Second Life & COVID-19: a Digital Cultures study – call for participants

Tom Boellstorff and his digital alter ego, Tom Bukowski (image: Steve Zylius / UCI): launching a new study in Second Life

Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in Second Life) is a name that frequently pops-up in these pages. A Professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Tom has a long association Second Life as a part of his research – which has in the past produced two books – 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). Most recently, I covered the transfer of his classes at UCI from the physical classroom to Second Life (see Tom Boellstorff: teaching digital culture in Second Life) and the result of that effort (see: Studying digital cultures in Second Life).

On Thursday, July 9th, 2020, Tom will be initiating a new round of weekly discussions on the subject of digital interactions and the impact of the SARS-CoV-2  / Covid-19 pandemic – and he is seeking the input of Second Life residents.

These discussion sessions form the core of a new study Tom is running, supported by the National Science Foundation, and which he explains thus:

The title of the study is The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission, and it is intended to examine the role of virtual cultures in the prevention of COVID-19 transmission.

As we know, this pandemic has been reshaping on-line interaction; as many have noted, what we call “social distancing” is really physical distancing, and because of it, an unprecedented number of people have been socialising on-line, in new ways and for new purposes. A better understanding of these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness on-line. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.

– Professor Tom Boellstorff

Anteater Island: landing point

Central to the project is the examination of the implications of virtual worlds for new digital cultures, and a drive to answer questions such as how do such shared spaces using directed interactions through avatars transform things like intimacy, collaboration, the formation and extension of friendships, and help to expand cultural and social understanding / engagement.

Answers to questions like these might provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission, by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing. It will also help us better respond to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter in the wake of COVID-19.

– Professor Tom Boellstorff

Sessions will be held every Thursday (unless otherwise stated) starting at 10:00am SLT at Anteater Commons, the central social area within Anteater Island. The series will open with a discussion on the subject of distance itself, with the session’s introductory notes stating:

One phrase we have learned since the beginning of the pandemic is “social distancing.” But as many have noted, this really means “physical distancing”; new social intimacies are forming on-line. How are they different from our on-line interactions before COVID-19?

And what does “distance” mean anyway? From its beginnings, the internet has been a technology to reduce distance. How is “distance” in Second Life different from “distance” on Facebook, Zoom, or email? How do we experience distance and closeness in Second Life, and how might this transform what we mean by “social distancing?”

Second life residents who would like to participate in the study are invited to join Tom and his research assistants on Anteater Island. Those attending should note:

  • Session are planned to last one hour, and will be held in Voice and local chat.
    • There is no requirement for attendees to use Voice if they do wish to, comments in local chat are acceptable.
    • However, attendee should have Voice enabled so they can hear all that is being said.
  • As this is part of a formal study, sessions will be recorded and text transcripts saved to help with the production of notes, etc., after each session. Screen shots may also be taken during sessions.
  • If any names, etc., of attendees are to be subsequently used in publication, permission to use names (avatar or personal name) will be sought. Those who are quoted will have the option of reviewing any statements they made  to ensure they are happy with their use.
  • The usual Second Life Community Standards / Terms of Service rules apply regarding use of language, avoidance of harassment, rudeness, etc.

I hope to be at least least some of the discussions, and may also be reporting on them and other aspects of the study through these pages.

Links to Tom Boellstorff in this Blog

SLurl Details


4 thoughts on “Second Life & COVID-19: a Digital Cultures study – call for participants

  1. Reblogged this on Thar She Blows! and commented:
    Inara blogs:
    “On Thursday, July 9th, 2020, Tom (Boellstorff )will be initiating a new round of weekly discussions on the subject of digital interactions and the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 / Covid-19 pandemic – and he is seeking the input of Second Life residents.”

    You might now professor Boelstorff as Tom Bukowski in SL, one of the more prominent avies in our little big pixelated world.

    The project sounds fascinating, so why don’t we participate, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow—thanks so much for this shoutout, Inara! We’re making this up as we go along a bit lol, because this pandemic is so beyond what we could have imagined a few months ago, but we’re going to do our best to make it cool and would love to talk to anyone!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A heads-up reminder that the weekly Digital Cultures meeting won’t be happening this week (3rd September). The meetings are planned to continue. As always, watch the in-world Digital Cultures group

    A couple of real-world things in the UK which might be relevant: the schools are reopening, and there’s pressure for people to go back to offices, rather than continue to work from home. Will these change things? It’s maybe something we British SL residents can report on next week, but that may be a little early. I find myself wondering if virtual worlds, generally, are affected by the mass of questionable news, misreported or outright fake. How do we decide who to trust. Does it matter that we don’t claim to be human?

    Liked by 1 person

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