Thursday, March 20, 2008

PCA Wrap-Up

Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins opened the “Internet Cultures” track at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Association today in San Francisco. Robbins’ paper about gender dynamics in Second Life considered the role of self-reported females in this virtual world in which women seem to be well represented, unlike game-based worlds, such as World of Warcraft. Robbins cited statistics that showed that the 68% of Second Life females created content and that of total transactions in Linden dollars, in which over 100 Linden dollars were exchanged, 65% of the recipients were female. Of course, Robbins also pointed out how many women would seem to be participating in gender stereotypes, whether making skins in Photoshop with sculpted abs and manicured public hair or designing furniture such as the “Comfy Chair” that come complete with animations of sexual positions and performance. She also discussed the role of “Gorian” culture, based on a series of erotic science fiction novels that had propagated its own subculture for the past three decades, and the use of L-word islands by those publicly trolling for same-sex virtual female partners.

Mark Nunes, author of Cyberspaces of Everyday Life, examined the relationship between hoaxes perpetuated in online environments and alternate reality games. He argued that the Lonely Girl 15 videos could be seen as particularly, in fact “doubly” disappointing, to those who initially encountered them and took them to be authentic because they proved to be neither real videoblog nor real ARG, despite the intervention in the series with the “Cassie” films that seemed to offer ARG-like clues. To those who play well-designed ARGs, such as those created by Jane McGonigal, the central question is not “is it real or not” but is it “in game or out of game.” Nunes also discussed viral marketing efforts associated with the film Cloverfield and “game jacks” in which the narrative of an ARG is appropriated by meddling parties who want to create their own ARGs with their own rules and puzzles. From one abashed Cloverfield would-be jacker came an apologetic note to the film companies and multimedia conglomerates involved, so it would appear that there can be the intellectual property consequences if a given ARG is part of a corporate viral marketing effort.

The last panel of the day that I saw featured Montana Miller, an academic who had at one time actually run away to the circus, who discussed the role of the “feed” in the cultural practices associated with Facebook. She described surveying 150 of her own students, who kept often blasé journals that described their interactions and observations about the social networking site. In September 2006, however, while Miller was still conducting this research, the company introduced the “feed” feature that could be described as “voyeurism made easy,” because the technology “broadcast” details of online behavior without an intentionally directed set of messages. Miller was eager to debunk some stereotypes about the media attitudes of young people, such as those propagated by mainstream media pieces such as Emily Nussbaum’s “My So Called Blog.” Miller noticed that the 100 students who replied to her specific query about the feed feature answered with much more emotion and engagement and confusion than they had manifested in the earlier journal questions. Although some were “undisturbed but cynical,” Miller described how many who participated in this form of passive reception rather than active surveillance found themselves discomforted by ambiguous doses of news, that often could be characterized as “romantic soap operas” with unanticipated sequels. She discussed how students felt jealous, not only of the new relationships of former sexual partners but also of the platonic relationships with same-sex friends when Facebook told them they had not been included in plans or invited to a party. She also said that many students discovered friends’ sexual orientations through Facebook and that their feeds often announced unexpected “coming out” messages. She also pointed out how the Facebook feed could contain messages about tragedy, and hypothesized that perhaps it could also make young people more aware of the Iraq war being fought by their peers and thus serve as a point of empathy.

Update: Miller has since contacted me to correct my joking account of her "running away to join the circus." As she says, "Immediately after high school, I became a flying trapeze artist by deliberately (and with my parents' perplexed consent) choosing to train and tour with France's national training center for circus artists."

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