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  Bloggers, Journalists, and Virtual Worlds  
Posted 2005-02-18 by Tony Walsh
We're still struggling over blogging vs. journalism, waffling over which freedoms and restrictions apply to whom. It's a thorny enough issue in the real world, but is becoming increasingly relevant in virtual worlds, to which more and more gamers are flocking. The population of some virtual worlds rival that of some real-world cities, drawing hundreds of thousands of subscribers into cyberspace. As millions worldwide immerse themselves in simulated spaces, more journalists and bloggers are covering the related issues--some from an outsider's viewpoint, and some from within these constructed realities. Where does virtual-world coverage fit into real-world concepts of rights and freedoms?

Poynter Online's Paul Grabowicz discovers some interesting tidbits in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court feels that freedom of the press is a right shared by all persons, but rhetorically asks "... does the privilege also protect the proprietor of a weblog: the stereotypical 'blogger' sitting in his pajamas at his personal computer posting on the World Wide Web ... ?" Here, we see that everyone is a member of the press… although bloggers are regarded with trepidation.

Dave Winer recently wrote that "When everyone is media, no one is," pointing out that since there is no longer any separation between technology and media (technology IS media), and professional reporters all work for media companies, that we don't get any honest reporting about those companies. No professional reporter, says Winer, will criticize their employer or a prospective employer (i.e. any media company). "In the end we'll all be bloggers," writes Winer, "because the idea of a media company will seem as silly as the idea of a telephone company will be in a few years, or an airline is today."

So, in the real world, we're still working out the roles and re-definition of journalists in order to make sensible judgments about what rights and restrictions to apply. But virtual worlds are generally not public spaces. Nearly all simulated realities are run as business ventures by corporations. Anyone "living" in the virtual world has agreed to a series of Terms and Conditions, or an End User agreement of some kind--a set or sets of rules that overlay or replace the rules of the real country in which the user lives. These rules are generally intended to set out expectations for appropriate behaviour, but also spell out who owns what (usually, the governing corporation owns all user-created content, except in the case of Second Life, who is merely granted an unrestricted, perpetual license to the content). In most cases, the virtual world is a "company town." In these environments, basic human rights are neither universal, nor guaranteed.

Linden Lab, the corporate government of Second Life, proclaimed early this year that no one may use Second Life or its web-based extensions for their own purposes without explicit consent, unless that person is a member of the press. While the U.S. Supreme Court believes everyone but webloggers is solidly covered by freedom of the press, Linden Lab's official reporter (Wagner James Au) files stories on an official weblog, which would make him a blogger too (and in this particular case demonstrates how the distinction between journalist and blogger is pointless). Au's dual role can be further examined in light of Dave Winer's comments: Au is a professional reporter on the payroll of both a media company and a corporate government, and it’s not hard to see how this affects his reporting. Traditionally, stories on Au's "New World Notes" overlook, dodge, or spin the negative aspects of Second Life. Linden Lab's official reporter recently painted himself into a corner when he polled Second Life residents on the story they'd most like to see him cover. When the polls closed over a week ago, the request was for "Failed projects, and why they flopped." Residents are still waiting for Au to cover this topic as of the time of this writing.

While Linden Lab's policies prohibit non-reporters from unfettered coverage Second Life, it seems that the company considers everyone to be a reporter. Linden Lab endorses blogs such as this one on their main web pages. Wagner James Au keeps an extensive list of unofficial Second Life blogs at New World Notes--while there is no official endorsement there, there is certainly an implicit encouragement to bloggers of Second Life. Few operators of virtual worlds link to free speakers' blogs (and, in fact, some companies have been known to exile bloggers from their virtual worlds). It remains to be seen what will happen if Linden Lab decides that any press isn't good press--will corporate laws then be used to silence dissent, as in he case of EA vs. Peter Ludlow? Given that Ludlow has now set his Herald's sights on Second Life, we may eventually find out.

Should private citizens have public rights in a private world? Terra Nova yesterday pointed to a draft paper that touches on this question. "Speech Showdowns at the Virtual Corral" author Eric Goldman discusses "the right to free expression and free association, our preference for free market private ordering but our willingness to impose public policy limits on that freedom, and the consequences of (and responsibilities for) harmful speech" in the context of virtual worlds. On the controversial Ludlow exile--which many saw as a freedom of the press issue--Goldman writes "I find it unremarkable that a company fired one of its customers," and provides numerous well-articulated reasons why. It's a fine counterpoint to those who expect real-world freedoms in corporately-owned spaces. Goldman rightly distinguishes between emotion and logic in his examination of virtual-world freedoms--i.e. what is desired from an ethical standpoint (the user), and what is desired from a legal standpoint (the company). Still, virtual-world residents come to assume ownership over their digital lives, and their spaces (in the case of Second Life, this ownership is nearly literal). The average virtual world citizen wants real-world freedom regardless of what user agreements they may have signed. Bloggers and journalists in particular are bound to feel an even greater sense that their voices need to be heard, and if the corporate voice becomes the only one in town, its citizens are sure to move elsewhere. Electronic Art's The Sims Online is rotting. Linden Lab's Second Life is flourishing. It remains to be seen whether some of the truly massive multiplayer games out there, such as the hugely-successful World of Warcraft, will see anything more than light reportage, and if so, what steps its operator might take in handling both bloggers and journalists.
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