Studying digital cultures in Second Life

Anteater Island

Earlier this month, I wrote about Professor Tom Boellstorff, and his move to teaching his course from the state-of-the-art Anteater Learning Pavilion at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and into Second Life, as a result of the university’s desire to move classes on-line due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (see: Tom Boellstorff: teaching digital culture in Second Life).

As noted in that article, Tom has been teaching a course entitled Digital Cultures (Anthropology 128C), utilising facilities he constructed at Anteater Island, where the students could study collectively and in working groups and also relax and socialise if they so wished.

Around 35 students participated in the course, and as a part of their work, they split into six research groups each one of which selected a specific aspect of digital culture they wished to study. Two of the groups focused on dating apps, one group studied ranking in League of Legends; one group studied the use of TikTok for education; one group studied fashion influencers on Instagram; and one group studied social interactions through virtual spaces an video games, using Animal Crossing as a reference point.

On Tuesday, June 9th, 2020, the six groups were at Anteater island, where they presented the results of their work. I was one of several Second Life users invited to attend the session (as well as it being generally open to all), and I hopped over in advance of the presentation to take a quiet look at the work and chat with Tom and the students.

Professor Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in SL) on the right, with student HannahUrban

Needless to say, it was an incredibly challenging quarter for everyone. Learning Second Life was a challenge for them (we also used Zoom), but of course the big thing was all of the difficulties due to the pandemic, from friends and family losing jobs, to working from their homes or apartments, to the isolation and dislocation. Then on top of that is now the George Floyd protests, in which many of the students have been taking a creative and active role.

So they are exhausted beyond belief, but also have done amazing work. We were originally going to have a room on campus where the groups could show off their research to anyone who wanted to come see. That can’t happen, so we’re doing it in Second Life instead!

– Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in Second Life) commenting on the course
and the move to using virtual / on-line tool sets

Student Michael Shaneman from “Group 5” studying socialisation via virtual spaces and video games, setting up his group’s presentation area.

The students I chatted all indicated they found the experience of using Second Life (none were already familiar with it) to be positive, if at times a little frustrating. Part of the latter was due to the need to look outside of the platform for some collaborative tools such as Google Docs, and part of it was down to UCI mandating the use of Zoom, which encouraged some students to step back from using SL, despite Zoom’s own lack of capabilities, such as break-out rooms.

The presentations themselves were conducted by the students in voice, using web media through a main board, with some of the groups also providing additional infographic boards in their presentation areas. Within each group, students took turns in introducing their project before walking through their methodologies – including direct interview with subject matter specialists, Q&A sessions with users and observational methodologies and then moving on to discuss their findings.

Some of the latter proved interesting. Those studying influencers, for example, noted that while followers tended to be aware they were being manipulated into potentially making a purchase, they nevertheless tended to more actively engage with an influencer and one another to form more of a community when the influencer would be more authentic in their views, outlook and appearance- and this has in turn started to alter how sponsors and brands respond to / use influencers.

Presenting findings in-world

Similarly, the group studying TikTok highlighted the fact that while it is a recent application intended for entertainment, it has taken root among “informal” educators – those wishing to pass on information / offer a means to impart information  – due to its exceptional ease of use and its brevity of video length, the latter of which encourages a precise focus on a subject / message, whilst making the information easy to digest on the part of watchers. They also noted that the platform’s unique approach to interaction and feedback had also served to increase its popularity.

For me, the study looking at virtual spaces and video games as a means of social interaction was the most fascinating. Framed in terms of the pandemic, it really underlines the extent to which perceptions are being changed in terms of how video games with social aspects and virtual spaces can offer beneficial ways for direct, positive interaction between friends and between family members forced apart by the needs of physical distancing, helping to potentially open a new era of communication / interaction.

What was particularly impressive about this entire process is just how well it appears to have worked. From initial need to move to on-line teaching, through the creation of Anteater Island without overly disrupting the students work, through to enabling the study groups to function and bring together a set of engaging and informative presentations, the entire process itself is perhaps a case study in the making – and as I’ve noted, Tom has plans for just that, and I hope to be able to bring word on it in due course.

In the meantime, Anteater Island will remain open for visitors for the next several months, and the students have been invited to add more material if they wish. For those so interested in education in SL, it’s a worthwhile visit, as is following the links below.

My thanks to Tom for keeping me informed on things, and my congratulations to all the students involved in these studies.

Group Presentations

2 thoughts on “Studying digital cultures in Second Life

  1. Thanks so much for this! We really had to be creative with all of the disruptions these last three months, but the students did a fabulous job and were so flexible and innovative. I’m so proud of them!

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    1. Had a great time seeing the work and meeting folk at the event – an incredible set of studies (managed to record the audio from the last one via Zoom if I did have to depart the in-world presentations. Congrats again to all the students and to you, Tom. Looking forward to seeing what comes next!

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