The NY Times has a nice article on the Sims online game, where for a monthly fee you can join a virtual society and create an alter ego. Since your online personna can accumulate possessions that only exist in the game, people sell these virtual possessions for real dollars on ebay, especially the rare Sims pet – the cheetah! If you accumulate enough virtual dollars, you can sell these for real cash.
Trouble’s brewing, though. The owners of Sims online have expelled Peter Ludlow from their game, presumably because he was a virtual muckracker. In the Alphaville Herald, he’d report on criminal rings and teenage prostitution. The problem is that these are all constructs in a computer, not real world events. Of course, free speech issues come into play because Sims online has become a sort of quasi-public space, like the shopping mall. But there are important differences – you have to pay to get in and you sign away certain rights. It will be interesting to see if any regulation is ever applied to virtual online communities aside from the laws applying to any legitimate business.