Tom Boellstorff on Being Virtual

boellstorffTom Boellstorff’s groundbreaking book, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, shows how avatars form communities and social networks that can be studied using the methods of social anthropology. Tom’s work on virtual worlds has been praised by his colleagues as “cutting edge anthropology at its best — hip, smart, theoretically sophisticated, and with its head screwed on straight.” He is both Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and Editor-in-Chief of the American Anthropologist — the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association.

Tom’s recent masterclass on the weekly Metanomics series sponsored by Cornell University inside Second Life explored how “there may be lessons from our journeys through virtual worlds that equate to our journey through the span of life.” Here’s a video of his fascinating talk with Dusan Writer:

Tom started out as a health outreach worker in Indonesia working on HIV/AIDS prevention. He did graduate work at Stanford University, completing field work on an ethnographic study of community organizations in Indonesia that engage in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment among homosexual men and warias (male-to-female transgenders).

Tom studies virtual worlds with similar ethnographic methods to the ones he uses for his Indonesian studies: participant observation, interviews, focus groups, and the analysis of texts ranging from newsletters to blogs. Via my avatar Surfdaddy Orca, I sat with Tom’s avatar, Tom Bukowski, at his virtual office “Ethnographia” on the Island of Dowden in Second Life just after his book was first published.

Surfdaddy Orca: I thought I’d start out by mentioning that I’ll be attending a wedding in Second Life (SL) this weekend. Having just attended a real life wedding as best man, I’m curious about your views on the differences and/or similarities, if any, between wedding customs in a virtual world like SL vs. what you term “actual life” and what Second Lifers call “real life” (RL).

Tom Bukowski: Interesting question, especially because I’m attending a RL wedding tomorrow. In terms of customs, from what I’ve seen, most SL weddings draw quite a bit from RL weddings, from dresses to cakes and so on. There is usually an officiant too, sometimes a RL preacher kind of person, but sometimes not. The emotions are certainly very real, and in some cases you see a joint household set up in SL. Sometimes the people are married in RL too. And then the other extreme, of course, are the cases where the persons getting married don’t know anything about the actual-world life of the person they are marrying – even their gender, where in the world they are, and so forth. Sometimes they do know a little or a lot about the RL of the person they are marrying, but sometimes not. Of course weddings in SL can be lavish but much cheaper than in RL. You can use a gigantic church that would cost quite a bit to rent in RL.

SO: I just IM’d the bride-to-be. She has cancer and can’t touch anyone in RL for fear of her life. She is like a daughter to me.

TB: That is very interesting. I write a fair amount about disabilities and SL. For various folks with various disabilities, SL can be life-transforming. Through her avatar she can “touch.” Of course it’s not actual-world touching – it’s not the same – but I’m sure it has some meaning for her.

I was close to The Sojourner, who just died in RL. I’m still in shock about it really. The general point is that for lots of folks with disabilities, SL can be really liberating. For instance – someone with cancer – they are in chemo and they have lost their hair, but in SL they can go to a club and look beautiful and not have to have everyone asking them “how do you feel.” To just be normal for an evening, just that can mean so much.

There is amazing stuff happening in SL with families. RL families meeting in SL. SL families forming and hybrid families in SL where some members are related in RL too, and some not. It’s a great kind of example to bring up for people without much understanding of SL who think it’s all just sex and dancing. Virtual worlds can be sites of deep meaningfulness and community – they don’t have to be, but can be.

SO: How did you perform the actual fieldwork for your book?

TB: Through the period of my fieldwork up to August 2007, for my book, SL was chat only. It was great in a way because in my Indonesia fieldwork, I have all of these recorded interviews and it takes forever to transcribe them and translate from Indonesian to English. So having chat is really be great for all that.

SO: A central assertion of your book on SL is that “ethnography has always been a kind of virtual investigation of the human…” What are some good examples of this that show the parallelism between virtual worlds and RL?

TB: You are asking two good questions – one about methods, and one about SL vs. RL. I call it the “actual world” in the book but in SL I just say RL because it’s faster to type. As for method: one thing I’m trying to say is that while a lot about virtual worlds is new, it’s not all new. There is a history, and there is a connection – and so ethnography can be used since when you do ethnography you always have to change it anyway. I go to Indonesia and the method must be flexible to work with the realities of the daily lives of the people I am researching. It’s the same with studying SL. The issue here is that, in a way, ethnography has always been a “virtual” kind of project because it’s about standing in someone else’s shoes – like being the avatar of someone else – so there’s that part.

The second part of your question is about parallels between SL and RL. The key thing for me here is that I don’t like using the word “blurring” because, in my experience, people always know if they are in SL or RL – they are distinct. You log in and log off. However, there are all kinds of influences and connections between virtual worlds: say, for example, SL and WoW [World of Warcraft], and between virtual worlds and other Internet media such as websites, blogs, email, and so forth. Just think how we scheduled this interview [a combination of IM in SL and email] and then between SL and the actual world, in all kinds of ways. We did not have to sit down for this interview, but for most people it feels right to sit down. If you’re going to talk for a while, you sit down in a virtual world with gravity, grass, blue sky, water, and other features of RL. There are places in SL without any of that – you can go wild – but people don’t always want that, or don’t want it all the time, and that’s okay.

We use metaphors, cultural assumptions from the actual world, and bring them in here into SL. They get changed, but they still carry the legacy of their origins so to speak. Even your example – being the father of someone in SL – you are taking notions of kinship from the actual world. They change in here, and they don’t. There is change and continuity, both. And these transformations are fascinating. Much more than claiming: a) there is nothing different (not an interesting claim, and not true), or b) everything is different (also not an interesting claim, and also not true). The truth is somewhere in between – a big,messy, fascinating in-between. One that works differently for different people, different subcultures, and aspects of which can also be shared more broadly.

SO: Yes, are there are many subcultures represented in SL, going back to the original sim [virtual world simulator] inhabitants. When the gamers arrived, there was a conflict. A meeting of cultures, right?

TB: Yes, that’s an important historical point. Virtual worlds are not games, but they come from games in many ways – a virtual world is basically an MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) with the game part taken out. And most of the early adopters were into video games [Tom Bukowski raises hand] so there is often still a confusion that SL is a game, but that’s understandable. There are games inside SL, but SL is not a game itself even though the physics engine and other software components come from video game platforms.

The problem is that if you say SL is a “game,” then I reply to those people: what is your definition of “game?” Because if you say SL is a game, your definition of game gets so vague that it’s hard not to say that all RL is a game too. And if everything is a game, then you don’t really have a definition. Often what people really mean when they say “SL is a game” is that it’s a place of “play.” But there is more to SL than play or role playing. For some people, it’s a place for commerce, education – or weddings!

SO: Here’s another question for you: How do your colleagues at the American Anthropologist (and the anthropological community in general) view your work on Second Life?

TB: Great question. We’ll see more soon now that the book is out, but I have been shocked at some of the hostility I have encountered. They say that Second Lifers are all rich elites, people who don’t have a real life, and so forth. Some anthropologists are incredibly supportive, but I’ve been surprised at the negativity. It’s more than I’ve gotten for two books on gay Indonesians. I think one reason is that despite the fact that anthropology nowadays is very broad (there are incredible people doing work on the anthropology of science and technology, for instance), there is sometimes still an association between anthropology and the rural, the “native,” and so forth. I often meet anthropologists who claim with pride they don’t even know how to use Microsoft PowerPoint. So that’s part of it. It’s sexy and interesting to them, they know they need to know more about it, but it’s threatening too. After all, the best-known reference to virtual worlds in the mass media is probably The Matrix, where virtual worlds are used to enslave humanity. Not the best image.

But, I really don’t see that nearly as much with graduate students. I think it’s generational at least in part. For people who’ve grown up with the Internet and video games, it’s not such a big deal. One of the challenges of writing the book – and a joy too – is that I’ve tried to write it for two very different audiences: anthropologists, to get them to take virtual worlds seriously; and people interested in (and active in) virtual worlds, to talk about how ethnography can be a useful method for studying virtual worlds. That was a challenge, but it forced me to really write in the most clear manner I can. It’s an academic book. I don’t apologize for that – theory is good! But I really really really tried to make it at clear and easy to follow as I could.

SO: Your work appears academically rigorous and well footnoted. Yet, you often include chat logs and anecdotal material to punctuate your theses. But you do appear to be addressing two separate audiences. Do you feel you are able to reach both audiences effectively with this approach?

TB: More than two actually. There are two issues here: one is that any writer is trying to reach multiple audiences. For instance, with my first two books on gay Indonesians, I was reaching out to people in gay and lesbian studies who don’t necessarily care about Southeast Asia on the one hand, and Asian Studies folks who don’t necessarily care about sexuality on the other. So the multiple audiences thing is always there I think, for almost any topic you can think of. Then there is the issue of using ethnographic material to illustrate points. There’s a great quote from Clifford Geertz, a famous anthropologist who just died last year I think.

The basic point is that unlike, say, a survey method where you are saying 65% of respondents said X and 35% said Y, with ethnography you are trying to figure out the shared patterns and illustrate those. It’s always interpretive, not claiming absolute truth, but not all interpretations are equal, some are (hopefully) more convincing. That’s what all anthropologists and other ethnographers do – try to get at the broad patterns through intensive work with a relatively small number of people. The example from my book I use is learning Japanese. You could hang with just 5 or 10 Japanese speakers for a year, and from that dataset get results that would let you communicate with millions. You would not learn every dialect or every vocabulary item – certainly not the ultimate truth of Japanese – but you’d learn something. The interesting thing is that you could do a survey of 10,000 Japanese speakers, a different method than hanging out with Japanese speakers, but you probably won’t learn to speak Japanese from that method. So all methods are good and they just answer different kinds of questions. It’s always about learning more, finding good questions, and setting forth possible answers. Not saying “X is the ultimate truth” – in social science you just very very rarely can do that kind of thing – which is okay.

SO: Did you find the quote from Clifford Geertz?

TB: Yes, from “From the Native’s Point of View” on what anthropologists do: “Notice the characteristic intellectual movement, the inward conceptual rhythm, in each of these analyses, and indeed in all similar analyses, including those of Malinowski – namely, a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view.” It’s that “dialectical tacking” that I think you see in lots of ethnographic work, including mine. Looking to the very everyday, mundane aspects of life and taking those moments seriously – what can they tell us. Rather than just focusing on the big rituals, or the big leaders.

SO: Fascinating quote. It sounds like he read Hegel. [The dialectic that Tom describes here is basically between anthropological theory (global) and the local “chat” of SL.]

TB: Very perceptive of you. From later on the same page: “All this is, of course, but the now familiar trajectory of what Dilthey called the hermeneutic circle, and my argument here is merely that it is as central to ethnographic interpretation, and thus to the penetration of other people’s modes of thought, as it is to literary, historical, philological, psychoanalytic, or biblical interpretation, or for that matter to the informal annotation of everyday experience we call common sense. In the same way, [an ethnographer] moves back and forth between asking himself, “What is the general form of their life?” and “What exactly are the vehicles in which that form is embodied?” Hegel, Dilthey, obviously links there. Geertz was originally trained as a philosopher before becoming an anthropologist. I know, it’s a tangent, but it was just so cool you hit on that!

SO: Your book took its title “Coming of Age..” from Margaret Mead’s seminal work on Samoa. You also mention her advisor, Franz Boas, several times. What are your views on the controversy surrounding the Mead-Freeman controversy? [Margaret Mead famously described adolescent sexual freedom on Samoa, while Derek Freeman later claimed that her young girl informants were deceiving her.]

TB: I talk about that in the book. It’s actually helpful for thinking about “truth” and anthropological research. Basically I say that Freeman overdid it and had his own axes to grind from what I can tell, but it was still a fascinating controversy. Titling the book that way and discussing Boas, Malinowski – all these old anthropologists – was a way to get anthropologists who don’t know about virtual worlds to see the connection and how this is an important area. Also, I teach a history of anthropology course at the University of California, Irvine. It’s been so helpful to me, and I take the history seriously. Often what we think is the controversy of the day – the new thing – turns out to be the same debate from 50 years ago. There may have been some really interesting things that were said back then. We’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes if we don’t know that history. People often act like virtual worlds don’t have a history. I think for this book I really wanted to make that historical connection clear – and it was fun!

SO: Are you continuing your research on SL? Any particular aspects of SL culture (or subcultures)?

TB: Yes – there are so many potential topics. I would like to do more on religion. I would also like to do more on furries and other subcultures. I would like to do something on how voice changes SL sociality and I would like to do more on people with disabilities. So much to do, so little time! The main issue for me right now is that until 2012, I’m Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. Being Editor-in-Chief is good because hopefully it will help people take my book and my research seriously – that I’m not “on the fringe.” I want to help create a space for other researchers so they get funding and support and readers. I already have tenure, so I’m safe. But I want to support younger researchers – they have more risk.

SO: I have spent some time as a beta user of a virtual world called HiPiHi (Chinese). Are you familiar with it? In what ways do you think that regionalism and RL politics will influence anthropological field studies of virtual worlds like HiPiHi?

TB: I’m not that familiar with it, but you’ve hit on a very interesting topic. As I talk about in the book, SL and most other virtual worlds really started out with assumptions coming from the USA, and really from California – the “California ideology.” Back in 2004 and 2005 you really saw that influence. Now, 80 percent or so of new accounts are non-US. Whole areas of SL are for Brazilians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Italians, and so on. And then there are whole new virtual worlds like HiPiHi based in China, Korea, and elsewhere. This will undoubtedly change the sociality of virtual worlds in fascinating ways and create all kinds of new possibilities for cultural understanding (and perhaps misunderstanding). I have no idea how it will all pan out of course, but it will be very interesting to watch!

Given my own earlier work, I’m just waiting for when there are enough Indonesians in SL that I can study them and work with them since I’m already fluent in Indonesian. That will be cool – right now not there’s not enough of them in SL, but I’m sure that will change.

SO: Increased broadband access, faster processors, and higher frame rates and graphic resolution will likely make virtual worlds increasing compelling to more and more people. What are your views on the role of anthropology and the study of “cybersociality” in shaping that future?

TB: Anthropology and similar kinds of research are always about the present, not the future, but of course can shape how things move forward. Anthropologists can help us understand how virtual cultures take form in unexpected ways and help us see both diversity and common patterns. They can help us think about questions of governance, power, and inequality, and potentials of education, communication, and community. With all these Internet technologies – as you note things change so fast – so much is happening, it can seem overwhelming. I think it’s good to have things like anthropology to make us pause a bit, take a breath, and step back and think through what’s happening. That’s one reason why I did a book on purpose rather than a blog or something else. There are many reasons for that actually, but one reason is that I purposely wanted to create something I could not update, and that would be fixed as a product of its time. It forced me to think about what would be interesting to think and talk about that would “have legs” and become part of a more general conversation. To step back from the controversies of the moment – from the headlines – and think about the broader patterns.

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10 Responses

  1. Oops – forgot to mention for Valkyrie and others – the first chapter of the book is available as a free PDF from Princeton University Press – just go to my website for the link.

  2. Thanks so much for publishing this! It was great talking to you that day.

  3. Damn Surf-D, I so wish I could afford to buy the book to read it. This is right up my alley : )

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