Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Intimate Ethnography

University deadlines make writing anything nigh completely impossible. A lecturer told me the other day that he was so sick of reading after he graduated that he couldn't even pick up a book to read for pleasure for six months after the end of the university year. I look forward to being able to write entirely at my own leisure again. I'm easing myself into the day with this post, which I've been meaning to write for a few days now - the problems of ethnography. 

A Google 'define: ethnography' search brings up the answer 'the scientific description of the customs of peoples and cultures'. As I'm sure you are aware or can imagine, the idea of anybody writing about anything outside of themselves is problematic. Hell, writing about yourself is problematic. We are all automatically subjected to bias and cultural coding and all sorts of things that immediately begin to detract from our ability to completely understand, on an internal level, something else

But that's fine. In more recent times, to be vague, we have stopped trying to deny this and moved into a space in which we simply acknowledge who we are and what we are bringing with us to the table before we begin to talk about whatever it is we are researching. And that suits me - that seems to make sense. I have attempted to do such myself a number of times in various ways around this blog, and I have found it important to inform those people that I spend any real length of time with in SL about my position in the real world. I also respect privacy: I ask permission before I write about anybody in particular and, a few posts ago, I refrained from making my observations and comments about slavery sim-specific. 

I could write about the problems of ethnography and field-research until I turned blue, but instead I just want to bring up a few points about it, specifically in relation to Second Life.

Here, have a stereotypical image representing the idea of ethnography!
One. According to a website I would never normally dare cite, Second Life had roughly 1 million active users in 2011. That's apparently just under the population of Birmingham, UK (so says a slightly more trustworthy website). I think it would be rare to find all those users logging into the virtual world at one time; in my experience, I'm lucky if I bump into anyone at the times I myself choose to log in. The SL grid survey says that there are 30,592 different active sims (stretches of land/places) in Second Life currently. That's a lot of possible destinations for those 1 million people.

How is any of this related to ethnographic problems, you ask? Because it makes generalisations incredibly difficult. When I say "there are some people in Second Life", or "I have seen in Second Life", "or there are lots of...in Second Life", I am, completely and utterly, generalising. What I mean is that I have seen, with my own virtual eyes, a lot of whatever it is I am commenting on - but even that is problematic. As I have just suggested, I am incredibly lucky if I find anybody on the sims I visit, and I'd be counting on a miracle if I am expecting those avatars not only to want to talk to me, but to be able to do so in a language I am familiar with. I don't think that it would be appropriate to go up to random avatars and ask their what their views are on the purpose of a virtual washing machine.

Also, I have approximately 20 different sims bookmarked, as it were, on my landmark list. That's 20 out of a possible 30,592. Now, I've probably been to a lot more sims than those 20, but I have been to nowhere near all 30,592, and it wouldn't matter even if I had, because those sims are subject to frequent change and deletion. New sims arise. Some sims are private. What I feasibly have access to is very, very limited.

I can also see but a fraction of the sims I do visit. Without a better graphics card, I can only view Second Life on the lowest graphics setting, thus rendering many objects grey and blockish. Streaming sim music (which is not always a great idea) is difficult for my laptop to do without lagging Kitti down to a frame a minute, never mind a second, but that is a whole sensory realm I am thus missing out on. 

Two. The level of customisation available to avatars is such that they could change their entire appearance, and through it their projected personality, from moment to moment. They could jump from science fiction sims to romantic sims to historical replica sims as quickly as it took you to read that. There is, arguably, little tethering anybody to anywhere or anything. It thus becomes difficult - though, of course, not impossible - to define groups, cultures, habits. You don't know when somebody is roleplaying a character or speaking as themselves - and, anyway, that 'self' is mediated by Second Life. Our avatars can become what is referred to in The Matrix as 'residual self image'; we perform how we think we act, we create something that represents how we think we look, or how we might wish we looked. But it is not a straightforward conversion, no matter how honest you might try to be.

A-ha! Another one!
Three. Many non-SL users view SL rather judgementally, and for somebody entering the world for similar reasons to the ones I did, those might be difficult to leave at the door. I was one of a class of around twelve students being asked to try out Second Life, and I am probably the only one still engaging with it. A couple of my classmates dismissed it out of hand, saying that they didn't understand what it 'was for'. That's a potentially dangerous question for anyone studying the arts to raise, but that is by-the-by. 

Writing about SL without establishing some sense of superiority complex, then, can be difficult. Personally, I do not think myself to be superior to other people using SL - hello, I'm now one of those people! - but when writing about slavery, or about why people build washing machines, for example, it is difficult not to come across sounding like I somehow know better. I don't know whether or not I do a good job on that, but it is something I am aware of. 

I only wish to place myself within the debate, be open to the ideas evinced/created by SL, and bring what I know about the world, and what I am learning in my Theatre and Performance Studies degree, to bear on what I am experiencing.

Four. Final point. On this blog, I only write about things that I deem interesting or important. That might not be what you find interesting or important, or what other SL users think is interesting and important. If we held a vote across SL, I doubt that everything I have written about here would prove to be important to many other people. 

The information is being mediated - through what I encounter through my experiences in SL, my own personal bias, my slant as a Theatre student, my choices about what is worth writing up, and then through the way I write it and the way you come to understand my words through your own bias.

Having highlighted the complexity and near impossibly of conveying any real sense of 'truth', I shall now continue as normal. What you are getting here instead is a mix of my truth, as it were, and your own, personal to the both of us. How intimate is that?!

And speaking of intimacy: Happy Valentine's Day!

1 comment:

  1. Kitty - I could sit and read you all day sweetheart. Yes I am bias, but that doesn't detract from the natural ability you have to write and write damn well.

    You can only ever really see things through your own eyes and therefore your own opinions and thoughts about the customs and traditionas of others is going to marred by what is already inside you...It's the same for everyone, thus everything means something different to everyone, and surely therefore, it is about respecting the views and opinions of others.

    I probably make no sense - no change there!
    Happy Valentines back sweetheart.

    I love you & I miss you


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