Philip Rosedale, the founding CEO of Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) and CEO of High Fidelity; and
Dr. Tom Boellstorff, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine who has written extensively about the culture of Second Life (previous blogposts about Tom here).
This is a must-watch one-hour video, if you are at all interested in social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse! Both Tom and Philip are excellent, articulate speakers on the topic, Drax deftly steers the conversation in many directions, and there are so many great quotes in here! This video is a gem, and the fact that it only has a little over 400 views so far is criminal, people. So go watch it!
P.S. Have you seen the latest one-minute promotional video for Second Life? Second Life’s new owners spent some serious coin on this! The future looks bright, indeed! (Fun fact: did you know that the same Waterfield investment group that now owns Second Life also owns Goldman Sachs? Check out the “Waterfield Network” listing of companies at the bottom of that last link.)
“I’ve been conducting various research projects in Second Life for almost 17 years now,” Tom tells me, explaining the genesis of this study. “A couple years ago, I completed a study of disability in Second Life, and after that wonderful research experience moved on to some other projects (I’m actually finishing up a book on the Intellivision video game system from the early 1980s, which is great fun!) But then when COVID-19 hit, I decided to return to Second Life to see how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction. I was lucky enough to get support from the National Science Foundation that means I have three wonderful graduate research assistants. Until next April we are conducting research in both Second Life and Animal Crossing. It’s a wild ride, setting up research with very little warning, but it’s been a great experience for all of us.”
This research project is about how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction. As many have noted, what we call “social distancing” is really physical distancing. Due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people have been socializing online, in new ways. Better understanding these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness online. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.
We are a research team using the methods of anthropology to study online social interaction. Anthropologists use in-depth qualitative methods, in particular participant observation, interviews, and focus groups, to understand culture—the meanings, practices, and relationships that make up the “common sense” of our everyday lives. People often think of anthropologists as people who travel to “exotic” or “remote” cultures, but the methods and theories of anthropology can be used to study culture anywhere in the world. That now includes online cultures.
Our research takes place entirely online, focusing on two virtual worlds: Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Second Life. We work as a team in these two virtual worlds to understand how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic. Central to the project is that there is not just one way to be online. Virtual worlds are places where individuals interact with avatars in online environments. They have different characteristics than social network sites like Facebook, streaming websites like YouTube, or chat programs like Zoom, though they share some features with all of these. Better understanding how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic might provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission, by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing. It might also help us better respond to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter in the wake of COVID-19.
Among the preliminary research findings is the following:
At least some of the time, virtual worlds can be a way to be alone, not a way to socialize. Due to the pandemic, many people are living with family members and roommates, and have less privacy than before. Virtual worlds can be places to get away from this. In other worlds, the pandemic has led not just to social distancing, but what we might term being “socially packed.” Virtual worlds can provide a different kind of “social distancing” to counter this loss of privacy.
Before COVID-19 restrictions, Anthro 128C was set to be held in the Anteater Learning Pavilion, a campus facility that encourages collaboration. When Boellstorff learned that it would have to go online, he immediately logged into Second Life and began constructing Anteater Island, a digital culture of its own.
He finished it in about a week, ensuring that it reflected the structure of the class, which involves lectures on weekly readings and group research projects. The site includes an auditorium and meeting areas for each student team, as well as spaces where they can display their work to the public at the end of the quarter, as had been planned before the pandemic. Indeed, Anteater Island retains many of the features that the Anteater Learning Pavilion would have offered.
Although the shift was a challenge, Boellstorff was in a fortunate position. He had been conducting rigorous fieldwork on Second Life since 2004 and published Coming of Age in Second Life, a book-length ethnographic study of the virtual world, in 2008. In addition, the class, which he had taught several times before, was *about* cultures in the digital realm. Due to the sudden lockdowns, students were about to become more immersed in them than ever.
Explores cultural and political implications of the infotech revolution and the ways new media are used around the world, new cultural practices and spaces (e.g., cybercafes), debates surrounding the meanings of these new technologies, and their implications for transforming society.
Second Life filmmaker Draxtor Despres profiled Tom and his work in a 2015 video, part of his World Makers series:
Drax also produced a full-length feature documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me, about Tom’s research on disability in virtual worlds: