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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?

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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, 2011ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy and Dusan WritersMetaverse.ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. Im Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell UniversitysJohnson Graduate School of Management. Today we continue exploring Virtual Worlds inthe larger sphere of social media, culture, enterprise and policy. Naturally, our discussionabout 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 inSecond Life. We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcomediscussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show.Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at CornellUniversity. Welcome. This is Metanomics.DOUG THOMPSON: Hi. Im Dusan Writer. Im sitting in today for Robert Bloomfield.Welcome to Metanomics. Today were continuing our Master Class Series on Metanomics,and my guest today is Tom Boellstorff, director of anthropology from UC Irvine. The MasterClass Series has been looking at everything that affects us virtually. Weve looked at MasterClass on the creation of 3D content. Weve talked about storytelling. And today were goingto 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. Weve had the chance to hostTom on Metanomics in the past, and Ive interviewed him for my blog, Sofirst of all, Id like to welcome you to the show, Tom.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thank you so much for having me.DOUG THOMPSON: Well make this, I think, a fairly interactive show. We have a studioaudience here today of folks who have already been chatting about topics before the showeven started. We were talking about the difference between text and voice chat, and I thinkwell come back to that. So if youre in the audience or watching from the web, throughChatBridge technology, please feel free to post questions in the chat, and well try to bringthem into the show.So for some people in the audience, they might not know about your background, Tom, andthe work that youve done both in Virtual Worlds and more generally. So why dont youshare a little bit about yourself, tell us about yourself.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. And thanks again so much for doing this. Its great just to havea 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. Its notprepared in any way so its very open-ended, which I think will be fun.So Im an anthropologist. Im a professor in California at the University of California Irvine.And, for those of you who dont know, Ive been doing research for almost 20 years in
  3. 3. Indonesia. Then for I guess it is now seven years or since 2004, Ive been doing research inSecond Life, and I published a book based on that research, called Coming of Age inSecond Life, that came out a couple years ago. And then I also became, a couple yearsago, right around the same time, editor-in-chief of a very big anthropology journal, theofficial journal of The American Anthropological Association, which has been great becauseit sort of has helped legitimate this kind of research because a lot of people still dont thinkthat online games and Virtual Worlds matter and are worth studying. And its been a greatlearning experience. But the price Ive had to pay is that I havent been able to do muchresearch in Second Life. I barely get to come in here. And, in a year and a half, that will end.So actually one thing Im interested in talking to people about is, what should I do next.Theres so many things I want to study in Second Life and beyond actually, in the physicalworld. I can talk about some of those ideas in a little bit.And also another thing Ive been doing while Ive been so busy is, Im just finishing up abook called A Handbook of Ethnographic Methods for Virtual Worlds because so manypeople ask about how you do this kind of research. Ive written that book with three friends.Were writing it right now. Bonnie Nardi, who has done research in World of Warcraft andhas a wonderful new book called My Life as a Night Elf Priest, and Celia Pearce, who did awonderful study of Uru online community and what happened when that World shut downand people fled to Second Life and So its a kind of virtual Diaspora. Her book,Communities of Play is really wonderful. And T.L. Taylor, who did a very interesting bookcalled Play Between Worlds, on EverQuest, and has actually just finished a new book onprofessional gamers.
  4. 4. And so the four of us are writing this book right now. Were going to try and have it finishedby April 1. So questions of methods and how do you do research online are sort of at thefront of my head as well so Im happy to talk about that too. So I think Ill leave it there forthe moment, and whatever you want to talk about, Dusan, or the audience, Im just sohonored to be here, and Im happy to blab about whatever.DOUG THOMPSON: You mentioned the people that youre writing that handbook with,theyre probably some of the top people on my reading list about Virtual Worlds and play.And its interesting, when I first came in to Second Life, it was probably three, three and ahalf, 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, twoyears now?TOM BOELLSTORFF: It came out in 2008. Yeah.DOUG THOMPSON: Right, and I interviewed you, and I remember at the time there wassome controversy about the book or the reception that you had to doing anthropologicalresearch in Second Life. There were folks who questioned whether it was a valid site for thistype of research. Has that changed, do you think?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Its changing to some extent. I mean I think it takes time, but itsalways funny when I talk about Second Life or this kind of research at something likeMetanomics or in Second Life versus to an anthropology audience, it can be really differentbecause they often just dont understand what these Worlds are. They think that its just abunch of rich elite people. They think its just people wasting their time or that its just stupid
  5. 5. sex and whatever, and I try and say, "Well, think about the internet, theres plenty of stupidstuff on the internet, but theres some really awesome stuff too. Virtual Worlds are like thattoo. Its 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 questionof how do you do these kinds of research studies, is it okay to only talk to people in SecondLife, or do I have to get on a plane and try and meet everyone in the physical world for it tobe valid. One thing were trying to really explain in this book is, it really depends on yourresearch question.In one of my new research projects I may actually be bringing together my interests in somedifferent place and looking at how Indonesians use Facebook and mobile devices. Its one ofmy possible new research projects. But if Im in Second Life and were all talking right here,lets say, in this room, our social interaction doesnt depend on everyone in this roommeeting in the physical world. Most of us wont. So as a researcher, we need to take thatseriously. Now theres all kinds of ways that the physical world influences us, right? Wehave broadband connections and computers and ideas about bodies and chairs, all kinds ofways that the physical world influences whats happening here, but its not the same thing.Right?So that issue of method has been something that has been really interesting, and it hasreally changed in the last few years. But theres still a lot of confusion out there. Thesetechnologies are still really new, and theyre changing and interacting with each other somuch. Its 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 meabout studying a digital culture is that a digital culture can change, and it can changequickly, or the affordances of a digital culture can change quickly. So you look at SecondLife, when you were studying Second Life, there was lag, and there were crashes, andthose things dont exist anymore, or do they? I guess they still exist. But a culture in a digitaldomain, like Second Life, I would assume is influenced by the affordances of the lets call itthe 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 theres somethingwhere I would assume that you would see a change in the culture from when you firststudied Second Life, when there was no voice to when there is voice.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. Yeah. Those are great questions. And also theres alreadyawesome questions coming up in the backchat, and its hard for me to focus on both. So ifsomeone can just take notes of those, that would be really awesome. Very briefly, to answersome of those earlier questions, my research in Indonesia was, why I picked Indonesia wasrandom life events. I got involved with some gay organizations there because of work I wasdoing in the United States when I was just out of college. Its a long story. But often the waywe pick field sites is shaped by chance in some ways. I mean I actually started out doing myresearch 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 kindof a rule of chance and choice and sort of picking where youre going to do research. It alsodepends on what you want to study because the big thing about doing research is, you cant
  7. 7. do everything. You have to choose what youre going to focus on. So you have like ten goodquestions in there.But, in terms of the question of change, in Indonesia where I studied gay people, who usethe word gay or lesbian, thats a big change. That wasnt there 20 years ago in Indonesia,and all cultures change. A really interesting question is: Do virtual cultures change fasterthan ones in the physical world or not? And when yes? And when no? I dont think we knowfor sure. I think there is probably a good chance they do change faster because of this issuethat you mentioned that, in my book, I call platform and social form, the way that theplatform shapes the social form. And then the question is: What changes, and what doesnt?So lag is still here. Crashing is still here. What those might mean to different communitiescan change.And then so many other things, like the voice issue we could talk about more. Or thequestions of subculture. So for my first book, I tried to look at Second Life culture in a broadsense, but then theres also a lot of subcultures in Second Life. In the same way that inIndonesia theres over 350 languages. Theres the Javanese culture, Balinese culture, all ofthese different cultures. But theres also an Indonesian national culture. Its not all just theislands. Theres also the whole nation, and it turned out in that research that I found out thatgay identity was really linked to that national culture. It wasnt really linked to traditions, aJavanese culture lets say that you learn from Mom and Dad, it was linked to nationalculture.So there, I was looking at the nation as my sort of scale of analysis. And theres often a
  8. 8. misunderstanding that, when you do ethnographic research, that youre studying everydaypeoples lives, you could only study things that are local. Sitting right here with you, we couldbe talking about Metanomics or the Sim or this island or subculture, but we could also learnthings about Second Life in general. I think its very important that we dont say that otherdisciplines, like political science or economics or literary studies, they get to talk aboutglobal broad things, and anthropologists and sociologists and people that are usingethnographic methods of participant observation, hanging out with people, that we can onlytalk about the local because we have to think through is this generalizable. Right? Thestatus of our claims is a really interesting issue. But we dont have to just be boxed in thatway.And so in terms of the change question, I know this sounds dumb, but there are a lot ofthings that are changing, but also some things that are staying the same, and, god, thatsounds really obvious. But then the interesting thing is then what is changing and why andwhat is staying the same is really interesting. Given how fast things change, its amazinghow much in Second Life doesnt change, or on the internet more broadly. I think thats oftenunder-appreciated is the amount of things that stay the same, I think, is also a reallyfascinating issue.DOUG THOMPSON: Okay, so that leads off to about five different tangents I think we couldfollow, and we have some questions as well from the audience. I want to circle back to thevoice question because I think its an interesting lens through which to look at how youevaluate a digital culture. I guess one of the questions that Honour McMillan asked was, "Isthere a difference between or what are the differences between analyzing a Virtual Worldand 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 Iwent 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 aculture, or was that BS that you could even do such a thing? And so I sort of set myself upto fail, in a sense, that I was doing this as an experiment, and, if it didnt work, Id write abouthow it failed. We can learn from things that dont work. We can learn from mistakes. Thats abig part of ethnographic research. I go to Indonesia. I cant say things correctly. I dont knowhow 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 withMargaret Meads very famous book Coming of Age in Samoa, was to see: Hey, what if Iwent old-school? What if I tried to study Second Life as if it was a foreign culture that I wouldgo to, like Indonesia? What would have to change in terms of how I did research? Would iteven be possible? And what blew me away and still blows me away to this day and I stillcant even figure out all the significance of it was that I didnt have to change very manythings. The basic idea of doing the research and the basic issues in peoples lives and thosekinds of things, so much of it ended up being very familiar to what shows up in the physicalworld.Where here theres 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 Indonesiawould talk about very similar things. And hanging out with them in a park and hanging out ina shopping mall here in Second Life, the methods werent that different. Now, of course,
  10. 10. there are differences. I dont mean at all to say that its all the same. Of course, there aresome really interesting differences, like introducing voice. Theres no parallel to that in thephysical world really. But I still, to this day, am really just stunned by how little I had tochange and how easy it was and how much fun it was to do the research in Second Life. Itwas very unexpected to me.DOUG THOMPSON: But on the voice parallel, I actually think that there are parallels. Imean I come from Canada, and one of the cultures in Canada are the Quebecois, theFrench Canadians, and fear of the introduction of English or fear of dilution of their culturewas represented, for example, by a resistance to English signage or English being used bypublic servants. I almost see an equation to the question about bringing something that is,quote/unquote, "foreign" into a culture. I mean youre saying that Second Life is a site forstudying a culture, and I would equate the introduction of voice to bringing something thatsforeign into a culture, and yet its brought in as a platform feature. Its brought in as atechnology. Can you see ways of measuring something like bringing voice into Second Lifethe same way as you would see the introduction of those types of concepts into othersocieties?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Absolutely. Youre totally right. And the excellent point youre makingas well is that its not just black and white like: Is a virtual culture the same or different, orare these issues the same or different than if they come up in the physical world? Theres alot of shades of grey. Theres a lot of ways in which there are absolutely some similarities inwhat youre talking about, in the Canada example or in, lets say, introducing voice intoSecond Life. And then theres 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 theconversation. It seems too simple, too obvious, and it usually is. I think youre right.So many of these things are shades of grey, where its not exactly the same, but its notMars. Its not something so totally different that we cant make any comparison at all, andsometimes people get worried about making comparisons. I think they can be really useful.To compare two things doesnt mean youre saying theyre the same, youre just saying youcan learn from the two things. They can teach each other things. So I think thats anawesome point.DOUG THOMPSON: Now, one of the things I was really fascinated with in your book wasthe process that you went through of taking something that was seemingly small--andmaybe you want to explain, for example, the concept of AFK--and extrapolating that to startto draw out broader meanings. And, for me, Im not an anthropologist so it gave me insightinto that process. What are some of the things that you think you might be studying? Maybefirst explain the significance of something like AFK. And then what are some of the things,as you glance around that strike you now, that youd like to delve into further?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thats a great question, and, yeah, it helps me think about what Iwant to start doing for next year, when I get to start doing research again. An interestingthing, one thing I love about anthropological research, ethnographic research, no matterwho does it, is that youre interested often in learning from the little stuff, the stuff that seemsboring. In other words, if I was in, lets say, Canada, and I wanted to study Catholics, Iwouldnt 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. Id learn a lot by going tomass, but I would also want to hang out with Catholics, in their everyday life, when theyresaying prayer before a meal, or maybe they have some big business decision to make, andthey pull out their rosary, or they get into a debate with someone about, I dont know, healthinsurance, and somehow their religious beliefs are shaping that. In other words, I wouldntwant to just look at the official big kind of stuff that would often make the news. Id be veryinterested in the everyday, the stuff that might seem boring at first, but often thats where thereal magic is. Thats where you can really learn how a culture works.TOM BOELLSTORFF: And so, in the case of Second Life, theres protests. Theres bigthings that happen. Theres big debates. The teens moving into Second Life is an awesome,interesting example of something thats happening right now. But I was always trying tohang out with people, for hours and hours in everyday Second Life interaction. For instance,thats 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 thebathroom," or, "The phones ringing, Im going to go away from keyboard." But, in fact, thatbecame a way to learn about all kinds of questions about embodiments, about the idea ofbeing immersed or not in Second Life, about the notion of presence, which is a reallyinteresting 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, butthats where you have to use this key method that we use of participant observation, whereyoure hanging out with people, because if you do an interview with someone and you say,"Hey, Dusan, what do you think about AFK?" people arent going to really necessarily have
  13. 13. a lot to say because its sort of boring.But if you hang out with someone and then you see things where people will say, "Yourejust pretending to be AFK. You said youre AFK, but I can tell youre still there. Youre usingit as a way to avoid talking to this person." Then I would say, "Wow! Thats interesting."Right? That people can debate if youre really AFK or not, or that kind of thing. So theres alink there between the method and the interest in the everyday, that I think is a great way tolearn about culture because, to use religion as the example, once again most people, letssay, even if theyre really religious they go to mass an hour or two a week, but theyre aCatholic 24 hours a day. And, if we only look at the official stuff, were going to get anincomplete picture.Now, if I was going to study it, Im not saying you shouldnt go to the mass or look howthings work in the cathedral or the church, Im just saying you wouldnt want to only do thatbecause often the interesting stuff happens in the everyday, and then in the sort of interplaybetween 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 bookquite beautifully and, I think, made clear that although there may be multiple cultures withinSecond Life, there was also a Second Life culture, which was defined by certain things thatthe broader community had in common. And then you also posed the question that broadercommunity, was there anything particularly defining, and you talk about techne andepisteme. And Im still fascinated by that idea, and Im fascinated whether your thinking onthat has moved further since you wrote the book. Maybe just explain a little bit what youmeant about techne within techne.
  14. 14. TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. One thing for me, especially as a researcher, that Imextremely lucky. I have a job. Im a professor. I have tenure. They cant fire me unless I justdo something incredibly stupid. I can take some risks, right, and say things that peoplemight debate with or disagree with. But to try and put my virtual hiney on the line a little bitand try and push the envelope. And so one way in which I did that is, I really want to saythat there is such a thing as Second Life culture. There is a broader, general culture, eventhough there are, of course, all of these other subcultures. And it reminds me how oftenAmericans dont think theres such a thing as American culture. Were so diverse. Theres50 states. But then, when you go to Indonesia, right from the outside, theyre like, "Tom,theres a thing thats American culture. You dont realize it because youre in it, but there aresome things that Americans share." And then theres all this diversity as well.Another interesting thing that anthropologists have talked about for a long time is what canunite a culture can be disagreements and conflict, not just agreements. We can be boundtogether, and, if you look it by conflict, and if you look at the political debates in the UnitedStates right now, its a great example of how conflict and disagreement can be somethingthat binds people together. I guess some people could talk about thats how it is with theirfamily or something. But that culture isnt the same thing just as consensus, as agreement.Its about shared meanings and beliefs that we can disagree on.And theres always subcultures in any culture, but there are also sort of broader culturalissues 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, thedifference between knowledge which the Greeks call episteme and crafting and makingthings, 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 goodand evil, and the Christian tradition is the best-known example. And the back of my Applecomputer has a picture of that, right, the apple with a bite out of it. But in the old Greekmythology, the origin of craft is from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. And, in theoriginal Greek, what he actually steals isnt just fire, but the ability to use fire, which they calltechne, this ability to craft things.And so Im very interested in especially the sort of user-generated Virtual Worlds, likeSecond Life. But even in things like World of Warcraft where theres a lot of modding things,people doing creative, unexpected things with the platform that the designers neverintended. We see all of this stuff around crafting, and that even spreads out to peopleputting their photos up on Facebook and doing blogs. People used to think that mass mediawould mean that people wouldnt write anymore. They would just buy and mass-producenewspapers. No one expected that these technologies would lead to all of this newauthorship and all of this new creation in so many different ways. And so I play around withthis in my book, by talking about this age of techne, this way in which crafting has becomethis really interesting--not new at all, obviously it goes back to the Greeks--but it is reallybecoming 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, its that you can have techneinside of techne, in a way. That we are sitting here in this Metanomics place, in this Sim thatis made by silicon and chips and computers, and people building things with prims, and thenwe are building stuff inside of that thing. Theres this interesting kind of recursion, this kind ofway in which its eating its own tail. I still am trying to think that through.And, if my next book--I havent told anyone this before because its years from being donebecause of all the work Im doing--that right now I think maybe the title for it might besomething like Overlay because Im very interested in all of the stuff on augmented reality,on immersion, on even language about addiction and compulsion, ambience, the way inwhich people are using cell phones and laptops and iPads and mobile devices to augmentan 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 kindsof social groups and all kinds of new stuff. And I cant say more about that yet because Idont know. But I really think I want to try and do some research on that and think aboutwhat techne might mean in that kind of space.DOUG THOMPSON: I mean its interesting. First of all, I just went to Amazon to see if Icould preorder the book because now I want it. I guess its 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 apost-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 Im not sure where thequestion is going to be in this. But one of the things about the Second Life culture is thatthere 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 theres something distinct about the cultureof Second Life, which may be this techne within techne concept, but that is rather thanthinking about the things that we can import, are there things about this culture that wewould 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 youre nowstarting to see micro transactions elsewhere on the web.Youre seeing different approaches to how content is protected and sold are things thatSecond Life has been a test bed for different approaches to these concepts. Im not surewhat my question is, but part of, I guess, the question is that, as you see Second Lifeintegrating with other media channels, this concept of overlay, what would you say to theresidents of Second Life about what that could mean to the culture of the people who arehere right now?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thats a great set of questions. One thing, if people go to mywebsite--and there is the website right there--and you scroll down to the section thats aboutmy publications, its called that, the fourth or fifth thing down--its a free download--is arecent piece of mine called A Typology of Ethnographic Scales for Virtual Worlds. And, inthat, I talk about what I call the four confusions, about common confusions that people haveabout Virtual Worlds, where they confuse something that often happens in Virtual Worldswith something that must happen in Virtual Worlds. So for instance, one of those confusionsis that Virtual Worlds are games.
  18. 18. So a Virtual World can be very game-oriented, like World of Warcraft, or it can have gamesin it, like Second Life can have everything from Tringo to zillions of role-playing games andother kinds of things in it. But a Virtual World isnt a game itself. And Richard Bartle, a verywonderful and early researcher in these spaces and designer, always talks about how thePasadena Rose Bowl is not a game, its a place where you play a game, and thats a veryimportant distinction.Another confusion that often happens has to do with anonymity. You can imagine a VirtualWorld or even Facebook is an interesting example--even though its not a Virtual World, itsa social networking site--where it is not based on anonymity. Youre supposed to have thesame identity that you do in the physical world and people get upset if you dont. SecondLife was built with the opposite principle, and that had to do with Phil Rosedale and whatthey wanted to do, where its built around anonymity, and you have to work if you want yourphysical world identity to be revealed. You can put it in your profile, or now you can do thelittle display name thing. But its really not designed for that. And what effect of thatemphasis on role-playing from the beginning, I think, is a fairly strong sense of Second Lifehaving its own culture, its own sense of place.Now when people from IBM use Second Life for a business meeting, thats not quite thesame thing, but the dominant uses of Second Life seem to be still around, if not role-playingor 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 meanif you look at the Second Life map, the water is blue, the land is green, theres mountains.Were 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 breaknot be based on being anonymous, so to speak. We could have a Virtual World where I wasTom Boellstorff, we all had our physical-world names.Those choices have a legacy, and that fact that Second Life had that original design stillaffects Second Life culture. Thats not good or bad. Theres many Virtual Worlds that arelike that and some that are not. An interesting research question I think would be to look in acomparative way at Virtual Worlds that have different ways of doing that or even differentcommunities in Second Life, that think about that differently, and then look at how theseideas of import and export and overlay might work differently for people, I think would be areally fascinating thing to look at more.DOUG THOMPSON: I really love this concept of overlay. Theres been a lot of questionsfrom the audience and discussion, and weve got just an incredible group of people heretoday, who are contributing to the discussion. So if youre watching this just on video, thenyoure missing some great conversation. So Im going to try to summarize some of theconversation which has to do, I think, with the idea of avatar embodiment and that whileSecond Life is a culture, people go through a journey through the embodiment of selfthrough the avatar, which has an impact on themselves. Do you want to talk a little bit aboutthat and where might research take us as we start to understand the impact on othercultures or on ourselves by embodying through an avatar?TOM BOELLSTORFF: That is such an interesting issue and actually by June or July, I havea 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 avatarand how the avatar is different from the cyborg that works quite differently because a cyborgyoure attaching physical flesh and machine, right? But I dont walk around with an avatararm attached to my physical arm. Instead I have two bodies that lie across a gap betweenthe physical and virtual. So thats actually very different from a cyborg.We have a lot of ideas and theories about cyborg embodiments, and we need a lot moreactually about avatar because it is quite different about how avatars work and how the ideaof embodiment works. Its one of the biggest areas of difference because, in the physicalworld, I could cut my hair, I can do whatever, but I cant become a puppy dog. I cantbecome two people at the same time and have sex with myself or have an alt. I cantchange my gender or my race or become a glowing ball of light that bounces around theroom. There are some really interesting differences when the body is crafted from top tobottom, so to speak.In the physical world, I could change my gender, but I couldnt do it and then change it backone hour later, like I could in Second Life. Its a much bigger thing. I couldnt become twofeet tall or whatever. So the way in which that shapes ideas around choice, ideas aroundnature, ideas around the body, I mean theres been really interesting work people have doneabout how avatars of different races or genders get treated differently inside of VirtualWorlds. How might that change as people get more accustomed to Virtual Worlds and whentheres avatars around that are a snake. Ive seen avatars where the persons a refrigerator.I mean how do you even think about that. Its so interesting.
  21. 21. So theres a couple separate issues. One, the range of possibilities. Number two, the abilityto change and change back very quickly and easily. Number three, the possibility that thelink that you have in the physical world between one person and one body can be changedin both directions. Right? You can have two people controlling one avatar. Some of you mayknow Hamlet, and New World notes early on had that great piece on Wild Cunninghamwhere 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? Thats a really interesting,philosophical and culture question.So the issue of embodiment just goes in so many directions and this is such interestingissue. I have this article coming out in a couple months about it, that its still just a bigquestion mark. It would be awesome to do more research, and we need more people doingresearch on all kinds of questions of embodiment. Its so interesting.DOUG THOMPSON: I think theres a couple follow-up questions or comments from theaudience. Botgirl was talking about avatars perhaps as being an extension of humancapability, under McLuhans theories of media, and then [Dy Uver?] was asking thequestion, "Is an avatar a representation or a representation through an alt really that muchdifferent from the fact that we play different roles in different settings? So I go to work, andmaybe I act more work-like. I hang out with friends and watch a football game, and I act adifferent 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 aredifferent.
  22. 22. TOM BOELLSTORFF: I think what Im really saying is, I dont know because an awesomequestion thats coming out of those comments, that I dont even know for sure the answer tois: Is an avatar a representation of a body, or is it a body? I think its a body, but bodies arealways representations too. And even that fundamental question I dont think we really knowthe answer to. So how is it different? Like you said, Im a professor, but when Im at home inLong Beach and I go to the cafe in my shorts and T-shirts, Im a different avatar in a sense. Iact differently. I talk differently. Now to what degree--and I think its shades of grey--is thatsimilar or different to I turn myself into--I wont do it right now because Ill probably crash--butif I turn myself into a cool mechanical being to go to a party or if I change into a dragon or if Ijust 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 arepresentation of a person, or is it a person. And its one of those things, like where rightnow all I can ever say is yes and no, which is not very helpful. But its so interesting, and Ireally dont know for sure. And, to me, thats one of the greatest things about doing researchis, 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 Ithink thats where the action is.DOUG THOMPSON: Im glad for now that that question has no answer because Id likethinking about it anyway. Okay, so heres another question that probably has no answer,and I know its something that youre not studying, but we had a bit of back-and-forth emailabout 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 thinkthe second question is--or is more of a comment: You had some interesting thoughts abouthow our journey as avatars isnt dissimilar to our journey as humans. So Ill ask you to justkind of riff off the topic of teens on the grid.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Sure. And welcome, teens, any of you who are around. First, veryquickly something that Botgirl--its hard for me to watch the backchat. Botgirl just had anawesome point about how people experience their avatar in different ways. A reallyimportant thing you learn when you do ethnographic research and youre really hanging withpeople is very often theres not just one answer to any question, like: Is an avatar arepresentation of a body or a body? There may very well not be one answer. It could bethat, for some people, its one thing. For some people, its others. And even for somepeople, they have one avatar where it feels like a representation and another alt where itdoesnt feel like a representation. All of those possibilities might be out there. Very oftenpeople are so complex and interesting.To a lot of these questions, sometimes there is a single answer, but most of the time theresa cluster of answers. And, as a researcher, when I know Ive discovered something is whenI interview and Im talking to hundreds of people, doing participant observation around anissue like this, Ill find out that theres not just one answer, but theres also not a hundreddifferent answers. Theres like four or five top answers. And then you know youre starting tolearn about a culture because a culture doesnt mean that everyone has the same view, itsnot unanimous. But its not total chaos either where theres a million different opinions orapproaches 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 moreresearch, what well find is that theres going to be three or four or five dominant ways thatpeople experience that, and thats going to tell us something really significant. And itprobably wont come down to just one thing, but it probably just wont be a hundred zillionrandom things either, that culture clumps in a certain sense, and, to me, then I know whenIm onto something when I find, hey, here are the three or four most common ways thatpeople are thinking about some issue, and its not just one thing, and its 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 noteens in Second Life prior to the closing of the teen grid. But it is exciting. I remember in theearly days--does anyone else remember this. I think Hamlet wrote about this, that in theearly days of the teen grid, some of the teens figured out that the teen grid was actually acontinent in the Second Life ocean that was connected to the main continents. And theyscripted these rockets, and they would shoot themselves into the air and the move it overone degree and shoot it again and move it over another degree and that they actuallymanaged to land on the main grid--DOUG THOMPSON: No. Youre kidding.TOM BOELLSTORFF: --and wander around. Now, am I making that up, people? I couldhave sworn--this is back in the old days. Could some old-timers please help me out here.
  25. 25. DOUG THOMPSON: Thats awesome.TOM BOELLSTORFF: I could have sworn that thats true. Gentle, its true. Right? Okay. Imnot making it up. I knew it was. Im pretty sure Hamlet even has some pictures of this. Buthow awesome! Teens always get around what parents tell them they can or cant do. But Ithink its so awesome that they were shooting themselves around in the early grid. Its socute. So awesome.So in terms of thoughts around the teens, let me just throw up two or three thoughts, andpeople can add more because its such an interesting issue. From my earlier work on gayidentity and sexuality, no topic brings up peoples desire to control more than the topic ofchildren. It is a place where so often the regular rules dont apply, and forms of control andoppression can often show up, under the excuse of protecting children. I mean even whenyou think about all kinds of discrimination, anti-Semitism thing where "theyre drinking theblood of children" or whatever, all those kinds of things. And when you look at the internet ingeneral, all of the fears around children.Obviously, I have a kid. You want to protect children. Please dont misunderstand what Imsaying. In most societies, children are exposed to sex and death from a very young age. Imean I grew up in Nebraska with much of my family on the farm, and we forget how kids arenot as naive as we often make them out to be and that segregation is a really limited way ofapproaching that. Up until recently, we had a Second Life world where anything waspossible. You had anything was thinkable except for one thing: there were no children. Imean thats so interesting that, in a place where anything is possible, the one place we draw
  26. 26. a line is that theres no children. So anyway, I think this issue of children is a reallyinteresting issue.And then the question of the life course. Different cultures divide up the life course indifferent ways. Sometimes they do it in two or three ways. In the Jewish tradition, you havea Bar Mitzvah when youre 13, and then youre an adult. Really, theres no category ofteenager. Even in the western society more generally, the idea of the teenager was a fairlyrecent, I think a twentieth-century invention. And now we have tweens and all this other kindof 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 whats the relationship between a virtual life course and a physical-world, lifecourse, where theres all these great examples. Bonnie Nardi talks about this in World ofWarcraft, where you could have an 18-year-old kid, whos a level 60 super player and a60-year-old doctor whos a newbie in World of Warcraft and cant even figure out how toswing their axe or something. So these kinds of disjunctures between different kinds of lifecourses is a really interesting issue that youre seeing in many of these differenttechnological spaces. Margaret Mead, I think it was, actually had some great quote abouthow one of the biggest ways you see a change from a traditional society to a modernsociety 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 youve ever helpedyour parents with a cell phone or a DVD player, you know what Im talking about.How technology changes these ideas of the life course is really interesting, and its going to
  27. 27. be so exciting in the next year or two, to see how Second Life will shift now that it ismulti-generational in a new way. Personally, I think its just so exciting, in terms of thequestions that it throws up.DOUG THOMPSON: I think theres some really interesting things that can happen aroundintergenerational work that kind of break the traditional mold of "I have an educator, and Ihave somebody who needs to learn," and that speaks to your point about being able to learnfrom each other, regardless of generation. Im just wondering whether, on the life course,perpetually confused is a category because Id like to put myself in that category.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Me too! Thats awesome.DOUG THOMPSON: So theres no such thing as a Second Life culture if you dont talkabout Linden Lab, of course. And I want to actually ask, more broadly, whether inanthropology how you look at institutions and their impact on cultures or societies or groupsof people. And I think the same about Facebook. You talk about doing research onFacebook. How do you bring something like Linden Lab or Facebook, as a business, howdo you bring that into an understanding of the influences on a culture?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thats a really great, great point. And theres several ways you coulddo that. One is to actually study the company, so Thomas Malaby did a very interestingstudy called Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab in Second Life, where he didnt do hisresearch in Second Life. He did it with the company. So thats one approach thats veryimportant. 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 talkabout it a lot in the book, but its 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 thatruns World of Warcraft or Linden Lab, has power that a dictator could only dream of. Theycan ban gambling in Second Life, but they could also disable random number generatingscripts. You could never do that in the physical world. They could decide one day thatgravity is going to pull upward. They could decide that Sims are going to be twice a big orwhatever. So they have potential. They could decide that theres not going to be voiceanymore or that theres going to be only voice in their text chat. So the ability for control inthese Virtual Worlds, even though the companies are too small to really be involved withevery minute thing.I think someone, Botgirl or someone, had a little quip, "Linden who?" Their presence isntalways right in your face. But this question of governance is very important because youcould have a Virtual World, like Second Life, that is Open Source or is run by a nonprofitorganization. An OpenSim is an example of that. But up to date, all of the biggest VirtualWorlds, all of them are owned by for-profit companies, and thats a really important issue totalk about. Also, in terms of End-User License Agreements or a Terms of Service as itsknown, a EULA or a TOS, as the mode of governance, the way that you govern peoplethrough these things.If I was to go visit you in Canada, I dont know where you live in Canada, but lets say you
  29. 29. live in Montreal, if I fly to Canada, I land at the airport, they are not going to give me theConstitution of Canada and say, "Sign here. I agree, or, I disagree. And, if you disagree,youre getting on the plane and flying back home. And, if you agree, youve agreed toeverything, even though we all know that youve never read it. Right?" And so the End-UserLicense Agreement was a model for piracy. Its a very poor model for governing. I seepeople talking about McGonigal. She talks about a lot of these issues specifically aroundgaming, which I think are very important because gaming and Virtual Worlds are obviouslyvery strongly linked, so its great people are bringing her up.Theres a whole body of really interesting work coming out that Gwyneth is mentioning rightnow, an issue that these companies face is, if they are too strict, then people will leave.Theyll go out of business. So is this governance good or bad? How do we think aboutquestions of democratic representation? EVE Online, which some of you may have heardof, online game, actually has a player-elected council that gets flown to Iceland to meet withthe company, to present player concerns.There have been all kinds of experiments done with trying to deal with these questions ofgovernance, but I think theyre very important because when youre coding the world, in avery powerful sense many of its basic parameters, even something simple, like I can friendyou in Second Life, but theres no category of best friend. What are the consequences ofthat? That may seem very minor, but that could have a big social impact. So I wont saymore, except to say this issue of governance is extremely interesting and important and isgoing 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 histextbook on creating Virtual Worlds made the point that a Virtual World is a world, and, as adeveloper of a Virtual World, youd be well advised to have an economist to think about theeconomy, and to have an economist. And it would be nice to think that Rod Humble, thenew CEO of Linden Lab, will give you a call and ask for an anthropologist perspective onthis world that weve built together. Id like--go ahead, Tom.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Oh, no. I was just laughing is all.DOUG THOMPSON: You dont hell give you a ring? Maybe. I would hope hed give you aring because I think being a world, I mean this is the point that Bartle makes is that youneed to look at it through the lens of being an economist. You should look at it through thelens of being an anthropologist and being an entrepreneur.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, Ill tell you this, I think youre right. I mean they need to havean economist. If I was Ron Humble, if I was the person who ran Linden Lab or World ofWarcraft or whatever, I think it would be worth the investment to hire two or three full-timeethnographers who do nothing but hang out in the virtual space and study whats going onand really get a feel for whats going on. And its amazing how few companies do that, giventhat it wouldnt be that expensive to just have on staff an ethnographer and tell them--whatan 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 whats going on.Because, if you just do these surveys, people just click through them. I mean you learnsome 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 justspeculation, but some of the sort of mistakes or controversies that have happened whenLinden Lab or other companies make decisions that, afterward, seem really like, "What werethey thinking?" They might have avoided if they actually had, in addition to the economistkind of person which you need, or the legal counsel which you need, a full-timeethnographer or a couple of them, who really just hang out and really can try and get a feelfor whats going on.DOUG THOMPSON: I know large brands, consumer brand companies, like Procter &Gamble, thats 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 ontheir investment in that, that may surprise them.TOM BOELLSTORFF: Go ahead. Sorry.DOUG THOMPSON: Well, were almost out of time. Im going to invite the audience here atthe studio to stick around for a little bit after the show. Theres been a lot of really interestingdiscussion, and well keep this going a little bit. I do want to close though by asking whatsnext. You started the show by saying that youre 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 scoophere on Metanomics today about Overlay, Im looking forward to the book. What do youthink is next? If there was a fertile ground for research related to Virtual Worlds, where doyou think it lies right now?TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, yes, you heard it here first, the title of the book that wouldcome out in three or four years because I still have a year and a half of being an editor. Sosadly, I love the job, but I dont get to do that. But I think that the direction that things aregoing is in multiple directions. Its like a big rock has been thrown into a pond and thoseripples going out everywhere. So we need more people to do in-depth studies of VirtualWorlds, in general, like studying Second Life or studying EVE Online. And then also, insome cases, looking at specific communities, looking at uses around education or looking atFurries 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 placeand then compare notes with a colleague and do something together, like Im doing rightnow. Or, someone who does a project in a couple different virtual Worlds. Theyre not goingto be able to spend as much time in each one, but if they focus the question they can dothat.We need more research about ways in which physical and Virtual Worlds are shaping eachother. And youre absolutely right that that goes in both directions. The overlay goes in bothdirections so Virtual Worlds are changing the physical world in ways we dont completelyunderstand. We need research about the relationship between Virtual Worlds and socialnetworking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Those arent Virtual Worlds themselves, but
  33. 33. they share many underlying concepts, like the idea of friending someone, and they link upwith a Virtual World in so many interesting ways.We need to look at the transnationalization of these spaces and how they work differently indifferent parts of the world. And, as well, how new cultures are coming into being, that cantbe reduced to any one physical-world location. So when people from Peru and Mexico andIndonesia get together in Second Life or wherever, they can make something new that youcouldnt just learn about by going to Mexico or Indonesia. Its a new thing in that in-worldspace. Whats up with all of that kind of thing is an interesting question. Those issues ofgovernance 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 Im happy to get ideasand talk to people because theres so many interesting possibilities. The problem isnt whatto study. The problem is what not to study.One last thing Ill add is that, to me, one of the most exciting things thats happening is notjust all of these new questions and issues, but the real emergence in the last three or fouryears 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, whoare interested in these questions about Virtual Worlds and that we have an emergingcommunity of people who are putting our heads together and challenging each other andcoming up with ideas and methodologies and things to look at.So to me, the excitement isnt only just about these spaces, but about a research communityof 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 thisresearch in 2004, no way was that possible. So another very exciting thing moving forwardand something that I think we need to think through how can we nurture it is this newresearch community of people from all over the world and all walks of life, who are sittingback and saying, "Wow! Whats going on with all this stuff?" And learning from each other, Ithink thats another very exciting aspect of whats happening. And so, in closing, for myself,just thank you so much for inviting me, and I hope this wasnt completely weird or boring topeople, that this was so unscripted and informal that Ive had a lot of fun, and Im happy todo it again. I think its great that we have these kinds of conversations.DOUG THOMPSON: I thank you, Tom. You said something there too, which is a feature, Ithink, of Second Life and certainly a feature of the Metanomics community, which is that youdont need to be an expert with a degree on your wall necessarily, to get in the front door.Weve had just such an incredible discussion here today, not just with you, but with the folksin the audience, and Id like to thank everybody for being here today, for your contributionsand your questions, for your thoughts and opinions. Im sorry we didnt get to answer everyquestion. Stick around after the show. Well spend a bit of time chatting.Id like to thank you, Tom, again for joining us today, and, hopefully, well see you againsoon 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.docTranscribed by: