Hanky panky and addiction online

Well, has there been enough coverage of online worlds for you this week? Unfortunately, it’s all been about how an online affair – ‘edultery’ – in Second Life led to a real world divorce.

Oh, and add to that a side order of old chestnuts in the form of the old “addicted to computer games” perennial, and a topping of “fired for Facebook comments” and you have a couple of weeks in which Web 2.0 has been unusually prominent – but unsurprisingly muddled and ill-informed.

The Second Life story is about Newquay couple Amy Taylor and David Pollard, who originally met online and then took up residence in Second Life., where Pollard’s avatar – Dave Barmy – had two virtual affairs that led to their breakup. It’s not exactly a new story – anyone who has spent time in online communities will know couples who originally met online. And yes, these new connections have led to the break-up of existing marriages and divorces. I think the first time I was aware of this happening in an online community I was a member of was back in 1997 – so it really is old hat.

Such a tawdry story is not the usual kind of thing to merit BBC News attention, so instead the BBC did a news article on … how avatars have sex. Really:

“First you need to buy genitals,” says technology journalist Adrian Mars, explaining the process in Second Life. “You start off with no genitals and then you buy some. These objects can do all sorts of things. You can have ones that ejaculate at the right moment.

The article also describes the range of male genitalia on offer to buy, including skin colour control, sound, animations, ejaculation, urine and some that are touchable by other players to lead to arousal.

Yeesh. It’s hard to see this article as anything other than a big of high-brow BBC titillation, a way of talking about sex by pretending it’s a serious piece.

The Guardian newspaper also had to work hard to fit this story of a humdrum affair into its pages, so they made it a tale of journalism and actually found an interesting angle: how press agency South West News got the scoop on the story by sending in two virtual reporters who found that, “In real life [Amy] had rejected everything – knocks on the door, letters, phone calls. But our characters started chatting and it was different. She began to trust us. Amy’s character was much more confident in the game than she was in real life.” That was a quote from Jo Pickering, described as one of the South West staff who controlled that reporter avatar: of particular note in that description is the “one”, suggesting that there were others also working that avatar. Would it be verging on fraud and deception by the journalists if they were working to build up trust with Amy without telling her?

Having almost touched upon an interesting facet of online identities, The Guardian story quickly veers away and back into safe sophomoric wisecracks by noting that one of the avatar reporters wore a red mini-skirt and a black slip top, adding: “Not sure where her notebook is kept.” Oh, ha ha.

Really, if you’re a serious newspaper doing a serious story, then by all means go for it. But they made it into at least four separate articles in the Guardian, including today’s ‘analysis’ piece in the Sunday sister publication The Observer. Surely to use it as a peg to hang a salacious story about some unconventional sex to titilate your readers with a nudge nudge, wink wink tone is tabloid territory?

And of course the tabloids did love the story. They particularly loved pointing out the discrepancy between the couples’ online avatars and their real world selves: in real life, David Pollard is described as a “25-stone balding 40-year-old who lives on incapacity benefits and hangs around his bedsit in his jogging bottoms,” while is avatar Dave Barmy is “a 6ft 4in nightclub owner in his mid-20s, a slick dude with long dark hair and dressed in a snappy grey suit, sunglasses and a large gold cross.” The London free paper helpfully printed side-by-side pictures of the man and his avatar side by side, without comment but with clear “isn’t it sad?” implication.

This story got worldwide saturation coverage – which wouldn’t be surprising if this were the August silly season, when news is slow and editors will jump on anything to fill the pages. But instead it’s November, political high season, with economies in trouble and collapsing, a major child abuse death in the UK, a new President-Elect being micro-analysed in the States – and yet still this tale gets international attention. It’s a strange world (real and virtual.)

Nor was this the only online community story hiting the news headlines. The BBC also provoked a little local storm with a piece on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme covering the launch of the second expansion pack for the fantasy role-playing online game the World of Warcraft, “The Wrath of the Lich King”, which went on sale on Thursday with more than 2,000 people waiting outside an Oxford Street store holding a special midnight opening.

As a result of some comments emailed to a companion BBC blog from teachers who said that they’d seen students become addicted to WoW and drop out of their studies, the story focussed on that instead. How many years have we had periodic stories along the lines of “Britain’s teens addicted to computer games shock!”? As long as I can remember, surely at least a couple of decades.

The strange thing is that the journalist who put this together, Rory Cellan-Jones, is the BBC’s technology editor, and a good one too. Moreover he uses all the online Web 2.0 tools – he’s written about the WoW story on the BBC dot.life blog, he’s also on Twitter and mentioned the story there too. So this is no clueless journalist sitting in an ivory tower writing about something they dont know, so why did he – and the Guardian journalists and all the other reporters on these stories – take such an oddly distanced, ill-informed and snide view of what could be some serious issues relating to online life?

It’s especially odd when you think that almost everyone in the media now uses online tools, and that Web 2.0 is rapidly becoming as essential a skill to a journalist as shorthand ever was. And while a mocking and disdainful approach to these stories is perfect for the Daily Mail‘s audience demographic, to any publication reaching a wider and less reactionary section of the public – people who also use the internet every day – this kind of coverage just makes you want to shoot the messenger for garbling the message.

One story that was widely reported – and reasonably straight, too – was the sacking of 13 Virgin Atlantic who labelled Virgin customers chavs and criticised the maintenance record of the airline’s fleet of Boeing 747s, the airline’s position being that the comments had “brought the company into disrepute”.

There are some major issues here about free speech: these comments were made by off-duty staff and were the sort of light hearted water cooler banter common to workers almost everywhere. So do the sackings mean that employees now can’t say anything about their employers at any time? That their employers own them 24/7?

The role Web 2.0 technology played in this is that, instead of the comments being made as off-hand remarks quickly forgotten among a group of friends, they were preserved online for all to see. So it’s actually the 13’s fault that they didn’t understand this subtle yet massive difference between old and new social networking. It’s something we’re all going to have to get up to speed on pretty quickly: if you think your next potential employer isn’t getting online to do a quick search on you, read your blog and your Tweets, then you’re being naive. I’m certainly mindful that any future application I make will be held up against this blog, my Facebook page and any other online activity I do to ensure that I live up to my CV. It’s just part of the working life in the 21st century.

So Web 2.0, online communities, social networking are all increasingly important parts of our real lives. We deserve good media coverage of them and some real insight, and it’s time that the mainstream media caught up with that and that it wasn’t purely the realm of the bloggers delivering high quality thinking here.


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