Arthur Goldstuck
Arthur Goldstuck

Interviewing the avatar

It may not be a new form of journalism, but it is quickly becoming apparent that interviews with avatars in virtual worlds are going to require a new set of guidelines for journalists.

This is one of the first learnings to emerge from an experimental initiative in The Big Change blog. We are conducting business interviews with avatars in virtual worlds, to provide insights into how companies and organisations can make use of simulated worlds such as Second Life, Habbo (scene of the first real-world arrest for theft in a virtual world), Kaneva, There, Cazmo and the Japanese competitor HiPiHi.

Second Life has more than 11-million registered “residents”, but only about 780 000 logged on in the past month. Despite this, numerous companies, such as Adidas, IBM and Mazda, have a significant presence in Second Life, ranging from offices and stores to creating concept cars and holding corporate meetings. Individuals interact through 3D figures known as avatars, which can be adapted or customised to the fullest extent of residents’ imaginations or abilities.

One of the most imposing corporate buildings in Second Life is the headquarters of ABN AMRO, the Dutch financial giant, which opened its offices in the virtual world exactly a year ago. We chose it for our first interview, due to the sheer scope of its presence in Second Life — it has about two dozen “islands” catering for investment advice, recruitment, entertainment and even charitable endeavours.

But finding someone to interview proved difficult. In the first six months, the place seemed deserted. Due to the nature of the experiment, which relies on “found interviews” — that is, interviewing avatars that we come across rather than setting it up in real life (or RL, as our world is known in SL) — we did not want to go through the usual media channels to set up the SL interviews. This suggested one of the key lessons included below. The eventual Interview with the Avatar did have its challenges, but also delivered a wide range of insights into what is possible in virtual worlds.

Based on the initial experiences, then, here is an early, primitive set of eight basic guidelines for journalists considering working in Second Life:

1. An avatar is simply an alternative interface for a human being, much as the phone or instant messaging represents an alternative interface. It may be in vivid 3D, but there is still a human being on the other end. Therefore engage with avatars with the same level of respect you would afford human beings. And if are not respectful to human beings in RL, change your attitude fast or forget about meaningful interaction in SL.

2. Establish upfront what areas can be discussed and what can’t. Avatars representing large organisations usually cannot discuss company strategy, but can discuss services and technical issues.

3. If you want to delve into strategic or policy issues, it would be advisable to set up the interview in advance through a RL press office. This applies especially where you want to conduct a specialised interview.

4. Similarly, if you want to interview a prominent individual, whether a well-known personality or a high-powered executive, it must be set up in advance, as a formal appointment, usually through a press office of some kind. But here you have to go a step further, and set up an interview setting that is appropriate to the nature of the interviewee and the interview. One of the best examples of this, and an early case study, was provided by Second Life itself, when SL’s Adam Reuters conducted interviews from the World Economic Forum in Davos, even taking questions from a virtual audience during interviews. The best of these interviews was with political blogging entrepreneur Arianna Huffington. Whether you adore or detest her, it is clear that she “gets it”, and the interview helped shed light on the future of virtual life.

5. The content of the interview doesn’t have to be groundbreaking — yet. At this stage, people are more interested in the fact of SL presence rather than philosophical breakthroughs. Here is a great early example from the entertainment world of well-known podcasting personality CC Chapman being interviewed in SL. Inane content, perhaps, but it was a new experience for all involved, and that was the point at the time. In the very near future, though, the context will be taken for granted, and the content will be all that matters.

6. Study these and other examples, decide for yourself why they worked, as well as why they may not have worked for you, or what aspects did not work for you. Integrate this understanding into your own approach.

7. Even in a formal interview, be conversational, otherwise you will lose the interviewee. The human being behind the avatar will teleport to another location at the click of a button (or suddenly have to deal with another visitor or customer) if your questions are presented too much like a laundry list that could have been addressed via email. If it works better via email, rather use email.

8. Research the company, issue or topic in advance (just like in RL journalism). This includes exploring a company’s SL presence before conducting an interview with a representative of that company. Being informed not only makes for better questions, but gives the interviewee greater confidence in your professionalism. This, in turn, leads to a more forthcoming interviewee. And, who knows, you may even be invited to closed events.

Seen any great interviews with avatars? Tell us about it here.