Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
2/22/2007
04:47 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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How I'm Making Enemies In Second Life

I've had two major interviews in Second Life go badly on me, and I'm still trying to figure out why. I handled them exactly as I do my real-life interviews, and I mostly don't have these problems in RL. It's apparent that the rules are different for SL interviews -- but how? And can the needs of RL and SL be reconciled, or should I brace myself for further conflict?

I've had two major interviews in Second Life go badly on me, and I'm still trying to figure out why. I handled them exactly as I do my real-life interviews, and I mostly don't have these problems in RL. It's apparent that the rules are different for SL interviews -- but how? And can the needs of RL and SL be reconciled, or should I brace myself for further conflict?

I've been looking to interview the big-business owners in Second Life. I arrived at a very simple method for identifying who they are. SL's search function allows you to view a list of the most popular places in SL, and most of them, as far as I can see, are commercial. From there, it's pretty easy to get in touch with the owners of those places, and that's what I did, sending them instant messages from inside SL, requesting an interview.

Here's the exact message I sent, from my Ziggy Figaro account:

My RL name is Mitch Wagner, I'm an executive editor of InformationWeek. I'm working on an article on making money in Second Life, and I'm interested in discussing that subject with you. Please contact me at 213-514-5597, mwagner@cmp.com, or in-world. Thanks.

I've done this kind of cold-calling (and cold-e-mailing and cold-IMing) about a million times as a journalist. I find by setting out all my information up-front like that, interview subjects are more likely to be at ease and willing.

For whatever reason, this is totally not working in SL. Within minutes, I got a message back saying I needed to get the permission of Linden Lab, the developers of Second Life, to make the inquiries I did. My attempts to smooth things over with that person -- while letting the person know that, no, I do not need LL's permission -- backfired and just made things more hostile. That person ended up complaining to Linden Lab about me.

The second interview started out better. The interview subject consented to show me around her properties. I told her the focus of my article was going to be making money in Second Life. She asked why I needed to see the properties, and I said, well, making money in SL is really just a hook. I'm really interested in every aspect of doing business in SL.

We spent more than two hours in SL, and throughout that time, things seemed uncomfortable. Of course, trying to read mood into the text messaging and crude animations of SL is an uncertain art at best. So, at the end of the interview, I asked, and sure enough, my interview subject told me that she didn't trust me. Partially it was because she doesn't trust strangers, partially because she doesn't trust journalists, and partially it was me and my questions.

My interview subject seemed particularly offended when I asked why someone would need a home in SL, other than for cybersex? I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that.

But that's not where things went really bad. Here's where things blew up:

I started asking about my subject's RL identity. She said I could not find out anything about her in RL.

And I said sure I could, I could do some technological hocus-pocus, but why bother?

As we discussed things a few minutes later, she repeated that statement to me as a reason she didn't trust me. I apologized and said that obviously, in retrospect, that was the wrong thing to say -- it was the geek in me, answering a statement with a factual disagreement without thinking through how my statement would be interpreted. But, I said, "I assure you I have NO INTENTION of violating your privacy."

That only seemed to make things worse. I was sent on my way with a brisk, "Good day."

So I'm wondering why these interviews went so badly, why I left two out of two people thinking I'm an ass.

This is pretty much the same interview technique I use in real life, and most people seem to find that to be, at worst, not unpleasant. So why does it play badly in Second Life?

Obviously, my saying that I could find out about my interview subject's real-life background was dumb and would cause mistrust in a reasonable person. But I have a feeling things were going very badly long before then.

I do think that asking relative strangers about their RL identities in SL is considered very, very rude, and that was one cause of the hostility right there.

I also think that a great portion of the user base of Second Life wants it to be completely isolated from the outside world. This is something that goes beyond privacy, it goes beyond role-playing, it goes beyond anonymity. I think many people in Second Life would prefer that there be no discussion of the details of SL outside the boundaries of the game and its associated blogs and Flickr groups on the RL Internet.

I know that as a journalist I'm supposed to be all tough-minded and laugh in the face of hostility, but frankly I've never enjoyed that part of the job, and it upsets me that there are two people out there whom I've upset and made angry.

But it goes with the job. Time to shake it off, have lunch, and move on.

Ironically, the second interview was a great interview; I got a lot of information for my article. Wish it hadn't ended so badly, though.

And you'll notice I haven't given the names of the two people involved in these exchanges. That was intentional.

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