The Drax Files Radio Hour interviews: defining the real and the virtual

radio-hourEpisode #22 of  The Drax Files Radio Hour was posted on Friday June 6th. With the “live” podcasts currently on hiatus until August 2014, this is the first of a series of more in-depth interviews with people from across Second Life and beyond.

As usual, and as well as being available on the show’s website and on Stitcher, episode #22 is also on YouTube, and embedded at the end of this article.

This first interview show primarily focuses on Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in SL), a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied such subjects as the anthropology of sexuality, the anthropology of globalisation, the anthropology of HIV/AIDS, and linguistic anthropology, publishing numerous books and papers along the way.

Tom has been involved with and in Second Life for over a decade, being one of the early pioneers on the platform, at a time (2004) when there were perhaps 2,000 active SL accounts and concurrency was measured in the hundreds. He has authored and co-authored two notable titles on the subject of virtual worlds in that time, namely Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, (Princeton University Press, 2008), and Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012, co-authored with Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T. L. Taylor).

Tom’s name may also been familiar to some for his involvement in the story of Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade in SL), a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer, whom I wrote about in 2013, and who was also featured in The Drax Files: World Makers segment #13, in November 2013.

Tom Boellstorff (image: Univ. of California)
Tom Boellstorff (image: Univ. of California)

This is a wide-ranging interview, commencing at 05:06 into the recording,  which encompasses, but is not limited to, such diverse but inter-related topics as how we define – or perhaps should define – virtual worlds; the differences (and similarities) between virtual worlds and other digital spaces; the challenges of defining what is meant be “real” and what is meant by “virtual”; and a discussion on communities of intent and their role within Second Life – and SL’s role with them. Along the way there are some thought-provoking challenges to how we perhaps think about SL and how we may actually contribute, to a degree, to the broader misconceptions surrounding SL simply through the language we use when referring to it.

In terms of providing a definition of virtual worlds and virtual environments, Tom offers up the idea that they can be defined as any place or activity which allows you to “go AFK” (away from keyboard) – that is, you can stop interacting with others involved in the same space / place / activity and then return, and whatever was going on prior to your stepping away continues (and perhaps, in some cases, evolves) during your absence, and is still there where you return.

This is something of a mind-boggling concept and definition, particularly when Tom goes on to suggest that the very first virtual environment came about not in the digital era, but in the earliest days of the telephone, when two people were engaged in a conversation, and one momentarily put the telephone handset down to do something, then rejoined the conversation without actually hanging-up. As such, it’s liable to have some frowning at the idea.

However, when taken alongside his comments about place (or the sense of place), one can see where he is coming from. With place entered into the equation (actually, one of the foundations of the discussion), then it is easier to understand his contention, and to agree with his view that standalone games, as immersive to the individual as they may well be,  are not really virtual spaces in the sense that Second Life, or even a Skype call, can be considered virtual spaces. Second life continues after we log-off, the same way that life at either end of Skype call continues after the call ends; stop playing a standalone game, and that’s it, there is nothing else until you start playing it again.

Such definitions of virtual worlds might sound very academic: interesting for a thesis or a book, but with little other meaning. However, as Tom goes on to explain, this is actually not the case:

I actually think it’s very important because it is amazing how much confusion there is out there about all of these technologies. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and confusion, and so … I spend a lot of time doing definitions, and i think it is just as important as the interesting, sexy stories about the cool things people are doing, because if we don’t have a basic understanding of what we’re looking at, it really makes it hard to figure out why its important.

Tom Boellstorff actual and virtual (image by Vanessa Blaylock, via iRez)

It’s a valid point, and one which needs to be understood. As I and others have stated elsewhere, the widespread acceptance and adoption of virtual worlds is not simply going to be a matter of throwing technology at people; nor, as Tom points-out in this interview, is it purely going to be about showing them all the pretty places in-world or how it has affected some of those who use it. The more widespread adoption of worlds like SL is going to be dependent upon presenting people around the world with compelling, understandable reasons why they should want to devote time and attention to virtual spaces, rather than ignoring them or simply delving into Facebook or whatever.  A key part of achieving that is to provide them with a common frame of reference through language and terminology.

The latter portion of the interview includes a fascinating discussion on communities of intent within Second Life, which itself returns to one of the underpinnings of the entire discussions: that of Second Life as a place. Creating an environment which can positively nurture communities of intent is one of those things Second Life very much shares with the Internet and the Web as a whole; there is nothing new in this per se, but what is unique to Second Life, perhaps, is the added depth it provides to such communities, and the impact, they in turn have on the platform and its potential for growth.

There’s a whole lot more going on in the interview than I’ve covered here – I’m simply hoping that if you’ve not taken a listen to the show, what is here will serve to whet your appetite. Certainly, the timing of this interview couldn’t be more appropriate. With so much discussion going on around broadening Second Life’s appeal, providing the means to attract and retain new users and attempts to discuss the idea of community, Tom Boellstorff offers considerable food for thought which is more than worth the time needed to digest all of it.

Following Tom, at the 50:30 mark, there is a brief overview on the upcoming SL11B Community Celebration, which includes a few words from Diana Renoir, Senior Lead for the SL11BCC Land team.