One of my luckiest days

by Stone Semyorka

Second Life mimics Real Life. There’s no doubt about it.

Take grieving, for instance. In RL, it’s the process of feeling distress after a sorrowful loss of someone near to us, pets, employment, possessions or status. I’ve discovered it’s no different for residents of SL.

LailaLei Mathilde comtemplating in red chair
LailaLei Mathilde

I lost an SL friend last month when she retreated into RL, apparently never to return. This has been a time of sorrow and parting for me.

LailaLei Mathilde

As a friend of LailaLei Mathilde, I am moved to speak of joy and engagement — the joy of watching a fellow professional blossom, the joy of seeing a young writer grow day by day toward personal fulfillment, the joy of recognizing that she had found her unique voice.

LailaLei Mathilde at candidate kiosks
Lai inspects polling and information stations at the Republican Party of SL Headquarters

A young writer’s main work is searching for her true vocation. I was fortunate to be Lai’s editorial companion and mentor during her search.

Much of journalism depends on luck, as every editor knows, and the day Lai decided that she wanted to write her Second Choices blog was one of the luckiest days in my career.

She entered journalism shyly, as if unsure she belonged there. On March 5, 2007, she introduced herself to us with the post Second Lives, Second Choices.

“This is my first post in my first blog,” she said. “I’m just getting the hang of things so bear with me.”

We did as she asked. We bore with her to the benefit of all of us who care about the symbiotic professions of journalism and politics. Her last post was June 3.

LailaLei Mathilde commercial ads at HQ
Lai challenged the use of commercial advertising in the aHead logo at Mike Gravel’s HQ in May

LailaLei Mathilde with Stone and ads
Lai was passionate about the rules of American politics. She was so indignant over the commercial advertising and sponsorship of a political campaign that she dragged this writer over to the Gravel HQ to see it.

She learned the craft by performing yeoman duties as she dug right into her ceaseless attempt to get RL people to come into SL. Just two days after her first post, she was trying to convince the famous blogger Wonkette to come in-world.

“I believe that Second Life is the next version of the Web,” Lai said. “I really do think it is the future.”

She quickly began to realize her talent and expand her skill by choosing topics she cared about and that she could help her readers care about.

Imagine the dedication involved in researching and posting some 90 blog entries in four months.

LailaLei Mathilde at French celebration
Lai made a rare trip outside of American politics to view the celebration of results of the first round of the French Presidential elections in April. The top vote-getters were Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. Lai told us Sarkozy is referred to as Sarko because the French prefer nicknames for their public figures. Here she views a fireworks celebration by Sarko supporters.

Lai revealed herself as an intellectual in the tasks she chose for herself: making connections, ferreting out cloaked information, analyzing raw data, and drawing the lines between facts and ideas.

It became clear that her work was animated by a certain feeling, a sympathetic understanding of those she was writing about. Warmth, optimism and openness became important elements in her success.

There was a quiet place in Lai where she could reflect on her research and develop ideas for her blog. On the other hand, nervous energy was important in forming who she was as a journalist. She always was on the lookout for a new SL political story to dig into.

LailaLei Mathilde global warming
Lai sat in on a discussion of global warming at the John Edwards HQ

I am grateful for the good fortune that plopped me down near the center of her journalistic world. I like to think that there were two active journalists in our friendship, that each was the other’s main cheerleader and critic, and that the beneficiaries were our readers.

The dedicated subject of her blog was “the 2008 Presidential Campaign as it unfolds in Second Life.” That was the slogan that appealed to just about every politics watcher in SL. She had a tremendous readership, and thus a tremendous impact on events in our virtual political realm.

For her readers, Lai carefully defined the emerging issues. She wrote about campaign successes and failures, new HQ’s arriving and old HQ’s disappearing. She covered the exciting moments as well as the group tensions. Lai was especially careful when she blogged about the rise and fall of in-world politicians.

Second Choices Archives: March April May June July

LailaLei Mathilde at Hillary Clinton SL Campaign HQ
Prior to its public opening, Lai inspected the new Hillary Clinton SL Campaign HQ during a media preview in April. The new HQ had to be erected at a different location after a former Clinton SL steering committee member deleted the previous site in a fit of pique.

Lai found her way inside SL’s networks of political power. She knew every Republican, Democrat and Independent in our virtual world by face and name. Whether genuine or disingenuous, they offered her friendship…and the information she needed to know.

Like the true professional she became, Lai retained an outsider’s skepticism as well as the perception that ordinary voters needed complete information treated sensitively.

The writer’s voice she developed was true to her personality. It was an amplified version of the way she ordinarily spoke.

In the world of SL politics, Lai’s posts were star attractions, partly because of her competence, but also because she sounded like no one else and spoke from a place where few other SL journalists worked.

As she wrote on through the spring, Lai grew from journalist to independent scholar and social historian. She loved archives, and grew to love them more and more as she taught them to speak to her, so that she could in turn speak to us.

She was the first and only political journalist in SL to take the time to pour over those seemingly impenetrable databanks of group statistics.

Metrics are measures used to indicate progress or achievement, and Second Choices readers held their breath each week for her story on which candidate was up and which was slipping in the latest statistics on Presidential candidate group participation. Her meticulous metrics reports took hours to compile.

Second Life blog metrics archive: January February March April May June

Courage, creativity and sense of purpose

The findings she articulated in her posts seem obvious now, but they weren’t obvious at all back then when she had the nerve and originality to report them in her blog. For instance, her third column — the March 6 piece on Wonkette I mentioned earlier — in which she came down hard on RL people who laugh at SL.

“But what is also disturbing is the fact that the folks over at Wonkette think this is funny,” she wrote.

Wonkette had called us “a million losers [who] spend all their time pretending to have a Second Life,” to which Lai replied, “…all of this makes me wonder if any of the staff at Wonkette have ever been into Second Life. In the four posts written on Second Life, none of the authors write that they’ve ever been…it seems to me that if we’re going to get around this image problem, we need to bring people like the folks at Wonkette in-world so they can see the Second Life that we see.”

LailaLei Mathilde at Obama HQ
Lai peeks inside the unofficial Barack Obama campaign HQ in Second Life in March.

Lai was a strong champion of Second Life as a place where innovative and useful work is done. That was one of her important contributions as a daily journalist.

Her ideas and approaches were borrowed by other writers across SL. No one changed the perception of politics in here as clearly and beneficially as Lai.

She had a sense of place, of politics, of history, as well as a love of literature, a feeling for words, a keen sense of humor, a born reporter’s need to know the social context. Lai brought these to her SL journalism in the service of understanding and search for truth.

Her boldness and vigor would have led to ever more important works that would have breathed fresh life into our world history.

If a budding journalist were to ask me how to mature in a promising, healthy way in our profession, my answer would be simple. Study the techniques of LailaLei Mathilde, her style, her vocabulary, her nose for news. In those you will find the heart of a serious journalist.

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