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Thousands of subscribers start living "Second Life" in online world | (KRT) Wagner James Au thinks of himself as an editor and publisher of a small newspaper in a company town. But the odd thing is that he writes about a community that exists only in cyberspace.

Au calls himself an "embedded journalist" in an online world dubbed "Second Life," where thousands of subscribers gather to build virtual homes, design their own 3-D characters, and socialize with friends they've never met in real life.

"Second Life" is the creation of San Francisco's Linden Lab, a company that spent several years building the online community - not quite a game, not quite a chat room. Subscribers pay $9.95 a month to lose themselves in a virtual world they can mold as they want.

"Second Life" and other online communities have become such lifelike parallel worlds that they have journalists to cover them. Linden Lab hired Au to write a Weblog ( that chronicles the weirdness and drama of "Second Life." He interviews people by instant messages and witnesses their lives by logging into the world and watching on his computer screen.

In his first life, (i.e., reality), Au is a 36-year-old freelance journalist who lives in Oakland, Calif., writing stories for and Wired. But in "Second Life," he's the character Hamlet Linden. He fashioned this "avatar," a 3-D animated persona, to look like himself - with long hair, a goatee and mustache.

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The avatar wears a white suit in tribute to author Tom Wolfe. When Hamlet Linden feels like making his own news, he plays a character that resembles muckraking journalist Hunter S. Thompson, armed with a bottle of whiskey and a gun.

"I've found amazing variety in the world," says Au. "It's like a creative agora from ancient Greece."

Virtual journalism is gathering steam as players feel a need to keep up with their fast-moving virtual lifestyles. Another virtual world, "There," has a newspaper called the Caldera Sun-Times, written by New Orleans resident Christopher Snizik, who runs a home maintenance business in real life. The "Sims Online" has a newspaper called the Alphaville Herald.

Since "Second Life" officially opened in June, thousands of subscribers have logged in, and the world has grown from 16 sections to more than 150, with each consisting of 16 acres of virtual space.

And Au, as Hamlet Linden, has been there to track it. "By reading Hamlet's columns, you can get a pretty good idea of what happens in our world," says Nanci Schenkein, a New Jersey resident who coordinates parties inside "Second Life" as an event planner.

Au has proven himself a muckraker. He wrote about a "Boston Tea Party" that residents staged to protest the way Linden Lab taxed properties and belongings that residents created. Linden Lab staged some town hall meetings and eventually changed its policies so residents wouldn't be discouraged from building grandiose properties.

Au also wrote about subjects that the company didn't want to publicize, like a real-life stripper who opened a "gentlemen's club" in the virtual world.

Mostly, Au derives satisfaction chronicling the weird creativity of "Second Life" residents. He wrote about Catherine Omega, who claimed she was homeless in real life, using a laptop with pilfered Internet and power connections, while she built her own virtual mansion on a cliff in "Second Life."

"Even if that story wasn't true, it was fascinating because that is the role she created for herself, a kind of `cool hacker chick' - like something out of a William Gibson novel," Au says.

He likes to get inside the skin of his subjects, like Bel Muse, a green-eyed, pigtailed blond woman in "Second Life" who is actually Greta Fleming, a black woman from Los Angeles. "This is like if Julia Roberts suddenly pulled off her mask and we find it's Whoopi Goldberg underneath," Au wrote. He wrote that Fleming felt as if people treated her white character differently in the virtual world, and he recalled a 1950s study that showed that young black girls preferred to play with white Barbie dolls.

"Hamlet was trying to dig beneath the surface and discover the meaning," said Fleming.

And Hamlet Linden is sometimes a participant - not just a chronicler - in the virtual world. Stephen Cavers, who is a technical writer in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a subscriber, accompanied Au's character through 90 regions of the "Second Life" world over nine hours. Cavers' character flew in a hot-air balloon above Au's party of walkers as they made their way through the territories, including some war-themed neighborhoods where Au's team had to use their own weapons to make it past the locals.

"He has a talent for engineering strange and wacky stunts," Cavers said. "He attracts a crowd of well wishers and gawkers during these events."

Robin Harper, one of the creators of "Second Life" at Linden Lab, hired Au to chronicle the development of the communities within the world. "He looked at things from a socially oriented view," she said. "We thought of hiring a social scientist, but felt this was the right approach."

She agreed to allow him to write things as he saw them, maintaining a degree of journalistic independence. Harper says she has long stopped previewing Au's columns.

Yet Au does face some restrictions. He generally confines himself to writing about the characters that people create, rather than the real people behind them. He doesn't use profanity or write about porn in the virtual world, which violates the genteel rules of "Second Life" society. "Second Life" allows sexual or adult language to be used only in mature-rated sections of the world.

These days, Au says the world has grown so large he is having trouble keeping up with everything. "I was thinking of asking them to hire another writer, like someone who could cover the fashion or architecture scenes," he says. "It's growing so fast, I never want for stories."

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