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Masterclass on digital anthropology and our virtual lives

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How have virtual worlds informed the broader culture? What can we learn about the journey of being human from the journey of adapting to a virtual society? Have the lines blurred between the digital and the ‘real’, between our avatar selves and our physical ones?

Click here to watch video
http://www.metanomics.net/show/january_31_masterclass_on_digital_anthropology_and_our_virtual_lives/

How have virtual worlds informed the broader culture? What can we learn about the journey of being human from the journey of adapting to a virtual society? Have the lines blurred between the digital and the ‘real’, between our avatar selves and our physical ones?

Click here to watch video
http://www.metanomics.net/show/january_31_masterclass_on_digital_anthropology_and_our_virtual_lives/

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Masterclass on digital anthropology and our virtual lives

  1. 1. METANOMICS: MASTERCLASS ON DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND OUR VIRTUAL LIVES JANUARY 31, 2011 ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan Writer's Metaverse. ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I'm Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds in the larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our discussion about Virtual Worlds takes place in a Virtual World. So join us. This is Metanomics. ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in Second Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Welcome. This is Metanomics. DOUG THOMPSON: Hi. I'm Dusan Writer. I'm sitting in today for Robert Bloomfield. Welcome to Metanomics. Today we're continuing our Master Class Series on Metanomics, and my guest today is Tom Boellstorff, director of anthropology from UC Irvine. The Master Class Series has been looking at everything that affects us virtually. We've looked at Master Class on the creation of 3D content. We've talked about storytelling. And today we're going to go broad and talk about anthropology, culture and just about everything. I know that my
  2. 2. guest, Tom Boellstorff, can pretty much talk about everything. We've had the chance to host Tom on Metanomics in the past, and I've interviewed him for my blog, dusanwriter.com. So first of all, I'd like to welcome you to the show, Tom. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thank you so much for having me. DOUG THOMPSON: We'll make this, I think, a fairly interactive show. We have a studio audience here today of folks who have already been chatting about topics before the show even started. We were talking about the difference between text and voice chat, and I think we'll come back to that. So if you're in the audience or watching from the web, through ChatBridge technology, please feel free to post questions in the chat, and we'll try to bring them into the show. So for some people in the audience, they might not know about your background, Tom, and the work that you've done both in Virtual Worlds and more generally. So why don't you share a little bit about yourself, tell us about yourself. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. And thanks again so much for doing this. It's great just to have a chance to hang with you and see so many friends, old and new, in the audience as well. Just so everyone is clear, this is a very informal talk that we decided to do for today. It's not prepared in any way so it's very open-ended, which I think will be fun. So I'm an anthropologist. I'm a professor in California at the University of California Irvine. And, for those of you who don't know, I've been doing research for almost 20 years in
  3. 3. Indonesia. Then for I guess it is now seven years or since 2004, I've been doing research in Second Life, and I published a book based on that research, called Coming of Age in Second Life, that came out a couple years ago. And then I also became, a couple years ago, right around the same time, editor-in-chief of a very big anthropology journal, the official journal of The American Anthropological Association, which has been great because it sort of has helped legitimate this kind of research because a lot of people still don't think that online games and Virtual Worlds matter and are worth studying. And it's been a great learning experience. But the price I've had to pay is that I haven't been able to do much research in Second Life. I barely get to come in here. And, in a year and a half, that will end. So actually one thing I'm interested in talking to people about is, what should I do next. There's so many things I want to study in Second Life and beyond actually, in the physical world. I can talk about some of those ideas in a little bit. And also another thing I've been doing while I've been so busy is, I'm just finishing up a book called A Handbook of Ethnographic Methods for Virtual Worlds because so many people ask about how you do this kind of research. I've written that book with three friends. We're writing it right now. Bonnie Nardi, who has done research in World of Warcraft and has a wonderful new book called My Life as a Night Elf Priest, and Celia Pearce, who did a wonderful study of Uru online community and what happened when that World shut down and people fled to Second Life and There.com. So it's a kind of virtual Diaspora. Her book, Communities of Play is really wonderful. And T.L. Taylor, who did a very interesting book called Play Between Worlds, on EverQuest, and has actually just finished a new book on professional gamers.
  4. 4. And so the four of us are writing this book right now. We're going to try and have it finished by April 1. So questions of methods and how do you do research online are sort of at the front of my head as well so I'm happy to talk about that too. So I think I'll leave it there for the moment, and whatever you want to talk about, Dusan, or the audience, I'm just so honored to be here, and I'm happy to blab about whatever. DOUG THOMPSON: You mentioned the people that you're writing that handbook with, they're probably some of the top people on my reading list about Virtual Worlds and play. And it's interesting, when I first came in to Second Life, it was probably three, three and a half, four years ago, and I wanted to learn more. There were a bunch of books I picked up, and you just mentioned a couple of them. Your book came out, how long ago was it, two years now? TOM BOELLSTORFF: It came out in 2008. Yeah. DOUG THOMPSON: Right, and I interviewed you, and I remember at the time there was some controversy about the book or the reception that you had to doing anthropological research in Second Life. There were folks who questioned whether it was a valid site for this type of research. Has that changed, do you think? TOM BOELLSTORFF: It's changing to some extent. I mean I think it takes time, but it's always funny when I talk about Second Life or this kind of research at something like Metanomics or in Second Life versus to an anthropology audience, it can be really different because they often just don't understand what these Worlds are. They think that it's just a bunch of rich elite people. They think it's just people wasting their time or that it's just stupid
  5. 5. sex and whatever, and I try and say, "Well, think about the internet, there's plenty of stupid stuff on the internet, but there's some really awesome stuff too. Virtual Worlds are like that too. It's important for us to learn more about them, and that is changing. That has changed. And also one thing that was really hard for people to understand, and still is, is the question of how do you do these kinds of research studies, is it okay to only talk to people in Second Life, or do I have to get on a plane and try and meet everyone in the physical world for it to be valid. One thing we're trying to really explain in this book is, it really depends on your research question. In one of my new research projects I may actually be bringing together my interests in some different place and looking at how Indonesians use Facebook and mobile devices. It's one of my possible new research projects. But if I'm in Second Life and we're all talking right here, let's say, in this room, our social interaction doesn't depend on everyone in this room meeting in the physical world. Most of us won't. So as a researcher, we need to take that seriously. Now there's all kinds of ways that the physical world influences us, right? We have broadband connections and computers and ideas about bodies and chairs, all kinds of ways that the physical world influences what's happening here, but it's not the same thing. Right? So that issue of method has been something that has been really interesting, and it has really changed in the last few years. But there's still a lot of confusion out there. These technologies are still really new, and they're changing and interacting with each other so much. It's a fascinating time to be doing this kind of research.
  6. 6. DOUG THOMPSON: Well, you mention change, and one of the things that strikes me about studying a digital culture is that a digital culture can change, and it can change quickly, or the affordances of a digital culture can change quickly. So you look at Second Life, when you were studying Second Life, there was lag, and there were crashes, and those things don't exist anymore, or do they? I guess they still exist. But a culture in a digital domain, like Second Life, I would assume is influenced by the affordances of the let's call it the platform. Is that speed of change, does it present a challenge to your kind of research? We were talking before, for example, about the introduction of voice so there's something where I would assume that you would see a change in the culture from when you first studied Second Life, when there was no voice to when there is voice. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. Yeah. Those are great questions. And also there's already awesome questions coming up in the backchat, and it's hard for me to focus on both. So if someone can just take notes of those, that would be really awesome. Very briefly, to answer some of those earlier questions, my research in Indonesia was, why I picked Indonesia was random life events. I got involved with some gay organizations there because of work I was doing in the United States when I was just out of college. It's a long story. But often the way we pick field sites is shaped by chance in some ways. I mean I actually started out doing my research in the Sims online and switched to Second Life. I originally thought I was going to do a book on the Sims online. So there is always that kind of a rule of chance and choice and sort of picking where you're going to do research. It also depends on what you want to study because the big thing about doing research is, you can't
  7. 7. do everything. You have to choose what you're going to focus on. So you have like ten good questions in there. But, in terms of the question of change, in Indonesia where I studied gay people, who use the word gay or lesbian, that's a big change. That wasn't there 20 years ago in Indonesia, and all cultures change. A really interesting question is: Do virtual cultures change faster than ones in the physical world or not? And when yes? And when no? I don't think we know for sure. I think there is probably a good chance they do change faster because of this issue that you mentioned that, in my book, I call platform and social form, the way that the platform shapes the social form. And then the question is: What changes, and what doesn't? So lag is still here. Crashing is still here. What those might mean to different communities can change. And then so many other things, like the voice issue we could talk about more. Or the questions of subculture. So for my first book, I tried to look at Second Life culture in a broad sense, but then there's also a lot of subcultures in Second Life. In the same way that in Indonesia there's over 350 languages. There's the Javanese culture, Balinese culture, all of these different cultures. But there's also an Indonesian national culture. It's not all just the islands. There's also the whole nation, and it turned out in that research that I found out that gay identity was really linked to that national culture. It wasn't really linked to traditions, a Javanese culture let's say that you learn from Mom and Dad, it was linked to national culture. So there, I was looking at the nation as my sort of scale of analysis. And there's often a
  8. 8. misunderstanding that, when you do ethnographic research, that you're studying everyday people's lives, you could only study things that are local. Sitting right here with you, we could be talking about Metanomics or the Sim or this island or subculture, but we could also learn things about Second Life in general. I think it's very important that we don't say that other disciplines, like political science or economics or literary studies, they get to talk about global broad things, and anthropologists and sociologists and people that are using ethnographic methods of participant observation, hanging out with people, that we can only talk about the local because we have to think through is this generalizable. Right? The status of our claims is a really interesting issue. But we don't have to just be boxed in that way. And so in terms of the change question, I know this sounds dumb, but there are a lot of things that are changing, but also some things that are staying the same, and, god, that sounds really obvious. But then the interesting thing is then what is changing and why and what is staying the same is really interesting. Given how fast things change, it's amazing how much in Second Life doesn't change, or on the internet more broadly. I think that's often under-appreciated is the amount of things that stay the same, I think, is also a really fascinating issue. DOUG THOMPSON: Okay, so that leads off to about five different tangents I think we could follow, and we have some questions as well from the audience. I want to circle back to the voice question because I think it's an interesting lens through which to look at how you evaluate a digital culture. I guess one of the questions that Honour McMillan asked was, "Is there a difference between or what are the differences between analyzing a Virtual World and analyzing other cultures? What are those differences? Or are there differences?"
  9. 9. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, in a way that was the whole goal for my first book because I went into this as a geek who liked video games but knew nothing about Virtual Worlds. Right? So I knew nothing, and that was my question: Could you study a Virtual World as a culture, or was that BS that you could even do such a thing? And so I sort of set myself up to fail, in a sense, that I was doing this as an experiment, and, if it didn't work, I'd write about how it failed. We can learn from things that don't work. We can learn from mistakes. That's a big part of ethnographic research. I go to Indonesia. I can't say things correctly. I don't know how to buy something at the grocery store. You learn through mistakes. One reason my book is called Coming of Age in Second Life, which is playing around with Margaret Mead's very famous book Coming of Age in Samoa, was to see: Hey, what if I went old-school? What if I tried to study Second Life as if it was a foreign culture that I would go to, like Indonesia? What would have to change in terms of how I did research? Would it even be possible? And what blew me away and still blows me away to this day and I still can't even figure out all the significance of it was that I didn't have to change very many things. The basic idea of doing the research and the basic issues in people's lives and those kinds of things, so much of it ended up being very familiar to what shows up in the physical world. Where here there's all these issues, for instance, that show up around identity and romance, finding meaning, am I getting too involved with someone. And the gay guys in Indonesia would talk about very similar things. And hanging out with them in a park and hanging out in a shopping mall here in Second Life, the methods weren't that different. Now, of course,
  10. 10. there are differences. I don't mean at all to say that it's all the same. Of course, there are some really interesting differences, like introducing voice. There's no parallel to that in the physical world really. But I still, to this day, am really just stunned by how little I had to change and how easy it was and how much fun it was to do the research in Second Life. It was very unexpected to me. DOUG THOMPSON: But on the voice parallel, I actually think that there are parallels. I mean I come from Canada, and one of the cultures in Canada are the Quebecois, the French Canadians, and fear of the introduction of English or fear of dilution of their culture was represented, for example, by a resistance to English signage or English being used by public servants. I almost see an equation to the question about bringing something that is, quote/unquote, "foreign" into a culture. I mean you're saying that Second Life is a site for studying a culture, and I would equate the introduction of voice to bringing something that's foreign into a culture, and yet it's brought in as a platform feature. It's brought in as a technology. Can you see ways of measuring something like bringing voice into Second Life the same way as you would see the introduction of those types of concepts into other societies? TOM BOELLSTORFF: Absolutely. You're totally right. And the excellent point you're making as well is that it's not just black and white like: Is a virtual culture the same or different, or are these issues the same or different than if they come up in the physical world? There's a lot of shades of grey. There's a lot of ways in which there are absolutely some similarities in what you're talking about, in the Canada example or in, let's say, introducing voice into Second Life. And then there's some differences too, and then it gets interesting. Because
  11. 11. often when things are black or white, it makes me suspicious because it shuts down the conversation. It seems too simple, too obvious, and it usually is. I think you're right. So many of these things are shades of grey, where it's not exactly the same, but it's not Mars. It's not something so totally different that we can't make any comparison at all, and sometimes people get worried about making comparisons. I think they can be really useful. To compare two things doesn't mean you're saying they're the same, you're just saying you can learn from the two things. They can teach each other things. So I think that's an awesome point. DOUG THOMPSON: Now, one of the things I was really fascinated with in your book was the process that you went through of taking something that was seemingly small--and maybe you want to explain, for example, the concept of AFK--and extrapolating that to start to draw out broader meanings. And, for me, I'm not an anthropologist so it gave me insight into that process. What are some of the things that you think you might be studying? Maybe first explain the significance of something like AFK. And then what are some of the things, as you glance around that strike you now, that you'd like to delve into further? TOM BOELLSTORFF: That's a great question, and, yeah, it helps me think about what I want to start doing for next year, when I get to start doing research again. An interesting thing, one thing I love about anthropological research, ethnographic research, no matter who does it, is that you're interested often in learning from the little stuff, the stuff that seems boring. In other words, if I was in, let's say, Canada, and I wanted to study Catholics, I wouldn't just go to mass at a church. I would probably do that because that would teach me
  12. 12. a lot about the official religious dogma. I would learn about ritual. I'd learn a lot by going to mass, but I would also want to hang out with Catholics, in their everyday life, when they're saying prayer before a meal, or maybe they have some big business decision to make, and they pull out their rosary, or they get into a debate with someone about, I don't know, health insurance, and somehow their religious beliefs are shaping that. In other words, I wouldn't want to just look at the official big kind of stuff that would often make the news. I'd be very interested in the everyday, the stuff that might seem boring at first, but often that's where the real magic is. That's where you can really learn how a culture works. TOM BOELLSTORFF: And so, in the case of Second Life, there's protests. There's big things that happen. There's big debates. The teens moving into Second Life is an awesome, interesting example of something that's happening right now. But I was always trying to hang out with people, for hours and hours in everyday Second Life interaction. For instance, that's where the idea of AFK became very important to me, of being away from keyboard. That seems like a really dumb boring thing where someone says, "Oh, I need to go to the bathroom," or, "The phone's ringing, I'm going to go away from keyboard." But, in fact, that became a way to learn about all kinds of questions about embodiments, about the idea of being immersed or not in Second Life, about the notion of presence, which is a really interesting concept to a lot of people who do research in social media. And so I found I was able to learn so much by just gathering data about being AFK, but that's where you have to use this key method that we use of participant observation, where you're hanging out with people, because if you do an interview with someone and you say, "Hey, Dusan, what do you think about AFK?" people aren't going to really necessarily have
  13. 13. a lot to say because it's sort of boring. But if you hang out with someone and then you see things where people will say, "You're just pretending to be AFK. You said you're AFK, but I can tell you're still there. You're using it as a way to avoid talking to this person." Then I would say, "Wow! That's interesting." Right? That people can debate if you're really AFK or not, or that kind of thing. So there's a link there between the method and the interest in the everyday, that I think is a great way to learn about culture because, to use religion as the example, once again most people, let's say, even if they're really religious they go to mass an hour or two a week, but they're a Catholic 24 hours a day. And, if we only look at the official stuff, we're going to get an incomplete picture. Now, if I was going to study it, I'm not saying you shouldn't go to the mass or look how things work in the cathedral or the church, I'm just saying you wouldn't want to only do that because often the interesting stuff happens in the everyday, and then in the sort of interplay between the official or the big-event kind of thing and the everyday stuff. DOUG THOMPSON: So one of the concepts that--you followed those threads in your book quite beautifully and, I think, made clear that although there may be multiple cultures within Second Life, there was also a Second Life culture, which was defined by certain things that the broader community had in common. And then you also posed the question that broader community, was there anything particularly defining, and you talk about techne and episteme. And I'm still fascinated by that idea, and I'm fascinated whether your thinking on that has moved further since you wrote the book. Maybe just explain a little bit what you meant about techne within techne.
  14. 14. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. One thing for me, especially as a researcher, that I'm extremely lucky. I have a job. I'm a professor. I have tenure. They can't fire me unless I just do something incredibly stupid. I can take some risks, right, and say things that people might debate with or disagree with. But to try and put my virtual hiney on the line a little bit and try and push the envelope. And so one way in which I did that is, I really want to say that there is such a thing as Second Life culture. There is a broader, general culture, even though there are, of course, all of these other subcultures. And it reminds me how often Americans don't think there's such a thing as American culture. We're so diverse. There's 50 states. But then, when you go to Indonesia, right from the outside, they're like, "Tom, there's a thing that's American culture. You don't realize it because you're in it, but there are some things that Americans share." And then there's all this diversity as well. Another interesting thing that anthropologists have talked about for a long time is what can unite a culture can be disagreements and conflict, not just agreements. We can be bound together, and, if you look it by conflict, and if you look at the political debates in the United States right now, it's a great example of how conflict and disagreement can be something that binds people together. I guess some people could talk about that's how it is with their family or something. But that culture isn't the same thing just as consensus, as agreement. It's about shared meanings and beliefs that we can disagree on. And there's always subcultures in any culture, but there are also sort of broader cultural issues that you will find. For instance, in Indonesia or in the United States or in Second Life. And when I try to think about what are those really broad things, things like AFK show up.
  15. 15. And then, in the book, when I try and step back, and this is something I still think about, the difference between knowledge which the Greeks call episteme and crafting and making things, which the Greeks call techne and is the root of our term technology. In the western tradition, the origin myth for knowledge is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the Christian tradition is the best-known example. And the back of my Apple computer has a picture of that, right, the apple with a bite out of it. But in the old Greek mythology, the origin of craft is from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. And, in the original Greek, what he actually steals isn't just fire, but the ability to use fire, which they call techne, this ability to craft things. And so I'm very interested in especially the sort of user-generated Virtual Worlds, like Second Life. But even in things like World of Warcraft where there's a lot of modding things, people doing creative, unexpected things with the platform that the designers never intended. We see all of this stuff around crafting, and that even spreads out to people putting their photos up on Facebook and doing blogs. People used to think that mass media would mean that people wouldn't write anymore. They would just buy and mass-produce newspapers. No one expected that these technologies would lead to all of this new authorship and all of this new creation in so many different ways. And so I play around with this in my book, by talking about this age of techne, this way in which crafting has become this really interesting--not new at all, obviously it goes back to the Greeks--but it is really becoming visible in a new way. And then when I try and think about what makes a Virtual World different than email or then
  16. 16. making something in my back yard or something with wood, it's that you can have techne inside of techne, in a way. That we are sitting here in this Metanomics place, in this Sim that is made by silicon and chips and computers, and people building things with prims, and then we are building stuff inside of that thing. There's this interesting kind of recursion, this kind of way in which it's eating its own tail. I still am trying to think that through. And, if my next book--I haven't told anyone this before because it's years from being done because of all the work I'm doing--that right now I think maybe the title for it might be something like Overlay because I'm very interested in all of the stuff on augmented reality, on immersion, on even language about addiction and compulsion, ambience, the way in which people are using cell phones and laptops and iPads and mobile devices to augment an overlay these different technologies in the physical world, in all kinds of directions, without them blurring into each other: that layering for new kinds of meaning and new kinds of social groups and all kinds of new stuff. And I can't say more about that yet because I don't know. But I really think I want to try and do some research on that and think about what techne might mean in that kind of space. DOUG THOMPSON: I mean it's interesting. First of all, I just went to Amazon to see if I could preorder the book because now I want it. I guess it's not available yet, but, get on that, Tom. When I wrote the post and you and I started a little dialogue on my blog off of a post-dated recently, and one of the phrases that I used was that people rez little dreams. And Skye actually Skye actually had a comment from the web, and I'm not sure where the question is going to be in this. But one of the things about the Second Life culture is that there is often a resistance to the idea of, say, importing the methods or importing social
  17. 17. media, like the idea of linking to Facebook actually can seem frightening. That was part of my argument as well was that there's something distinct about the culture of Second Life, which may be this techne within techne concept, but that is rather than thinking about the things that we can import, are there things about this culture that we would like to see exported? I often think of Second Life as being a prototype of the future. Many of the things that we now see playing out more broadly digitally, things like you're now starting to see micro transactions elsewhere on the web. You're seeing different approaches to how content is protected and sold are things that Second Life has been a test bed for different approaches to these concepts. I'm not sure what my question is, but part of, I guess, the question is that, as you see Second Life integrating with other media channels, this concept of overlay, what would you say to the residents of Second Life about what that could mean to the culture of the people who are here right now? TOM BOELLSTORFF: That's a great set of questions. One thing, if people go to my website--and there is the website right there--and you scroll down to the section that's about my publications, it's called that, the fourth or fifth thing down--it's a free download--is a recent piece of mine called A Typology of Ethnographic Scales for Virtual Worlds. And, in that, I talk about what I call the four confusions, about common confusions that people have about Virtual Worlds, where they confuse something that often happens in Virtual Worlds with something that must happen in Virtual Worlds. So for instance, one of those confusions is that Virtual Worlds are games.
  18. 18. So a Virtual World can be very game-oriented, like World of Warcraft, or it can have games in it, like Second Life can have everything from Tringo to zillions of role-playing games and other kinds of things in it. But a Virtual World isn't a game itself. And Richard Bartle, a very wonderful and early researcher in these spaces and designer, always talks about how the Pasadena Rose Bowl is not a game, it's a place where you play a game, and that's a very important distinction. Another confusion that often happens has to do with anonymity. You can imagine a Virtual World or even Facebook is an interesting example--even though it's not a Virtual World, it's a social networking site--where it is not based on anonymity. You're supposed to have the same identity that you do in the physical world and people get upset if you don't. Second Life was built with the opposite principle, and that had to do with Phil Rosedale and what they wanted to do, where it's built around anonymity, and you have to work if you want your physical world identity to be revealed. You can put it in your profile, or now you can do the little display name thing. But it's really not designed for that. And what effect of that emphasis on role-playing from the beginning, I think, is a fairly strong sense of Second Life having its own culture, its own sense of place. Now when people from IBM use Second Life for a business meeting, that's not quite the same thing, but the dominant uses of Second Life seem to be still around, if not role-playing or being anonymous, around creating new things and wanting it to be a sort of distinct place. And that has these questions of import, as you mention are really interesting. Right? I mean if you look at the Second Life map, the water is blue, the land is green, there's mountains. We're obviously importing lots of concepts, ideas, metaphors, but people like to have a kind
  19. 19. of break, which there always is with online versus the offline. But you can make that break not be based on being anonymous, so to speak. We could have a Virtual World where I was Tom Boellstorff, we all had our physical-world names. Those choices have a legacy, and that fact that Second Life had that original design still affects Second Life culture. That's not good or bad. There's many Virtual Worlds that are like that and some that are not. An interesting research question I think would be to look in a comparative way at Virtual Worlds that have different ways of doing that or even different communities in Second Life, that think about that differently, and then look at how these ideas of import and export and overlay might work differently for people, I think would be a really fascinating thing to look at more. DOUG THOMPSON: I really love this concept of overlay. There's been a lot of questions from the audience and discussion, and we've got just an incredible group of people here today, who are contributing to the discussion. So if you're watching this just on video, then you're missing some great conversation. So I'm going to try to summarize some of the conversation which has to do, I think, with the idea of avatar embodiment and that while Second Life is a culture, people go through a journey through the embodiment of self through the avatar, which has an impact on themselves. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and where might research take us as we start to understand the impact on other cultures or on ourselves by embodying through an avatar? TOM BOELLSTORFF: That is such an interesting issue and actually by June or July, I have a new piece coming out. I just put the information on it in the text, about the virtual body. I
  20. 20. just wrote a whole article, trying to think theoretically even more about the idea of the avatar and how the avatar is different from the cyborg that works quite differently because a cyborg you're attaching physical flesh and machine, right? But I don't walk around with an avatar arm attached to my physical arm. Instead I have two bodies that lie across a gap between the physical and virtual. So that's actually very different from a cyborg. We have a lot of ideas and theories about cyborg embodiments, and we need a lot more actually about avatar because it is quite different about how avatars work and how the idea of embodiment works. It's one of the biggest areas of difference because, in the physical world, I could cut my hair, I can do whatever, but I can't become a puppy dog. I can't become two people at the same time and have sex with myself or have an alt. I can't change my gender or my race or become a glowing ball of light that bounces around the room. There are some really interesting differences when the body is crafted from top to bottom, so to speak. In the physical world, I could change my gender, but I couldn't do it and then change it back one hour later, like I could in Second Life. It's a much bigger thing. I couldn't become two feet tall or whatever. So the way in which that shapes ideas around choice, ideas around nature, ideas around the body, I mean there's been really interesting work people have done about how avatars of different races or genders get treated differently inside of Virtual Worlds. How might that change as people get more accustomed to Virtual Worlds and when there's avatars around that are a snake. I've seen avatars where the person's a refrigerator. I mean how do you even think about that. It's so interesting.
  21. 21. So there's a couple separate issues. One, the range of possibilities. Number two, the ability to change and change back very quickly and easily. Number three, the possibility that the link that you have in the physical world between one person and one body can be changed in both directions. Right? You can have two people controlling one avatar. Some of you may know Hamlet, and New World notes early on had that great piece on Wild Cunningham where you had nine persons controlling one avatar together. So if you interview that person, am I interviewing one person, or am I interviewing nine people? That's a really interesting, philosophical and culture question. So the issue of embodiment just goes in so many directions and this is such interesting issue. I have this article coming out in a couple months about it, that it's still just a big question mark. It would be awesome to do more research, and we need more people doing research on all kinds of questions of embodiment. It's so interesting. DOUG THOMPSON: I think there's a couple follow-up questions or comments from the audience. Botgirl was talking about avatars perhaps as being an extension of human capability, under McLuhan's theories of media, and then [Dy Uver?] was asking the question, "Is an avatar a representation or a representation through an alt really that much different from the fact that we play different roles in different settings? So I go to work, and maybe I act more work-like. I hang out with friends and watch a football game, and I act a different way. Is an avatar or is an alt, is that really that different?" I guess is the question, and what I hear you saying is, it can be because the ways that you can express yourself are different.
  22. 22. TOM BOELLSTORFF: I think what I'm really saying is, I don't know because an awesome question that's coming out of those comments, that I don't even know for sure the answer to is: Is an avatar a representation of a body, or is it a body? I think it's a body, but bodies are always representations too. And even that fundamental question I don't think we really know the answer to. So how is it different? Like you said, I'm a professor, but when I'm at home in Long Beach and I go to the cafe in my shorts and T-shirts, I'm a different avatar in a sense. I act differently. I talk differently. Now to what degree--and I think it's shades of grey--is that similar or different to I turn myself into--I won't do it right now because I'll probably crash--but if I turn myself into a cool mechanical being to go to a party or if I change into a dragon or if I just change my shirt or my necklace or something with my Second Life avatar. That is a really interesting question about those basic things about is an avatar a representation of a person, or is it a person. And it's one of those things, like where right now all I can ever say is yes and no, which is not very helpful. But it's so interesting, and I really don't know for sure. And, to me, that's one of the greatest things about doing research is, you think you know less and less. You get better at asking questions, but, in some ways, answers are boring. They close doors. I just love figuring out great new questions because I think that's where the action is. DOUG THOMPSON: I'm glad for now that that question has no answer because I'd like thinking about it anyway. Okay, so here's another question that probably has no answer, and I know it's something that you're not studying, but we had a bit of back-and-forth email about the fact that teens are now allowed on the main grid. They closed down the teen grid, and they changed the age criteria for the main grid. I mean I guess the first question would
  23. 23. be, would you expect to see an impact on the broader culture, is the first question. I think the second question is--or is more of a comment: You had some interesting thoughts about how our journey as avatars isn't dissimilar to our journey as humans. So I'll ask you to just kind of riff off the topic of teens on the grid. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. And welcome, teens, any of you who are around. First, very quickly something that Botgirl--it's hard for me to watch the backchat. Botgirl just had an awesome point about how people experience their avatar in different ways. A really important thing you learn when you do ethnographic research and you're really hanging with people is very often there's not just one answer to any question, like: Is an avatar a representation of a body or a body? There may very well not be one answer. It could be that, for some people, it's one thing. For some people, it's others. And even for some people, they have one avatar where it feels like a representation and another alt where it doesn't feel like a representation. All of those possibilities might be out there. Very often people are so complex and interesting. To a lot of these questions, sometimes there is a single answer, but most of the time there's a cluster of answers. And, as a researcher, when I know I've discovered something is when I interview and I'm talking to hundreds of people, doing participant observation around an issue like this, I'll find out that there's not just one answer, but there's also not a hundred different answers. There's like four or five top answers. And then you know you're starting to learn about a culture because a culture doesn't mean that everyone has the same view, it's not unanimous. But it's not total chaos either where there's a million different opinions or approaches for a million different people.
  24. 24. So I think that question of: Is an avatar a representation? My guess is that as we do more research, what we'll find is that there's going to be three or four or five dominant ways that people experience that, and that's going to tell us something really significant. And it probably won't come down to just one thing, but it probably just won't be a hundred zillion random things either, that culture clumps in a certain sense, and, to me, then I know when I'm onto something when I find, hey, here are the three or four most common ways that people are thinking about some issue, and it's not just one thing, and it's not a hundred. Anyway, it was just a great point that Botgirl made. So about the teens, and welcome to any teens here because, as we know, there were no teens in Second Life prior to the closing of the teen grid. But it is exciting. I remember in the early days--does anyone else remember this. I think Hamlet wrote about this, that in the early days of the teen grid, some of the teens figured out that the teen grid was actually a continent in the Second Life ocean that was connected to the main continents. And they scripted these rockets, and they would shoot themselves into the air and the move it over one degree and shoot it again and move it over another degree and that they actually managed to land on the main grid-- DOUG THOMPSON: No. You're kidding. TOM BOELLSTORFF: --and wander around. Now, am I making that up, people? I could have sworn--this is back in the old days. Could some old-timers please help me out here.
  25. 25. DOUG THOMPSON: That's awesome. TOM BOELLSTORFF: I could have sworn that that's true. Gentle, it's true. Right? Okay. I'm not making it up. I knew it was. I'm pretty sure Hamlet even has some pictures of this. But how awesome! Teens always get around what parents tell them they can or can't do. But I think it's so awesome that they were shooting themselves around in the early grid. It's so cute. So awesome. So in terms of thoughts around the teens, let me just throw up two or three thoughts, and people can add more because it's such an interesting issue. From my earlier work on gay identity and sexuality, no topic brings up people's desire to control more than the topic of children. It is a place where so often the regular rules don't apply, and forms of control and oppression can often show up, under the excuse of protecting children. I mean even when you think about all kinds of discrimination, anti-Semitism thing where "they're drinking the blood of children" or whatever, all those kinds of things. And when you look at the internet in general, all of the fears around children. Obviously, I have a kid. You want to protect children. Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. In most societies, children are exposed to sex and death from a very young age. I mean I grew up in Nebraska with much of my family on the farm, and we forget how kids are not as naive as we often make them out to be and that segregation is a really limited way of approaching that. Up until recently, we had a Second Life world where anything was possible. You had anything was thinkable except for one thing: there were no children. I mean that's so interesting that, in a place where anything is possible, the one place we draw
  26. 26. a line is that there's no children. So anyway, I think this issue of children is a really interesting issue. And then the question of the life course. Different cultures divide up the life course in different ways. Sometimes they do it in two or three ways. In the Jewish tradition, you have a Bar Mitzvah when you're 13, and then you're an adult. Really, there's no category of teenager. Even in the western society more generally, the idea of the teenager was a fairly recent, I think a twentieth-century invention. And now we have tweens and all this other kind of crazy stuff. We’re dividing up the life span into more and more pieces often in the west. And how we think about the life course is a really interesting issue. And then what's the relationship between a virtual life course and a physical-world, life course, where there's all these great examples. Bonnie Nardi talks about this in World of Warcraft, where you could have an 18-year-old kid, who's a level 60 super player and a 60-year-old doctor who's a newbie in World of Warcraft and can't even figure out how to swing their axe or something. So these kinds of disjunctures between different kinds of life courses is a really interesting issue that you're seeing in many of these different technological spaces. Margaret Mead, I think it was, actually had some great quote about how one of the biggest ways you see a change from a traditional society to a modern society is that, in a traditional society, the elders teach the young. And, in a modern society, the young people teach their parents, teach the older people. And, if you've ever helped your parents with a cell phone or a DVD player, you know what I'm talking about. How technology changes these ideas of the life course is really interesting, and it's going to
  27. 27. be so exciting in the next year or two, to see how Second Life will shift now that it is multi-generational in a new way. Personally, I think it's just so exciting, in terms of the questions that it throws up. DOUG THOMPSON: I think there's some really interesting things that can happen around intergenerational work that kind of break the traditional mold of "I have an educator, and I have somebody who needs to learn," and that speaks to your point about being able to learn from each other, regardless of generation. I'm just wondering whether, on the life course, perpetually confused is a category because I'd like to put myself in that category. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Me too! That's awesome. DOUG THOMPSON: So there's no such thing as a Second Life culture if you don't talk about Linden Lab, of course. And I want to actually ask, more broadly, whether in anthropology how you look at institutions and their impact on cultures or societies or groups of people. And I think the same about Facebook. You talk about doing research on Facebook. How do you bring something like Linden Lab or Facebook, as a business, how do you bring that into an understanding of the influences on a culture? TOM BOELLSTORFF: That's a really great, great point. And there's several ways you could do that. One is to actually study the company, so Thomas Malaby did a very interesting study called Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab in Second Life, where he didn't do his research in Second Life. He did it with the company. So that's one approach that's very important. Another approach, which I do in my book, is to look at how questions of
  28. 28. governance show up in the online space. I think this is such an important issue. I mean I talk about it a lot in the book, but it's very important to talk about here as well. When I do my research in Indonesia, up until 1998 especially, there was a dictator, Suharto. He had a lot of power. He could censor the media. But for these online worlds, Blizzard that runs World of Warcraft or Linden Lab, has power that a dictator could only dream of. They can ban gambling in Second Life, but they could also disable random number generating scripts. You could never do that in the physical world. They could decide one day that gravity is going to pull upward. They could decide that Sims are going to be twice a big or whatever. So they have potential. They could decide that there's not going to be voice anymore or that there's going to be only voice in their text chat. So the ability for control in these Virtual Worlds, even though the companies are too small to really be involved with every minute thing. I think someone, Botgirl or someone, had a little quip, "Linden who?" Their presence isn't always right in your face. But this question of governance is very important because you could have a Virtual World, like Second Life, that is Open Source or is run by a nonprofit organization. An OpenSim is an example of that. But up to date, all of the biggest Virtual Worlds, all of them are owned by for-profit companies, and that's a really important issue to talk about. Also, in terms of End-User License Agreements or a Terms of Service as it's known, a EULA or a TOS, as the mode of governance, the way that you govern people through these things. If I was to go visit you in Canada, I don't know where you live in Canada, but let's say you
  29. 29. live in Montreal, if I fly to Canada, I land at the airport, they are not going to give me the Constitution of Canada and say, "Sign here. 'I agree,' or, 'I disagree.' And, if you disagree, you're getting on the plane and flying back home. And, if you agree, you've agreed to everything, even though we all know that you've never read it. Right?" And so the End-User License Agreement was a model for piracy. It's a very poor model for governing. I see people talking about McGonigal. She talks about a lot of these issues specifically around gaming, which I think are very important because gaming and Virtual Worlds are obviously very strongly linked, so it's great people are bringing her up. There's a whole body of really interesting work coming out that Gwyneth is mentioning right now, an issue that these companies face is, if they are too strict, then people will leave. They'll go out of business. So is this governance good or bad? How do we think about questions of democratic representation? EVE Online, which some of you may have heard of, online game, actually has a player-elected council that gets flown to Iceland to meet with the company, to present player concerns. There have been all kinds of experiments done with trying to deal with these questions of governance, but I think they're very important because when you're coding the world, in a very powerful sense many of its basic parameters, even something simple, like I can friend you in Second Life, but there's no category of best friend. What are the consequences of that? That may seem very minor, but that could have a big social impact. So I won't say more, except to say this issue of governance is extremely interesting and important and is going to get more interesting and more important, I think, as time goes on.
  30. 30. DOUG THOMPSON: I think Richard Bartle, you mentioned Richard Bartle earlier, and his textbook on creating Virtual Worlds made the point that a Virtual World is a world, and, as a developer of a Virtual World, you'd be well advised to have an economist to think about the economy, and to have an economist. And it would be nice to think that Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab, will give you a call and ask for an anthropologist perspective on this world that we've built together. I'd like--go ahead, Tom. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Oh, no. I was just laughing is all. DOUG THOMPSON: You don't he'll give you a ring? Maybe. I would hope he'd give you a ring because I think being a world, I mean this is the point that Bartle makes is that you need to look at it through the lens of being an economist. You should look at it through the lens of being an anthropologist and being an entrepreneur. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, I'll tell you this, I think you're right. I mean they need to have an economist. If I was Ron Humble, if I was the person who ran Linden Lab or World of Warcraft or whatever, I think it would be worth the investment to hire two or three full-time ethnographers who do nothing but hang out in the virtual space and study what's going on and really get a feel for what's going on. And it's amazing how few companies do that, given that it wouldn't be that expensive to just have on staff an ethnographer and tell them--what an awesome job would that be--to say your job is just to hang out in Second Life all the time, with different groups of people, and just take the temperature. Learn what's going on. Because, if you just do these surveys, people just click through them. I mean you learn some stuff, but you really can miss a lot. I see some volunteers here. We can pass on the
  31. 31. names. I mean what an awesome job, but I think that you would learn so much. This is just speculation, but some of the sort of mistakes or controversies that have happened when Linden Lab or other companies make decisions that, afterward, seem really like, "What were they thinking?" They might have avoided if they actually had, in addition to the economist kind of person which you need, or the legal counsel which you need, a full-time ethnographer or a couple of them, who really just hang out and really can try and get a feel for what's going on. DOUG THOMPSON: I know large brands, consumer brand companies, like Procter & Gamble, that's what they do. They have anthropologists on staff, ethnographers. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Absolutely. DOUG THOMPSON: And I would agree with that. I think they would achieve a return on their investment in that, that may surprise them. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Go ahead. Sorry. DOUG THOMPSON: Well, we're almost out of time. I'm going to invite the audience here at the studio to stick around for a little bit after the show. There's been a lot of really interesting discussion, and we'll keep this going a little bit. I do want to close though by asking what's next. You started the show by saying that you're looking at where your research might take
  32. 32. you next. You gave us a little sneak peak, and I appreciate that. I feel like we got the scoop here on Metanomics today about Overlay, I'm looking forward to the book. What do you think is next? If there was a fertile ground for research related to Virtual Worlds, where do you think it lies right now? TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, yes, you heard it here first, the title of the book that would come out in three or four years because I still have a year and a half of being an editor. So sadly, I love the job, but I don't get to do that. But I think that the direction that things are going is in multiple directions. It's like a big rock has been thrown into a pond and those ripples going out everywhere. So we need more people to do in-depth studies of Virtual Worlds, in general, like studying Second Life or studying EVE Online. And then also, in some cases, looking at specific communities, looking at uses around education or looking at Furries or looking at religion or whatever. We need people doing comparative work, comparing different Virtual Worlds, and that could be people who do a study of one place and then compare notes with a colleague and do something together, like I'm doing right now. Or, someone who does a project in a couple different virtual Worlds. They're not going to be able to spend as much time in each one, but if they focus the question they can do that. We need more research about ways in which physical and Virtual Worlds are shaping each other. And you're absolutely right that that goes in both directions. The overlay goes in both directions so Virtual Worlds are changing the physical world in ways we don't completely understand. We need research about the relationship between Virtual Worlds and social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Those aren't Virtual Worlds themselves, but
  33. 33. they share many underlying concepts, like the idea of friending someone, and they link up with a Virtual World in so many interesting ways. We need to look at the transnationalization of these spaces and how they work differently in different parts of the world. And, as well, how new cultures are coming into being, that can't be reduced to any one physical-world location. So when people from Peru and Mexico and Indonesia get together in Second Life or wherever, they can make something new that you couldn't just learn about by going to Mexico or Indonesia. It's a new thing in that in-world space. What's up with all of that kind of thing is an interesting question. Those issues of governance that you mentioned are so interesting. So, for me, in the next year and a half, my personal goal--and people here in the audience and elsewhere I'm happy to get ideas and talk to people because there's so many interesting possibilities. The problem isn't what to study. The problem is what not to study. One last thing I'll add is that, to me, one of the most exciting things that's happening is not just all of these new questions and issues, but the real emergence in the last three or four years of a research community that includes people with formal research jobs, like my own, includes people who are bloggers or journalists, includes all kinds of people out there, who are interested in these questions about Virtual Worlds and that we have an emerging community of people who are putting our heads together and challenging each other and coming up with ideas and methodologies and things to look at. So to me, the excitement isn't only just about these spaces, but about a research community of people that we are sharing ideas and right now writing this book with three other people. I
  34. 34. mean how exciting that I can do that. Five years ago, six years ago when I started this research in 2004, no way was that possible. So another very exciting thing moving forward and something that I think we need to think through how can we nurture it is this new research community of people from all over the world and all walks of life, who are sitting back and saying, "Wow! What's going on with all this stuff?" And learning from each other, I think that's another very exciting aspect of what's happening. And so, in closing, for myself, just thank you so much for inviting me, and I hope this wasn't completely weird or boring to people, that this was so unscripted and informal that I've had a lot of fun, and I'm happy to do it again. I think it's great that we have these kinds of conversations. DOUG THOMPSON: I thank you, Tom. You said something there too, which is a feature, I think, of Second Life and certainly a feature of the Metanomics community, which is that you don't need to be an expert with a degree on your wall necessarily, to get in the front door. We've had just such an incredible discussion here today, not just with you, but with the folks in the audience, and I'd like to thank everybody for being here today, for your contributions and your questions, for your thoughts and opinions. I'm sorry we didn't get to answer every question. Stick around after the show. We'll spend a bit of time chatting. I'd like to thank you, Tom, again for joining us today, and, hopefully, we'll see you again soon in the future. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Yes, absolutely. And thank you so much for doing this. What fun! DOUG THOMPSON: And, thanks again to the studio audience, our event partners and to
  35. 35. those of you watching from here in Second Life or on the web. This has been Metanomics. Document: cor1093.doc Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com

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