Is a virtual world publisher within the magic circle?

Who should be the one to memorialize a deceased 'Second Life' user: the publisher or the community?

The death last month of one of the most successful Second Life fashion designers has sparked a curious dynamic: in an open-ended virtual world, who should take responsibility for issuing public proclamations, the publisher or the users?

In the wake of the tragic real-world death of one-half of the design team who used the SL avatar Ginny Talamasca to operate the popular Last Call by Dazzle Haute Couture clothing empire, a call has gone out for a special day of memorial to remember the late designer.

The movement was started on Saturday by Katt Kongo, the creator of a Second Life in-world newspaper known as the Metaverse Messenger, who called on SL publisher Linden Lab to "declare April 17 as 'Ginny Talamasca Day.'"

Kongo made the request in an e-mail to Linden Lab vice president of marketing and community development Robin Harper. She copied many other Second Life users, including myself, on the e-mail, asking for help with her campaign.

But almost immediately, responses from those who received the e-mail came back with a curious take on the situation.

"Linden Lab's role has been one of a platform developer, not as a (massively multiplayer online game) provider," wrote Ron Blechner, chief technology officer of Involve, a third-party SL development company. "As such, they really aren't the ones in control of Second Life's culture; they aren't the game gods; they just design the architecture, really."

Blechner added that he felt that, "if you feel strongly about getting this done, my recommendation would be to build up a grass-roots support, and eventually, with enough support and awareness, it will become a de facto event."

Others who responded to the thread started by Kongo agreed.

The question is intriguing, however. Second Life is a community of hundreds of thousands of users. And within that community is a much smaller, tight-knit core group of veterans who have been in-world for years. And it's true: the users really do control much of what goes on in SL. And so, through in-world events and private publications like the Metaverse Messenger, many SL-related blogs, and all kinds of other venues, the users could well do exactly what Blechner suggested.

At the same time, Linden Lab, as the publisher, does control the Secondlife.com Web site, as well as the official Second Life blog. And it is well within the company's power to issue a proclamation on the front page or the blog like the one that Kongo asked for.

Which makes this a very curious dynamic: Is the issuing of such a declaration the province of the publisher, who--notwithstanding Blechner's comment--does wield something akin to god-like powers? Or is it the responsibility of the community, which is made up of thousands of people who have developed countless friendships, which already creates most of the in-world content, runs most of the events, and which publishes most of the SL news and commentary?

In one sense, it calls to mind what would happen if a popular high school student died. Would the school itself take on the responsibility for commemorating his or her death? Or would the student body do it? Or both?

I don't think there is a clear answer. Not yet.

But it is yet another element of the question of what precisely is a virtual world? What is its community? Who is the publisher? And does the magic circle in which it operates include the publisher?

I think it will be very interesting to see how this plays out. My sense is that, in the end, Blechner's assessment will be correct. Linden Lab will conclude that the community has every tool in its possession to memorialize Ginny Talamasca and will step out of the way.

But I also predict that there will be some bruised feelings over this.

And in the end, this episode may well contribute to the definition of that magic circle and exactly what and whom is inside it.

 

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