Friday, April 25, 2008

Wherefore Virtual Community

Although once taken as a kind of standard cliché in the field, the idea of online "community" has become increasingly likely of late to be interrogated among those who study the social practices that occur within and through virtual environments.

At the first session of this weekend's Culture of Virtual Worlds conference, moderator Mimi Ito pointed out that "community" often functions as a "normative concept" that represents at best an aspirational position and at worst a marketing pitch that obscures how virtual worlds function as social, technical spaces. Ito said that she wanted to focus instead on how reciprocity functions and the questions of how it is learned. Rather than classify these cultural structures as "communities," Ito describes them as "different forms of networked publics” that might be sites for personal display and interaction with technology but not necessarily manifest the forms of social relations that could be called "community."

Panelist Rebecca Black emphasized the notion of "affinity space" in lieu of mentioning the c-word of "community" in her presentation on "Hybrid Literacies and Identities in Online Fan Fiction Spaces." She presented research on English language-learning youth in the anime fan communities on from a three-year study that examined both the fictions and the culture of reader-response around them. The heroine of the story she told was sixteen-year-old sixteen-year-old "Tanaka Nanako," a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, a tale that is also recounted in her chapter in A New Literacies Sampler. Black described how Nanako and her online readers and fellow writers trade advice and criticism that includes specific feedback that ranges from sentence-level usage and grammar to the mechanics of plot and character. Black charts how her protagonist goes from an earnest learner of a new language who is writing about popularity, peer pressure, first love, and academics in familiar contemporary settings such as concerts, sleepovers, parties, and classrooms to composing much more ambitious works about the intersections of her Chinese, Japanese and English linguistic and cultural identities that tell more complex stories about family structures, arranged marriage, and the position of women in Asian society.

Deborah Fields' paper on and "The Hidden Life of an Avatar: Race, Gender & Trading Face Parts" centered on the narrative of Zoe/bluwave, an African-American girl who was an active member of the 2D virtual world Whyville and its vibrant economy based on clams. Although researchers were sympathetic to Zoe's struggles as she strove to find racially suitable body parts to suit her real-world identity, which were apparently even more difficult to locate than heads in non-European colors, the academic observers discovered that Zoe also had a stint as scammer, where she attempted to bilk trusting novices out of their clams at the Trading Post.

Finally, Lily Irani's work on "communication assemblages" or "tactical assemblages" looked at two activist groups in Second Life: a group of disability activists organized around weekly conference-room style meetings and a gender/queer group that congregated at a dance club. Irani argued that there is a tendency among researchers to have a bias toward a particular technology of interest rather than looking at the full gamut of social-media platforms that make be part of navigating and socializing in virtual worlds, including IRC channels, blogs, online custom DIY products, blogs, and photo-sharing sites. Some of Irani's examples from the visual cultures of these groups were particularly interesting and cited frequently during the conversations taking place between sessions, including forms of "staged memory-making" and a shot titled "The Birth" on Flickr, which shows the culmination of a nine-week virtual pregnancy.

Irani also emphasized the importance of understanding the hybrid character of real world/virtual world interactions, which was epitomized in the case of one of her informants, who found the police at her door when an online companion became concerned about her well-being and reached out from the anonymous position of the virtual to the physical space of her apartment "through government." It's worth noting that instead of talking about "community," Irani paid homage to the work of Paul Dourish and the concept of "fluidly enacted management of audiences."

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