by walkerspaight on 16/02/06 at 10:16 am
by Walker Spaight
Though the really big news in virtual journalism this week is the retirement of Herald Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Urizenus Sklar, another shift in the ranks is taking place as well, as Second Life’s “embedded journalist,” Hamlet Linden, announced that he was going independent and that his blog, New World Notes, would no longer enjoy the corporate sponsorship of Linden Lab. We tracked down Hammie on Valentine’s Day for an exit interview, and though we forgot to ask him why he didn’t have anything better to do than talk to the Herald, we did get the dirt (such as it is) on his splitting up with his corporate benefactors at Linden Lab.
Despite a handful of rumors, Hamlet insists his departure–which will be effective March 1–was inspired by his desire to collect his New World Notes musings from the last two years into a book. (So far, we haven’t found any reason to disbelieve him, though you can be sure Pat the Rat is on the case.) Linden Lab public relations operative Catherine Smith backs him up. “Hamlet was going to be spending more time writing his book and it made sense to pull back and let him assume ownership of NWN,” she tells the Herald. “We’re delighted he wants to keep NWN going. New World Notes has told the story of Second Life from the inside in ways we never could, and I hope it’ll continue that way.”
Indeed, New World Notes has done a great job of covering a certain aspect of our second lives. While it never fought city hall the way the Herald has been know to, Hamlet’s position as a paid observer gave him the luxury of delving deeply into the subjects he wanted to flag for the world. With its constant refrain of “If you’ve found us because of the link in Publication X,” New World Notes was often talking to those who had never actually been to its virtual world, and could sometimes sound like a public relations effort in itself. Hammie generally (though not exclusively) steered toward the prettier pictures to be found in Second Life, but in his writing there was never an indication that corporate pressures were bearing down on him (much). “Journalistic independence is really not strictly a function of purse strings,” Hamlet says. “When NWN starts taking advertisements, some of them will likely come from Resident-run businesses, so I’ll have to start worrying about my *advertisers* having an undue influence–just like every newspaper and magazine does.” But there’s a difference between a newspaper that takes advertising dollars from a company that occasionally appears in its stories, and a writer who is paid directly by the company that is his sole beat. It will be intereting to see if and how New World Notes take a new direction going forward.
We found Hamlet late on a Valentine’s Day afternoon, poking at the few sticks of furniture that are his virtual worldly possessions and contemplating the future of his Second Life:
Walker Spaight: how goes it?
Hamlet Linden: Good, good! Crazy but good. Just noticing that I should actually build a house now that I’m going indy. But have a seat anyway.
WS: so shall I just fire some random questions at you in my best Herald style?
HL: Sure! Just promise to edit the chat transcript so it’s not a raw text regurgitation.
WS: the big question on everyone’s lips is: Why? Why leave a cushy job like being LL’s embedded correspondent in Second Life? The virtual world wants to know.
HL: Hang on Captain America just ran by.
Bedpan Unknown: Hello
HL: Hey dude.
WS: awesome outfit. Are there other superheroes?
Bedpan Unknown: Nah only avatar I’ve actually made so far, I’m kinda lazy
WS: you need to get the whole Justice League together and fly around fighting crime
Bedpan Unknown: I went to a Communism meeting in this outfit; I was expecting a bigger reaction
HL: Did you smash a Commie cell like Cap used to do in the Cold War?
Bedpan Unknown: Haha I couldn’t do much of anything; they had hired security
Bedpan Unknown: One of the bodyguards had interactive lips though so I bit him during the meeting
HL: Scuse me, Cap, gotta do an interview with the homes, here. Feel free to listen in, though.
HL: Anyway, cushy gigs. Well, ultimately the question was whether I could keep a contractor relationship with LL going while I wrote the book, and that just didn’t make sense. Of course, my hope is the book becomes a giant bestseller and all that but I know that’s a gamble in itself. Meanwhile, because LL is very coolly letting me take over full IP rights to NWN, I’m also hoping it could be just as successful for me as it was as a Linden-financed joint–who knows, mebbe more.
WS: Were you getting burnt out at all by the job though?
HL: Not burnt out at all, I actually would get anxious during the weekend to get back into SL and write. At the same time, it often got taxing (though fun) to also do side gigs for Linden on projects that didn’t interfere with NWN, such as the Game Expo I helped them put together. That could often cut into my time writing NWN, and now I’ll have more leeway to do more blogging while I work on the book.
WS: Are there new directions you want to take NWN in after it’s unlinked from LL?
HL: I definitely want to post more often, and start working on new kinds of content–more screenshots, hopefully incorporate podcasts, perhaps video. So not editorial changes, per se, but different departments of NWN, so to speak, now that I have time.
WS: Where will your revenue stream come from?
HL: I’m talking with ad/blog networks now, and should hopefully have an announcement on that front soon. I’ve been talking with folks at Blogads, for example. It’s a pretty amazing time to be a blogger with any kind of name recognition, as I’m sure you n’ Uri have noticed.
WS: So do you plan to do more “traditional” journalism again, or will you try to stick mainly to the blog, if possible?
HL: You mean, like, articles in newspapers and magazines? On, well, paper?!
WS: heh yes. Or CNet and Wired.com type stuff.
HL: I’m definitely interested. I still keep in contact with my editors at Wired and Salon, though I haven’t written for them for awhile. So yeah, if the opportunity pops up. I’d love more space and new audiences to expand on NWN stories, for example.
WS: I’m wondering how you see the blogging scene developing vs. paper media. Should we be putting our money on blogs to deliver better news of the virtual world? Is that the place to be? Or are magazines going to catch up anytime soon?
HL: I make the case for blogs continuing to be the vanguard of reporting from virtual worlds in an essay for First Monday I just got published, thanks to Beth Noveck. The thing is, bloggers are already used to working intimately and in real time with the computer medium, so it strikes me as a natural fit, more so than magazines and such, where the lead time can be like 2-3 months. Also, bloggers tend to be geeky and not at their best with interviews on the phone or god forbid in person. I know I’m not. I’m a way better interview in SL than with old school techniques.
WS: You don’t think that hampers the quality of the reporting somewhat? Bloggers are often merely observers from afar, while RL reporters are often getting up close and personal, having learned to ask the hard questions in a way that doesn’t come naturally to some bloggers, as you point out.
HL: Yeah, that’s generally true. I love blogs, but most of them seem like an exercise in monastic scholasticism, carefully (or obsessively) reading through obscure news stories until they find an Aha! excerpt to fixate on as Something The MSM Isn’t Reporting On (even though they usually got the story from an MSM story.) But, like, call someone up on the phone? I dunno, go into their office and talk with them? With the exception of folks like Joshua Micah Marshall or Michael Yon that usually doesn’t happen. But then, in an online world, we can get all Mike Wallace in our reporter’s avatar.
WS: speaking of hard questions: What was it that Linden Lab was least pleased with where NWN was concerned?
HL: I really haven’t heard anything, frankly. At the same time, I don’t get much *positive* feedback either–most of Linden Lab seems way too busy to read NWN much.
WS: So there was never anything they came to you and said, Could you just tweak this aspect in this direction please, Hamlet?
HL: No, not at all in the last couple years. In the first year it happened on a few occasions, as NWN was sort of establishing its voice and LL was processing the idea of a more or less independent journalist running around in their world. For example Robin Linden and I had a talk in 2003 about sex and nudity in NWN, which came up (so to speak) when I was reporting on the first Burning Life. She was concerned it would be too easy for the outside press to pigeonhole SL with stories like that and in any case, NWN is sponsored by LL so has to adhere to Community Standards, so it’s really an “All the News that’s Fit to Print” deal. But again, that wasn’t so much a restriction as a “Wait for the world to grow” suggestion, and I’ve written fairly frequently about the dynamics of sex in SL since.
WS: So the decision to leave the nest of corporate sponsorship was completely your own?
HL: It was mutual, actually.
WS: How do you mean? Were they looking for something more or different from NWN that you weren’t so into?
HL: Not at all. I was looking to write a book. I didn’t hear anything from them about wanting something differently from NWN. The only strong and consistent request from Linden Lab regarding New World Notes is that I report fairly–allow both sides of any conflict (including those between Residents and LL itself) fair time to state their case.
HL: I love it, now Huns the fox robot and a box robot whatever are dancing behind us. Why would I ever want to leave this place?
Huns Valen: WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY KENNETH
Huns Valen: Hamlet what’s this I hear about you de-Lindening?
HL: True that, Huns. DOUBLE TRUE.
WS: The leaves are coming off the Linden tree
HL: Falling off the branches to sprout new hybrids.
WS: so lemme ask you about the media scene here in SL. Do you follow the various in-world publications and Web-based sites and blogs? How do you think things are shaping up in that area?
HL: As much as I can. It’s shaping up slowly but surely, and I’d love to see it grow even more. I was just talking with Katt Kongo yesterday and she says Metaverse Messenger has a 5K circ–pretty great. At the same time I’d love to see more bloggers get involved, because I’d say there’s just a handful that are going for a broader angle than “Here’s some fun thing I did in SL yesterday” diary type stuff (which is cool too, of course.)
WS: ok here’s a question that probably can’t be answered neatly, but… How has SL changed since you first started writing NWN?
HL: Yeah, answering that would take, well, a whole book. But to take just one point, when SL first began, I kinda sorta had an idea of where Second Life was as a society and a community. Now, I am almost totally overwhelmed. I’m not kidding when I say I’d love to see way more bloggers in here. Every month, I feel more and more like I’m skipping over the surface of a huge ocean, barely beginning to understand and report on all the fascinating stuff going on in here.
WS: yes, it’s quite a beast these days.
WS: As the world moves forward though, what do you see as the challenges that Linden Lab faces in trying to let the thing develop in a truly innovative and useful way?
HL: I suppose from a technical point of view, scalability, just the enormous crush of people coming in. Dude, we were at 100K only two months ago and now we’re steamrolling toward 150K. On the interface side, making it more seamless and intuitive without breaking its fundamental integrity, so that a crossover mainstream audience can embrace SL without any compromise in the “Your World Your Imagination” grass roots, non-hierarchal philosophy.
WS: What do you think residents have to do to support that?
HL: I think the Residents need to collectively embrace some design and interface innovations that serve this vision, too.
WS: Well, they’ll embrace what LL gives them in the end, I imagine. I suppose I’m thinking of what residents themselves can do to add to the culture of the world and move it in a truly exciting direction.
HL: Really, whatever they want to bring to it. Now we’re starting to see discrete subcultures come into SL and bring their culture into SL, merging and melding it into something larger and more expansive.
WS: um… I think I’ve run out of questions. Anything you want to add that we haven’t talked about?
HL: Yeah, I wanted to talk a little bit about the role of journalists in SL, financed by Linden Lab or otherwise. I noticed your blog entry about me going indy, leaving the distinct impression that now I’ll be a free voice or whatever, but I think the situation is a lot more complex. Journalistic independence is really not strictly a function of purse strings, at least in the sense that everyone who writes journalistically has to consider those to some degree or another. For example, when LL financed NWN, I took pains not to report on stories that seemed too patently pro-Linden, even when they happened to be entirely true. When NWN starts taking advertisements, some of them will likely come from Resident-run businesses, so I’ll have to start worrying about my *advertisers* having an undue influence–just like every newspaper and magazine does. There’s something to be said for a BBC type relationship, a government-funded media house with a charter to be independent–which was more or less the relationship I had with LL. Though conversely, I think you can make the case that the BBC is often gratuitously antagonistic to the UK government for that very reason. Even journalists who *don’t* have purse strings risk having that relationship (or lack of one) impact their independence–this is at least partly why reporting in alternate weeklies (which pay little or nothing) often seem so unbalanced or one-sided, because the reporter has no stakes in the larger system, and there’s no down side for him to air his personal political grievances. So really I think the balance is trying to work within the parameters you have and disclose your funding sources and just go for it.
WS: I agree with you on most all of that. However, I do think that anytime someone is reporting on an entity from which they’re also [personally] taking money, you have to factor that into the reading experience. I just think it’s important for readers to know what the relationships are.
WS: So okay, I’ve saved the biggest, most important and earth-shattering question for last. Are you ready?
HL: HIT ME BABY!
WS: drum roll……
WS: What name will you take after Hamlet Linden retires?
HL: Heh. I’m still working on that one. I don’t know, how about “Mark Wallace“?
HL: It’ll probably be a combination of “Hamlet” and my real life name, but that’s still a bit up in the air. Check NWN regularly to find out, he plugged!
Huns Valen: the moon says POSE BALLS
Hamlet Linden shouts: Holy crap, the moon has become a pose ball!
Hamlet Linden shouts: A Pose Ball valentine’s candy!
Hamlet Linden shouts: If we sit on the moon, what position will the moon poseball put us in?!
WS: see, those are the deep questions