Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tom Boellstorff and an Ethnography of Second Life

As part of my continuing reflections on the cultural, sociological, and theological implications of digital technologies, including videogames and virtual cultures, one of the resources I have found helpful is Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008). Boellstorff is associate professor in the department of anthropology at University of California, Irvine, and editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist. We finally coordinated our schedules for an interview by phone on the topic, but the technology used to record our conversation failed us, and all that remains are Tom's responses to my last two questions. Even so, they provide some insights into the significance of virtual cultures like Second Life, and the value of Tom's research.

Morehead's Musings: How have forms of cybersociality result in the creation of new "electronic tribes"?

Tom Boellstorff: Well, I wouldn't call them tribes exactly, but they do represent new ways of connecting people. The fact that people can use a blog or website or something like that to share information and notes is important, so we need to remember that people can get together not just in virtual worlds, but also in blogs and websites, and many people in Second Life have these and interact with others through them as well. And these are not reducible to each other. But there are possibilities inside a virtual world that are different from what you can do with a web page, but once again the virtual world phenomenon is broader that shares some things in common with other aspects of the Internet, but there are some aspects of it that are unique and unprecedented.

Morehead's Musings: In your research in Second Life what surprised you most about your conceptions of selfhood and community that had to be revised as a result?

Tom Boellstorff: One thing that really did surprise me but it shouldn't have, was an interesting parallel with my Indonesia research was that things weren't as different as I expected them to be. In my research on gay Indonesians my assumption was you go half way around the world to a very different place, and sometimes as researchers we feel that if you haven't found something that's really different that we haven't done our job, that we're really supposed to find something interesting, cool, and things that are really different. One thing I learned as a researcher is when you find things that seem the same, and in some cases are similar in certain ways, then we really have to stop and think about it because many times people don't. When you go into Second Life to do research as I have you find that it's very different and very interesting and I can mention a couple of things that I mention in the book.

My main surprise was that you go into Second Life and find grass, and trees, and the ocean, and people hanging out in their houses and watching television, going shopping to buy a shirt, or getting into a fight with their lover, but things that actually in a way are not different from what they do in the actual world is taking place. But this can be interesting too because you can ask why people would rather go into a virtual world at all, and another question is sometimes we see things that look very similar but if you scratch under the surface for a second you see that they are actually quite different. But the continuities with the actual world are very important for researchers because virtual worlds have gone become places with millions of people in them in just a few years, and if they were absolutely, completely, and utterly different from anything that came before how in the world would you understand it? So the similarities are very important.

In terms of differences there are some really big differences that are important to talk about. One of the biggest is embodiment. In a virtual world you can change the way you look with the click of a mouse, you can change your race, your height, you can become an animal, and in most of these virtual worlds you can have different embodiments. So it's not just that you can become a man or a woman or animal or person, but a man for one hour to go to a party and afterwards become a woman again, and then turn into an elf, and then after that turn into a human again. So it's not just that it's changeable, but that it's easily changeable. Ideally though, you don't have to only pick one thing. In the physical world to change your embodiment is extremely difficult. It's very hard to change your race or gender, and some people can do the latter just with clothes or hormones, but changing your body in any significant way is nearly impossible. But to go back and forth in embodiments, or to become a fifty feet tall dragon and then to become a two feet tall dwarf because you feel like it is not something you can do in the physical world. You can't have two bodies in the physical world, whereas in Second Life you can have as many as you like through your avatars, so that's another significant difference. So there are many differences between the actual world and the virtual world and embodiment is one of the major differences.

In terms of community there is almost less difference because community in the physical world for many years now hasn't been as closely connected to place as it used to be. So let's take the community I work in, the gay community, is that an area, is it just in bars, is it where people live, is in magazines, or what does it mean to talk about community in this sense? This is the same when whether we are talking about the African-American or Jewish community, these are no longer defined in relation to senses of places in limited geographical terms. I think the notion of community has been exploded beyond its connection to place for some time now. So virtual community for people is less of a stretch. An interesting thing in virtual worlds is you almost get a relocalization of community in some cases. You have instances where places in the actual world are connected to virtual places. The ideas of community are obviously changing as well, but these are obviously always moving targets, because what this means in Indonesia or California or Nebraska is different and changing. Representations of community in the virtual world adds other dimensions to our ongoing transformations of senses of community. And identity conceptions are being reconfigured in the same way.

Morehead's Musings: Tom, thank you again for your interesting anthropological ethnographic portrait of Second Life, your ongoing research in this area, and for making time in a busy academic schedule to discuss these things. I hope others will look into this phenomenon from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including theology.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

Interesting post but I'd have to disagree that place is now irrelevant.

On embodiment. I find that the other big difference is the online conversation tends to generate idiot savant religionships. You come to know people in great depth on a narrow part of their lives.