Saturday, September 22, 2012

Among the Writers!

The ending is not yet written.


Since I began writing about life in Second Life (SL), please pardon the pun, I’ve read several books about SL and many blogs.  Many people are writing about virtual worlds.  So when a Real Life (RL) author reached out to me recently to talk about my recent blog on pirates I was pretty excited.  After all, I’m still trying to figure out who’s reading my blog besides a group of loyal followers.  (And, no, I don’t pay any of them!)  Meeting a real author is a big deal for me.  Meeting a real author who is doing serious research in virtual worlds is an even bigger deal for me.  (Don’t worry, I didn’t embarrass myself.  At least I don’t think too badly.) 

The author was Celia Pearce of Georgia Institute of Technology where she is an Associate Professor of Digital Media.  In SL she is known as Artemesia Sandgrain.  She is the author of several papers and books.  I have recently completed her Communities of Play, an account of a group of virtual world residents who attempt to stay together as a community as their home world is shut down around them.  How these people migrate across the Metaverse, keep their identity and ultimately meet in Real Life is a very interesting tale of how RL and virtual worlds are beginning to merge together in some ways.  Celia’s views on virtual worlds and the emergence of group identities is also well worth reading the book for. 

Recently, Celia with three other authors, Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, and T. L. Taylor coauthored a book on the use of ethnographic tools and techniques in the study of virtual worlds.  All had written full length ethnographies about virtual worlds.  The book’s title is Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton 2012).  The book has recently been published and is sitting on my virtual stack to be read later this year.  (Yes, I know the year is ending fast.) 

Celia was kind enough to introduce me to Tom, known as Tom Bukowski in SL, and they both agreed to meet me for an interview about their recent book.  Tom is an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine.  Among his published works is Coming of Age in Second Life which is his account of his two years of study of residents in SL.  This is another book which I’ve read and can recommend. 

We all agree to meet in SL at Morgan Straits, a pirate sim where Celia operates a field station.  At the appointed time we meet.  Tom is dressed in the casual attire of a college professor.  Celia is dressed as a pirate complete with eye patch.  The room we meet in is well appointed with eclectic pirate spoils.  Unfortunately, a sea battle is underway and chat is getting killed by lag.  (I think someone is trying to recreate the Battle of Trafalgar.)  Celia recommends relocating to another field station of hers in Virtual Harlem.  We teleport over and our lag problems are a thing of the past. 

Since Celia has to get to a class after our interview, I start with my questions.  First, why did they write this book?

Celia replies that since all four authors had already written full length ethnographies, they had noticed in their travels that a lot of people wanted to do ethnographies of virtual worlds and needs some help.  They also noticed a lot of people were doing research they “claimed” was ethnography which really wasn’t.  The four authors got together initially with the idea of writing a collection of essays by themselves and with others.  But then they figured they had enough to say on the topic among themselves that they could author a single book. 

My next question relates to their earlier books when I got the sense that some academics dismiss this as a field of study and I ask if this influenced them. 

Tom says it did to some degree.  He finds the academic reception strange. It reminds him a bit of his ethnographic research on gay and lesbian Indonesians in the 1990s and 2000s for his first two books. He and colleagues doing similar research found there to be interest in the work, but also doubts if it was a valid topic, and many researchers did (and still do) have trouble getting jobs. So it's striking to him that ethnographic research on virtual worlds can also sometimes be seen as threatening, but also attractive to many scholars (especially, but not only, junior ones) because it draws in students and it is interesting stuff. 

As proof, Tom says that his books on SL have sold more than his books on his studies in Indonesia.  He laughingly adds not because they are any better.  He likes them all! 

Tom adds there is some fear and dismissal of ethnography especially around virtual worlds. Even in the communities of people doing technology studies, there is sometimes a tendency to see such work as valid only when it shows a connection to "real life," without really thinking through the many ways there can be "connections" in indirect but powerful ways, and when the things that happen online are also "real."

Celia says Tom has a good point but feels it has gotten a lot better.  When she started doing game studies in the late 1990’s it was “the medium that dare not speak its name.” 

Celia continues by noting an even bigger problem with the marginalization of ethnography itself which is that quantitative methods are in vogue right now.  Cultural domain expertise is not valued by many "quants" (her term) who believe that everything can be translated into numbers. However, she points out, cultural interpretation is required even to analyze back-end server data. 

I ask if they are doing studies of virtual worlds to validate their positions on qualitative studies or are they starting from virtual worlds and realizing the lack of respect.  Tom replies that it’s both but believes it really started from people asking “how do you do it?” and wanting to use the four authors’ experiences to explain the basics of ethnographic research in virtual worlds, which he hopes is useful for people doing other stuff too. 

My last question to Celia and Tom: Is there another book in the offing?  Celia says they are going to do some papers.  I’m surprised to learn that people really want to know about how the book was written.  The four authors were all over the world and used Google Documents to collaborate.  Tom says that unbelievably they wrote this book as one voice.  No one can claim ownership of a chapter or sentence.  Tom jokingly refers to the hive mind book.  (I’m thinking more of the Borg.)  They all own them. We may be hearing from the authors on this topic before long. 

Celia and Tom have to leave to meet with their students so I make my good byes and head home. 

This interview has been interesting for me for several reasons.  First, I met two people who move between virtual worlds like SL and RL easily.  Their identities are known to all.  Second, Celia, Tom, and their coauthors are bringing real world social studies methodologies into virtual worlds and coming back out with results.  The lessons learned are applicable to RL and not just virtual worlds. 

I’ve been writing about communities since I’ve been inworld and I’m learning that these communities are more than just a collection of individuals who don’t have anything else better to do.  Celia’s, Tom’s, and their colleagues' work points to something more happening out there.

For all those looking to better understand how communities are developing in virtual worlds, I recommend that you read Celia’s and Tom’s books.  Better yet, if you can afford to do so, please buy them! 

I want to thank Celia and Tom for their time and cooperation and I hope to see more work from them about SL and the other virtual worlds that make up the Metaverse. 

As always, I’m grateful to all for their kindness and time in stopping to talk with a stranger who was passing through their lives.

I welcome feedback from readers, please either comment on my blog or e-mail me at  

If you would like to read about my other adventures in Second Life please click here.


Anonymous said...

I think that what you posted made a great deal of sense.
But, what about this? what if you added a little information?
I am not saying your information isn't good, but what if you added a headline that grabbed a person's attention?
I mean "Among the Writers!" is kinda plain. You might
glance at Yahoo's front page and note how they create
news headlines to grab viewers to click. You might add a video or a picture or two to
get readers excited about what you've written. In
my opinion, it would make your posts a little

Here is my page Christoper

webspelunker said...

Thank you for your feedback!

I'll be overhauling my blog in the New Year and incorporate your suggestions into my work.

Appreciate your reading and commenting!

Happy Holidays!