Second Life COVID-19: a Digital Cultures survey

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

In July of this year, I wrote about Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in Second Life), a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) who has a long history of engagement with, and the study of, virtual worlds and environments, who was then launching a new study, The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission (see: Second Life & COVID-19: a Digital Cultures study – call for participants).

This work, supported by National Science Foundation, in part grew out of a broader study Tom and his students had been conducting into the role of virtual environments and applications and their impact on those using them (see: Studying digital cultures in Second Life, June 2020), and which itself had suffered disruption during the pandemic, forcing Tom and his students to turn to digital tools.

The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission has involved to platforms: Animal Crossing and Second Life – with the latter being used for a series of open discussions among Tom and his students and Second Life residents interested in attending.

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 Boellstorf, discussing The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures
in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission
, July 2020

Those meetings are still on-going at the UCI Irvine’s Anteater Island every Thursday at 10:00 SLT, however, on November 14th, Tom dropped me a line asking me to help in encouraging Second Life users to also participate in an on-line survey that also forms a part of the study. Unfortunately, an on-going family situation in the physical world prevented me for actually noting Tom’s request – so my apologies to him and his team for my tardiness in only writing about it at this point in time.

The survey should take around 10-15 minutes to complete, and is given the following purpose / description:

We are studying what people are doing in Second Life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic [to gain a] better understanding this might provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing. It might also help us better respond to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter. We would love to learn about your experiences!

From The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission survey

It is not an anonymous survey – you will be asked to give your avatar name and an e-mail address – but none of the questions are deeply intrusive, and focus on activities and interactions through Second Life.

Anteater Island  (landing point) – the location for the weekly discussions

Second Life residents who would like to complete the survey can do so here.

You can also learn more about the study to the website.

Links to Tom Boellstorff in this Blog

SLurl Details

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

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

Our Digital Selves: film festival nominee

via Monarch Film Festival

The Monarch Film Festival is an annual event held in Pacific Grove, California. It is intended to not only showcase the latest in International blockbuster achievements, but to also be a place where local filmmakers of any age can show their artistic vision on the big screen.

Among this year’s entrants in the Festival is Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is me, the documentary by Brenard “Draxtor Despres” Drax, the film focus on the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life), who for three years were engaged in  studying the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using immersive virtual spaces to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

Released in May 2018, the film tells the story of 13 global citizens and their avatars as they transcend their various disabilities through artistic expression and making a home for themselves in the VR Metaverse – Second Life, Sansar and High Fidelity. You can read more about the film and Donna and Tom’s work in my articles: Our Digital Selves: living within a virtualised world (2018) and Exploring disability, new cultures and self in a virtual realm (2016).

As a part of this year’s Monarch Film Festival, Our Digital Selves is in the running for Best Documentary. As such, the film will be shown on Friday, December 7th, 2018: 5:35 PM, Pacific Time, And those wishing to attend in person can purchase tickets view the link at the start of this paragraph. For those who cannot see the film at the festival, it can be seen via Draxtor’s You Tube channel, and I’ve embedded it below as a reminder – if you’ve not see it before, now it your chance to catch up with a truly remarkable documentary.

The other nominees for Best Documentary at the festival are:

  • Moksha, by Jennifer Killian, a film that follows three Nepali women who have dedicated themselves to spreading the joy that mountain biking can give to women across the Himalayas.
  • Up to Snuff by  Mark Maxey, following the life of American musician and composer W.G. Snuffy Walden.
  • Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? by Zachary Stauffer, recording the efforts of Nicole Van Dorn to discover what actually happened in the helicopter accident that killed her husband, Lt. Wes Van Dorn.
  • Rodents  of Unusual Size by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer, tracing the work of fisherman Thomas Gonzales as he faces the threat of hordes of monstrous 20 pound swamp rats that are eating up the coastal wetlands that protects Thomas and his town of Delacroix Island from hurricanes.

Congratulations to Drax and all involved in Our Digital Lives, and wishing them all the best for the film festival.

Related Links

With thanks to Eliot for the heads-up.

Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves

We all have blood. We all feel. We all matter. We are all different.

– Shyla the Super Gecko (KriJon)

Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me  is a new video documentary by Draxtor Despres, which officially unveiled on Thursday, May 17th, to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

It’s a powerful 74-minute piece which, as Draxtor himself notes, “Was supposed to be a slightly extended episode of The Drax Files World Makers,” but which, “ballooned into a dense investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar in Second Life and next generation virtual worlds like High Fidelity and Sansar.”

The documentary grew out of a desire to follow the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski  and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). For the last three years, Tom and Donna have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Selfand more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.

I first covered this study in Exploring disability, new cultures and self in a virtual realm, back in 2016, when I outlined Donna and Tom’s examination of the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using Second Life to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

How is the internet changing the ways people think of themselves as individuals and interact as members of communities? Many are currently investigating this important question: for this project, the researchers are focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in “virtual worlds,” three-dimensional, immersive on-line spaces where people with disabilities can appear any way they choose and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

– Donna Davis and Tom Boellstorff introducing Virtual Worlds,
Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self

Using in-world meetings and discussion groups, Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography, and Tom –  a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – set about engaging with Second Life users. Through these sessions they explored the many facets in living with a disability, people’s reactions to those with disabilities, and the experiences those with a wide range of physical and other disabilities – the ability diverse, as Donna notes – find within virtual spaces.

Donna Z Davis and Tom Boellstorff (Tredi Felisimo and Tom Bukowski in Second Life), co-researchers in Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, supported by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Oregon; and the National Science Foundation.

Covering enormous ground over the three years – including providing participants with virtual space in-world at Ethnographia Island where they might express themselves and their relationship with their condition – Virtual Worlds, Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self is perhaps best described as a voyage of discovery and revelation for all those involved – researchers, participants and observers alike. And it is this voyage that the documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me encapsulates.

The documentary focuses on thirteen participants in the study who, along with their avatars  transcend their various disabilities through artistic expression and making a home for themselves in the digital realm.

Starting with the idea of freedom through embodiment that environments like Second Life offers as a result of the almost entirely free-form way in which we can express ourselves through our avatars visually free from the disabilities or imperfections that might otherwise define us, the film moves onto the concept of being rooted to a place, and the idea that having that space allows us to further define and extend who we are. This idea of “emplacement”, as Tom calls it leads to an initial exploration of the places the study participants built on Ethnographia Island.

Jadyn Firehawk, one of the original participants in the study – and who first notified me about it in January 2016 – before her installation ” Reconstructing Identity After Disability”, Ethnographia Island, 2016

It is here that the personal stories begin to unfold, with Jadyn Firehawk describing what those of us blessed with sound minds and bodies might take for granted in ourselves those around us:  performing every day tasks when living with an invisible disability. It’s easy enough to show understanding and compassion – and make allowances for – those with physical disabilities. Yet how often do we (if only silently) question or shy away from those with mental / emotional disabilities when they raise the subject of their health, simply because we don’t see physical evidence of their disability?

These stories are fascinating, moving, and deeply revealing studies; not only in terms of those relating them, but also in what they say about the sheer power of a platform like Second Life to imbue creativity, to form relationships, to encourage our desire to push past barriers – physical, mental, personal and societal – and even to re-grant the authority for us to control our identity and how much of it we choose to reveal to others.

In this, the video not only covers matters of personal representation of self when living with a disability, but covers wider issues of identity, revealing who we are, have the right of control over what is revealed to others about ourselves. In the age of Facebook, Google, data gathering, Cambridge Analytica style activities, this is an issue that reaches far beyond what might be seen as the “core” subject matter of the study – be which nevertheless is part and parcel of the idea of embodiment; one which does affect us all.

The stories revealed through the film are moving, insightful – and revelatory; not “just” because of what they reveal about the participants, but in the way it can cause measures of self-reflection and encourages thoughts on our own virtual embodiment: what it means to us, how it exercises our desire for growth, etc.

Continue reading “Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves”

Our Digital Selves: living within a virtualised world

Coming to a screen near you in 2018  – and not to be missed. Via: Draxtor Despres

In 2016 I wrote about the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski  and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). Since 2015 Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography – and Tom –  a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled  Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Selfand more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.

Their work, which will continue through into 2018, focuses on the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using immersive virtual spaces to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

Donna Z Davis and Tom Boellstorff (Tredi Felisimo and Tom Bukowski in Second Life), co-researchers in Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, supported by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Oregon; and the National Science Foundation.

The work encompasses many aspects – physical, mental, technical, for example – of occupying both a physical space and a digital environment when living with both visible and invisible disabilities – the benefits that can be enjoyed, together with the potential risks / fears. Some of these aspects, particularly the more positive, are perhaps familiar to us: the power of being defined by who we are as a person, rather than in terms of a disability; the freedom presented by the ability to embody ourselves within an avatar howsoever we like, and so on. Other may not have been fully recognised for the fear they can create; while the “new era” for VR system may well be liberating for the able, it can be a frightening / debilitating threat for some with disabilities.

Given the extent of the study, it obviously crosses the physical / digital divide.  There have been experiments and discussions in-world. And there have been real-world interactions between Tom and Donna and those participating in the study.

One of those who has been following the study closely is Draxtor Despres. He has featured Tom’s work in The Drax Files World Makers, and is now engaged in producing a documentary  – also entitled Our Digital Selves – about the study, travelling with Donna and Tom to meet some of those participating in the work. While not due for release until early 2018, the first official trailer for the documentary was made public on Tuesday, October 11th, 2017.

Members of the study meet in-world. Credit: Draxtor Despres

“I’m not sure how long the finished piece will be,” Drax informed me in an exclusive one-to-one about the trailer and the film. “I’m aiming for around 40 minutes, but am currently editing an hour-long cut. It’s a massive project. We’ve been travelling across the United States and across the Atlantic meeting with people and interviewing them.”

It’s a massive undertaking; Drax goes on to note that there are around 15 participants in the study who have been involved in the filming, and he has around 3 hours of recording with each. Some of this was necessary simply to get to know people and overcome perfectly natural barriers – shyness, nervousness, and so on – and establish trust; however, it still means there is a lot which needs to be synthesised into a cohesive whole, whilst also doing justice to the stories of all of those volunteering to participate in the film.

Part of the study has involved participants being provided with a 32m x 32m parcel on Ethnographia Island which they could use to share their experiences, insights, and thoughts on their disability. Shown here, Jadyn Firehawk sands before her exhibition space (May 2016).

Nevertheless, the first public trailer does much to establish the structure of the documentary and present an accessible framework against which the broader story will naturally unfold.

This promises to be one of the most engaging, moving and informative documentaries on virtual living, embodiment and personal expression since, perhaps, Login2Life, and something that should not be missed once available. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the trailer  – and the hope that, subject to feedback from Donna, Tom, Drax and those involved the work, I’ll be able to bring more on the documentary and the study in the run-up to the release of the completed film.