By Sigmund Leominster
Larry Mullen, aka Truman Laryukov in Second Life, is a Professor and Graduate Coordinator at the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism & Media Studies based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s also a regular visitor to the Second Life® virtual world and uses the virtual environment as part of his teaching strategy.
(Left: Professor Larry Mullen uses Second Life as a tool to engage his real life students.)
In a recent article for the Las Vegas Sun, Mullen said that his introduction to the virtual environment came about when “a colleague was creating a classroom in Second Life and asked if I would log in, create an avatar and give him feedback on the design of his classroom. He was doing wild things, stacking chairs in the sky for students to sit in. He wanted to know, ‘Would this work? What do you think?’”
When asked about his current research interests, he says, “I’m trying to understand how people construct communities in virtual settings; how their sense of togetherness arises and what they’re seeking.”
So when PBS commentator Mark Glaser began writing an article on how Reuters had closed down its Second Life bureau, he turned to Mullen for some comments.
“There are a number of virtual magazines in SL – they come and go – but there are many new projects always starting,” Mullen told Glaser. “And maybe it’s a good thing that the large media corporations aren’t getting into SL – thus giving others a chance to redefine what journalism is or should be.”
LEOMINSTER: Let’s start with Second Life and last year’s withdrawal of “embedded reporters” from Reuters and CNN, and perhaps the closure of The AvaStar, owned by the German publishing group, Bild. These are real world press organizations who established a Second Life presence. What does their departure tell us about journalism in Second Life – if anything?
MULLEN: More than anything it’s most likely the economy that is forcing them out. To put resources into something that is so experimental is a drain on these businesses that they’re unwilling to suffer at the present time. Also, traditional hard news is difficult to find in the escapist world of Second Life. The virtual setting is all about entertainment and getting away from reality for most people. So unless news is oriented around the club scene, live music, or other entertainment aspects, you’re not going to have much to talk about. There is no “breaking news” per se; nothing bleeds or really crashes in SL, so the traditional “If it bleeds, it leads” idea is out the door. Mortality is recyclable – death is never permanent. I guess you could report on the latest raids taking place in the Gorean world, but that is fictional war at best. Of course there are some hard news aspects such as rumors of money laundering and pedophilia cases that bleed over into real world news, but most everything else is soft news.
LEOMINSTER: We are almost ten years into the 21st century. My view is that a historical and/or traditional model of journalism from the mid- to late-20th century is competing with the virtual world of blogs, social networks, web sites, and “citizen journalism.” What has changed over the past 50 years in the Fourth Estate and are these changes good, bad, or agnostic?
MULLEN: What has changed is that news and opinion have come down from the Ivory Tower. Now the average citizen can put his or her opinion out there for 100s or 1000s to see. All you need is access – and anyone can have access. Just head down to your local public library and log in.
To me, overall, this is a good thing. What we’re witnessing is the information age at work. These are fascinating times. But it also makes it more difficult to weed out the good from the bad information, yet ultimately one would hope it can make us better news consumers. As a professor of journalism and media studies, this is one of the great selling points for a program than specializes in these topics since we teach our students the tools for coping with the deluge of information we’re bombarded with daily.
On the negative side it has led to the rise of cynicism for traditional news and the power elite in general – which is maybe not such a bad thing? This is why many people today get their news from Jon Stewart and similar shows that build satire and irony into the project.
LEOMINSTER: What has to happen for journalism/reportage to be relevant in Second Life and the virtual realm?
MULLEN: A greater understanding of the real world influences these virtual worlds have. Occasionally we see this: a suicide here and there due to something going on in a virtual or on-line series of events. But millions are delving into these virtual places and little research is going on to determine the effects – especially on younger people.
As the number of people entering the virtual worlds increases we will see more relevance attached to the journalistic aspect of virtual society. But for now it’s still a minority, even viewed as an odd sort of subculture to some. As the virtual becomes more mainstream, things will change.
(Larry Mullen’s avatar, Truman Laryukov, in Second Life.)
LEOMINSTER: In what way do you use Second Life to teach journalism?
MULLEN: I don’t use it to teach journalism specifically but as part of the whole culture of Second Life and virtual life in general. I have the students get into SL, explore it, engage it, critique it, and hopefully gain some understanding of its potential for journalism, advertising, public relations and more.
LEOMINSTER: On April 6th, 2009, the McCormick Foundation of Washington State University is hosting what is billed as “The World’s First Virtual Journalism Summit” and a number of topics will be discussed in an afternoon round table. “Best practices” and “future roles and responsibilities” intrigue me – but what are the topics you’d be most interested in discussing?
MULLEN: The ethical aspect of SL has always intrigued me. My position is, if it is a game – and I don’t necessarily believe it is – then the (unspoken) rules are oriented around the concept of deception. Deception plays a huge role in SL; so how do you deal with that as a journalist – or anyone really?
If I were to go, I would go with the goal to learn stuff for my students and learn how I could build the latest and greatest ideas about SL journalism into my course. So maybe the “best practices” and “future roles” topics would be of interest.
Lawrence J. Mullen is the author of Las Vegas: Media and Myth, published by Lexington Books.