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  Notes:  Virtually True  
Posted 2005-03-14 by Tony Walsh
Out of all of the journalists and bloggers in the world, there really aren't all that many covering online worlds in their regular "beat." But, for reasons I'll elaborate on in this morning's SXSW panel "Virtually True," online worlds are becoming viable locations to report on.

I'll be joining moderator Jane Pinckard and fellow panelists Wagner James Au and Peter Ludlow for a discussion regarding journalism and blogging about online worlds. My notes follow (keep in mind these are notes I've prepared for the panel rather than what I actually said).

We are discussing online worlds here, and in my part of the conversation, I'm generally lumping massively-multiplayer online games with 3D social spaces such as There and Second Life. To a lesser degree, we can include MUDs and any computer-mediated space.

I'm here to talk about journalism and blogging about online worlds. Mainstream coverage of virtual worlds has increased dramatically over the last ten years, and bloggers are now not only covering their daily real lives, but their virtual ones as well.

As in the real world, the lines between journalism and blogging can be hazy. In this discussion I intend to skirt the debate about whether or not journalism is blogging, and address reportage in general.

Why are online worlds worthy of coverage?

Virtual world membership is in the millions, so there is a large and growing group of users to report about. Due to the popularity of games like Lineage and World of Warcraft, we’re seeing virtual worlds creep into mainstream culture.
Humans develop dynamic cultures in these digital spaces, sometimes involving complex social, political, and secondary-market systems.
Virtual world culture compares to and contrasts to RL culture, in interesting, educational, and telling ways.
Virtual worlds may represent a major force in the future of entertainment, if not a future lifestyle.

The View From Outside

Mainstream reporting on virtual worlds has traditionally limited itself to an outsider's perspective. Just like any real society, a more accurate picture can be derived from integrating with the community rather than standing outside the gates.
Virtual worlds are generally only covered for such sensational issues as money, sex, and violence. There are more interesting stories to be found.
Mainstream reporters risk alienating virtual cultures by treating their subjects as virtual sources rather than as real people. Or by treating online culture as a weird subculture.

Ethics and Standards

Because virtual world citizens are people too, the same journalistic standards apply as with real people. Treat your subjects with respect, or face community backlash (which can be deafening and damaging to your reputation).
Identifying sources: Real name or screen name?
On the record vs. off the record: How do you determine when you're on and off?
Verifying stories: Word of mouth, or evidence inworld.

Actual vs. Virtual Freedom

Most online worlds have their own set of corporate rules and laws—these are usually the ones found in the Terms of Service. Sometimes, freedom of the press is not as free as in the real world.
Corporate law has been used in the past in an attempt to eliminate bad press, such as the case of Electronic Arts versus Peter Ludlow's Alphaville Herald.
Is it in the best interests of world operators to emulate real life freedoms?

What type of virtual world is most suitable for coverage?

Those with complexity: Operational/systemic, social/political, creative, financial.
Those that allow the most user freedom, in particular the freedom to create content and social organizations.
Those that show promise in a particular area- technical achievement, cultural development, business.

Angles and Audience

Macrocoverage: Big picture, larger strokes, parallels between RL and virtual culture. Audience includes general public, entertainment, business, games industries.
Microcoverage: Extreme close-ups of people, places, events. (Second Life Herald, MMOG diarists). Audience for this almost exclusively MMOG players (but doesn't have to be).
Official: Corporate PR blog, developer blogs, operations blogs. MMOG players, general audience, entertainment, business, games industries.
General: Mainstream grab-bag, "news," parallels traditional reporting.
Operational: "Government," infrastructure, subscribers/population. Audience for this includes MMOG players, developers and general audience if framed properly.
Personal: diaries/blogs, journals. Audience includes MMOG players, mostly.
Fictional: Roleplaying, covering events that transpire within the fiction of the world.


Online worlds, which are increasing in cultural relevance, are a viable and interesting topic of reportage. Journalists and bloggers who take the time to immerse themselves in these worlds have a unique opportunity to bring the most interesting—and most human—stories to light. There isn't much difference between online world coverage and real world coverage.
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Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
March 14, 2005 @ 10:46 am
Wish i could be there - i know its going to be interesting! Looking forward to the write up afterwards!
Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
March 14, 2005 @ 1:53 pm
So, how was it? How did the rest of the talk go? Report on your own gig!! :)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 15, 2005 @ 10:36 am
I'd love to do some actual bloggging rather than take notes, but I just haven't had time so far. The panels are generally packed tightly together, and there are parties at the end of the day, so I usually barely have time to eat, let alone blog :)
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