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Fieldwork in Second Life: Theory in Practice

05.10.2010

by Niels de Jong

‚Go forth and do likewise‘
– L. Nader [1]

In a figurative way, ‚ethnography‘ spells ‚doing‘. As fun as it is to read about ‚doing ethnography‘, eventually one has to do it in order to know what it is all about. Luckily we had enough time to practice during the second session of the 4th of August and luckily I can write about it. So in the upcoming 10.000 characters I will share my experience of that session with you all, not only telling you about the bizarre things we encountered but also providing you argue how these practices can be related to the literature.

But first, let me start with some general notes on the ‚verb‘ ‚ethnography‘, especially on doing ethnography in the ‚virtual world‘. In one of the hallmark works on the practices of ethnography which goes by the elucidating title ‚Ethnography: Principles in Practice‘, Martyn Hammersly and Paul Atkinson explain in detail how to ‚do‘ ethnography and what kind of problems one might encounter while ‚doing‘ it. [2] The subjects under investigation are ranging from creating a research design, thinking about foreshadowed problems, getting access, doing fieldwork and writing an ethnography. Although this work is not related to doing ethnography in the virtual world (although they do refer to it on page 137-139), the principles they discuss are easily transferable to the digital world.

For instance, gaining access to the field, doing fieldwork, conducting interviews and writing ethnographies are principles that are the same in real world as well as in the virtual. However, method-wise one could argue that there are differences between doing ethnography offline and online. Boellstorff, for instance, argues that although the practice of being in the field is often the same as in real world, the practices of obtaining data are quite different:

‚[The] ability to do things like saving chat logs and record audio or video is a great boon in comparison to actual-world enviroments where audio recording can be disruptive and one is often forced to rely on memory or hastily handwritten notes.'[3]

However, this ‚boon‘ has a downside. Boellstorff explains:

‚Ethnographers of virtual worlds often face the challenge of filtering through large amounts of data. My own data set constituted over ten thousand pages of fieldnotes from participant observation, interviewing, and focus groups, plus approximately ten thousand additional pages of blogs, newsletters, and other websites.'[4]

So although the method of doing fieldwork in the virtual has a great overlap with real world fieldwork there are substantial differences, especially when it comes to the amount and collection of data, but also ethical considerations. This will be further elaborated below. For, we move from the theoretical aspects of doing ethnography to the practices of fieldwork in Second Life.

Doing Fieldwork in Second Life

Although these theoretical considerations are all very interesting, in the end it is about doing it and experiencing the practices of fieldwork in the virtual world of Second Life. In order to practice a little, the group was divided into three smaller groups who were suppose to find a ritual space in Second Life. While looking for one, my group member Simon found a place where some Residents were about to perform a daily ritual to worship the Goddess (in this case, Artemis, although the chat-logs reveal that many participants worshiped their own Goddess, e.g. Gaia, Hera and Cerridwen), so we decided to join them in the ritual.

The ritual took place inside some sort of square temple with forest-like walls and a starry heaven on the ceiling. Inside the temple there was a square pool with elevated edges on which participants could meditate (the meditation would start automatically as soon as one clicked on the red balls on the side of the pool), facing a statue of a goddess. When I asked how the ritual was to be performed, one of the ritual leaders responded as follows (this quotation was taken from the chat-log):

‚Here’s how devotional works: We start w/the Charge of the Goddess in voice, so make sure you can hear, then in text, we state a single daily intent in the present and assertive tense , then state random gratitudes in random order, just jump on in, ok? After that, we will spin the energy we’ve created, which is also in text (or maybe voice). The entire ritual lasts about half an hour.‘

And this was basically how the ritual was performed: they began by pointing out one of the Priestesses to read out the Charge of the Goddess (unfortunately, I didn’t save the Notecard of the Charge) in voice-chat, after which people randomly gave thanks for what they experienced in the past or made promises to themselves for the upcoming day:

‚[06:13] Worshipper 1: Today I push aside the negativity of the past and step into the positive.
[06:13] Worshipper 2: I will listen to what the Goddess has planned out for me
[06:14] Worshipper 3: I will stay on task today, move in the flow, and remain balanced . I am doing those things that are important to my higher self and I allow for change in my life.
[06:16] Worshipper 4: I am grateful for my ability to keep my house clean, while I have so many visitors‘.[2]

During this phase people were also randomly chatting with each other in the local chat or commenting on each others daily intents, which was not a problem for anyone (at least, not publicly). After speaking out their daily intents, one other priestess was invited to ’spin the energy‘, which was done in text and basically describes the daily intents transform into energy that is spinning around above the pool, turn into crystals which are taken up by the Goddess, who then fills them with Her thoughts and advice, after which She ‚toss[es] the new crystals out into space, these crystals seek out those who need them […] who need their lessons and then merge with the right person, at the right place, in the right time feel infused with ‚Divine love‘. After this ’spinning‘ the participants answered with the sentence ’so mote it be‘ and the ritual leaders were thanked and complemented by the participants.

It is difficult to relate such a short practice of participant observation to the much more comprehensive body of literature about doing ethnography and participant observation. However, a few remarks can be made. First, we never explicitly stated to the participants of the Artemis ritual that we were doing ‚research‘ (i.e. that we would analyze their actions and sayings), but acted as interested ’newbies‘. This method known as ‚lurking‘ might be very convenient, since you don’t have to explain what you do and ask for permission to be there, or run the risk of being kicked out the the island. On the other hand, there are some ethical considerations involved in doing ‚lurking research‘, for instance when it comes to asking permission for an interview, which officially should be done with a consent stating that the interviewee understands what is going on and gives permission.

Furthermore, some might not even like being studied. Second, one of the major problems of virtual ethnography is the vast amount of data that can be collected. As said above, in ‚real world‘ ethnography the researcher is forced to focus because not everything can be written down, but in a virtual world, chat-logs can be saved and websites can be copy/pasted. This means that after a few years of fieldwork in a virtual world, the amount of data can run to tens of thousand of pages of data, which has to be analyzed as well. Besides that, what I encountered in doing our fieldwork practice was that it was hard to write down the movements of the participants and at the same time keep up with the discussion, so in the end the field notes mainly consisted of chat-logs and not really of notes on ‚bodily‘ movements. In ‚real world‘ ethnography, keeping up with actions is much more easily than keeping up with the spoken part.

Although these remarks are far from exhausting, what can be said that an important part of considering methods of fieldwork in the virtual is that the researcher should constantly reflect his or her actions in order to improve the methods of virtual ethnography.

Conclusion

In this essay I tried to relate theory of ethnography on both the ‚real world‘ and the ‚virtual world‘ with the practice of doing ethnography in Second Life. Using the example of the Artemis ritual, I tried to reflect on some of the methodological issues involved in doing research in Second Life. However, these are my personal notes on my personal experiences with the field, and things could be very different for other researchers. It is therefore wise to keep up with the discussion concerning methodological issues, and not to take the experiences of other researchers at face value.
Thus, in the end, there is only one piece of advice to experience the relationship between reading about ‚doing ethnography‘ and actually ‚doing‘ it. And for this last piece of advice I would like to let someone else speak:


Kurtis Blow, from 5.20-5.38.

Notes

  1. Nader, L. ‚From anguish to exultation‘, in P. Golde (ed.), Women in the Field: Antropological Experiences (Berkeley, Calif.; University of Calif. Press 2nd ed. 1986), 89.
  2. Hammersly, Martyn & Paul Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice (New York & London; Routledge 3rd ed. 2007).
  3. Boellstorff, Tom, Coming of Age is Second Life (Princeton & Oxford; Princeton University Press 2008) 75.
  4. Ibidem, 75.
  5. Needless to say, all the screen-names of the participants in Second Life are changed to assure they remain anonymous. Furthermore, typo’s a left in the quotations.
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