Final Paper – Sara Anderson

The question of how virtual communities are structured requires a look into several different disciplines, such as psychology, anthropology, economics, law, computer science, and more. There are fundamental questions based on these disciplines that need to be addressed for a more full perspective on how people organize themselves into these virtual communities. Some of these questions are how the communities are technologically facilitated by our progressing technology, how these communities are economically and legally structured, and what changes when our interactions are mediated by this technology. A thorough examination of these inquiries requires an understanding of how software and hardware come together as the foundation of these communities, how traditional legal and economic concerns translate to a virtual environment, and how what constitutes a person’s identity in virtual worlds. By analyzing case studies and making some comparisons to our non-digital communities, some interesting patterns develop that begin to describe how people organize themselves in virtual worlds. This more specified research should be undertaken after laying out a broad background of information related to virtual worlds including the theories of posthumanism and cybernetics, as well as a discussion of virtuality and defining characteristics of games and play.

Katherine Hayles engages the concept of human intelligence as it co-exists with machine intelligence in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. She argues against the assumption that posthumanism necessarily implies non-organic cybernetic, claiming that posthumanism’s “defining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the presence of non-biological components,” thus making it clear that cybernetics is only one aspect of the posthuman (4). This is not to say that cybernetics is not a significant aspect, as the author confirms in saying that “a common theme is the union of the human with the intelligent machine” (2). Virtual communities alter traditional boundaries of communication because of their technological basis, and therefore posthumanism provides a lens through which to examine the interactions that take place there.

Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other also addresses some posthuman issues, focusing on the psychological implications of human interaction with technology and the human aspect of technological development. Alone Together is an anthropological look at how people interact with machines. It is this perspective that informs the statement, “We are shaped by our tools. And now, the computer, a machine on the border of becoming a mind, was changing and shaping us” (6). The first half of the book focuses on human interactions with robots, while the second half looks more at people’s digital lives and virtual worlds. She looks at these interactions to see how people’s expectations of others and their representations of themselves are changing. Throughout the book, Turkle analyzes instances of robotic interaction and participation in virtual worlds. One primary focus is the purpose of the interaction. She mentions that “We are on the verge of seeking the company and counsel of sociable robots as a natural part of life. Before we cross this threshold, we should ask why we are doing so” (29). She analyzes what input people give intelligent machines and robots to give themselves the illusion of willful feedback. The author makes a point to link the idea of humans growing emotionally closer to robots to the idea that people paradoxically alienate each other partially due to networking technologies. She calls these “fearful symmetries” (154). Her focus on this cannot be overstated, it is fundamental to the assumptions she makes in the book about how people psychologically want to engage in what she calls the “digital fantasy” (31).

Turkle ties her theses together very closely. For example, she looks back at robotics in the second half of the book when she states that “Nurturance was the killer app for robotics. Tending the robots incited our engagement. There is a parallel for the networked life. Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it” (142). She provides many examples, but most people can identify with the feeling of being constantly connected. Related most closely to virtual communities is how people present themselves online, and how they collaborat and structured their relationships in virtual worlds. She speaks to that when she says, “When part of your life is lived in virtual places—it can be Second Life, a computer game, a social networking site—a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is “true here,” and “true in simulation” (141). Directly related to that is her statement that “the life mix is the mash-up of what you have on- and offline. Now, we ask not of our satisfactions in life but in our life mix. We have moved from multitasking to multi-lifing” (148). She is very focused on the psychological and cultural reasons for engaging in a kind of virtual life.

Studying interactions in online gaming communities from the perspectives of posthumanism, psychology, and anthropology provides insight into the participants’ potential motivations. Scholarly research on games and play, on the other hand, provides a foundation for this motivation. Alexander Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture references many classic sources to describe games and play. He contrasts Huizinga and Caillois’s definitions of “play,” highlighting the agreed upon points that “’It appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive’” (20). This ties in with his mention of Philip Agre’s grammars of action concept, which he succinctly describes as a way to “describe how human activities are coded for machinic parsing using linguistic and structural metaphors,” and claims that video games create their own grammars of action (4). These fields provide a strong foundation for the study of virtual communities because of their focus on the intersection of human behavior and communications technology.

There is an incredible amount of broad background research available on virtual worlds, and it generally focuses on how people interact with technology, but it is also important to focus on the technology that facilitates these worlds. It may not seem very relevant on the surface, but virtual worlds have a physical foundation, they are not a distinct phenomenon. Virtual communities are real social interactions enabled by and mediated through technology, which is why their physicality merits analysis. Lev Manovich’s book, Software Takes Command and Alexander Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture both provide solid analyses. Galloway, a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, looks at “gaming” as “the entire apparatus of the video game” (2). The apparatus as he describes it includes the system or computer the game is played on, the game itself, which is the software, and the player, who he refers to as the “operator” (2). His first essay, “Gamic Action, Four Movements,” sets up games as an “action-based medium” where the actions are done both by the machine and the user. In some ways, the relationship he observes could be described as cybernetic. Galloway also makes use of the term “diegetic” from literature and film for his analysis. He uses the term to discuss actions that can be taken in a game that are external to the characters and the plot (8-7). Galloway provides several examples of diegetic functions versus non-diegetic functions. One action that is mentioned many times is the non-diegetic act of pausing a game. The action is external to the content of the virtual world, and is an action that is only available to the player. Acts of configuration undertaken outside the world of the game, cheats, and hacks are additional examples Galloway provides.

Manovich, on the other hand, examines software more closely. His overarching claim is that software has become inextricably linked to our culture, yet it is constantly taken for granted. While there is a lack of documentation on the evolution of software, Manovich makes some previously underexplored connections between development ideas from the 60’s and 70’s and software that is widely used today. His perspective on software is informed by his experience as a “programmer, computer animator and designer, media artist, and as a teacher” (20). The general approach he takes in his book is from the angle of “software studies,” which is a very interdisciplinary field that combines aspects of game studies, code studies, computer science, and several others. Manovich describes the primary effort of software studies is to “investigate the role of software in contemporary culture, and the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself” (11). Software of all kinds is an incredibly pervasive aspect of our social and financial interactions, and so the author discusses many of the commercial applications of software in his book. Stated simplistically, once people begin to make use of new communication technologies, new software is developed to capitalize on that interest. As related to gaming, many developers make their profit through the initial investment in the software as well as any expansions that may become available.

Another idea that Manovich focuses on is that computers do not represent a new medium in their own right, but are a “metamedium.” His description of a metamedium is that “It can represent most other media while augmenting them with many new properties,” bringing user and machine into dialogue (101). He specifies this definition, claiming that a metamedium is “simultaneously a set of different media and a system for generating new media tools and new types of media” (102). One particularly fascinating aspect of a metamedium as described by Manovich is that they are not simply “simulations of prior physical media,” but have branched out into something different (329). An idea related to his discussion of computers as a metamedium is the concept of cultural software. Manovich states that “at the end of the twentieth century humans have added a fundamentally new dimension to everything that counts as ‘culture.’ This dimension is software in general, and application software for creating and accessing content in particular” (32). Of course virtual worlds are created and maintained by code (software), but there is a social aspect to my interest as well that this begins to address. One example the author quotes from Wikipedia is a reference to Web 2.0, as follows; “’A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community…’” (37).  This is primarily in reference to Facebook, blogs, wikis, and other types of social media, but it applies to the social aspect of other virtual worlds as well.

These books delve into the connections between the machine, the software, and the user. Studying virtual worlds from this foundation up perspective offers a unique view on the social interactions that are afforded by current technology. Social realism in games is one significant avenue of research branching out from this perspective, because it forces a comparison between how people relate offline to how they interact in virtual worlds. One striking theory Galloway presents relating to social realism is that “Video games render social realities into playable form” (17). This is closely related to his concept of “congruence requirement,” which establishes the claim that games do not push realism out, but pull gamers in by offering a fictive extension of their own social experience. Galloway addresses the challenges game developers face when he claims that, as opposed to a realist filmmaker, “if one is a realist game designer, the challenge is not only to capture the social realities of the disenfranchised but also to inject the game back into the correct social milieu of available players where it rings true” (84). This emphasizes why discussion of virtual social interaction should be broken down into its basic components. What the gamer experiences is founded on software designed by a developer and played on hardware that develops nearly exponentially.

While the infrastructure supporting virtual worlds is a very important aspect of the research available on virtual communities, the question of what actually constitutes a community within virtual worlds is closer to the heart of the question about how people interact within these worlds. This question is addressed by a number of fields independently and in conjunction with one another. A primary one is cultural anthropology. Most researchers with this approach the question through traditional field research. Some recurrent methods from this approach are interviews and participant observation. Of course the environment of this research is non-traditional, but it important to note that research tactics for virtual communities and cultures overlap with those for traditional ones.

Howard Rheingold has contributed a significant amount to the body of work on what constitutes virtual communities. His book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, addresses many differences from, similarities to, and overlaps with traditional communities. Rheingold defines virtual communities in the introduction, saying they “are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (5). This is a fairly straightforward definition, and it places quite a bit of importance on how the participants feel connected to each other in a way that relates directly to how people interact offline as well. Rheingold follows up his definition with examples from his life, such as this claim that “my virtual communities also inhabit my life. I’ve been colonized, my sense of family at the most fundamental level has been virtualized” (10). Some of his comparisons between virtual and traditional communities are based on how they create value, and the things individuals may exchange in virtual communities, stating that “Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I’m describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo” (57). Another comparison to a traditional idea of society he makes is that “People in virtual communities use words on screens to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk” (3). His argument seems to be that and community is made up of individuals interacting and that virtual communities simply are based in a different medium.

The similarities are a good point of reference for identifying certain qualities of virtual communities, but the differences from traditional communities are what really begin to define them. In fact, Rheingold states that part of the purpose of the book is to look into “the ways virtual communities are likely to change our experience of the real world as individuals and communities” (4). One strikingly distinctive aspect mentioned about virtual communities is the idea of a groupmind. Rheingold states that cross referencing information through his online community gives him the feeling of “tapping into this multibrained organism of collective expertise” (110). He also makes a very straightforward claim relating to his own experience, saying that “The places I visit in my mind, and the people I communicate with from one moment to the next, are entirely different from the content of my thoughts or the state of my circle of friends before I started dabbling in virtual communities” (10). Despite all the similarities to traditional communities, virtual communities offer more and different allowances for communication and sharing, and being a part of one or more is a different experience than interacting in person.

Rheingold also discusses a more specific kind of virtual community in which it is fairly common to observe how people work together to achieve a goal, gaming communities. His particular example is the multi-user dungeon. These are rather old, but the concepts relate to current massive multiplayer online games. They are fascinating environments to observe human behavior online. Rheingold claims that “MUDs are living laboratories for studying the first-level impacts of virtual communities – the impacts on our psyches, on our thoughts and feelings as individuals” (146). A lot can be gained by conducting research in these “living laboratories,” such as the ability to “analyze the second-level impacts of phenomena like MUDs on our real life relationships and communities lead to fundamental questions about social values in an age when so many of our human relationships are mediated by communications technology” (146). This shows that communications is yet another approach that has an interest in the question of how people’s interactions change when mediated by technology.

Once again, value is built when he describes how people tend to feel about their avatars, or the characters they create for gaming communities. He says, “More than just your imaginary character is at stake. [Its] fate will influence the virtual lives of other characters who represent real friends in the material world” (145). He also gets down to the most basic fundamentals of what virtual worlds are, human interactions mediated by technology, when he says they are “imaginary worlds in computer databases where people improvise words and programming languages to improvise melodramas, build worlds and all the objects in them, solve puzzles, unvent amusements and tools, compete for prestige and power, gain wisdom, seek revenge, indulge greed and lust and violent impulses” (145). One of the questions brought up by this particular type of virtual community is whether or not the participants “have a life.” The author compares fandom to the communication addiction evidenced by some online gamers, saying that “The phenomenon of fandom is evidence that not everyone can have a life as “having a life” is defined by the mainstream, and some people just go out and try to build an alternate life” (167). A fascinating claim related to how people build alternate lives in virtual worlds is that “latent selves are liberated by technology” (170).

The book also addresses how people form virtual communities by saying that “The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost.[…]. But the technology will not in itself fulfill that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population” (4). Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green also suggest that communities form deliberately, around shared interests as well as content, in their book, Spreadable Media. The authors offer traditional social networking sites as examples, but their best example was YouTube, which focuses almost entirely on content. While more comprehensive virtual worlds are not explicitly for sharing created content, they do provide a place where people can engage in shared interests. Also, as Lessig mentioned, some participants build on the code of the virtual world, and others create videos using images from games like World of Warcraft.

Spreadable Media also takes an economic perspective on how people form and participate in virtual communities. The authors tackle this issue through their assessment of cultural participation. The title itself references the difference between “sticky” media and “spreadable” media. “Stickiness” refers to a content provider or advertiser reaching out to an audience, whereas if something is “spreadable,” it is more malleable and promotes open-ended participation from users. This is a very basic distinction, and the authors don’t put the ideas opposite one another. Instead, they suggest that aspects of both are at work in how content is distributed in our culture. They have this to say about cultural participation, “we think audiences do important work beyond what is being narrowly defined as ‘production’ here – that some of these processes marked as ‘less active’ involve substantial labor that potentially provides value according to both commercial and noncommercial logic” (171). Addressing the other side of the argument, the authors cite a Forrester survey for the whose subjects are U.S. adults online, and they found that “52 percent were ‘actual creators’ of so-called user-generated content, Van Dijk and Nieborg conclude, ‘The active participation and creation of digital content seems to be much less relevant than the crowds they attract. […] Mass creativity, by and large, is consumptive behavior by a different name’” (171). The authors seem to present a more nuanced perspective in their assessment of people contributing to culture through their virtual community.

One example toward the beginning of the book is the singer, Susan Boyle’s “Britain’s got Talent” video. They discuss the implications of the video being shared to such an extent, saying that “The spread of Susan Boyle demonstrates how content not designed to circulate beyond a contained market or timed for rapid growth distribution can gain much greater visibility than ever before” (31). Looking at sharing from a broader perspective, the authors claim that “In this networked culture, we cannot identify a single cause for why people spread material. People make a series of socially embedded decisions when they choose to spread any media text” (29). This ties in with some of the ideas they discussed about “viral media.” The authors called for a reconsideration of the term “viral” and the accompanying assumptions, particularly how human agency tends to be overlooked. Calling something “viral” implies that it is self replicating, but the context can change the meaning. The authors touch on this, claiming that “As people listen, read, or view shared content they think not only – often, not even primarily – about what the producers might have meant but about what the person who shared it was trying to communicate” (30).

The authors of Spreadable Media focus quite a bit on the motivations behind various human interactions and how media plays into that. To this point, the authors quote Douglas Rushkoff, who says that “Content is just a medium for interaction between people” (216). They emphasize the ability of the consumer to take on a broader and more discerning role because of the access to these communication technologies. The authors reference John Fiske, who states that “If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace” (217). They place importance on the favor of the consumer, but they make it clear that the actions don’t have to be earth shattering to have a place, stating that “many of the choices people make in spreading content, just as described, are not grand and sweeping gestures but rather simple, everyday actions such as ‘liking’ a Facebook status update” (216). The hybrid engagement in these actions has a delicate balance based on how usable they are for the consumer and how beneficial they are to advertisers and content providers.

Rheingold also discusses hybrid uses of networking technology, saying that “Virtual communities are places where people meet, and they also are tools; the place-like aspects and tool-like aspects only partially overlap” (56). To Howard Rheingold, the actions a consumer can take to spread certain types of media create new kinds of social responsibility. He describes how this would look practically, saying “If, in my wanderings through information space, I come across items that don’t interest me but I know would interest one of my worldwide affinity group of online friends, I send the appropriate friend a pointer or simply forward the entire text” (57). This implies a social contract inherent in virtual worlds, both similar to and distinct from “real life.”  Rheingold describes the social contract, saying it is “supported by a blend of strong-tie and weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives and ephemeral affiliations” (57). He brings the focus back around to value building when he states that accessing the network “is about more than simple fact-finding. It is also about the pleasure of making conversation and creating value in the process” (61). Virtual communities are built on a very broad foundation of available actions online, sharing information and other media is one very important aspect of this foundation.

Not only is participation described in varying levels of intensity, there are any number of reasons for people to create and/ or spread media. One that is fairly common and vital in virtual communities is fan-made media. The authors describe it as something that “is shared among a community with common passions. […] fans understand their works as a contribution to the community as a whole. Fandom nurtures writers and artists, putting the deepest emphasis on that material which most clearly reflects the community’s core values” (220). While this didn’t directly follow up the idea of fan-made media, it is applicable that the authors mention people “do not simply pass along static texts; they transform the material through active production process or through their own critiques and commentary, so that it better serves their own social and expressive needs” (311).

Part of the reason the definition of virtual communities needs to be reigned in is that some communities may be viewed as a crossover. Rheingold doesn’t only discuss black and white similarities and differences, but aspects that represent a crossover of the communities. One fascinating concept he mentions is a type of virtual governance, but not of a virtual community. The example he gives is as follows, “Santa Monica’s system has an active conference to discuss the problems of the city’s homeless that involves heavy input from homeless Santa Monica citizens who use public terminals” (10-11). I read a more recent article about a similar thing featuring the city of Tallinn, Estonia. Some key points from the article are that “Officials say they had to create an “e-government.” The reason for this as explained by  Jaan Priisalu, director general of the Estonian Information Systems is that “’We are a small nation, and at the same time we have to develop a government that has same functionality as the big countries’.”

Being part of any community means adhering to social norms, and very often there are legal implications to belonging to a community as well. To begin to understand how people work together toward a common goal and how they organize themselves in virtual spaces it is important to examine the legal strictures that add structure to the community. Governance in virtual worlds has some fundamental similarities to traditional forms of government, but some unique concerns crop up from virtual environments. In fact, any kind of virtual government that has the support of a tradition governing body is a kind of hybrid government. An example of this is that in virtual communities, issues of intellectual property and copyright are quite prominent because of how easy it is to copy digital media. However, governance over piracy is given to traditional governments. Additionally, there are numerous cases that deal with virtual items, fraud, and more. Studying these and their outcomes sheds light on how people’s social structures and regulations extend into digital territory.

Greg Lastowka examines intellectual property law as well as the intersection of law and technology in his book, Virtual Justice. Like Rheingold, he begins the book with a definition of virtual worlds, defining them as “Internet-based simulated environments that feature software-animated objects and events” (9). This contrasts to some extent with Rheingold’s definition, which focuses on social interactions as opposed to simulation. Another description Lestowka offers of virtual worlds is that they are different from other forms of media because they necessitate active engagement, through a customized avatar in some cases. Lastowka then sets up the relevance and importance of virtual worlds, claiming that “The social and interactive complexity of virtual worlds can be substantial, making users feel like they are truly ‘present’ somewhere else” (9). Directly related to this is his claim that “because virtual worlds are places, they are also sites of culture” (10). The need for legal structure comes from social complexity and culture.

Virtual Justice, of course, is not a full catalog of cases where the law intercedes (or refuses to intercede) in legal conflicts in virtual worlds, but Lastowka does offer quite a few examples to stimulate discussion. One of the first cases he mentions is Bragg v. Linden Research, a dispute over land ownership in Second Life. Linden attempted to reserve the right to deny Mark Bragg access to Second Life and confiscated virtual property that was worth real money. The dispute was over virtual property, but the legal arguments centered on whether Linden Research could enforce their terms of service. Other examples are gold farmers having their accounts closed, virtual Ponzi schemes, and people being defrauded when purchasing virtual items. There was even a man who killed his friend over a very expensive item he stole and then sold. Lastowka brings these issues together under the umbrella of the legal right to retain acquired property, virtual or not.

Lastowka goes into gold farming specifically as a variant on virtual property disputes. He succinctly defines the practice, saying it is “when virtual currency is harvested expressly for resale to other players” (22). The issue he presents based on this is as follows:

If we recognize a legal right to the possession of virtual property, does this necessarily entail a right to sell one’s virtual property to others? What if the owner of that virtual world— and the majority of the community that uses it— object to the practice of gold farming? Can real economies be kept separate, either practically or legally, from virtual economies? (24)

He follows up his discussion of virtual property with an introduction to Michael Walzer’s ideas about “spheres of justice” in society (103). He addresses the problem of inconsistency is the legal system that makes the intersection of law in virtual worlds an issue in the first place. He states that “the gulf between law and games is not due to the triviality of games, but due to the fact that games constitute a rival regime of social ordering. The rules of games are inherently in tension with the rules of law” (105). Lastowka makes this case by discussing several sports whose rules have been deferred to by the legal system because the intersection “was too difficult a problem for courts to police” (112). In response to this practice, he makes argument that “Before law can defer to game rules— if it is to defer to game rules at all— we must have some sense of when and how game rules are present in virtual worlds” (118). However, he mentions several instances of the companies that control various virtual worlds shying away from controlling player behavior just as much as the legal system does. The problem with this, in Lastowka’s words, is that “When we defer to the “rules” of EVE Online under the aegis that it is ‘only a game,’ we permit the establishment of a very real and anarchic online frontier” (121).

In a similar vein, Lawrence Lessig’s book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy is written from the perspective of a professor of law. He describes two types of culture that are typically thought of to be at odds with each other, Read/Only (RO) and Read/Write (RW). Lessig argues that we need to consider a hybrid culture that doesn’t discount the passive consumption of RO culture and doesn’t restrict the creative and collaborative aspects of RW culture. He suggests different ways to develop copyright law so it can be beneficial to all parties. His claim that this is necessary rests on his argument that current copyright laws are criminalizing those who engage in RW culture, primarily teenagers. He also discusses hybrid economies present in virtual worlds. Second life is one of the case studies for a hybrid business model. It combines aspects of the “Read/Write” culture discussed throughout the book with the “Read/Only” aspect of user consumption. It is mentioned in the section on hybrid economies as well, because Linden Lab is making use of freely shared creative work contributed to their virtual world to make money. Linden Lab has been encouraging the users of second life to be as RW as they want to be. They have the mindset that the things their members do help to add value to the virtual world. Lessig delineates the ways members contribute: by helping each other, adding aesthetic value, contributing code, building institutions, and self-governing (215-217). Neualtenburg, the first democratic republic in Second Life, is a case study that grabs the attention. Lessig states that “the city builds this community through a mix of architecture, culture, law, as politics” and was “designed to be a ‘nexus for progressive social experimentation’” (217). He compares the virtual community to a traditional one, saying that, “as with any community, the more people contribute, and see others contribute, the richer everyone feels” (217). This type of community organization is similar to World of Warcraft, in which the gameplay encourages and almost necessitates cooperation.              

While the foundation of technology and the structure of law and economics are vital to analyze, the identities of the individuals that comprise the community are just as important. Greg Lastowka mentions a study by Turkle, T. L. Taylor, and Tom Boellstorff indicating that people use virtual worlds to experiment with the boundaries of their identities, because an avatar is never totally separate from its associated user. I inferred from this conclusion that people, on some level, may take injustices to their avatar very personally. One example of this is the Mr. Bungle case from “A Rape in Cyberspace.” This example doesn’t have to do with the legal implications Lastowka focused on as much as the concept of identification with an avatar. Privacy is also an identity issue based on how much information a user supplies about themselves while constructing an online identity. John Palfrey and Urs Gasser look at issues of privacy for what they term “digital natives” in their book Born Digital. They claim that people born and raised around networking technologies share much more information that would usually be considered prudent (25). They consider some of the reasons people feel compelled to share information, and they claim that it comes down to what a person perceives they’re getting out of the sharing. One provocateur mentioned is reciprocity.

Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital focuses on how people born in the digital age raised with “digital literacy” organize their lives (37). The book is written in a style that is accessible to any interested reader, but has its roots in law, technology, and sociology. Their first chapter focuses on how identities can be built and managed online. The groundwork is laid by separating types of identities. Personal identity is described as encompassing “personal characteristics, interests, and activities in real space – at least in part” (19). This is the kind of thing that can be consciously changed if a person desires to do so. Social identity is more to do with a person’s relationships to other people, family and friends. The authors make it a point that social identity used to be a thing you could change by moving far enough away, but that has changed. One inescapable thing about being digital is the trail you leave, even if you’re careful. The authors describe the inability to get away from this trail while still being able to recreate oneself to some extent online as a paradox. Because there are many ways to be part of a read/write culture, there are many ways to express identity. They say that “these ways of expressing identity often seem more foreign to parents and teachers than they really are” (21).  People attribute some differences in communication and identity to generational gaps, but the authors argue that things haven’t changed as much as people think. People can still alter their personal identities, it’s the social identity that is becoming more accessible, and therefore more firm. The paradox is inherent in that people can present themselves differently online if they choose, and their social relationships fall under a different category to some extent if they are entirely mediated by technology.

Celia Pearce’s article, “Communities of Play: The Social Construction of Identity in Persistent Online Game Worlds” is written from an anthropological perspective. In her research she says she “employed techniques of visual anthropology (primarily screenshot documentation), conducted in-game interviews, and studied supplemental communications (such as forums and e-mail lists)” (1). She focused on the online variation of the Myst series, Uru. Unlike the original games, this online world didn’t have a fist person perspective, users created avatars. Pearce says that “the role of a human explorer, for the first time, they could see themselves inside the beloved Myst world” (2). She discusses the “formation of individual avatar identity through emergent social processes” throughout the article (5). One of her observations that meshed particularly well with other research I’ve found is that online social identity “mirrors some contemporary theories of anthropology that build on non-western concepts of the relationship between the individual and the group” (4). The game that she based her study on was only around for a little under a year. Her study continued on to the future endeavors of some of those users. Pearce claims that “The shared trauma of the server shutdown served as a catalyst for fortifying the group identity, which evolved into a sort of fictive ethnicity. This shared group identity created both the necessity and the substrate for migrating their individual avatar identities into to other virtual worlds” (2). One of the splinter groups she mentions ended up in Second Life, which she describes as “an unthemed user created virtual world” in which “a sub-set of [Uru players] had begun to create a near-exact replica of areas of Uru” (3). These gamers came together after their virtual world had been discontinued and manipulated their environment to what they were familiar with, continuing their social interactions with the virtual community of which they became a part.

Others authors to look into for continuing research on virtual communities are Clay Shirky, Benedict Anderson, Edward Castranova, and Constance Steinkuehler among other suggestions. Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler is economically oriented, but it looks at the broader implications of the evolution of networking technologies. Benkler comments on the “emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century,” similarly to Born Digital (2). Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams is less scholarly, but it has quite a bit to say about what individuals contribute to a body of knowledge in a participatory culture. Clay Shirky has a body of work to reference on the topic, including Here Comes Everybody, which looks at how people adopt behaviors in response to the presence of a new technology. For an expanded legal perspective, Benjamin Duranske’s Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds is one potential source. Understanding how digital communications technologies facilitate virtual communities and how these communities are structured, as well as how they are evolving is an expanding avenue of research. Its applications are broad, and there are many additional sources to consult on this topic. There is potential here for further research on social organization in game spaces in particular. However, sources identified here will definitely aid in this research.

Works Cited

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. 1st ed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2013.

Lastowka, Greg. Virtual Justice: The New Laws of Online Worlds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Palfrey, John G., and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic, 2008. Print.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1993. Print.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.

Zengotita, Thomas de. Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York and London: Bloomsbury USA, 2005.

Extended Bibliography

Duranske, Benjamin. Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds. American Bar Association, 2008.

Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

Aufderheide, Patricia, and Peter Jaszi. Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2011.

Berkman Center, Harvard University. “Fair Use Online.” Fair Use Online.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.