Hi! I'm an academic in Australia. I teach English Education and my research interests include new literacies, digital fiction, fan fiction, blogging, identity, pop culture, computer games, systemic linguistics, feminism and young people online. Recently I have been teaching and researching in the virtual world of Second Life, where I am known as Anya Ixchel.
My friend Silelf pointed me to this article in the Uk Register, and article which challenges the lack of avatars of colour in Second Life. The writer comments:
But one feature struck me immediately, and hard, when I first joined the game: the whiteness of it all. I almost never ran into a black person. Even in the “urban contemporary” and Caribbean clubs, one has to search persistently for a glimpse at a suntan.
Second Life residents will turn their avatars into any form imaginable: they’ll gladly make themselves aliens, cartoons, animals, even insects. But not Negroes.
and then she goes on to explore the notion of class:
A myth that I hear repeated by residents is that SL reflects life, because people create it. People like sex, so there’s plenty of sex. People like gambling, so there’s gambling. People like music, so there’s music. People like art, so there’s art.
I’ve found this to be quite naive. SL reflects a slice of life: a very white, Protestant, progressive, bourgeois slice. I can’t recall if it was in Paul Fussell’s Class, or Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook that I encountered the fine observation that it is the upper middle classes who typically play at life.
The idea of playing at life comes to us from the middle and upper-middle classes, where leisure time and income come together in a fairly good ratio. The rest of us are either too enervated by the constant demands of noblesse oblige and tax avoidance, or too busy scrambling to pay the rent on time, to give much thought to play.
She concludes with this:
Second Life is perhaps the whitest environmet I’ve ever experienced, and the most middle-class: I’m hard pressed to recall a single conversation with an undeucated resident. By and large, everyone is playing, and everyone has a fairly healthy bank account, as the basic costs of entry - even for a free account - are dictated by some rather pricey computing paraphernalia. Everyone is concerned with arts and science, and speaks with pride about information technology; everyone likes to learn; everyone believes in progress. It is, literally, an online white suburban paradise.
Because one of my key research areas is identity, and commentary on race and class in virtual worlds fascinates me. There is a long tradition of research which suggests that the internet perpetuates stereotypes of gender, race and class. And I think the author is right about many aspects of Second Life culture here. One of the most interesting articles I have read on the SL news blog New World Notes was the one called “The Skin You’re In“, which recounted the way one woman felt silenced and marginalised once she adopted a dark skin. Other stories of course countered this one, with people saying that race is just not an issue in SL.
I think race is an issue though - how could it not be? But not perhaps (only) in the ways people might think. So let me just add a couple of my own reflections to the race debate.
(Photo credit: Slatenight)
The first point is that I have and do see groups of dark skinned avatars. Not many to be sure, but a few. Contrary to what this author said, some of the people I met wearing dark skins were not African American in their real life. The most visible case of this is the one of artist Filthy Fluno. Filthy has appropriated the African American skin to develop his “ghetto-rap-gangsta” persona - an entirely fictional persona given that in his own words he is “just some white Jewish guy” - to sell his art work. And not surprisingly, he became famous within weeks of launching this identity, selling his virtual art pieces for L$6000 + each, and gaining notoriety and attention in a number of resident in house news sources and magazines. He was interviewed by the Boston Globe, who seemed to delight in his identity play, foregrounding the following:
In real life, Jeff Lipsky is an ordinary-looking white guy — 35 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, thinning hair, T-shirt and jeans — who creates abstract drawings in his Tyngsborough townhouse. Online, in the lush, three-dimensional, user-created universe called Second Life, he’s the cartoon character Filthy Fluno, a bearded, wide-bodied, wild-tressed, fang-toothed, black gallery owner who sells virtual versions of his drawings to other denizens of this virtual world.
Everybody in fact seems to falling over backwards to get a piece of Filthy - and I suspect that it has less to do with his art work and more to do with his colourful identity. His adoption of the persona goes beyond the avatar and into his carefully crafted language, also appropriated from urban ghetto style slang: “Move over Degas, Da Filth is Here. Word” is a slogan on the notecard accompanying each piece of artwork. And don’t get me wrong, I like his artwork, and I even bought some - before I had ever met him or knew about his persona.
I think in the past it has been the Oriental that has been exoticised and “consumed” by the white in shades of post-colonialism. Certainly this has been evident in Second Life with every single report about Anshe Chung going ga-ga over the fact that she is an Asian woman. But Filthy marks a new fetishism for the dark African American skin. And people are loving it, and throwing money at him left right and centre. I think Filthy is a very clever businessman.
The second point I want to make is about the aestheticisation of the avatar. I recall some research being done in the early years of the avatar (late 1990s) which claimed that in a Western colour palette, there was not enough distinction between dark tones and so dark skinned avatars just looked unrealistic, lacked subtlety in shading, and were most unappealing. I’ve been hunting for a while to find any references to this research - it was done by some colour scientists I think and if anybody can find it for me I would be most grateful to get my facts precisely accurate. The skin in the top avatar here by skin designer Chip Midnight looks gorgeous to me though, so maybe graphics have advanced considerabloy since that research. However I’ll never forget the impact that report had - to think that the very system features we used were marked by race was a rude wake up call!
Finally, it seems to me that most of the skin designers are from the US, so its unlikely we’ll get gorgeous Indigenous Australian skins coming out for some time. I can’t even recall seeing any Italian or Mediterranean skins. So whilst the African American skin is being fetishised and discussed at length, there are still numerous races that are invisible in SL.
Larry Johnson from the New Media Consortium has invited me to participate in an online conference in March. I am thrilled that I will be presenting in any context with prolific writer and expert on all new media and culture phenomena, Henry Jenkins!
Here’s my title and abstract - comments welcome while I construct my talk over the next couple of weeks!
Evocative Spaces and Aesthetic Grabs: How youtube and video blogging are redefining self expression
I will begin this talk with a discussion of how youtube and video blogging have become a mediating space for what Sherry Turkle calls “evocative objects”: objects, or in this case spaces, that we use to think about ourselves. I argue that the act of viewing ones-self in public performances, and acknowledging public commentary on those acts, provides dual reflective lenses which serve to reconstruct, reinvent and redefine one’s identity. To demonstrate I discuss a number of examples in which the nature of the autobiographical is countered and transformed through the performance of self for the public.
Next I will draw on Senft’s notion of “the aesthetic of the grab” - a way of re-articulating the dynamics of spectatorship and participation in new video communities. I will discuss the notion of commodity fetishism and the ways in which “grabbing” bits and pieces of other people’s video performances is then being reconstituted into one’s own performances of identity. This includes but goes beyond one’s amusement at memes, desire for a shared cultural context and networked solidarity, in that it presents a “shopping for truth” about one’s place in the world. It also includes the notion that what is public and telepresent can be owned and manipulated for one’s own desires.
Finally I will raise the question about what it might mean for the millions of youth participants in youtube and videoblogging with respect to ethics, consequences and reputation management in an age where the personal is political.
Skyping at 2:45am for me, we begin to map out our workshop for this conference. Here’s the overview for the conference program…
Embodiment in Virtual Environments: Exploring Literacies, Identity, Research, and Community
Charles Kinzer, mathematics, science, and technology, Teachers College, Columbia University
Angela Thomas, University of Sydney
An increasing number of scholars, researchers, game/educational designers, and reporters in the popular press are writing about the economic, educational, and personal aspects of a virtual life online. Communities form and disband, individuals join or are excluded, and people can take very personally the virtual environments that they present, either intentionally or unintentionally, to others. With crossover from the “real” to the virtual (and the opposite) being an area of research and providing the underpinning for transfer of learning across real and virtual boundaries, educational opportunities and issues related to literacy, broadly defined, are being foregrounded.
Participants in this workshop will enter a virtual world, tour environments within that world, meet people and consider issues pertaining to research in such environments. The workshop format allows discussion and consideration of possibilities as well as presentation of some current activities. Thus, in keeping with the workshop format, the session will range from a presentation and consideration of issues related to virtual environments to hands-on tours and examination of applications in Second Life. We will meet others in-world, see how education might be facilitated, and consider embodiment and reality with spaces that exist electronically and perceptually.
See Rebecca, that’s how I manage to be involved in several projects at once, planning meetings at 2:45 am Who else here thinks I am crazy?
I am so thrilled to be in communication with Barry Joseph of Global Kids, and to be learning more about the work that is being done with teens in Second Life. Their site, Holy Meatballs, is truly inspirational, full of texts, images and machinima that the kids have created. UNICEF’s voices of youth project featuring these kids is explained here, and is the subject of the video above. My friend and colleague Danielle Mirliss first raised my awareness of Global kids in her Slatenight article, Henry Jenkins has been to visit the kids there (with the support of the NMC), and I’ve been excitedly following along, looking forward to becoming much more involved myself. So stay tuned
As somebody who has been quite evangelical in my comments about Second Life, it comes as a shock to read around the blogosphere and find that other people are just not that into it. Serious gamer research blogs like Terra Nova seem to be fairly dismissive of it, and serious social software research blogs like Many2Many seem to consider it all either hyped up or a world of horrors (citing the seedy sex scene as offputting). But it seems to me that none of these people “get it”. Because Second Life, despite some of its less savoury aspects, really has the best of both worlds - it is a fantastic gaming platform and it is also a fantastic social software platform.
First of all, Second Life has a rich role-playing scene - OK so not all of the role-playing is G rated, but the role-playing I have seen is wonderful. I am so surprised that the “serious” gamers don’t get into this more, because for anybody researching new narrative forms, Second Life provides the best of what’s new and the users themselves are the ones constructing the contexts, storylines, characters and quests. Now I don’t want to open up the debate about narrative vs ludology by seeming to favour narrative, and perhaps WoW is much stronger in its ludic qualities, but the beauty of Second Life is that the users themselves have developed their own MM (well maybe 40 or 50 isn’t massive but still..) ORPG. I’ve been following some of the posts about WoW from other researchers, and I see that WoW has fairly structured, in-built quests, and a limited array of avatars and characters, particularly with respect to female characters. In Second Life the range of possibilities for characters and avatars is restricted only to the player’s imagination. Some of the role-playing has in built quests and ludic elements like combat, rewards, levels and so on, and so again, each role-playing context is different and has different elements according to what the group of role-players want and develop together. This means that Second Life is a wonderful gaming platform for people who have imagination and who want to co-construct complex and diverse narratives and games with others.
Secondly, I am just outright shocked at the lack of interest from some of the people writing about social software. I have been a resident in Second Life now for over a year, and during this time I have:
- met an incredible group of talented educators, writers, media experts, animation experts, engineers, film makers and artists
- taught my class on New Literacies inside the world, which is being featured on a forthcoming television report in Australia
- spoken at a syposium on the “Impact of Digital Media” in connection with the NMC and the MacArthur foundation
- given a keynote at a Linguistics conference about machinima
- been invited to speak at two conferences in 2007 about digital culture / virtual worlds
- worked in collaboration with a number of educators, artists and digital culture commentator on a magazine about the arts and culture in SL
- included references to Second Life in my forthcoming book about literacies and identities in virtual worlds
- not to mention the new friends I have made who have taught me, inspired me, and helped to further shape my thinking about digital culture
Second Life, for me, *is* the ultimate in social software.
Notwithstanding its less savoury aspects. OK, so let me be balanced about this and point them out:
- the seedy sex scene is very offputing for people involved in education like me. I was very concerned and embarrassed about exposing my students to this, but probably overcompensated by sherparding them all carefully through the orientation stage and out of that horrible welcome area as fast as possible. The welcome area in Second Life is just TERRIBLE - its such a shock for new people to be confronted with, i wish it wasn’t there. Even in the orientation area before arriving at the welcome area I had one student griefed, with somebody pushing them off a mountain and screaming obscenities at them. So I can understand if people get that far and think it won’t be worth it. And in the welcome area, newbies are seen as targets for ridicule, sexual propositions, and more griefing. Even when getting my students over to my little plot of land I was worried about the neighbours, and put up barriers so none of them could wander in. Some of my colleagues are fortunate enough to have their own islands for teaching on, and if I am lucky maybe my faculty will give me funding for an island in the future too, but this last semester I only had a small plot, surrounded by all sorts of weird, wonderful, and not so wonderful neghbours (and more about my teaching semester in SL can be read here).
- there is a lot of hype and parabola about how many users are in SL, the platform is buggy, seeming favouritism towards some groups of people over others, there’s an American-centric attitude that pervades everything which is really irritating (not that I don’t love all my American friends, but really….), there are a lot of women who make me cry with frustration because of how they prostitute themselves for Lindens, and there do seem to be some groups of people who are using SL for what I would consider pathological purposes (and I don’t want to even mention what these are on my blog). Issues of race, gender, and socio-economic status are sadly numerous and negative in nature.
Will Second Life remain my platform of choice? Maybe not, but until something better comes along, I will concentrate on all of the amazing and positive affordances it offers for my teaching, research interests and social networking. I don’t really have the time or energy to focus on the negative aspects - I bypass them so that I can just do my work and socialising as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Because I did the talk using double page spreads, the slides should really be viewed in pairs (text on the LHS, image on RHS) to go with the podcast talk properly. But hopefully you get the idea!
I hated listening to myself speaking and couldn’t bear it after the first 5 minutes, so I apologise in advance for the fact that I was presenting after midnight in Australian time and was not at my most articulate!
But isn’t this is a VERY COOL new social application!!
Following my talk was a special kind of fashion show, where people were invited to showcase their unique identities and discuss their decisions and reasons behind constructing the avatar that they did. The podcast of this event is here.
Next up was the incredible Dell Wilberg, who’s talk was entitled Future Perfect: Towards a Better Second Life. Using knowledge of trends in technology over the past several decades, Dell offered us an insight into what we might expect in our immediate future.
Finally we heard from Danielle Mirliss and Heidi Trotta who spoke about their work with Undergraduate students in Second Life: Engaging the Disengaged. It was fascinating to hear their experiences and to compare their thoughts with my own experiences with post-grads. The podcast is here.
In my closing remarks I mentioned that Christy was being interviewed in just a few hours time by the ABC media in Australia about Second Life, and here is the podcast for that (go Christy!!!).
The NMC blogging and recording of the four hour event was fantastic and my thanks go to Larry Pixel and CDB Barkley for inviting us to be a part of this very significant symposium. it was an honour and a thrill to be invited.
85 more photographs here, thanks also to Gary Hazlitt and NMC for many of the photographs in this set.
The New Media Consortium will host the 12-day symposium on the NMC campus in Second Life, focusing on the impact of digital media on all aspects of our daily lives. The Symposium on the Impact of Digital Media will explore the ways we encounter and understand digital media — inside such a setting. This virtual symposium is informed by the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, a two-year project in which the NMC is helping to explore the impact of digital media on our lives in a variety of ways, and encouraging dialogue among experts, visionaries, and thought leaders from around the globe.
In my dual role as an educator in Second Life and as editor of Slatenight (a magazine about the Arts, education, culture and entertainment in SL) I was invited to plan a live event inside Second Life for Sl residents.
I have planned a four hour series of events, and here is our program:
Friday October 20th 7am-11am - Live Event SLATENIGHT hosted events
* The Avatar as Communication - Dr Angela Thomas, Sydney University (Anya Ixchel, editor of Slatenight)
* Fashion parade: Fashioning the Avatar (showcasing the range of unique identities in SL)
* Remediation of the Art Space in SL - Christy Dena, Sydney University (Lythe Witte, writer for Slatenight)
* Future Perfect: Projections forward to an even better world - Dell Wilberg (creative designer of Slatenight)
* Engaging the Disengaged: Using SL to Revitalize the Undergraduate Classroom - Danielle Mirliss and Heidi Trotta, Seton Hall University, NY (Danielle Damone and Heidi TeeCee, writers for Slatenight)
So, if you are in SL, come along and listen to us - our voices will be streamed into world as will the music, and you’ll probably hear lots of laughing and informal chatting during the fashion show - oh and the musicians tell me I will never be able to shut them up, so you may even hear me getting very stern trying to keep them in line *grin*
If you have Second Life downloaded already, and are a member of the NMC guests group (to access the NMC sim you need to be a guest of the group), here is the SLURL.
and there’s lots more about art, identity, relationships in SL, musical events, SL lifestyles and more! Phew… and issue 3 is shaping up nicely, with some fabulous articles covering the arts, education, culture, and life in Second Life.
Well, the launch party for slatenight.com is being held this weekend (see info here) and I was thrilled to see this lovely write-up of the magazine here (thanks to Linda Zimmer). Jokay has also blogged about it, and Danielle also mentioned it here on the NMC Observer.
Life seems to have taken off and entered the crazy lane right now, with so many deadlines, writing contracts, classes, students and projects going on but hey, why not launch a new magazine in the middle of it!! smiles…
I thought this Slatenight project would be a great outlet for creativity and fun, and maybe it would even sustain my SL fashion habits later down the track… but I also thought it would be as easy as writing on a group blog. Ummmm… I was wrong, it’s much more complex, with a lot to learn and consider. I am sure I am making tons of mistakes and that as a business woman I had better not give up my day job… but hey, as long as it remains fun and people enjoy it, I will be very happy indeed.
If you haven’t read the online version, go and have a look!! The website architecture, design, and general technical wow factor is all due to my wonderful partner in crime, Dell Wilberg. We are hoping to have a stunning pdf version finished shortly, and an in world version to follow. With a group of volunteers (who all have very busy “first” lives), no funding or budget, and ad hoc resources, I am actually amazed at what we have been able to accomplish. My thanks in advance to all involved.