Patricia Lange Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Patricia Lange Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Patricia... How did you become interested in the anthropological
study of online communities? Were there influential experiences or
home people that led you in this direction?
interviews index I first became aware of online
communities called MUDs, or multi-user
dimensions, when I was a technology
analyst at SRI International. My job was to
subscribe to email updates
examine technical and business
opportunities in advanced computer
interfaces like virtual environments. I began
RSS for interviews to learn more about different kinds of virtual
environments and MUDs and how they might Lange's Bio
be used to facilitate a range of remote
Paul's bio and projects applications. Later, at graduate school, I learned how to interact with
Paul's email other MUDders. MUDs seemed to be a big part of many
technologists' adolescent socialization, and since I was interested in
studying technical communities, it seemed like a good fit. I became
very interested in one particular MUD that I'll call here "MiningMUD"
which had a fascinating dystopic, science fiction theme. The head of
the MUD and the community were very welcoming about having an
anthropologist hanging out.
I first became aware of anthropological studies of technology when
I saw a lecture by Bonnie Nardi while I was still at SRI. The talk was
sponsored by an organization called BayCHI, which is a San
Francisco bay area group devoted to exchanging information about
computer-human interfaces. Dr. Nardi talked about how she used
ethnographic methods and anthropological theory to understand how
to design intelligent agents. She had studied how people interacted
with librarians at Apple Computer where she worked. I was amazed
that this type of research was possible and I went to meet her at a
dinner for the speaker. I began to build my case for graduate school by
learning as much about anthropology as I could. I also started to do
ethnographic research at SRI by learning from Charline Poirier, who
was also working at SRI at the time. We studied CyberMind, a virtual
environment gaming center in San Francisco. I then decided that I
wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology to gain additional expertise.
Can you describe for us your dissertation experience at the
University of Michigan?
When I talk to people about their graduate school education, and
particularly PhD work, I am fascinated by how a person arrives at his
or her thesis topic and charges ahead toward defense and
completion. What was it like for you?
My dissertation experience at Michigan was wonderful. It was a
great time in life that opened me up to a whole new world of theoretical
inquiry. I was initially torn about doing a dissertation topic for which I
could parlay prior experience at SRI or doing a topic that was entirely
new and experimental for me. I decided that given the rigorous
demands of a Ph.D. it would be more prudent to study a technical
community, since I had observed technologists for years in Silicon
Valley where I worked and lived.
One of my former advisors, the late Sharon Stephens, who was a
wonderful person, told me to keep in mind that your dissertation topic
is going to be with you for a while after you graduate. Even as your
career eventually moves in other directions, for several years after
graduation you will be doing papers and will be asked to speak about
your topic. So her advice was to try and pick something you can live
with for a while. Choosing an area in which I had some background did
indeed help me to complete my Ph.D. fairly quickly. Dr. Stephens was
right, it has been four years since graduation and I am still writing
papers and being asked to speak about my dissertation topic.
What was it like to work at SRI International?
Did you do work there for a while before entering graduate school?
I worked at SRI International for seven years. It was a terrific
experience. It was a vibrant place with a lot of amazing research going
on, and I looked forward to going to work and learning about new
technologies and how they were being used. My job was to read about
them, go see demonstrations, meet technologists and talk to them
about their work, and think about how they might be used for different
applications. I often met luminaries in different fields such as Douglas
Engelbart who invented the mouse and Tom Mandel, who was a key
participant in the WELL online community before he passed away.
I can't emphasize enough how great it was to have worked for
several years before going to graduate school. I saw some of my
fellow graduate students who went right from college struggle
because they underestimated their self-worth. They perhaps put a little
too much emphasis on what their advisors told them about their
capabilities because they hadn't seen themselves being evaluated
successfully in other contexts that compensate monetarily. There
seemed to be a difference between the experience of those of us who
had worked before school and those who hadn't. Even if one hasn't
worked, graduate students can do internships or take on consulting
projects in a variety of fields. I would advise doing this if possible once
or twice, so that students' self-evaluation is not tied to one particular
issue or group of people, and they can discover more career options.
Can you tell us about the Digital Kids and Informal Learning
What kinds of research questions are you asking?
The Digital Kids and Informal Learning project is funded by the
MacArthur Foundation and is targeted toward understanding how kids
and youth aged 10-18 use digital technologies in daily life. The project
is being carried out by two teams of researchers, one at the University
of Southern California, where I work, and one at the University of
California, Berkeley. The goal behind the project is to study children
and youth not as passive consumers of information and education but
rather as active and innovative producers who capture a vibrancy of
experience through digital learning that many of them may or may not
achieve through formal education programs.
We are studying a wide array of youth experiences and sites
including YouTube, the "vlogsophere" of the video blogging
community, anime music videos, Wikipedia, Neopets, MySpace,
Facebook, games, music production, and many other topics. We also
have researchers studying technology use in the home and schools. It
is a comprehensive research project designed to understand why and
how youth use these tools and what they learn by using them. The
idea is to eventually design education programs, software, and online
environments that may be more beneficial for learning.
My project involves studying the semiotics of video creation,
sharing, and reception on YouTube and among video bloggers. At a
basic level I want to find out why video creation and sharing is so
important in the lives of youth. What does it mean for youth to lead
essentially mediated lives where they bring a camera with them
wherever they go and post videos of public and intimate moments on
sites such as YouTube or on video blogs? How do these mediated
experiences change our perception of Internet participation, and what
are the skills that are needed to participate in this type of Internet
environment? Since I am interested in semiotics, or the study of signs
and sign systems, I analyze videos and the culture of YouTube and
the vlogosphere to understand how signs and social messages are
put together in video, and how participants learn to interpret and
manipulate these signs for various social purposes.
A key area of interest for me concerns how these experiences are
problematizing one of the grand dichotomies in the social sciences
which is that of the assumed binary split between the public and
private. I don't believe these video mediated experiences collapse the
public and the private completely.
My research indicates that the relationship becomes more
complicated as youth use different kinds of signs within video to
participate in different types of social networking through video
sharing. For instance, just because people put a video on YouTube
does not mean that everyone has access to its symbolic meanings in
the same way. It is "public" in that it is on YouTube but it may be
privately interpretable to a small social network of friends.
What is it like to work at the University of Southern California's
The Annenberg Center for Communication is a great place to work.
It is a think tank type of institution that enables interaction with scholars
in a range of exciting disciplines. We have talks every week in which
we learn about a number of topics, some of which pertain directly to
our research. Other speakers provide stimulating material that we
might not ordinarily encounter in our daily scholarly lives.
We've had talks from luminaries such as Mimi Ito, Howard
Rheingold, Manuel Castells, Jay Harris, and Henry Jenkins, just to
name a few.
Second Life is all the rage right now. However New York University
professor Clay Shirky and some others have taken issue with a lot of
the hype surrounding Second Life's reach and potential social impact.
Seems to me that there is definitely a market for such a service,
and possibly some educational value in it. (a supplement for in-
classroom instruction and distance education, maybe?) But I can't
see how it will fundamentally change the way we use the Web or how
people interact with each other.
I have not researched Second Life. But one person I know who has
is Tom Boellstorff, at the University of California, Irvine. He is finishing
a manuscript entitled, Virtually Human: An Anthropologist in Second
Life. I have read some of the material and it promises to be a very
interesting and thought-provoking book.
Last year you published an article for First Monday called "What's
Your Claim to Flame?" My understanding is that you felt people were
asking the wrong kinds of questions about the subject of "flaming".
You felt that studying flame claims was equally as important as
studying flames. Is that correct?
How did you do your research for that project?
What were your main conclusions?
My main concern in writing this article was to prod scholars
studying ICTs (information and communications technologies) to think
about what "flaming" actually means and to consider whether it is still
useful in social science research assuming it ever was. Of course
there is online agonism, but is "flaming" the best way to characterize
what researchers think they are seeing? This is a native term used by
online participants that was originally encoded as social science
terminology by scholars studying computer-based communication
decades ago. But it is not wise to unreflectively use the terms that the
native participants use when researching particular phenomena.
Scholars are noticing that researchers call many things flames,
even things that participants themselves do not see as flames. As
O'Sullivan and Flanagin (2003) point out, these include curse words,
criticism, and so-called hostility. People often claim that another
person is "flaming" them, but does everyone see it that way? It turns
out that what constitutes a flame is determined through an
interactional process between participants that involve levying flame
claims and defenses.
For this research, I examined micro-dynamics of conversation
using conversation analysis and analyzed cultural aspects of the two
MUD communities I studied. In these groups, participants played
games and chatted informally about in-game and out-of-game topics
such as preferred operating systems. Interestingly, sometimes things I
initially thought were flames were not considered flames by most of
the participants involved in the conversation. Also sometimes people
believed that others accused them of "flaming" so that the accuser
could accomplish political ends. For example, one Windows advocate
felt that he was accused of "flaming" supporters of Linux so that he
would stop promoting Windows on a Linux-friendly chat channel. Yet
many Linux supporters in the conversation disagreed that the
Windows user actually "flamed" anyone.
Another important finding is
that according to scholars of "The term
conversational morality, most 'flaming'..
every day, in-person brackets off online
conversation is rife with moral phenomena
positionings and accusations as different from
(Bergman 1998). We can all offline interaction
recognize accusations such patterns..."
as, "Hey you never take out the
garbage!" to which the defendant snaps back, "Well you never wash
the dishes!" Why are these not called "flames" in linguistic text books?
Because "flaming" is usually associated with online interaction. Using
a term like "flaming" can prevent scholars from seeing similarities
between online and offline talk. The term "flaming" automatically
brackets off online phenomena as different from offline interaction
patterns, when there may be similarities in many cases. Avoiding a
loaded term such as "flaming" enables a more open-ended
investigation and comparison of both the similarities and differences
between online and offline talk.
YouTube is a major focus of your current research. I understand
that you study YouTube videos and interview the video-makers as a
way to gain insight into youth and teen struggles with "identity". Is that
How is this research going for you?
What patterns of behavior do we see in these young video-
My area of interest does not focus on a static and one-way view of
self-presentation to the world, but rather on the intersection between
identity and online interaction. You don't just perform identity; an
audience must ratify it if you wish to gain acceptance into certain
groups. As I mention below, I am interested in how people perform
technical identities of affiliation in online groups. I am studying how
people present and negotiate signs of identity through the creation and
circulation of videos.
About a decade ago when many people first began creating Web
pages, I noticed certain patterns in how people expressed themselves
in order to find acceptance in a wider Internet community. In some
cases, people changed or qualified what they wished to say. They
even censored themselves in order to avoid anticipated criticism from
peers and experts. I am seeing some of the same dynamics
happening in the video sites and communities I am exploring. People
withhold certain unique forms of self-expression because they do not
wish to be criticized by members of technical groups. What is
unfortunate is that people may be self-censoring to show they
espouse ideas and affiliations that no one may actually value. I wish to
explore these ideas further and see if these patterns from Web-page
creation a decade ago and today on video sharing sites are similar, or
whether there are differences.
Should parents be very concerned about the online behavior trends
I think each one of us should be concerned with how we interact
both online and off in terms of what type of information we share and
with whom we share it with. At the same time, it is unfortunate for
people to panic about using the Internet. A better approach is to
understand appropriate safety measures and keep lines of
communication open with children. For many adults and children,
computers and Internet networks are playing a major role in life in a
way that is increasingly difficult to avoid. Ignoring the importance of
children's online activities or demonizing certain online sites may
alienate children in ways that may complicate parents' ability to teach
them about safety and guide them toward a more positive experience.
For many of the people I have interviewed, Internet participation has
brought great benefits and they continue to pursue online activities
even when they have had negative experiences. Some of the video
blogging parents I have spoken with believe that Internet skills are
changing to require more visual presentation of the self in a wider
array of contexts including social, political, and economic arenas.
Some video blogging parents encourage their children to participate in
video blogs as a way of developing self-presentation skills in order to
interact more fully across the world stage as facilitated through the
Maybe the Web and related research are still too young to answer
the following questions, but I would be very interested to get your
I suspect that youths and teens have a particular way of expressing
identity (online and offline), say compared to twenty-somethings, thirty-
somethings, and so on.
Have we been able to observe longitudinal change in online
Is there an age effect for online identity?
This is a very interesting question that will hopefully be answered in
a broader way by comparing studies such as ours and those of
scholars who focus on age-related identity work for twenty-
somethings and thirty-somethings.
Although finding differences is often a headline-making topic, I have
always personally been interested in certain similarities rather than
differences between children and adults in their twenties or thirties.
People may be surprised to learn that, according to Shantz (1987),
children and adults tend to argue about similar things, including:
"valued resources, controlling others' behavior, rule violations, facts,
and truth." Focusing on the differences between children and adults
risks minimizing the importance of children's experiences and
potentially reifies a category of "children" that smuggles in a host of
assumptions that may or may not be true. Such assumptions require
empirical investigation to ascertain their truth value. For instance,
people blame the "thirteen-year old crowd" for being irresponsible and
contentious online. Although questions of maturity certainly play a role
in how people approach interaction, I have been cured of assuming
that unfortunate, agonistic behavior is limited to children or to online
interaction. Living and working in Silicon Valley and attending
academic conferences have provided plenty of examples in which
interaction becomes quite confrontational with adults who are not
anonymous to each other. They are mature adults who know each
other professionally and sometimes, quite well. Why do scholars and
others systematically forget these patterns when writing about
children's behavior online?
My dissertation offers a theoretical construct called performing
technical affiliation, in which people perform alliances to particular
technologies, beliefs. A performance can be something as simple as
calling another person's preferred operating system "evil" while calling
their own morally right. When participants get caught up in a cycle of
performing technical affiliation, it may become more difficult for
interlocutors in the conversation to get access to speaking rights and
privileges, access to new information about technologies, and access
to non-normative modes of self-expression. People can get enmeshed
in such identity performances without realizing it, and without intending
necessarily to do damage. They just wish to be perceived as "in the
know" about the right kinds of technologies to use and values to
espouse so they can gain the respect of others. The dissertation
provides a lens with which other scholars and participants can be alert
to these dynamics and decide whether particular micro-interactional
interventions may be necessary. An intervention may be as simple as
pointing out that it is happening, and there may be other ways to
approach a conversational topic rather than unreflectively performing
technical affiliation to portray oneself has having a favorable identity.
When people assume that children are not serious about Internet
use, unfortunate conclusions may follow. For instance, some adults
may assume that although exchanging information for business
networking on the Internet is important for adults, the same behavior is
just "playing" when children engage in it. Such an assumption denies
the way that adults network to "play" and the ways in which children
network for "work." For youth, work may include school. One college
student I spoke with talked about how pressured she was by
orientation assistants at her University to join Facebook in order to
receive important messages from her school, teachers, and class
What is perhaps more fruitful is to take seriously children's
activities online and try to understand the importance of online
participation from their point of view.
Do you think the Internet should be taught as a "subject" in
elementary and high school? (here's a neat, somewhat related video)
Should we approach teaching the Internet the same way we go about
teaching math, reading, social studies, science, language arts, and
Or should the Internet be embedded in the pedagogy and learning
process rather than a formal subject area?
It seems to me that we may be exposing children and teens to new
social technologies without really addressing the long-term effects of
those technologies, either at the individual level or societal level.
Are we adequately addressing the Internet's personal and social
effects for children and teenagers?
Determining the best course of action with regard to education is a
question to be solved using a community perspective. Our role in the
Digital Youth project is to study how kids and youth are using
technologies in their everyday lives. We hope that the information we
provide will be used to design effective online environments and
educational programs that take into account the needs and goals of
educators and children.
Are you looking forward to attending any particular conferences this
I am currently scheduled to present papers this year at several
International Communication Association Conference in San
Francisco (May 24-27)
International Pragmatics Association Conference in Goteborg
Sweden (July 9-14)
Association for Internet Research Conference in Vancouver,
Canada (October 17-20)
"How Tubers teach themselves: Narratives of self-teaching as
technical identity performance on YouTube" to be presented at the
Society for the Social Studies of Science Conference, October 11-13,
2007, in Montreal, Canada.
I am also an invited curator for the upcoming Pixelodeon Video
Blogging Festival, June 9-10 at the American Film Institute in Los
Angeles, California. My session is entitled, "Making the Familiar
Unfamiliar: The Importance of Physical Place in the Vlogosphere." The
session will explore how video bloggers make every day familiar
places seem strange and unfamiliar by investigating their personal
relationships to certain places in their lives. The session will explore
how people experience place and why physical places still seem so
vital to human experience, even for those who spend a great deal of
time interacting online.
Also, here is my YouTube paper from the Society for Applied
The podcast and paper is also available here.
May 25, 2007
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