"Second Life is their only chance to participate in religious rituals": This seven year old post about the research by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff on the virtual world Second Life came into my mind when I heard about the new special issue "Religion in Digital Games" of the interdisciplinary Open access journal "Online. Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet".
The journal is published by the Institute of Religious Studies at the University of Heidelberg and has just been relaunched and redesigned.
Religion in online games seems to be still a new topic in the university world.
"Until now this certainly huge field of research remains mostly untapped and digital games have only recently been declared an interesting object for scholars of religion", Simone Heidbrink, Tobias Knoll, and Jan Wysocki write in their contribution "Theorizing Religion in Digital Games- Perspectives and Approaches".
As universities generally are conservative institutions, Simone Heidbrink and Tobias Knoll start their introduction with an apology for leaving established paths:
When researching a rather new, unusual or controversial topic in nowadays academia it seems to be a new kind of “tradition” to apologize in great length for doing something the scholar thinks the readerships thinks he is not supposed to study (or something equally confusing along those lines), based on the assumption that it is scientifically unworthy, insignificant or plain nonsense. That was our experience with the topic at hand. (…)
In order to follow the apparently mandatory academic ritual of apologizing and legitimizing, we would herewith like to express our deepest regrets for publishing this special issue of Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet topics on “Religion and Digital Games. Multiperspective and Interdisciplinary Approaches”.
Religion plays a role in many games, as Simone Heidbrink, Tobias Knoll, Jan Wysocki show. This is also true for religious stereotypes that might be reproduced in "neglected media" like video games in more explicit forms - partly because these media are considered to be less relevant in cultural discourse and thus less subject to media critique.
They refer among others to Vít Šisler who in his research shows how Muslims are being stereotyped in different video games. The topic of the Middle East as war zone and virtual battleground has become even more significant in the post 9/11 era. Not only have the numbers of games with an objective of fighting terrorism increased significantly according to him. The stereotyping, the “othering” of the (virtual) Muslim counterpart have become even more racist as well.
Michael Wesch and his Digital Ethnography Research Team of 2011 has released Visions of Students Today: an exciting “video collage” about student life created by students themselves.
The collage consists of a large number of vidoes that can be watched seperately by clicking directly on the thumbnails (or on YouTube). Each of the students has been working for months to put together their own vision.
Striking: Several students criticize the current education system… (here the video by Derek Schneweis)
and call for a change (video by Haley Marceau)
One of the aims of the project is to enhance the students and the public’s media literacy in the digital age and to prevent that “many of the basic freedoms we have become accustomed to” as for example net neutrality", sharing and mixing (…) may be stripped away without the public even noticing".
It’s always refreshing when anthropologists challenge wideheld assumptions, for example about video- and onlinegames. Many video game studies focus on the negative and addictive aspects of game play.
In two recent studies, Jeffrey Snodgrass and his team show, that video game playing can be healthy.
In a press release, the anthropologist says:
The idea is that if you lose yourself, you escape. So it’s deeply relaxing, what some gamers describe as akin to meditation, or at other times positively challenging and stimulating, like a great chess match where you’re actually one of the pieces, and we show that there are strong associations between these various states of consciousness and the game’s health benefits.
But it is important to note that the escape must be controlled and temporary to be positive so that it leads to rejuvenation rather than simple problem avoidance, which in the end only increases the experience of stress.”
He hopes that people will start to understand that addiction is only one side of video game usage.
According the press release, “both articles are currently available online". That’s true, but they’re behind a pay wall.
For the second time, Associated Press has engaged anthropologists in order to improve its services. The first research project, conducted by Context-Based Research Group, revealed that people - contrary to what AP believed - wanted more breadth and depth instead of short blasts of news. The new study shows that news consumers want a two-way conversation instead of one-way bombardment:
It is not just that people feel overloaded. As consumers, they long for a better way to communicate with information providers – news companies and advertisers alike. They want that communication to be two-way, transparent and honest. They seek a new relationship that is built on trust, not simply on the value of the content or advertising itself.
“You have to socialize the space before you can monetize it,” Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist for Context, concluded. “The solution is not just to create more engaging content, but to create better environments for engaging with content.”
In the report, Blinkoff used Victor Turner’s concept “Communitas” - something that APs Vice President Jim Kennedy Vice President called “an interesting bit of cultural theory":
He called Communitas a time of egalitarian information sharing which can be harnessed to rebuild trust between information providers and consumers. He likened Communitas to the social networking phenomenon online, where consumers feel comfortable engaging with information among their friends and peer groups. (…) With Communitas, there is no such thing as one-way communication. There are only two-way conversations that inspire loyalty and trust, and those are key ingredients with the power to cut through the clutter of the Internet.
Both studies are based on ethnographic research methods. The researchers tracked and analyzed the behavior of individuals in their work and home environments.
AP seems to be fascinated by anthropological methods. “One of the keys to understanding how to address the situation", AP writes, “has been the extraordinary insight enabled by the Context methodology":
Context does ethnographic research, meaning it studies small groups of people up close to get at the root of their behavior. That “Deep Structure,” as Context calls it, opens up a view of how companies can respond to cultural changes that aren’t so obvious on the surface.
I found one more report on Context’s website called Grounding the American Dream: An Ethnographic and Quantitative Study on the Future of Consumerism in a Changing Economy where they “portray a society and culture going through a “rite of passage” and moving into an era where we measure the quality of our lives in social terms before economic ones".
How can businesses profit from social media? How does social media challenge what is regarded as “value” in the business world? Anthropologist Lene Pettersen discusses these and other questions in her paper “The impact of social media for business“.
Lene Pettersen, one of the few web2.0-anthropologists in Scandinavia, sent me this article that she previously has published on Slideshare
‘Value’ in a strong economic sense is challenged by social media as a door opener for influence that the organizations should take seriously. (…) The market is a part of individual and collective projects where emotions and identities are expressed, and can therefore not be defined by monetary values alone (Olsen 2003). (…)
The virtual market isn’t a huge collection of passive consumers; it is represented by networks of people having meaningful dialogues and interaction with both each other and the businesses as such, and represents new ways of market power. (…) By mapping different social media applications that are used for interaction we will receive great insight of benefits from different social media tools, technology as such and give important knowledge of how social media can be used by companies and organizations for innovation.
For businesses to be successfull they have to establish a good reputation. She quotes anthropologist Tian Sørhaug who states that “we no longer can divide production from consumption, because it is difficult to separate the person and the product. In these online times we all are dependent on our reputation.”
Pettersen draws our attention to a kind of “honor culture” among bloggers and compares it to the Kula exchange:
In social media we can recognize how highly respected bloggers receive respect from others. In parallel to honor cultures, where public reputation is more important than one’s self esteem, bloggers achieve huge respect within their community (Pettersen 2009). Anette Weiner showed in her studies of the Trobriand people how transaction of the kula (a type of shell) with people’s kula network didn’t have a solely economic value, but that knowledge, high status, and even sorcery help kula players claim success and circulate their fame (Weiner 1988:156).
>> download the paper (pdf)
How do people in Britain use the internet? How do they behave online? The new Digital Anthropology Report. The Six Tribes of Homo Digitalis gives some answers.
The British communication company Talk Talk sent researchers from the University of Kent into the homes of people around the UK to ask them questions about their attitudes towards digital technology and to watch them use it. They also commissioned anthropology professor David Zeitlyn to analyse the findings.
They found that “homo digitalis” consists of Six Tribes with very different attitudes, usage patterns and modes of behaviour. Some of these tribes have embraced technology and put it at the centre of their lives. For other tribes, “the internet” is a rather frightening jungle.
The E-ager Beavers are the largest tribe by quite a distance, with 29% of the UK adult population. They use the internet heavily, but they are more passive users. They lack the confidence or the drive to get involved with uploading their own content or producing their own blogs.
The Timid Technophobes are the second largest group (23%). They have only limited internet skills and will only use it when they really need to. They still prefer to use pen and paper and prefer to send and receive letters. They don’t read blogs and are not interested in facebook either.
The tribe of the Digital Extroverts (9%) consists of people who are “always-on". They are active bloggers, use twitter, flickr etc. “Regularly updating their online profile is as much a part of their daily routine as eating.” The ability to interconnect and share data is a prerequisite.
According to Zeitlyn, your willingness to embrace technology and integrate it into your life will dictate your success in life far more than your social class will. As class structures change quickly, he writes in his analysis, the extent to which people use social networking and promote themselves online will become more important in determining their careers than what school or university they went to.
>> read the whole report (nice presentation with quiz and videos!)
After 30 months ethnographic fieldwork on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites, danah boyd has finally completed her PhD-thesis and put it online. Although she is no anthropologist, she seems to have worked like an anthropologist. Her thesis is relevant reading for anybody who is interested in the anthropology of childhood - especially in children’s relations to adults.
For children spend so much time on Facebook or MySpace ("networked publics") partly because they are marginalized in their society by adults, she explains in the concluding chapter:
One of the most notable shifts I observed in the structural conditions of today’s teens, compared to those of earlier decades, involves their limited opportunities for unregulated, unstructured social interaction.
When asked, teens consistently reported that they would prefer to socialize in physical spaces without constant parental oversight. Given that this is not an option for many of them and that many have more access to networked publics than to unmediated public spaces, social network sites are often an accepted alternative.
Their desire to connect with others is too frequently ignored or disregarded, creating a context in which many must become creative in making space for maintaining connections outside the control of adults. (…) Through the use of technology, teens are able to socialize with others from inside the boundaries of their homes. This presents new freedoms for teens, but it also provokes new fears among adults.
The teen years are marked by an interest in building new connections and socializing broadly. Online-activites are extensions of offline-activites. Teens’ engagement with social network sites reveals a continuation of earlier practices inflected in new ways, she writes.
My findings show that teens are drawn to social media collectively and that individuals choose to participate because their friends do. The appeal is not the technology itself—nor any particular technology— but the presence of friends and peers.
boyd draws many interesting parallels and comparisons:
Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur enters the public to see and be seen. Teenagers approach publics in a similar vain. Like the flâneur, teens use fashion to convey information about their identities.
Teens have long struggled to find a place for themselves; they have consistently formed counterpublics within broader structures. Yet when they do, adults typically demonize them, the identity markers they use, and the publics they co-opt. The demonization of MySpace is akin to the demonization of malls and parking lots that took place when I was growing up.
The inability to access publics is an explicit reminder of teens’ marginalized position within society according to danah boyd:
When well-intentioned parents limit access to publics out of fear of potential dangers, they fail to provide their children with the tools to transition into adult society. This may have other unexpected consequences, including isolating teens from political life and curbing their civic engagement. I believe that the practice of maximum control and restrictions infantilizes teenagers, making them more dependent on or resentful of adults and adult society.
In learning how to make sense of publics that are different from those with which their parents are comfortable, teenagers reveal valuable techniques for interpreting and reworking publics. Their experiences provide valuable insight for understanding how publics are transformed by structural forces.
The key is for adults, and society more broadly, to engage with these issues and help guide teens in making healthy decisions that allow them to leverage social media in positive ways as part of their everyday lives.
Her thesis reminded me of Mari Rysst’s thesis on the (presumed) “sexualisation of childhood” and the notion of the “pure childhood".
I’ve only read the last chapter of boyd’s thesis.
By the way: As a famous blogger, danah boyd’s blog post on her thesis has received more than 40 comments within two days. Furthermore, there a numerous blog posts about her thesis already.
Many adults worry that children are wasting time online, texting, or playing video games. In the first in-depth ethnographic study of its kind, researchers of the Digital Youth Project found that the digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression.
According to the report, youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration. Rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, the researchers question what it would mean to think of it as a process guiding youths’ participation in public life more generally.
The report was presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco and is availbable online, as anthropologist Mizuko Ito, who lead the research, announced on her blog.
The major findings:
Youth use online media to extend friendships and interests.
They can be always “on,” in constant contact with their friends through private communications like instant messaging or mobile phones, as well as in public ways through social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook. With these “friendship-driven” practices, youth are almost always associating with people they already know in their offline lives. The majority of youth use new media to “hang out” and extend existing friendships in these ways.
Youth engage in peer-based, self-directed learning online.
In both friendship-driven and interest-driven online activity, youth create and navigate new forms of expression and rules for social behavior. By exploring new interests, tinkering, and “messing around” with new forms of media, they acquire various forms of technical and media literacy. By its immediacy and breadth of information, the digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning.
New media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting. Youth are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults. Their efforts are also largely self-directed, and the outcome emerges through exploration, in contrast to classroom learning that is oriented by set, predefined goals.
“This was a large ethnographic project by far the most challenging and rewarding research project I’ve undertaken so far", Mizuko Ito writes. She is particularly proud of the shared report, which was “a genuinely collaborative effort, co-authored by 15 of us on the team, and including contributions from many others":
We took a step that is unusual with ethnographic work, of trying to engage in joint analysis rather than simply putting together an edited collection of case studies. We spent the past year reading each others interviews and fieldnotes, and developing categories that cut across the different case studies. Each chapter of the book incorporates material from multiple case studies, and is an effort to describe the diversity in youth practice at it emerged from a range of different youth populations and practices.