Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ethics of Ethnography: A Transcript

VWER - August 30, 2012 
Location: VWER meeting

Image courtesy of Wrenaria

On August 30, authors Tom Boellstroff and Celia Pearce met to discuss their book, Ethnography & Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of MethodThe transcript of their voice interview with AJ Kelton is now available here.

Pearce, Boellstroff, and their coauthors have accomplished something important with this work. The ethics of working in virtual worlds should be paramount for anyone who calls him or herself an ethnographer. As I have opined here before, many folks in Second Life call themselves "educators," but what does that mean?

Whatever one's institutional affiliation or lack of it,  when doing research on human subjects, even those behind avatarian masks, two our VWER guests find essential the following points. The ideas were paraphrased by our transcribers, including me. Any faults are then our own, not Tom's and Celia's.

The Dangers Amateur "Ethnography"
  • "There is a danger…folks calling themselves researchers and publishing screen names of subjects" (Tom)
  • "one (person doing research) had sexual and romantic relationships (with subjects)" (Celia)
  • "One must have good research design and take care when generalizing. So there is no difference (between face-to-face and virtual research)" (Tom).
  • Both Tom and Celia use their real-life names in parts of their profiles to let subjects know who they really are. They do not use ALTs to conduct research.
  • "The popularity of people claiming to be ethnographers can undermine our work" (Tom)
One person at the meeting claimed that the point just made "sounds a bit elitist," and I'd prefer to say "no, it's merely professional." Anyone can turn a wrench or even replace parts on a car, but it takes a lot of professional training today to become a professional mechanic. The same is true for researchers.

Anonymity of Subjects:
  • In Indonesia, because gay men are ostracized, I often get pseudonyms from those I interview. This does not invalidate the research…and we cannot assume the same online " (Tom)
  • "My research ethics committee wanted paper signed copies and I could not do that, so this was new for the committee to get their head around" (Celia).
The book will provide benchmarks for all of us. I hope it starts a long and much-needed conversation as more and more virtual worlds emerge and researchers visit them. Even ones that be dressed as pirates, like Celia, and have that in their profiles! Avast!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hair Gets in My Eyes

Location: EMO-tions Fashion & Hair

Thanks to my friend  Grizzla, shown in the shop here with me, Iggy is equipped with some 2012 hair.

I'll miss my 2007 dreads (I reckon). They increased my avatar rendering cost considerably.

And that old hair never got in my eyes! What fun is that? The style from EMO-tions is called "Grunge" and it suits me well. Teleport to the store and have a look at some decent male hair.

Serious question: do any men in Second Life own shirts?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What Educators Want in a Virtual World: All

Location: VWER meeting, Aug. 2

Late in July, I published my lists of wants for in-world features and technical features for a educational virtual world that I would build, had I time and money enough. Then I put the issue before 23 members of the Roundtable. Here is their list of wants:
  • Cross-platform & mobile friendly
  • Non-mesh build options
  • Cross-world travel and inventory control
  • Accessibility for users with visual and hearing impairments, such as easily visible icons, as well as text-to-speech and speech-to-text support
  • Media on a Prim (MOAP), including Flash support
  • Integration with Kinect & similar interfaces
  • Ability for students under 18 to access content (with my caveat of "freedom of, and from, adult content)
  • Better system for notecards
  • Working economy where content creators can be paid for their work but as JeanClaude Volmar warned us, "Just don’t make the economy so tightly coupled to the creator to render objects useless like it is in SL."
  • Avatar puppeteering and webcam support
  • Better permissions systems to allow more flexibility with collaborative builds
It seems we do "want it all," and many VWER members want a virtual world as a primary tool for teaching.

As readers know, I tend to agree with VWER participant Alan Sandalwood, who noted "I worry that we would try to do everything in VW; It’s a tool to be used judiciously."

My own students say a version of this: "what's the point? Our parents pay high tuition to be taught by a PhD in a classroom." For them, VWs are worthwhile for limited simulations or a field trip to see content otherwise unavailable. Other educators will use the technology differently and, in many cases, in transformative ways.

To read the Aug. 2 transcript, click here.