Tag Archives: Virtual Worlds

Go read Coding Freedom

I wanted to take a little bit of time today to shamelessly plug my friend and co-author Biella Coleman’s new book Coding Freedom. When the book first came out I wanted to right a full review of it to explain that it is a full-length monograph about hackers, debian developers, anonymous, and other digital phenomena that carefully combines deep, deep ethnographic knowledge with a thoughtful theoretical contribution the literature on commons-based peer production, liberalism, and the trickster figure. Best of all, the book has been released under a creative commons license and can be downloaded and freed for free.

After taking a couple of stabs at it, unfortunately, I found that I just knew Biella too well to write a review that was neutral, or that pretended to neutrality. I kept writing sentences like “Biella RAWKS” and “Biella’s book is radz0r!!!”, which is sort of hard to massage into “this ethnography provides a substantive contribution to the existing literature on liberalism”. So instead I decided to write this ridiculously partisan plug to let you know how rad Biella is and how much her book rawks.

There are a lot of people doing cultural studies, qualitative research, ethnography, etc. on digital culture, virtual worlds, the Internet etc. and, frankly, the quality of much of this work is not very good. Much of the connoisseurship literature written by fans of video games, for instance, is better than academics writing on video games. Biella’s work bucks this trend by bringing a deep, immersive familiarity with the lifeworld she describes. At times, in fact, I think Coding Freedom does not do enough to show off her erudition in this area. Although people (including maybe Biella) will be tempted to see her work as exemplifying something new, non-disciplinary, or cutting edge, in my opinion what really makes her work so good is the way that it epitomizes anthropology’s values of immersion and description. She really knows her stuff. And after you read her book, you will too.

The Warcraft Civilization

Of the three Warcraft ethnographies I wanted to review on SM, William Sims Bainbridge’s The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World is the most difficult to evaluate. Partially this is because Bainbridge is the only one of the three authors that I don’t know personally. But it is also because his book is so different from the others and, frankly, because I didn’t care for it very much. Writing book reviews is like doing peer review: it requires you to be very fair to your reviewees, but also fair to your audience: the author deserves consideration, and your readers deserve the skinny on the value of a book. When you just don’t like a book, you must try twice as hard to read it with prudent and disinterested eyes to make sure you’re negative opinion is grounded and not just annoyance. So here I go.

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Leet Noobs

Before I start talking about the substance of Mark Chen’s Leet Noobs I want to spend a second talking about the business model. The sticker price of the book is US$34.95, which gets you 200 pages, which is really around 175 pages of actual book once the front and back matter and so forth are factored in. The book is a revision of Chen’s dissertation, which you can get for free if you are attached to a university which subscribes to ProQuest. Alternately, you can read at least two chapters of the book for free in open access journals where they’ve been published. Another is available for rent for a day in Games and Culture, for which Sage will charge you US$25. And then there are the short paper presentations on Chen’s incredibly rich website — which includes his comps answers iirc — where you can read shorter pieces which convey the main points that Chen is trying to make in each of his chapters. 

What are to make of a mode of scholarship where a book costs ten dollars more than the price to rent one of its chapters, and thirty-five dollars more than free versions of all the chapters? And where are we as an intellectual community where the impetus to publish pushes people to recycle the same material over and over in the name ‘productivity’? What sort of value are publishers adding to Chen’s work that justifies their charging that much money? 

I’m not saying there aren’t good answers to these questions. Presenting the same material over and over is a good way to help think it through, and I’m sure that Chen’s finished book benefitted from having the opportunity to have peer reviewers, editors, and conference participants look it over. But still — we live in strange times.

Ok let’s move on to the book itself: Leet Noobs is Chen’s ethnography of a guild in World of Warcraft (WoW). It has a lot in common with Nardi’s book: it studies one or two guilds that the ethnographer lived with, rather than covering ‘the culture’ of ‘a world’. It’s a problem-based ethnography which focuses on particular issues instead of providing a general overview of the lives of WoW players. Both Chen and Nardi lament the way the magic of the virtual world is replaced by a goal-focused stats-and-bars approach. Both volumes are short and clearly written, and at times they have a strong personal voice.

But there are a ton of differences as well. Nardi is a senior scholar with decades of work on technology. Chen is a new Ph.D. Chen is a lifelong gamer who describes himself as hopelessly addicted to video games. Nardi started playing WoW to write the book, while Chen decided to write on WoW because he was playing it. And — check this out — his fieldwork is focused on his guild’s first Ragnaros kill. On an RP server. One chapter is on what happened the first time someone invented threat meters. This old-school approach gives Chen a lot of cred in my book. 

Chen also comes out of a different genealogy than Nardi: education. The education people have always been super-early adopters of technology and computers. They have also been on the scene in the virtual world space as well, with authors such as Constance Steinkuehler writing about how people learn online. Chen is part of this movement, and in particular he’s interested in the social and material dimensions of learning — how skilled performance (i.e. downing raid bosses) requires social capital and (as they say in cooking) a mise, an artifactual environment that lets you focus your attention at the task at hand because everything else is set up right. Chen draws on ANT, but also on the psychologists who study distributed cognition and communities of practice.

It’s a great way to approach raiding — the main thing I study in my WoW research — and I found myself nodding in agreement again and again as Chen described in technical terms what every good raider knows: you have to do research, evaluate sources, work with a good team, and get your keybinding and addons set properly. In terms of theoretical contribution, I feel like the work falls more on the side of “adds more evidence to one side of an established debate.” Chen is part of a now-vast movement that demonstrates the importance of video games and learning that is making its opposition look more and more obsolete. It’s a perfectly appropriate level of innovation for a Ph.D., but people looking for an argument that is going to change the world won’t find it in this book. Its further proof of a viewpoint that seems more and more in the ascendance — but you know, it was probably a little more fashion-forward when Chen began his dissertation.

What you will find in the book is a series of extremely detailed case studies that are superbly well done. Many people writing their dissertation get told by their dissertation advisors: “can you prove this theoretical point using the ethnography you have?” It’s actually one of the hardest things to do, especially because no one seems to be able to tell you how to do it, just that it has to be done. But Chen really does it in these chapters: he shows us when, where, and how, threat meters changed the dynamics of his guild (when they discovered aggro radius if you can believe that there was once a time when someone had to figure out what that is), how raids actually go about the work of raiding and even, in one of the chapters than will ring true to WoW players, how guilds explode. These case studies are really clinics in how to do things with ethnography, and they are well worth reading for graduate students.

The case studies are wrapped up in a curious little book. Between chapters are vignettes, often just dressed-up transcripts of chat, which are supposed to provide some flavor of the game world to make you feel like you have ‘been there’. I’m not sure how well these work for nonplayers — I found them boring (but ethnographically accurate). Also, Chen has a strong authorial voice — a very vulnerable observer willing to admit to his own subjective feelings about the game and his successes and failures. I know Mark a little, from years and years ago, so I may be projecting a little bit, but he comes across as a sort of lovable looser: ashamed to admit to enjoying video games so much, wanting to use an informal voice but constantly aware of the genre standards he is violating, and apologetic for forcing the reader to learn so much about actor network theory and its associated jargon. It never gets cloying, but I do think the book would have been more successful if he had just Gone There and unapologetically embraced his inner geek and assumed his reader would be teen along in his passion for his topic.

Chen doesn’t beat around the bush in making his points — in case you missed his clear explanation of them in the opening chapter, there is a bulleted list of them in the conclusion. This, combined with the extremely short discussion of theory in the first and last chapter, makes me feel like that book might have been better left as a series of articles, or else rewritten as a long essay. As someone who read the articles on which the book is based, I felt like I burned through the intro, conclusion, and little interludes pretty quickly.

I suppose it’s to Chen’s credit that he writes so clearly and with such ethnographic focus that he seems to have economized himself out of a monograph — a longer literature review or theoretical elaboration could have been provided a richer book, and of course the whole reason we write books is to have the room to add this sort of work. But I think that wasn’t the game that Chen wanted to play, and his book stands as an admirably detailed collection of case studies of World of Warcraft which is the first major description of how raiders play the game. 

My Life as a Night Elf Priest

Well, it’s not too complicated: My Life As A Night Elf Priest by Bonnie Nardi is the best ethnography of World of Warcraft out there. And that’s not likely to change soon.

I have the impression that My Life As A Night Elf Priest didn’t make quite the splash that University of Michigan Press hoped that it would when it was first published. Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (hereafter, WoW) are exciting and new right, and Nardi was a Night Elf Priest. It’s so fashion forward it should whip cutting-edge types into a thick, rich froth of excitement. But — as far as I can tell — that didn’t happen. But, to Nardi’s credit, that didn’t happen.

You can (and might even want to) divide ethnographers of virtual worlds into two camps: those who study them because they are radically new and inherently interesting, and those who see them as interesting for reasons other than their novelty. Like Nardi, I am firmly in the former group. A glitzy gee-whiz ethnography of an amazing virtual world might have attracted more attention among anthropologists — mostly because they missed the period seven years ago when the rest of the academic community had this particular spasm — but to her credit Nardi has written a careful, intelligent book that avoids hype and moves our understanding of virtual worlds forward.

Nardi has a long background in studying how people interact with technology. If I understand this correctly, people originally studied usability: how people interacted with computers and how you could change computers to make them more usable. Then they realized that what people wanted to use technology for was affected by the form that technology itself took. Nardi was one of the people who took this insight and developed ‘activity theory’, a generalized approach which made action rather than the actors the center of its approach. It’s a bit like actor network theory in that it considers humans and nonhuman equally, and like ANT it articulates slightly with American Pragmatism. But Nardi’s lodestar is Vygotsky, and activity theory has no truck with the bizarre epistemological and ontological exuberances of ANT. It is scientific in its study of action, but it not in a sterile way. Frankly, its a very impressive way to think about the world.

This is the viewpoint that Nardi brings to WoW. And I mean ‘brings it’ in the sense of bring it, babeeee. Nardi’s main claim in her book is that activity theory, expanded by a reading of Dewey’s aesthetic theory, can make sense of what it means to play WoW. In his book Art and Experience Dewey provides an account of art which is tied to Western aesthetic theory but which is not tied to decrepit Victorian theories of the sublime, beautiful, otherworldly, etc. Specifically, he argues that aesthetic experience is the result of a kind of engaged activity in the world that occurs when people’s capacities are challenged but not overwhelmed. Nardi takes this up and argues that playing WoW can be an aesthetic experience — absorbing, pleasurable, and fun. It’s sort of an account of flow tied to a description of human flourishing. Nardi’s exposition of the concept in the second section of the book is detailed but not pedantic. She really uses theory to get to where she needs to go, which is the best way to do it.

In the next section of the book she goes on to show how this framework can be used to move ahead on various debates in virtual worlds. For instance: is WoW addictive? Nardi’s answer is that the ‘addiction’ that we see in video game players is predicted in Dewey, who argues that focusing too much on activity deforms it (in The Craftsman Sennett makes a similar point, btw). Is WoW ‘work’ or ‘play’? This question has dogged the literature on video games for a decade and has always tweaked my anthropological sensibilities since it is so ethnocentric. So its gratifying to see Nardi demonstrate that these culture-bound notions can be replaced by a more general theory. Is WoW a ‘world’? Is there a ‘magic circle’ separating virtual worlds from the actual world? Nardi answers all these questions, often settling or transcending the terms of debate simply through the use of good sense and refusing to let the categories of the debate deform the understanding of the ethnographic data.

Often at SM we worry about whether anthropology is ‘progressing’. People looking for an example of how to progress should read Nardi’s book. She carefully addresses major debates in the literature, explicitly states where they are, and then describes where they should go based on her findings. Its refreshing and profoundly respectful of her fellow WoW-ologists, whom she always manages to find wanting, but in whose work she always finds something of value.

As someone who has played tons of Warcraft, I find Nardi’s account extremely readable and even — in the case of the Hogger strats she quotes — laugh-out-loud funny. She is often personal, describing her wonder at the beauty of the in-game world. She clearly loves the game. But at the same time the book (somehow) manages a very formal and objective tone. Knowing Bonnie as I do I recognize this as rooted in her personality, but some readers might find it dry. It’s certainly not the breathless omgvirtualworld that we see in the work of some authors. So I am not sure how well the ethnography will hold the average reader.

This is a problem-driven monograph, thematically organized. Although there is no doubt that she provides a wealth of information about the game, the thematic organization and objective tone may leave some readers feeling they are not ‘being there’ as they read the ethnography. I wonder in particular how well people who have never played WoW will be able able to follow some of the exposition. I don’t know. YMMV. 

There is a lot more to say about Nardi’s book: her feminist vision of WoW as an egalitarian place deformed by the presence of dorky, misogynist geeks, the way Dewey’s democratic theory articulates with her work on community, her choice of research methods, the brief comparative chapter on Chinese WoW players —  the list goes on and on. Like all great ethnographies the book continues to provoke thought when you are done reading it. Its quite an accomplishment for what is, after all, a very slender monograph.

In conclusion, I can see how aspects of Nardi’s book might have made it less splash-ful than it ought to have been. But for my money it is one of the best ethnographies of a virtual world out there and, even more importantly, a model of how ethnographic fact and theory should be used to help move a discipline forward. Also did I mention that it is short and cheap and clearly written? I’d recommend you give it a try. 

Mining World of Warcraft for Publications

A while ago Kerim wrote a post on the difference between ‘mining’ and ‘harvesting’ strategies of publication. It touched off a lot of interesting discussion, but lacked a concrete example of what Kerim was talking about. So I wanted to offer one here: how I am mining my World of Warcraft research for publications.

My ultimate goal for my WoW (as World of Warcraft is known) research is a book — now in its third draft. Along the way, however, I am ‘mining’ my research by producing several other publications. The two I want to discuss here are Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (full text is OA — the publisher forget to get me to sign a CTA so I can release the work as I like. They are OK with this). The second is a draft paper I recently gave at a theater studies conference entitled Feeling Powerful and Being Powerful: Virtuosity and Expressive Individualism in World of Warcraft.

If you read these papers, you can see that there are a lot of similarities between them. Both chronicle my work with my guild. Because WoW is way more exotic to Americans then Papua New Guinea (“Black people in a forest? Got it. People killing monsters online? What now?”) I spend a lot of time describing what goes on online. But there are important differences in them as well.

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Hackers, Hippies, and the Techno-Spiritualities of Silicon Valley

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Dutch anthropologist Dorien Zandbergen (PhD, Anthropology, Leiden University) in Sweden in October at an ESF Research Conference and learning about her fascinating research into the convergence of new age spirituality and new media discourses in and around Silicon Valley. I loved the idea of a Dutch anthropologist studying me and my friends in the eco-chic Burning Man hipster scene so I asked her to riff off of a few questions for this blog. Zandbergen talked about liminality, technoscience, the California ideology, ‘multiplicit style,’ secularization, studying sideways, liberalism, internet culture, ‘pronoia’, open-endedness, emergence, the neoliberal ideal of the autonomous self, the confluence of hackers and hippies in San Francisco, the usual…

(AF) What is New Edge and how did you conduct your fieldwork?

(DZ) The term New Edge fuses the notions ‘New Age’ and ‘edgy’, as in ‘edgy technologies’. In the late 1980s, founder of the ‘cyberpunk’ magazine Mondo 2000, Ken Goffman, used the term to refer both to the overlaps and the incompatibilities between the spiritual worldview of ‘New Agers’ and the ‘geeky’ worldview of the scientists and hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Such interactions were articulated in the overlapping scenes of Virtual Reality development, electronic dance, computer hacking and cyberpunk fiction. I borrowed the term New Edge to study the genealogy of cultural cross-overs between – simply put – the ‘hippies’ and the ‘hackers’ of the Bay Area, beginning with the 1960s and tracing it to the current (2008) moment. Continue reading

Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade.  She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right.   Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion.  By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster?  Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?

About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.

Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time.  Brian Massumi’s claim that

“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”

suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us.  Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.

Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.

But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?
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The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)

There is a touch-screen internet networked television mounted on a wall in a middle class living room. You turn it on with a touch and rows of applications organized as colorful little boxes are revealed. You are familiar with the choices because they are the same as what is displayed on your mobile phone. In this apparent cornucopia of choices are hundreds of apps to click to watch CBS dramas, New York Times video segments, CNET interview programs, Mashable tweetfeeds, and CNN live broadcasts. Or you can rent a movie from Apple’s iTV, Google TV, Amazon, or YouTube Rentals suggested to you based on your shopping preferences as gathered from your GPS ambulations. You want to show your friend a funny video that was recommended to you earlier in the day so you click on the YouTube Partners app and it appears on the screen.

You crave a different meme, something old school, circa around 2009. You could go to the YouTube Classics app, but strangely your favorite video never made it to 100 million views and so wasn’t promoted to YouTube Classics. Your television system is connected to the internet but the public internet browser app is buried in the systems folder on your networked TV. Besides, if you could find the browser app you can’t find a keyboard to type out search terms. You drop the idea of following a personal impulse and go with what you can see through the window of the professionally curated suite of applications.

This description of a limited and safe television viewing experience of the future is meant to evoke a feeling that the limitless content and freedom that we associate with internet video is quickly being truncated by the hardware and software engineers in cahoots with the content app designers to make a much more safe, convenient, and professional internet. This is quite easy to see in the world of internet video—once the land of the most subversive, graphic, and comic content possible—is now being overhauled by professionals producing, curating, optimizing, and streaming ‘quality’ videos to homes on proprietary hardware. Many of us interested in the democratization of media, the absence of conglomerate consolidation, the presence of “generative” digital tools, video activism, and indigenous media should be concerned by these trends. This era will be seen as the historical pioneering era of internet video idealism (2005-2009).

Earlier this month, in re-introducing Apple’s internet connected TV set top box, the iTV, Steve Jobs claimed that people want “Hollywood movies and TV shows…they don’t want amateur hour.” What Jobs is saying is that we are entering a new era of professionalism—gone is the wild Darwinian kingdom of video memes, the meritocracy of the rabble rousers, the open platforms equally prioritizing the talented poor as well as the rich. Jobs has never been one to parrot the ‘democratization of media’ ideal. Never one championing collective design or the wisdom of the crowd (if only to fanatically buy his hardware), Jobs firmly believes in the auteur, the singular virtuosity of the genius designer, engineer, and director to make a professionally superior object of art and function. The upcoming golden age of ‘quality’ professional content will be ruled by Jobs and his ilk at HBO, Pixar, Hulu, LG, and Vizio.

Jobs’ vision is but one example showing that the pioneer age of the free and open culture of internet video is ending. Current TV, from 2005-2008, aired 30% user-generated documentaries and produced a cable television network that modeled democracy. Today they are taking pitches only from top Hollywood TV producers. The YouTube Partner’s program, like the very talented Next New Networks—the talent agents for Obama Girl and Auto-Tune the News—culls the ripest and most viral video producers from YouTube and optimizes them for the attachment of profitable commercials. Once pruned and preened, these YouTube cybercelebrities are promoted on the hottest real estate on the internet, YouTube’s frontpage, making 6-figures for themselves while finally making YouTube profitable.

Subcultural activities going mainstream is nothing new, the radical 60s cable guerilla television crew, TVTV, went from making ironic investigations into the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions to making regular puff pieces for broadcast. World of Wonder, the queerest television company in Hollywood, has been bringing the sexual and gender underground to mainstream cable television for decades. For examples, see my documentary on World of Wonder.

But it is the first example regarding IPTV—internet-based direct to consumer ‘television’ such as Apple’s iTV—that will bring only the best of internet video to the home that most concerns me. The professional domestication of internet video in the home, I fear, will forever wipe out the memory of the wicked and subversive video memes of the YouTube past. With it will go the very ethos of participatory video culture. My colleagues in the Open Video movement can collectively design the hell out of open video apps, editing systems, protocols, and videos standards but no one using these free and open source video systems will be seen if proprietary IPTV covers both software and hardware, internet and television, in both the home and the office.

The process I am describing can best be articulated as a historical process of professionalization. The wild world of amateur video—its production, promotion, and distribution procedures—is moving from the realm of prototyping, beta-testing, and experimentation to expert production, algorithmic optimization, and alpha release five years after its debut on YouTube and Current TV. This professionalization is a historical result of 5 years of industrial development, individual trial and error, and profit-focused talent agencies and creative thinktanks. It is also a product of the historical convergence of the internet and television hardware, as well as the corporate consolidation of content and software around the idea of the app—a professionally designed hardware/software/content peephole into a small fraction of the internet. More anthropological however is the historical transformation of the subculture into the culture. This has been happening forever and is the engine of popular culture and we shouldn’t be so hip and retro as to bemoan it. But we should be concerned with the loss of that realm of artistic and political potential encoded in the free and open internet. The “golden age” to follow this pioneering phase will be as innovative as the golden age of television as we welcome the equivalent of I Love Lucy, Friends, and Lost and along with it the return to spectatorism, canned laughter, and the proliferation of middle class values.

Digital Media Firms as Cultural Systems

Working with digital media producers for the past few years I’ve begun to confuse their language with my other professional nomenclature, that of an anthropologist. Is this indeed confusion or a result of finally doing my job of seeing broader cultural systems in those practices?

Here’s the deal. Digital media firms using experimental methods with emergent technologies in indeterminate market systems use words that can model the stuff anthropologists care about. I’ll compare terms platform to culture, application to subculture, beta to process, and privacy to power.

Is Platform to Culture as Application is to Subculture?

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple’s iPhone are platforms on which whole networks or galaxies of different social and economic systems flourish. These companies’ platforms are becoming the broadest cultural ecosystems within which all other digital social activity exists.

Like culture there is constraint and agency on the platform. The constraint comes from the terms of service, the affordances of the online architecture, and the rights given by the platform holder. Platforms are almost universally proprietary—privately owned. The overall platform itself cannot be adjusted except by holy command from the CEO. Giving a cut to the CEO, developers can make applications on platforms. The ability to development on the platform is the agency, as is the ability to surf, scam, and surveil on the platform. Developers have the capacity to transform the mechanics of a proximal space of the platform via application programming interfaces (APIs). People come into contact with the app–be it a game, a badge of identity, or a little tool–and their digital social lives are slightly adjusted.

Humble scholars desiring to say something about the platform:culture should begin by studying the practices occurring on apps:subcultures. Zynga—the makers of apps:subcultures Farmville and Mafia Wars, two games on Facebook with millions of gamers, is a more manageable research project with discrete parameters, practices, and ideology, than studying the platform:culture of Facebook or Google head on, which like culture is always in flux.

Culture is Permanently Beta

It isn’t news that culture is not static. Sociologists Neff and Stark studied New York City digital media firms during the Web 1.0 bubble, claiming these companies were in a state of “permanent beta”—never finished and therefore responsive to the chaos of the market and the unforeseen on the technological horizon.

Gmail is an outrageously successful application designed by Google for the Google platform. It has been around for years and it is still in beta. In What Would Google Do? journalist Jeff Jarvis makes the point that Google takes the risk of releasing their products in beta and achieves corporate transparency and greater social activity by letting the user in on the preliminary R&D experience. Is Google a bellwether for larger cultural processes of which platforms and beta releases are quintessential qualities of this emergent cultural system?

“Permanent beta” is an apt anthropological description of historically situated cultural activity. I don’t need to remind anthropologists or SM readers that beta is a description of culture itself that is always in process, historically variable, emergent, etc.

Is Culture Open or Private?

Several overlapping ideologies from the historical development of the internet highlight the importance of collaboration, openness, and transparency as preemptive measures to check the centralization of information power. In all cultural formations, those good things must be vigilantly monitored and fought for. I’d argue that collaboration and openness as corporate principles is new and may suggest that the technological affordances of digital technologies make less openness in social technology less profitable. If richly communicative social practices require open systems, and these digital firms are in the business of digital sociality, it behooves these CEOs to create decentralized and open systems. We see some of this openness and collaborative spirit in Google and Facebook as platforms and beta systems—despite their indifference to corporate transparency and their antagonism against what they see as provincial notions of personal privacy.

So how do the trends towards more personal transparency and less privacy fit into this theory of culture as a digital system? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg really thinks the world will be more communicative and therefore more peaceful and mutually forgiving if only more people were less secretive and more honest about who they are. Protecting and respecting individuals’ private rituals, sentiments, and remarks is a primary objective of anthropological methods. Much important cultural work is done opaquely through symbols, in the depths of kivas, and behind closed doors. Does this sense of culture as a beta platform that is historically agitating towards greater openness and individual transparency give credence to Zuck’s algocratic design for world peace?

One problem with the theory that culture is like a digital system is that this platform:culture is corporately designed. The API may provide developers agency akin to social contracts. The digital firm may be motivated less by profit making and more by mission motives. But doesn’t the fact that the entire ecosystem is proprietary trouble the notion of platform:culture? Nobody owns the protocols—the total realm of possibility within cultural systems—like Zuck does Facebook or Jobs does Apple. Platforms may be like culture but unlike culture you can pull the plug on the platform should it cease to be profitable or fun for the shareholders. And yet, aren’t firms, platforms, and applications populated by people constrained and enabled by the same processes that exist outside of their digital systems?

RealId and Salvage Ethnography

This post is about how ephemeral virtual worlds are, and how they thus prompt some general thoughts about how fieldsites change over time. But to get there I need to explain what RealID is.

Blizzard is one of the largest gaming companies in the US (and perhaps globally), and it runs several different virtual worlds and online games — chief among them being World of Warcraft, a virtual world I’ve done over a year of fieldwork in. RealID is basically Blizz’s way of linking all these worlds together — if you friend someone’s RealID, you can chat and hang out with them no matter what game they are playing. RealId thus turns all of Blizz’s games, which sort of always acted as chat rooms for the people playing them, into one giant meta-chatroom. Now when my scarily erudite beloved is playing a Tauren druid on one realm while I’m playing a Dwarf hunter on another, we can still plan what to have for dinner over chat. People are pissed off, though, because RealID will also connect the web-based forums that Blizzard hosts. In-game RealID is optional — if you don’t want to friend anyone no one will know that your undead rogue ClownKillazzzz is actually you. But in the forums, you will have no choice but reveal your True Name.

There is a lot to say about these changes — about how Blizzard is, borg-like, trying to mimic and absorb popular social games like Mafia Wars; about how Blizzard might be willing to take the heat of universal disapproval if it means creating forums where people are more civil because their identities are known; about the way a small number of people running companies get to decide what counts and privacy and how much of it and what kind we want; and so forth.

The best commentary I’ve seen on these changes so far is Tim Burke’s commentary at Terra Nova:

Blizzard is increasingly looking like both like the dominant force in its field and like the last of its kind all at once, a huge success that did not inaugurate but instead capped a particular cultural form.

I think Tim is really right about this — five years ago people were predicting tons and tons of MMOGs would spring up and become new lotus worlds into which we would disappear. Since then we’ve seen tons of contenders to WoW rise up and, by and large, phail. In my opinion, Tim and others like him are right: virtual worlds are not the beginning of a trend of massive disembodiment and removal from our fleshy biographies, but just something cool that happened for fifteen years around the turn of the century.

I’ve argued in my recent article in Anthropological Quarterly that we cannot think of virtual worlds as islands of culture to be explored without reference to the real-world engagement of their denizens, and that researchers who study virtual worlds labor under culturally-induced conceptions of these worlds separateness from the ‘real world’ because of the intellectual baggage that comes from their expressivist cultural backgrounds (also, the visual nature of the worlds helps facilitate the illusion of separateness). That is why my study of WoW is a study of  American culture when it goes online.

Increasingly the goal is to understand the interaction of projects available in the game (cooperative farming in Farmville, raid progression in WoW) with projects derived from people’s meat-world biographies (feed the kids, graduate from college). In particular, the focus should be on ‘virtual world ideologies’: the explicit ideas that people have about the way that virtual worlds interact with actual ones. To a certain extent, my paper was a study of the virtual world ideology of previous researchers of virtual worlds. Tim points out that:

casual games… are something that many people don’t mind having associated with their public lives… because they’re seen as compatible with productive work and with mainstream sociality. World of Warcraft… is not and won’t ever be that kind of activity. Joining the office betting pool and going bowling for three hours are intrinsically different things in terms of time and process and compatibility with other activities.

I agree although with a caveat — it is the culturally mediated perception of the fit of these different projects that will effect how they are perceived. it is not too hard to imagine a world where Mafia Wars play is seen as a sign of moral depravity and obsession with violence, whereas raid attendance in WoW with your company-sponsored guild is mandatory as a way to build office unity and you’re not allowed to protest that it eats into your free time.

All fieldsites change, and it is one of the jobs of the anthropologist to produce work to help commemorate the lives of the people we live with — particularly since most of the time they are too busy living to remember to take pictures of convenience store or save copies of the church bulletin. But it is something else again to think that your entire fieldsite might become technologically obsolete and someday disappear, living behind only a swirling mass of traces in archive.org.

People often ask me why I try to document Warcraft instead of ‘some remote tribe’ when the remote tribe’s culture is — so they presume — undocumented and in the process of disappearing while virtual worlds are populated by educated white people and thus will be — presumably — remembered forever.

But the truth is that not only is life ephemeral, but digital life doubly so. It is much easier to capture as data because it is always already made out of data: recording your screen is much easier than recording your visual field. But I think (and I could be wrong) that at some level it is a lot harder to demolish a cathedral or a firestation than it is to switch off the electricity to a colocation facility hosting whole worlds inside its racks of cooled, humming servers.

Many involved with World of Warcraft are already aware that Cataclysm, the new expansion to the game, will change the face of the in-game world forever in a way that will make The Old Days the stuff of memory. But it may be that the game itself needs to be documented, and the memories of it need to be ordered and spun out into a story now, while the game is here.

Of course all that is a long way away, but with every update of the game the world changes a little, and with the rollout of RealID it will change a lot. As a result, strangely, virtual worlds may have more to teach us about salvage ethnography than the indigenous peoples who have so stubbornly and successfully resisted predictions about the inevitability of their disappearance.

Enclosure, Area Studies, and Virtual Worlds

The past couple of days have seen a knot of publications in virtual worlds and digital anthropology which deserve some comment. We have, first, Tom Malaby and Tim Burke’s introduction to a new edition of the journal Games and Culture, which discusses The Short and Happy Life of Interdisciplinarity in Games Studies. Secondly, we have Biella Coleman, who is writing a piece on digital anthropology for Annual Review of Anthropology (it’s not done yet, but in the offing and will doubtless be influential when its done). Finally, over at Material World Daniel Miller has wondered aloud whether or not this is the year digital anthropology comes of age. What is the state of digital anthropology, or an anthropology of virtual worlds, such that people might be thinking that it has finally come of age?

Malaby and Burke, in an extremely intelligent and thoughtful piece (which is available currently if you sign up for Sage’s free trial period) argue that there is an emergent ‘pragmatic’ trend in the studies of games, a trend exemplified in the articles that they include in their special issue. Beyond this main thrust, however, they also provide a wider historical reading of game studies. Specifically, they claim that the early game studies was highly interdisciplinary, that this interdisciplinarity was fruitful, and that over time there are reasons to believe it could go away A more disciplinary, less fruitful future, they argue, is the result of increasing forces of professionalization, competition for funding, and other factors. A field called ‘game studies’ did not emerge out of this moment, and is not likely to — rather, the work of understanding virtual worlds is being domesticated in different disciplines.

I agree with their argument, and I tend to think of it as the development of an ‘area studies’ approach to virtual worlds. Like Latin America or Southeast Asia (but without the icky cold war funding structures), it seems to me that virtuals worlds are now areas in which several disciplines work, each in their own way. Its a familiar structure that results in the standard ‘two conference’ professional structure many of us are part of: I go to the anthropology conference, and I go to the Pacific conference; or I go to the sociology meetings, and that Latin America meetings; or I go to American Studies and Political Science.

Coleman’s forthcoming article and Miller’s posting seem to demonstrate that Malaby and Burke are right: in both cases anthropologists are writing pieces which suggest a canonization of a study of digital anthropology (or virtual worlds) is under way — or ought to be. The difference is one of tone — Malaby and Burke seem to lament the wild frontier days of game studies while Miller seems to be glad that such studies are becoming Normal Science in anthropology.

I must admit that I am much more sympathetic to Malaby and Burke’s position than Miller’s. I am glad that there are more anthropologists working on virtual worlds now, because this means a larger community of people to talk to. But at the same time there is the danger of academic enclosure (in the ‘of the commons’ sense): an unwillingness to reach out to disciplines, and a chauvinistic sense that only anthropology’s way is the only appropriate way to study the digital.

Obviously, Miller’s brief piece is light years from this sort of exclusionism. But I do think its reading of the present moment is awfully presentist. Miller points to four books — Malaby’s Making Virtual Worlds, Dibbell’s Play Money, Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life, and Kelty’s Two Bits — as marking a particular year for digital anthropology. But Dibbell is not an anthropologist, and if you think his work demonstrates that ethnographic writing of virtual worlds is coming of age, then you must think that coming of age happened a decade ago, when his first (and more ethnographic) book My Tiny Life appeared. Kelty is something wonderful but not exactly what you would call Orthodox Anthropology — he doesn’t have a degree in Just Anthropology, and doesn’t currently teach in an anthropology department. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll claim him as one of my own any day of the week, but Chris’s career is an example of the power of interdisciplinarity in the hands of someone scarily smart, not the disciplinization of digital anthropology. I think what Miller’s post really indicates is that two scholars who were early adopters of virtual worlds caught the Second Life wave before it hit, and then the books appeared shortly after the bubble for enthusiasm for Second Life burst — because that is how long it takes to write books.

I’m worried about origin stories for an anthropology of the digital the searches for a founding moment since such a ‘disciplinary history’ serves to create a ‘workable past’ to allow work to occur in the present (I am trying to reference here the introduction to Don Levine’s Visions of the Sociological Tradition). I have no problem with this as long as we remember such disciplinary histories are presentist and partial, and foreclose alternate imaginings of the past. In a world with such a rich interdisciplinary body of study of digital worlds I’d hate for anthropologists to begin telling each other stories that made us forgetful of great early collections like Wired Women or books such as My Tiny Life, especially when the two Toms (Malaby and Boellstorff) spend so much time in their work reminding us of this earlier tradition.

Of course Miller is a thoughtful scholar and hardly interested in foreclosing possibilities for thinking the past of digital anthropology. But my personal preference would be to look for good work — no matter whether it comes from anthropologists, cultural studies types, or smart fanboys with blogs — as broadly as possible, and to try to imagine as long a history as possible for digital anthropology. My current reading list on virtual worlds includes Tuan Yifu’s Escapism (bizarre and yet compelling), Ritual and Its Consequences by Seligman et. al (which I really like), and I’m making the students in my virtual worlds class this semester read sermons like “Self Reliance” (Emerson), “Transformed Noncomformist” (MLK) and “A Discourse on the Present Vileness of the Body, And Its Future Glorious Change By Christ” (Mather Byles, 1732 — turns out that guy thinks his avatar is going to look more like him than his body does, too).

So in sum, I think the growth of anthropological interest in digital phenomenon is a good thing, but it does have its own potential pathologies, and I also think it has a long prehistory and many interdisciplinary connections which I think it should embrace. Its good to develop a sense of who we are and where we’re going but… let’s make sure we don’t forget who we might be, and where we might have gone.

More on ‘Internet Addiction’

Ren Reynolds over at Terra Nova has a satisfying screed on media coverage of virtual worlds and Internet addiction. Anthropologists often complain about the shallow understandings bench scientists have of human meaning making and socialization, and I have to admit that much of this ire is best directed not at half-cooked scientific theories, but at superficial and banal press coverage of responsible people trying to do their jobs. Reynold’s descriptions of the violence done to the actual facts surrounding video game play brings this point home clearly, as he demonstrates the difficulties some extremely prestigious news sources have had getting their facts straight. For people following the Internet Addiction meme in the past couple of media cycles it is worth checking out.

Can social networking sites make money?

Social networking sites like Youtube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (the Web 2.0 bunch) are not making money. Recently, The Economist wrote about their business model which is, well, not working much:

Web 2.0 still had only one business model, advertising, and the Valley was refusing to admit that only one company (Google) with only one of its products (search advertising) had proved that the model really worked. The older internet firms, Yahoo! and AOL, were doing their best to grab a piece of the action. But the “next big things” were selling negligible advertising, often on one another’s sites. Not one of them has become an advertising success in its own right.

A suggested alternative is for them to make money through the interactions of their users (I don’t know why, but I find it a bit unsettling):

While today, these may not look like great businesses (which hasn’t stopped investors’ willingness to fund them), I’m convinced that the daily interactions of their vast memberships–and their users’ willingness to share their interests, tastes, relationships and intentions, and the massive amounts of data around users’ behavior–will eventually lead to substantial revenues and profits.

These discussions have got me wondering whether we might not be wrong in thinking of the sites in terms of how much money might be made from them. Don’t get me wrong, I use some of them, and I find them very useful, but I think that we should not throw away the idea that they might in fact not lend themselves to being turned into money-making tools.

I did not mean to imply that social networking sites should not be making money, and I did not wish to imply any distaste for money-making. As a person who uses them, and who would like to continue doing so, I would like them to make money so that they can continue operating. This post was meant to suggest that they probably would not make money because their model for generating revenue is largely based on advertising, which, as I noted, is currently not working. Another option would be to charge users for using the sites. I personally do not think this would work because people still view them as a sort of commons, therefore paying for their use might not exactly sit well with the users.

Useful syllabi on virtual worlds and technology

Random cruising around the IntarWeb today I tumbled over two interesting sources for syllabi on virtual worlds and the IntarWeb itself. First, Tom Boellstorff has syllabi on “Culture in Virtual Worlds”:http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/Syllabus-S09%20froshsem.doc and “Culture Power Cyberspace”:http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/Syllabus-Cul-Pow-Cyb-Win-09.doc on his department website. You’ve read the ethnography, now vicariously take the course! Seriously, though, its great for Tom to share these syllabi — circulating syllabi is key to building community and scholarship about topics.

Also, as some of you may know, Polity Press has a series of small introductory readers on blogging, hacking etc. But there is more to it than just that — they have a “website”:http://www.polity.co.uk/digitalmediaandsociety/ that looks like a sort of mini-online community, complete with blog and, yes, “syllabi”:http://www.polity.co.uk/digitalmediaandsociety/syllabi.aspx and “reading resources”:http://www.polity.co.uk/digitalmediaandsociety/resources.aspx. I can’t tell if its a community designed to promote a book series of a book series to promote a community. Its an interesting hybrid of a bunch of different models: group blog, academic book series, “online supplements for your textbooks”, etc.

“An Anthropologist Digs Into WoW”

“WoW Insider”:http://www.wowinsider.com/ recently ran “a longish interview with me”:http://www.wowinsider.com/2009/01/06/15-minutes-of-fame-anthropologist-digs-into-wow/ about my research in the massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft (hence ‘WoW’), and the story has sense gotten picked up by “other fine news sources”:http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/88496-Anthropologist-Studying-Culture-of-WoW-Raiders. It’s been interesting to see the reaction that I’ve had from other people who play the game.

First off — this is the first time I’ve ever shown up in an RSS news feed that I subscribe to! But at a deeper level its interesting to see what people think about my research. The actual guild that I do research has been super supportive, with comments like “im not a big fan of reading things but that was very interesting. Great job!” and “That is a pretty awesome interview. It really does give a lot more insight into what aspects of wow you are focusing on.” One of the big differences between this project and my PNG work is that I am writing while ‘in’ the field, and my ‘informants’ read everything I write (if they can be bothered), and its really nice to know that they support the research — even when they read what you write about them!

As for the larger group of people who read the work, one typical response is that Warcraft is ‘just a game’ so therefore it is an inappropriate object of study. A lot of people who work on MMOGs get this all the time. In my case it drives me particularly nuts, since I am also often told that kinship in Papua New Guinea is also trivial, unimportant, or politically incorrect. So apparently neither ‘traditional’ or ‘cutting edge’ work is appropriate. Ah well, I’ve learned to live with these sorts of views.

More interesting has been the comments that I cannot be doing ‘real’ research because I am enjoying myself while I do it. There is a whiff of ‘its just a game’ in this criticism, but more interestingly there is also the sense that what I am doing can’t be ‘science’ because I am ‘enjoying myself’ while I do it. Is this a way of saying that you can’t be ‘objective’ if you enjoy doing your research? This is funny, since a lot of contemporary science writing (Richard Dawkins, e.g.) is about the joy of doing science and the way it allows you access to the sublime.

A lot of discussion in the comments following the interview focused on whether or not WoW players were a legitimate object of study because they did (or did not) constitute a culture or, in some cases, a ‘subculture’. It is interesting to see whether or not a coherent structure of meaning has sort of been woven around WoW (I think the answer is an obvious yes) but what is even more interesting to me is how quickly my claim to study Americans and American culture seemed to go right by most commentors. I don’t study “World of Warcraft” I study my guild — a group of Americans (and Canadians). I study people. I study what they do online. I do not see them face to face, very often — although I do have dreams of doing a grand tour and having a beer with them all all over the US. But just how much of a deal killer, epistemologically, is the fact that a researcher’s experience of their ‘research subjects’ is mediated? Because if you think all professors must absolutely meet the people they study face to face, you must have a very poor opinion of your local history department.

Overall, however, I’m very grateful and encouraged that the vast majority of the comments have been positive. The overall feeling I get is that there are tons of people in the world playing WoW who understand the tremendous, even life-altering stakes that get read into the game by people who care about it deeply, and it is nice to know that I am not the only person who thinks this about the game.