The New Virtuality, and Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Spin, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Strom writes his “Web Informant” blog about current trends in technology and Internet marketing. This appeared in the fall of 2006, and was originally published for the site, a site geared towards Apple computer users. The article is updated for

The news in the fall of 2006 has me confused; so let me see if I have this straight. MTV is now doing a game where you can play as one of the characters from one of their reality TV shows, a show that employs script writers. These are different writers from the ones who not too long ago were protesting that they weren’t paid enough and had to falsify their time sheets to show that they worked fewer hours.

Then there are people making money off of selling Second Life businesses that sell virtual goods to others inside their virtual world.
There are others that auction on eBay virtual items that enable game players to advance to higher levels, and these items are assembled by real low-wage workers who spend their days playing the games to accumulate these virtual items. There are Web pages for real people on MySpace that are fakes, created by fans (or detractors). There are also real Web pages for fake people too, and some of them were created by advertising and PR people who wanted to push a particular brand or agenda. (Insert your favorite joke about ad/PR people here.)

Earlier in the year, a reporter for a national magazine was suspended when his employer found out that he was posting praising comments to his own blog under a pseudonym “sprezzatura” which means doing something without apparent effort. His blog was removed by the magazine’s editors. Contrast this with what happened more recently when in early 2007, McDonalds was criticized for creating a fake blog to promote an ad campaign. Now the term “flog” has been coined for this latter situation.

One of the most popular You Tube videos is about a lonely teenager talking about her life. But it turns out she is really an actress playing a part. I don’t know if they employ script writers or if these writers have to fake their time sheets too. And this has created an entire genre of other popular videos “” those people who are tagging their creations with lonelygirl tags so others will view them. Meanwhile, college courses on ethics have already incorporated the whole mess into their curricula.

Then there is a documentary show that ABC-TV aired in the fall of 2006 on 9/11, but interwove fictional dialogue spoken by actors playing real people. While it failed to attract any sponsors, ABC promoted it as a commercial-free public service.

Finally, the former chairwoman of HP paid professional investigators to make believe that they were reporters to obtain the reporters private phone records, so they could investigate boardroom leaks. One of these efforts involved emailing a reporter a Word document with a Trojan keylogger inserted. That is why she is the former chairwoman.

Am I the only one having a problem with all of this? Is it getting harder to distinguish between what is real, and what isn’t, anymore? Remember those simple days of yesteryear, when a reporter for a national magazine who wrote a book of fiction under the “Anonymous” was finally outted to much fanfare? Or magazine covers that had manipulated images of OJ (among others) were called on their photoshopping? Or how about corporate CEOs that were satisfied with just falsifying their own booking sheets or stock option grant awards? Back then, all we had was the Matrix, which wasn’t real either, but had some fine CGI to entertain us.

Welcome to the new real virtuality. I can absolutely guarantee that I wrote this column with my own hands. Everything else, that’s your own construct.

© David Strom Inc. 2006-7