New York Times Report on Virtual Worlds Totally Misses the Point

Chainedpromo Ruth La Ferla of the New York Times published an extensive write-up yesterday all about how virtual fashion is surviving and thriving in the recession, clocking in at over 1,400 words.

It's a real shame that La Ferla failed to cover any real news in her story. At least she succeeded in inflating the estimated earnings of virtual worlds from the currently-accepted $1 billion mark to a totally unscientific, Bear-Stearns-in-the-sky estimate of $2 billion.

Pixels and Policy explains why La Ferla's article does nothing to advance the cause of virtual worlds, and quite a bit to hold it back.

Second Life: All Thigh-Highs and Frock Coats?

While La Ferla's article is great publicity for Linden Lab and Second Life, it failed to do much besides playing into the common misconception that Second Life is little more than a high-end fashion simulator. From the article:

A proliferation of new sites, games and the release of films like
“Surrogates,” about avatarlike robots who boast wardrobes and ripped
physiques that their operators in the movie could never hope to attain,
have piqued a new wave of interest in virtual worlds.

In them visitors
can fashion a fancy identity, rub shoulders with other virtual
glitterati and snap up temptations in a marketplace made entirely of
pixels.

We wrote about how movies like Gamer and Surrogates were likely to draw hundreds of thousands of first-time gamers into the Metaverse, but it isn't because of the clothing the avatars are wearing. La Ferla boils virtual worlds down to a soulless consumerist glaze, and while there is definitely an element of consumer pressure in Second Life, most users don't aspire to join the "virtual glitterati."

Articles detailing the fashion culture of Second Life are easy ways to grab the attention of readers who haven't heard of the Metaverse, but that's like talking about Japan and only mentioning the robot trash cans. It's intellectually lazy journalism, and trivializes virtual worlds as a place where, as La Ferla says, avatars show off "caviar tastes.

Whatever Happened to Art?

If Second Life allows itself to be repeatedly portrayed as a virtual world focused on high fashion and the worship of Ms. La Ferla's "butterscotch-skinned" avatars, Linden Lab risks losing the innovators and offbeat content developers that continue to give the world life.

Non-fashion content is widely produced across Second Life, in addition to art and music that provide solid incomes for a few major performers. One is even cutting his own album based entirely off Second Life fame. None of this made it into the Arts Section or into Ms. La Ferla's style piece – but who will argue with the style of some of the installations at Burning Life?

5 thoughts on “New York Times Report on Virtual Worlds Totally Misses the Point”

  1. To be fair, the NYT article was in the “Fashion and Style” section, with a focused readership. To be a little less than fair: should you reasonably expect any article in the fashion category to be more than a “fluff” piece?
    Seems to me, the way to bring the attention of the real-world press to the arts and culture of Second Life is not to rely on Linden Lab press releases, or on the happenstance of a journalist having a friend who’s an avatar (or who is one him/herself). Contact them directly!

  2. I paused at the categorization of Second Life as just an ‘avatar-driven social networking site,’ but forgave it for having something to show some K-12 Fashion educators that Second Life is actually relevant.

  3. I think it is a very good NYTimes piece. Everything in the article is true, and also, it certainly helps keep the metaverse economy alive.
    Lalo is right about mentioning that the article was in Fashion and Style section.
    NYTimes doesn’t HAVE to write about anything us SLers thing they ‘should’ be writing about. But, every day there’s news stories that come out. This piece, by NYTimes happened to be about the topic they discussed, and it was a good article.

  4. It’s actually an excellent New York Times piece, one of a series of many such pieces that have covered every aspect of SL, from the politics of virtuality and big corporations, to architecture and art, to social networking and property issues. You aren’t looking at this in the context of all of the NYT’s coverage, and demanding that one piece on fashion somehow do the job of what 10 pieces on other issues already did at the Times.
    As for the one billion/two billion, no one really can claim accuracy on these figures when the Lindens themselves have changed it from $450 million to $500 million just for SL in US dollar value transactions in the space of a few months. It all depends on what you count as a virtual world, as some people count as virtual worlds a virtual flash world I reach on the Internet after I buy a box of cat food and want to get a coupon. Please.
    An excellent article on architecture in SL, really, the most sophisticated coverage that has ever been of virtual architecture, can be found here, by Sam Lubell:
    http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2008/12/07/style/t/index.html#pagewanted=4&pageName=07secondlife&
    or here on the Chinese build RMB
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00E6D9143AF932A15750C0A96E9C8B63
    Honestly, for a guy who says he is only a hobbyists and not representing any clients in his lobbying firm, you sure do have a GIANT agenda here. What’s up, really?
    It seems to me you’re simply using the Arrington snark technique culled from Valley Wag — make some faux-sophisticated bash on something to try to position yourself as some guru and get reprints, but in reality, you are just exposed as stupid and not even doing the most basic of homework.

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