Drax interviews anthropologist Tom Boellstorff about SL

16 Jun

Clearly I was preoccupied with getting ready for my camping trip, because I completely missed the June 6th episode of The Drax Files Radio Hour which included an interview with anthropologist Tom Boellstorff. His segment starts around the 5:04 mark.

The segment about the importance of place in a virtual world is intriguing to me. Boellstorff references his book, which is a little out of date now but still relevant. He and I both have mainland homes; maybe it’s an anthropologist thing. He questions whether private islands are “gated communities” or a way to get freedom from griefers, etc. For me, being on the mainland means that when I go outside my office, the view is full of odd skyboxes like the strangest hot air balloons. There is an ugly movie screen across the street and a human-sized hamster cage next door. A space-themed sphere with a ship in the middle just moved in next to my skybox home. It’s not unified and it’s not pretty, but I love it anyway. If there’s something particularly offensive to my eyes, I can right click and derender it permanently, effectively removing it from my view.

I agree with Boellstorff about the need to have definitions for the types of technology we’re involved with now. A virtual world is not Facebook is not a blog is not Vine is not an MOOC isn’t a shared Spotify playlist isn’t a console game. It’s possible to define them technically, but there’s some deeper thinking about interaction, performance, disclosure, time, and space that could be done as well.

Later in the segment, Boellstorff talks about anthropological techniques used at any field site, not just interviews and surveys but also the cornerstone of participant observation. Hanging out is an important technique!  We need to immerse ourselves in a community as much as we can. He kvetches about people who “go into Second Life for a weekend and then claim they are doing ethnographic research.”  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!  That’s connected to my series of posts about flawed assumptions in virtual research. Simply because Second Life is an accessible and inexpensive field site doesn’t mean that we can use rushed and sloppy methods.

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Posted by on June 16, 2014 in Culture, Research


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