Tag Archives: anthropology

Recently discovered: medical robobear, UX reading, fast ethnography, useful websites


♦ WIRED has a story about this fuzzy bear robot developed at the MIT Media Lab for use with children in medical settings. They’re running a pilot study now. The video won’t embed, but you can watch it here. If it seems the bear is surprisingly aware and interactive, that’s because he’s more of a puppet, controlled Wizard of Oz style by a person at a laptop hidden nearby.

♦ This UX Reading List is a great resource for people interested in, as the author puts it, the disciplines of “User Research, Usability, Information Architecture, User-Interface Design, Interaction Design, Content Strategy or Experience Strategy”.

♦ When learning to be anthropologists, especially doing ethnographic research, we’re taught the value of time. Hanging out is a valid research technique, in the context of apparently doing little but observing, building relationships, or simply letting others get used to having you there.  A year of field work is a nice start. So, it’s really a change to think of writing ethnography quickly, to contribute an anthropological point of view as events unfold in a digital age. This essay by Yarimar Bonilla on Savage Minds would have sparked a big debate in some of my university classrooms, especially with my most traditional professor who would chide us with repeated lines like, “Anthropologists do not guess or predict! They describe, clarify, and contextualize!” (I break her rules all the time, as do most anthropologists I’ve known.)

♦ Lifehacker has a list of single-purpose websites that do exactly what they claim to do. I’ve used a couple of them and I’d add Can I Stream It? (, too.


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Roundup: Relay for Life, anthro of hacking, marketing SL, and travel questions

I’ve got some little things today, while I’m working on my other writing and a bigger post for next week:

Relay for Life

Did you know that more than $2 million has been donated to the American Cancer Society over the past decade through its presence in Second Life? Or that as of last summer, the SL Relay for Life team ranked 17th on a list of donation amounts from 5000 RFL teams? The run up to the fundraising season kicks off this weekend, leading up to Relay Weekend on July 18-19th. I’ve never participated in RFL, but this year… well, with Jakob going through intensive cancer treatment and being a “survivor” myself (I hate that term with a passion), I think it’s time. Anyone need another team member?  One thing that the Relay for Life of Second Life site really lacks is a “How can I help?” page: it’s not easy for an individual to understand how to jump in if they’d like to do more than attend an event or make a donation.


Anthropology of Hacking

Earlier this year I reviewed the latest book from Gabriella Coleman, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. There’s a little treasure trove of her other writing available here on her website, including links to sites where you can read several of her papers/articles. The link to the CC PDF version of her book “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” is unfortunately broken, but perhaps that will be repaired. I’ve got a copy and it’s on my current reading list.

Drax and Becky on Marketing Second Life

This week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] discusses the topic of how to market Second Life, with special guest Canary Beck. That’s something that many of us debate at length, since SL is what we make of it, and therefore many different things to different people. The show runs more than an hour; check it out.  Also, happy rez day, Drax!

Travel Advice? Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Salzburg, Munich?

I’m in the final stretch of planning a trip for this Spring and our transportation and places to stay are booked. I’ve been to some of these cities before and I’ve read websites and guidebooks, but the best tips I’ve ever gotten have been from locals or travelers who stumbled across something incredible. Anyone have recommendations for things to see or places to eat that aren’t the basic tourist spots?  We’re traveling by train and most of our accommodations come via airbnb, so we’re restricted to places we can reach with public transportation in the cities (except for a day when I plan to rent a car so we can go to Český Krumlov). Thanks for any ideas!


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Wednesday film: Ethnography in development and design

This TEDxBroadway talk by Ellen Isaacs provides some great examples of how ethnography can be useful for practical, modern problem-solving. Anthropologists haven’t been very successful at changing the mainstream image of our profession; when critics see it as a useless study, I think they have images of Margaret Mead or The Gods Must Be Crazy in their heads, but anthropology provides a toolkit that is valuable in many situations. In this 12 minute video, Isaacs talks about ethnography’s use in interface design and also her recent studies of parking.

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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Research, Video


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Digital anthro writing, data privacy, and One Billion Rising: it’s a round-up!

Digital Anthropology Bibliography – Interested in reading more academic pieces on humanity and technology? The Digital Anthropology Group has a list of related books and articles that can point you in the right direction. It’s a growing list and I’ve read about ten items on it, so it’s my new “to do” list as well.

Privacy and Surveillance — The Electronic Freedom Foundation has a good page of Surveillance Self-Defense tools and tips.  This is critical information for journalists and people living under repressive regimes, but I think there’s something useful there for anyone who uses digital products.

One Billion Rising in Second Life – The event opens at Friday midnight SLT; stop by anytime on Saturday! I’ll be there for a couple hours tomorrow that morning*. If you want more information or need a map and event listing for the art, music, poetry and other performances, I set up an OBR information kiosk at my closed and perpetually under construction gallery:  Please note that the OBR region has a General maturity rating. Even though BDSM practice can serve a therapeutic role for some people, we ask that collars or other signifying gear be hidden or removed because they could serve as a reminder of violence for others.

Personal Update – This week Jakob had a port installed in his chest for an upcoming round of chemotherapy. I think he’s handling things better than I am right now; I’m a little frayed at the edges. One day at a time….

*I spent all morning knowing it was Thursday, yet thinking that tomorrow was Saturday. It’s been a strange couple of weeks.


Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Privacy and Security, Research, Side Topics


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Lulz and beyond: an anthropologist writes about Anonymous

Last night, I finished reading Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (thanks to my husband for the Christmas present). I recommend it and think it’s important for anyone with an interest in Internet activism, trolling, hacking, surveillance, or security. You won’t be overwhelmed with a lot of anthropological assessment or theory, and Coleman had access and a background that make her journalistic story a compelling read.

Anon photo by me, staged in Second Life

Coleman’s narrative is told from a near-insider point of view. Studying hackers for many years, she has talked with, met in person, and even befriended some hardcore operators from the Anons and other groups. She had access beyond the #reporter room in the Anon IRC channels with the handle biella; she didn’t go undercover or mislead anyone about her identity or intent. She points out that, of course, this could be risky. A friendly Anon warned her once about overhearing a conversation among others who considered hacking Coleman to give her a taste of what it feels like. Another Anon (the snitch Sabu) hinted that the FBI might be watching her even if she was innocent. She had to remind the Anons that she had no special standing — she wasn’t a lawyer, for example — so for her protection and their own, they should not discuss illegal ops in front of her. She became very mindful of her data security, saying, “crossing a border meant days of preparation to secure my notes and put together a safe travel computer.” (Note that Coleman now lives in Canada: a country that searched my husband’s laptop at a border crossing, confiscated it, and temporarily detained him because of the existence of a common Internet meme image in his browser cache.)

Coleman covers the LulzSec fiasco that was also well told by Parmy Olson in We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency, but that is neither where she starts nor ends.  She gives some background on hacking and trolling, from phone phreaks to the cesspool of 4chan’s /b/ and then dives into Project Chanology, the Anonymous attack on Scientology.  She details the conflict between “moralfags”, “namefags” and those who just want the lulz and the subsequent splintering of Anonymous into smaller and conflicting ops teams. The book continues through the Arab Spring, on through LulzSec, and into the releases from Edward Snowden and Anonymous ops related to rape cases in the US and Canada.

Anthro notes: Coleman’s analysis of lulz is one of the few times the book gets downright anthro. Her anthro roots also show with the frequent reference to trickster figures in myth. I found the trickster framework useful but overdone, one of the pet peeves I developed while reading.  She also suggests that Anonymous can be understoood as the “superaltern” (via Chris Kelty). In comparison to the subaltern, who have no voice, the superaltern are “those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.” She also twisted the James Scott’s term “weapons of the weak” (methods used by powerless populations to express themselves politically in indirect ways) into “weapons of the geek” — “a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life”. She even pulls in some Bakhtin, describing IRC as “polyphony”. She writes about tactics for enforcing egalitarianism in societies, the effect of creating a shared identity stripped of conventional outside markers, and secrets as tokens of exchange.  If you’re reading this with an anthropological background, there is a lot to think about, but these analytic moments are scattered through a book that rarely feels academic and is accessible to anyone.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. Coleman admits to being romantic about Anonymous and making a philosophical choice to “enhance enchantment” in her approach. This has been the chief criticism I’ve seen from other (relatively) unbiased critics. Her discussion of disgusting, racist, sexist, life-fucking, and otherwise maliciously lulzy ops is very limited in contrast to ops of more punk and political activism. She nearly lost me relatively early in the book when she stated that “Ma Bell” was a term that came out of phone phreaking, when it actually predated phreaking by many decades. A small error, but since I’m not unfamiliar with the main topics she’s discussing, it made her sound like an academic outsider. Coleman also writes about the Occupy Wall Street movement as someone who was in New York City at the time, which I believe gives her a very different perspective than how it was seen by many of us outside the area, whether we agreed with the basic message of the protests or not. There are a few typos in the Kindle edition; unfortunately, some of them are at places where they could cause a flash of confusion.

The conclusion of the book is not the strongest part, which is disappointing because I think the messages there are so important. Coleman was trying very hard to avoid cynicism (she says as much). We are now post-Chelsea Manning, post-Wikileaks, post-LulzSec, and post-Edward Snowden. The police took down The Pirate Bay about three weeks ago. People cheerfully share intimate information on social media and carry GPS-enabled devices. She writes:

When this push toward the panopticon is stacked with a litany of broader issues — from growing wealthy inequality, waves of global and national recession and unrest, and the looming prospect of climate-induced environmental disaster — it is not difficult to understand how a disabling, pervasive, and frightening uncertainty has come to colonize our states of being.

She sees hope in the activist-oriented Anonymous ops, and frankly, so do I.  Anonymous is deeply flawed, destructive, and often wrong, but I think we need it. I think it’s important to remember that we can be Anonymous, too. Behind our keyboards or writing letters or out in the streets, we can draw attention to the bullshit.

Oh, and a final note: ffs, encrypt.

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Posted by on January 3, 2015 in Culture, In the News, Research


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Does cultural dissonance effect how we value virtual worlds?

I’m a member of the Society for Medical Anthropology, but I don’t often see research in that field that intersects with my interest in digital anthropology. So, I was curious to read “‘I Swear to God, I Only Want People Here Who Are Losers!’ Cultural Dissonance and the Allure of Azeroth“* in the December issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.


The researchers consider whether some World of Warcraft players compensate for a lack of success in their offline lives by seeking glory online (related to the image of “gamers as losers”), but then narrow their focus to whether it is the differential between offline/online success that contributes to gameplay having therapeutic/addictive qualities. In other words, they don’t assume that every WoW player is a loser. However, they propose a concept of “cultural dissonance”, which they define as “how gamers’ subjective well-being is affected by conflicts between socially valued online and offline lives, and subsequent attempts to equilibrate through psychological negotiations and revaluations.”

They began with a couple of hypotheses, which I’ll restate. First, they guessed that the amount of dissonance between online and offline success would be correlated with gamers’ perceptions that WoW has both a positive and negative role in their lives. For some, playing could provide gratification that was lacking offline, but the pull to feel that gratification could lead to problematic, excessive gameplay. Second, they hypothesized that the dissonance would be related to how much players valued WoW, which is then connected to mental health. Being more successful online increases the perceived value of WoW time, justifying increased gaming even when it interferes with offline commitments.

Their method used participant-observation, interviews, and surveys. Their quantitative analysis supported their hypotheses: cultural dissonance was associated with both positive and negative outcomes of WoW play, and the degree of dissonance was correlated with the perceived value of the players’ WoW virtual lives. In straightforward terms — mine, not the researchers — if I feel that I’m more successful online than offline, I’ll prioritize my online life higher. That can have beneficial therapeutic effects, but the scales can shift enough that offline life and mental health suffer.

I don’t think this is surprising to anyone who has spent a lot of time in a persistent virtual world, but that middle step explaining how each existence (offline/online) is valued is important and interesting. We might have multiple lives across physical and virtual worlds, yet there is still only one animating consciousness behind them all, and that consciousness is limited in time. Trying to achieve endgame goals in an MMORPG or running a virtual business or having an active social life online are immersive activities that necessarily use time that not lived deeply in the physical world. Dissonance that shifts how we value each life might come from increased perceived success in either physical or virtual realm. The study didn’t look at this, but I’ve certainly had lots of friends whose lives started to boom offline, leading them to detach from their online lives. When you only have so much time in a day and one consciousness, that shifting of value and balance is essential. That balance, however, is necessarily weighted toward the physical world. Our physical lives require constant maintenance: acquiring food and drink, sleeping, obtaining income to meet needs and obligations, etc.

The title of the article is a quote from a WoW gamer making the point that to run endgame raids, he wanted dedicated teammates without other obligations. “I swear to God, I only want people here who are losers! I don’t want people who have jobs or school!” I think it’s possible to have rich, satisfying, and successful lives in both physical and virtual spaces, but it involves frequent negotiation. Social demands come from both spaces. I’ve been in MMORPG guilds where casual players were treated badly and there was non-stop peer pressure to do endgame group activities at hours that would be almost impossible for someone with a family or job. I’m not sure that someone with an objectively successful offline life could keep up with that. On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of people who can’t imagine that a person perceived as successful in the physical world would “waste time” in virtual worlds. I think that’s connected to the “gamers as losers” trope, because I doubt they’d think the time was wasted if virtual world activities were rephrased as, “hanging out with friends, doing some creative projects, running a small business, shopping, and visiting artistic installations.”

In their conclusion, the researchers touched on some different methods used in studying virtual worlds. It’s an important section, since the question of whether virtual lives should be ethnographically examined as separate from physical lives can be debated. When I gave presentations about a particular aspect of roleplay in Second Life, I carefully avoided the question of why people chose that roleplay. My research was inside SL and I was studying behavior there, not the behavior of the people on the other side of the keyboards. The authors of this article state:

We appreciate how recent ethnographers of virtual worlds — such as Boellstorff (2008) in his study of Second Life — have studied them from entirely within the persistent virtual world in question as cultures in their own right and not mere expressions of the actual world. Still, to address patterns of wellness and distress in WoW gamers’ lives, we have followed others and tried to understand how gamers’ WoW experiences intersect with offline ones (Nardi 2010; Schiano et al. 2011; Snodgrass et al. 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012, 2013; Taylor 2006).

Both are valid but different anthropological approaches.


* Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, H. J. Francois Dengah, Michael G. Lacy. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 28, Issue 4, pp. 480-501.

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Posted by on January 1, 2015 in Gaming, Health - Mental & Physical, Research


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