Get a Second Life


A few weeks ago some hackers ‘stole’ Justice Michael Kirby’s identity to create a presence on the social networking site, MySpace. As The Age put it, ‘The identity thieves posed as the Australian judge to put sordid and sexually charged material on a fake Justice Kirby profile page.’

While there is no doubt that the use of Kirby’s personal details was offensive, so was the breathtaking ignorance of the article’s next sentence:

The case, which MySpace said could be the first confirmed instance of malicious identity fraud on the site, underlines the flimsy or fraudulent nature of much of the internet’s so-called ‘citizen journalism.’

Kirby’s identity thieves were not bloggers – although that is what the article means by its smug and ironic use of the phrase ‘citizen journalism.’

Mainstream media can be as dismissive as it likes, but so-called citizen journalism is becoming the journalism of choice of more and more people. It is fair to question the lack of editing and fact checking on the internet, and the partisan nature of many blogs – but then the mainstream media is looking increasingly shaky on those fronts as well, just read any Caroline Overington column.

As Antony Loewenstein wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago:

In Western nations, blogging has grown in popularity as public trust in the mainstream media has declined. Much of what passes for debate in the Australian press can be called ‘corkscrew journalism’ According to Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, the phrase is defined as ‘instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade or more.’

In a fairly dramatic recognition of the internet’s key role in breaking news, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama recently chose to announce their respective candidacies for President of the United States on their websites.

It is true that part of the attraction of the internet is that people can invent personas that are hard to verify. Myspace is currently being sued by the families of four teenage girls who were sexually assaulted by men they met through the site. In these cases and the case of Justice Kirby, criminals have made use of the anonymity that the medium provides and it would be disingenuous to suggest that technology makes no difference at all. The internet does enable certain behaviors and it does give some people the level of anonymity they need to entrap.

In an attempt to manage this Myspace has hired a security officer, Hemanshu Nigam, and made it more difficult for users who are over 18 to contact users between the ages of 14 and 18. Nigam said that, ‘ultimately, internet safety is a shared responsibility We encourage everyone to apply common sense offline security lessons in their online experiences and engage in open family dialogue about smart web practices.’

Image from sxc

Anonymity is also part of the fun over at Second Life, the virtual world in which people can interact using avatars that represent them. This world (known as the Grid) has its own currency, Linden dollars, which can be auctioned on eBay for real-world dollars. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday that Telstra and the Au s tralian Broadcasting Corporation were about to announce the establishment of a presence in Second Life, thereby joining companies such as Toyota, Adidas, IBM and Intel who have all built a base within the virtual world to test their products.

One woman, Anshe Chung, has become a millionaire through her dealings as a virtual ‘real estate baroness’ and in November last year her avatar was on the cover of Business Week. Soon after, the online news site CNET held an interview with her within Second Life, during which anonymous hackers caused Chung’s avatar to be barraged by flying penises. At the moment, an arguably more contentious event is taking place in Second Life: a virtual war between the French National Front and anti-fascists.

Yes, thugs exist on and off line. Group blog Lavartus Prodeo expressed it well in a post last week:

Commentary on Second Life focused initially on its utopian possibilities. The segue then was to its commercialisation. It would seem now that politics and violence aren’t absent from virtual worlds. Perhaps that says something about the human condition, and something about post-humanist virtual utopias.

And, as the satirical site Get a First Life suggests, if we don’t have our ‘first lives’ in order we can’t expect the online world to behave any better.

Children are sexually vulnerable and can be preyed upon in whatever places they choose for recreation. Homophobes used MySpace to attack Justice Kirby but abusive phone calls, offensive articles in the newspaper and misleading statements in parliament are methods used with equal enthusiasm. Successful women like Anshe Chung are more often than not mocked in ways that are sexually degrading and, indeed, blogs have been written casting doubt on her sexual history.

Hillary Clinton had her sexuality questioned in a more conventional form when Edward Klein’s book, The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President was published last year. It questions her political credibility, then implies she is a lesbian, just for good measure. As the National Review asked, ‘Why point out she had friends who were lesbians? Do we need to go there?’

In all this debate, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the benefits of online space and so-called citizen journalism are many. Loewenstein again:

For some, blogging is more than an optional extra, it’s a way of staying sane. A female Iraqi blogger tells me that ‘as Arab Muslims, we have been stereotyped a lot, and I believe that bloggers have kind of proved those stereotypes are nothing but myths. On the other hand, blogging has also helped us, Arabs, abandon our paranoid attitudes and stereotypical views of Westerners.’ Such online discussions contribute more to cross-cultural understanding than any other technology in history.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.