Monday, June 8, 2015

My Time At Second Life Newspaper

By Bixyl Shuftan

It was November 2007 in which I became more or less what I am today in Second Life. Although I first came here almost a year before, for months I'd only come on only intermentally. It wasn't until June in which I began appearing inworld with any sense of regularity, enjoying the creative builds, such as those of the Relay for Life, and finding a social hangout where there was always someone: Luskwood, where I began making a few friends.

But where to find out about interesting places to see and do inworld. Word of mouth was one way. But what about blogs? I began Googling and Yahooing for Second Life based websites and found a number. Some were more frequently updated than others and covered more subjects. There was the Alphaville Herald, but I found it to be mostly "peanut gallery" material with it's stories about griefing and a focus on drama. New World Notes was useful, updated about five times a week. But one newsletter stood out: Second Life Newspaper. It had several sections, and had multiple updates a day. So it was definitely a source of Second Life news to check every day.

Not long after I started reading it, there was a request for "reader submissions." So I sent in a few funny pictures and a small article about a couple funny situations. It wasn't long before it's owner JamesT Juno and Editor Dana Vanmoer asked me to drop by the office for a possible job. A bit nervous, I showed up, and we talked for a while. It was a happy moment when they welcomed me aboard their team. In real life, I had taken pride in keeping up with the news. Now in Second Life, I would be covering it. With my first paycheck, I decided it would be better if I dressed in a classical reporter's outfit. So I got a fedora and overcoat. I had a "Fox News" look that fit pretty well, and gave me a unique look.

I ended up covering a bit of everything. There were art shows that Dana didn't have the time to write on herself that she felt needed a spotlight. But my exploring around, a number of the places I saw through Sean Voss' Second Life Tours, provided no shortage of material. I also reported on the happenings of my first hangout after Luskwood: The STA. And I would write about the various people I came across, such as musicians. And of course the screenshot cartoons. I kept sending as many as Dana would put up.

And of course we were a team. Just after I joined was the first anniversary party, and I ended up chatting with the others durring a dance. James and Dana also had a club, the "Metamorphasis." The name was from it's being changed to reflect the theme of the dance. One month, it resembled a bloodly mad doctor's hospital. Another month it looked like an alien base. Another month it was a Fantasy settling. But the place took a lot of time to rearange. So eventually it was given up. But there were also the beach parties, often DJed for by KONA and GoSpeed Racer. I made a number of friends among the staff, such as Dashwood Dayafter, Breezes Babii, Delinda Dyssen, and Dixie Barbosa. Gemma Cleanslate signed on just after I did, and we would stay in touch.

To my sadness, among the things I ended up covering early on was the STA's closing. And so my "home location" would be the office building for a while. Or rather the new office as they had moved from the place they had when I came aboard. The favorite hangout of my friends was gone, but Second Life would go on, and there were still places to explore and write about, such as the Silverscreen area setup by a real life movie company whom had exhibits of various movies set up, and even a freebie Transformer av and Greek Spartan outfit. There was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 build, which prompted me to do one of my most whimsical articles. There was Tuna Oddfellow's "Odd Ball," which I would continue to write about for years. There were performances such as "The Wall," and exhibits such as the Berlin Wall. And then there were the three grand events. June had the Second Life Fifth Birthday, of which there were many exhibits to see, including one for the paper shaped like a newsbox. The Relay took place on an "H" shaped track, and the number and variety of sights never failed to amaze me, exceeding even the year before. And in October came Burning Life, Second Life's largest art festival which was a reflection of the yearly Burning Man festival in real life that was an inspiration to help create this virtual world. Then there was my interview with Azar Shelman, who in real life was Tony Dyson, the man who was credited with creating R2D2.

Two happy times stood out for Second Life Newspaper in 2008. One was of James and Dana's virtual wedding in June. I was among those who James trusted to invite for his bachelor party (and what happened still stays there *wink*). And the wedding itself was just beautiful. So was the reception which was reporter Breezes Babii's real life daughter Glitter made her debut appearance. The other happy time was the paper's two year anniversary. It was a week of celebrations from formal dances to a western party, and more. One party was distinguished by a "sploder" that broke and people kept feeding it cash for when it would eventually release the cash, giving half to the last guy to put in money and spliting the other half with everyone else. It was over 25,000 Lindens when it finally exploded, giving one lucky guy almost 13,000. One guy whom was broke whom I loaned 10L to put in the machine ended up with a few hundred Lindens. A year ago, the team had gone from a glorified blog to a respeciable newsletter. Now we were clearly established as the source of news to check out about Second Life.

And this was the time Second Life was in the media spotlight. Real life media, such as CNN and Reuters were establishing presences here. So were real life businesses, such as car companies whom were making cars inworld with hopes people would be inclined to buy the real thing in real life. Just before I joined the paper, CBS and Linden Lab were doing a cross-promotion in which the CSI TV show had an episode in which the police investigated the virtual world to catch a killer, and Second Life was host to a game in which players solved murder mysteries. The grid also found itself the scene of political expression as people set up HQs for political candidates, and even politicians such as Newt Gingrich popped in. IBM was known as a generous sponsor, paying for dozens of sims.

But hype and reality, or in this case virtual reality, had a way of clashing. Real life reporters coming in as newcomers were puzzled by how to go about the virtual world. Real life carmakers when making virtual cars often tried making them themselves instead of hiring local builders and made shoddy products. Of CSI fans who saw the Second Life episode and came here found the place much different from the idealized depiction on TV, few people using Voice, bugs, and of course the lag.

Then came the sex stories, or "cyber noggie" as my real-life coworkers called it, real life media reporting on couples whom were in trouble or breaking up because one was using Second Life to have virtual intimacy with someone there. The addage "sex sells" is well known, and the stories were soon less about the virtual world being a technical marvel and a place where people could build anything and socialize from people around the world, and more of a place where people could go to indulge in sexual fantasy, or even a place that attracted sexual deviants. It got to the point Newt Ginchrich's visit here was used as a minus against him. Stories such as charities raising money here and disabled veterans using Second Life to meet up and chat became increasingly ignored. Alesia Schuman, who worked with real life media, called it a sad reality, "It is so easier to sell to the public when there is controversy than when the story is constructive."

Another problem was Linden Lab itself began to seem increasingly detatched from the residents. In October 2008 came the Openspace controversy when the Lindens announced a huge price increase for the sims intended as low use areas. The result was protests and demonstrations, people accusing Linden Lab of "bait and switch" tactics. In May 2009, changes were annouced with a new "Adult" content rating, an "adult content" filtering system, and a new continent with all Adult rated sims, Zindra, coming up soon. Critics feared Second Life would be about to go through massive censorship, unable to wear small dresses or even engage intimately with partners in private behind closed doors. There was Linden Lab getting rid of their official mentors group. There was their new Viewer 2, which residents found awkward to use.

Why was Linden Lab doing this? I couldn't help but think of the Ferengi of "Star Trek" whose motto was "never let long term thinking get in the way of short term profits." Later on, others would suggest something else was at work. One blogger would write that this was an attempt by the leadership of Linden Lab at the time to "transform Second Life from an anarchic virtual frontier settlement into a business-friendly company town." As I would write later, This wouldn't the first time a business decided to alter it's focus in an attempt to gain a wider audience. Unfortunately like many such businesses, it ended up alienating it's existing market while failing to gain a new one.

But Life, or rather Second Life, went on. Although some friends of line moved on from the paper, Delinda heading to become a part of the "Tonight Live" talk show, others came in such as Covadonga Writer and Fox M, whom did some interesting SL fiction. While at the SL6B, I ran into Grey Lupindo, who saw my reporter's tag and asked about Second Life Newspaper. She would later sign up with us, and we remained good friends. Also coming in was Shelie Sands, whom distinguished herself with her poetry. We soon moved to a larger brick office. It was there that James and Dana offered me a promotion of sorts, "Office Manager." This meant updating the paper when James and Dana didn't that day, and answer any questions others had when they weren't around.

We continued to report on stories such as the rumors about Australia banning Second Life, the Sixth Second Life Birthday Celebrations (of which the second time around might not have been as exciting as the first, but still great), a moon rocket ride to celebrate the Apollo landing's 40th anniversary, the Relay for Life (of which I helped put the spotlight on the Passionate Redheads and their Wild West camp, and got a special "Hope Kitty" avatar from Lost Furest), the Netroots political convention, Paisley Bebee's "Live n' Kickin." the 9/11 anniversary, the goings on at our minor sponsor Mystery, my appearance on "the 1st Question" game show, and more.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just Linden Lab's blunders and Second Life's dwindling public spotlight that were our problems that year. In October dropped a bombshell: Our main sponsor BNT went bankrupt, taking the area where our office was with it. It was reopened just long enough for us to get our things. We were eventually able to find another sponsor, and space for a new office. But there was another problem. James had departed Second Life for personal reasons. Dana was now in charge, but with her partner gone, things just weren't the same. I was updating the paper for her more often. But I was confident she would eventually step back to resume her role.

The first quarter of 2010 went on with us exploring about the Grid as usual, covering the people, places, and events. But there were fewer of us. There weren't quite as many coming in to replace those stepping out.  But still we went on. We were still Second Life's number one newspaper, getting the news of the Grid to the residents.

In early April, Dana asked everyone to attend an emergency meeting. I showed up, thinking perhaps this was about a new sponsor or perhaps James ending his hiatus. Instead she delivered some stunning news. She told everyone she would not be able to keep up her duties as editor, and the paper would be closing in early June. Needless to say we were stunned. We asked why couldn't someone run the paper until she was ready to come back, even if it took months or over a year. Dana answered that this was really James' paper, and she felt she didn't have the authority to turn it over to anyone else. The only option was to close it down. Gemma in particular was outspoken, perhaps defiant, insisting there had to be another way. If not one of us, have someone else run the paper to keep it alive. But the decision was done.

Stunned, we could only move on, continuing to write as we did before. We had several more weeks, Dana wanting to honor our obligations to our sponsors. But we were asked to keep quiet about the paper closing, which we did. It was about this time our star reporter Nazz Lane went on his own to concentrate on his own blog and Second Life fiction. The rest of us talked amongst ourselves about what to do. Finally four of us, Gemma Cleanslate, Grey Lupindo, Shelie Sands, and myself came to a decision. There was no guarantee it would work, but we didn't have much to lose.

In mid-May, Dana gave us the date of the last day, Saturday June 5. The event would be marked not just with a final goodbye message, but with a party alongside our friends and readers, "Let's end this with a bang." Eventually the day came, James ending his hiatus for the event. The event was all smiles, until James got on stage to make the announcement, "It is with pain in our heart that we salute you tonight. It is with pain in our heart we leave this place. It is with pain in our heart we allow the final curtain to fall. For us as avatar, and for our beloved newspaper, its time to end it. The sl-newspaper will end."

The response was naturally sad sighs and expressions of sympathy, but James and Dana insisted that things go out with a great party. So that's what we gave them. After two hours, they logged out for what we thought could very well be the last time.

But their last word, or rather Dana's, would be that night. She had a farewell message thanking the staff, their sponsors and friends, and of course the readers. Dana did have two wishes. One was, "that people do not give up on the good that can be achieved within these virtual worlds," citing the Relay for Life as a prime example. Her other wish was also a final swipe at Linden Lab, "One thing I would hope for the future of SL is that the Lindens go back and realise what they are destroying with their policies. The sheer creativity, communication and international impact somewhere like Secondlife can be is being eaten away by the Lindens stupidly ignoring the content creators with their ill thought out policies which help no-one except their own pockets."

The website's main page was changed with a red "X" over the newspaper picture, symbolizing its closing. For some reason, most of the sections were taken down. Only the Front section remained, though one could sometimes access the People section. A few years later, the website and paper would vanish. Only parts of the front section could be accessed by way of the "Wayback machine" aka the Internet archiver.

The reaction to Second Life Newspaper's closing went on for days. People kept asking me what the heck was going on. The overall response was sadness, but there was some anger. One former minor sponsor was furious neither me or Dana told her about this, accusing her of selfishness. Our "arch rival" the Herald mentioned our closing in an article I felt was respectable, suggesting Dana was simply being practical.

The "Gray Lady" of Second Life was gone. What had been accomplished? As a source of news, it covered the Grid for three and a half years from November 2006 to June 2010. From when Second Life was the darling of the tech media, it's landscape littered with shopping malls and "ad farms," to when it's popularity among the general public had wanned, and those who came to make money were more and more replaced with those looking to build roleplays and the virtual home they couldn't have in reality. What started as one man's dream had grown to a staff that at one point was close to two dozen, others whom shared the dream. James and Dana had been great leaders of a great team. And for that we thank them.

But Second Life would continue on. Just a week after James and Dana's farewell party. Linden Lab dismissed thirty percenty of their staff. Gone were popular Lindens such as Teegan and Blue. Then came other events such as the resignation of Linden Lab's CEO, the "Emeraldgate" controversy, the decision to merge the Teen Grid with the main one, and others. It was a time when Second Life's future was in doubt.

What would cover these events was a new newsletter, staffed by those from the old. Shellie Sands, Grey Lupindo, Gemma Cleanslate, and me, Bixyl Shuftan, were back under a new name: Second Life Newser. This would be the legacy of JamesT Juno and Dana Vanmoer. And five years later, it would still be standing, keeping the dream alive.

Bixyl Shuftan