The word “virtual” is meaningless

When I was at Foo Camp last summer, I heard Philip Rosedale, the founder of the 3-D virtual world Second Life, describe how this community has not only virtual newspapers to serve its citizens, but paper versions too. They were handing out free copies copies. I picked up a tabloid that advertised stores and tourist traps that existed only in the electronic ether.

Moving in the other direction, which is to say a real reporter in a virtual world, Reuters recently announced that it will be assigning a regular correspondent to a Second Life beat.

“As strange as it might seem, it’s not that different from being a reporter in the real world,” Adam Pasick, the Reuters correspondent who will serve as the virtual bureau’s first chief, said in a Reuters report. “Once you get used to it, it becomes very much like the job I have been doing for years.”

So my question is: is it silly to put real person on a virtual newsbeat?

This leads to the question: what does the word virtual mean, anyway? And the answer is: nothing. Wherever you see the word “virtual,” strike it out and you’ll have a more compact phrase that means the same thing. Virtual newspapers are newspapers. Virtual neighborhoods are neighborhoods. Virtual economies are economies. A lot of money changes hands in Second Life, and the taxing authorities are starting to notice.

It’s always been troublesome to define a word like “virtual” because it describes something that both is and isn’t real. But increasingly it simply means “what you said, only on a computer.” I was curious to see what dictionaries are saying about the word these days. Sure enough, the dictionary entry has a long digression on this very topic.

Here’s my interpretation of the word virtual. It means “I’ve just removed from X something formerly considered an irreducible quality of X, and yet its X-ness is intact.” It is a linguistic onion peeler. You thought it was necessary to print a newspaper on paper, so you called my paperless newspaper “virtual”. But somehow its paperness remains intact. That which remains is nessful. That which was virtualized away is nessless.