site that was four times as popular against this giant car corporation.”

CNN Lets Residents Report

While Reuters made waves by setting up a news bureau with two correspondents in Second Life, CNN decided to take a different tack. The cable news giant decided to extend its citizen journalism I-Report efforts into Second Life with a special hub, ampitheater and tools for residents to submit news stories and screen-grab “photos.” Rather than put traditional CNN reporters in-world, they’ve had a few I-Report producers spend time in Second Life, including weekly meetings with residents at their amphitheater.

“Those meetings are evolving, but we usually show a presentation, show off the I-Reports from the last week, explain what could be better,” CNN.com senior producer Lila King told me. “The second time we had a pretty lively Q&A that was focused on helping them [file reports], and we talked about photography because we’re asking people to share their ‘pictures’ which are essentially screen grabs. We shared what we knew from CNN photographers and their tips on composition and lighting and translated that to the world of Second Life.”

As dozens of I-Reports from residents start to pour in, the CNN.com team goes through them just as they do with real-world citizen journalism reports. They filter out inappropriate material, commercial pitches and check on the veracity of questionable reports — by teleporting directly to the scene. Each I-Report comes with exact coordinates in-world so producers can check on events easily. That’s something King wishes was possible with real-world I-Reports, which are often trickier to track down.

CNN’s experimental approach shows a willingness to work within the SL community rather than simply give a tourist’s point of view, as most reporters do. CNN consciously didn’t want to set up a building in Second Life that would sit empty — a common problem with most corporate efforts in SL. So far, the producers are happy that every time they have visited the amphitheater there have been residents there, discussing the news, even outside of the weekly meetings.

So far, the SL I-Reports on the special CNN blog are basically screen grabs and three- or four-sentence captions rather than full-blown reporting. But that might change as the weekly meetings continue and the resident citizen journos get their feet wet.

The bottom line is that news organizations and even bloggers aren’t sure what the business model is for doing journalism in virtual worlds. Au says he spends about 60% of his time on the New World Notes blog but supplements his income with writing for GigaOm — as well as an upcoming Second Life book (something Terdiman has already done). Nick Wilson, who runs the Metaversed blog about virtual world business, decided to do less reporting and beef up his productions of in-world events, which has been a more lucrative business.

No matter the business model, reporters and bloggers who want to tell the story of virtual worlds, including Second Life, will hopefully continue to get past the hype-and-backlash cycle and take the world seriously as a social phenomenon that has business and marketing potential — even if it’s not yet fully realized.

What do you think about the media coverage of Second Life? Who do you trust to give you the best reporting in-world, and what do you think is missing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.