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An ethnographic look at how people behave online in virtual worlds compare to who they are in the real world

I went to Oxford to attend a lunchtime lecture hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology – anyone can attend.

I stumbled upon the talk, I asked, they said come along.

Everyone else was an OII doctoral research student.

My interest was in the explorative method, a reminder of how anthropologists study ‘in the field’ and as much as anything else its an opportunity to talk to and meet people with similar interests.

Three years online and if I continue it will be lectures and face to face – or blended.

I gave myself three hours to get there – just as well as there were accidents on both the M23 and M25. Coming back … more accidents, a 40 mile tailback. I pulled into a service station for 90 minutes sad

The M25 was designed as a river, it’s turned into a glacier.

Dr William Kelly is Research Associate at the School of Anthropology and Museum Studies and Professor at the School of Global Studies, Tama University (Tokyo). He gave a talk on what he is learning about Japanese Virtual Worlds by talking to the creators of specialist niche environments for Japanese people.


How to study expressions of culture in a virtual space.


Started to think about questions on:

  • expression of identity/self–hood –self–presentation,
  • fashion/adornment, body type.
  • concepts of utilization of space, as building things – how after work group socializing, what some of patterns do they replicate.
  • patterns of social interaction

Culturally specific venues and services – Japan for Japanese, Non–Japanese for Japan, and enthusiasts.


Identifying field sites

Handling offline and online – Japanese write nothing of their offline world.


Protection of privacy and permissions.


Company visits and interviews

Contacting producers, visit Tokyo

What is their business in Second Life.

How do they contact and interact with consumers


People who are very well socialised in the online world, and well socialised in the offline world, which is where my interest took me. (Anthropologist). i.e field study.

Are people being themselves or schizophrenic online … and where is the development of the person occurring? Between the two? WK thinks between the two. Many typing v fast, not speaking. Like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever? Are deceptions successfully played out in VW.

A given in Second Life that everyone is an avatar. Everything is a pseudonym. e.g. an architect in real life who is extremely active and fast in Second Life too. Some have a strong professional engagement, for others it is clearly escape from hard lives.

Two Virtual Worlds (VW) were studied and two specialist creators of content for these VWs. The worlds were the Japanese world within Second Life and a VW recreation of Tokyo called ‘MeeToo’.

It was a lesson in Japanese culture, mannerisms, personalities and behaviours.

Japanese did not like the orientation part of Second Life and were quickly put off. The first company built an alternative that would suit Japanese rather than US sensibilities.

The answer has been to mimic online the most detailed of Japanese habits, from how they greet and how they gesture, to recreate in.


What happens when connected as ‘like-minds’ six or seven such individuals ‘collaborate’ to perform some atrocity?

Fig.1. Dr. No.

Society online is a society on speed and at speed – it might reflect society but in the Alice in Wonderland World Wide Web everything is faster, connectable and so warped in a way that transcends human scales of time, distance and decency. One sick, warped, isolated individual seeking out the pollution of the web to feed their fantasy and make it real, like Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011 was, if you profile the population, 1 in 10 million.

What happens when connected as ‘like-minds’ six or seven such individuals ‘collaborate’ to perform some atrocity?

What indeed does the web afford ‘networked’ terrorist idealists such as AL Qaeda? Attending a seminar on cyber crime at the Oxford Internet Institute last year it was revealing and shocking to learn of the ‘game of catch-up’ played between the criminals hacking bank accounts and the banks trying to keep them secure. The head of internet security from Barclays painted a picture that would make the scriptwriters of a James Bond movie go googled-eyed in amazement. Then, far from society creating the Web, the web world infects us ‘on the other side’ with paranoia and so CHANGES behaviour, gets AHEAD of society.

It has happened to me more than once – in the early days of blogging back in 2002 I was ‘flamed’ viciously (malicious hate in comments and a breach into my blog that had this person editing my content and filling it with bile). I had this stopped and attempts were made to trace the character but for a period I was convinced that any vehicle pulling up along our street outside our house was ‘him’ … and then this summer I put webcams around the house when we went away from a few weeks and only after the first week did I relax when I noticed that a brick hadn’t come through the window and we hadn’t been burgled or the house burned down.

(I write this while reflecting on the words of Professor Susan Halford in the Week 3 introductory video on cyber crime that forms part of the University of Southampton‘s Future Learn offering ‘Web Science‘). 

‘The Web is part of society and is shaped by society. And until the web is a crime-free zone, the Web won’t be a crime-free zone’.   (Halford, S 2013. Page 1 of the transcript. University of Southampton)


The Silk Road

Webber, C. and Yip, M. (2012), ‘Drifting on and off-line: Humanising the cyber criminal’, in S. Winlow and R. Atkinson (Eds.), New Directions in Deviancy: Proceedings from the York Deviancy Conference, London: Routledge, pp. 191-205

Methodological Innovation

From the Oxford Internet Institute

Methodological innovation is vital given the changing nature of the Internet and advances in ICTs which both necessitate and facilitate the development of new techniques.

OII researchers are developing methodologies such as:

  • big data approaches;
  • the embedding of ICT s for real time observation of social phenomenon;
  • webmetric techniques for observing the underlying structure of the web presence of social institutions;
  • artificial intelligence design;
  • experimental research;
  • on-line action research;
  • content analysis;
  • investigation of virtual environments;
  • and online survey research.

The five current research foci examine the role of the Internet and other ICTs in:

  •  government and democracy: where ICT s offer significant opportunities for restructuring practices and institutions, for example in the management and delivery of government services and the functioning of governance processes
  •  research and learning: focusing on the use and impact of ICTs within academic and research communities and the social and institutional contexts in which this takes place
  •  everyday life and work: covering the role of the Internet and other ICTs in personal interactions in the household, the arts, and entertainment, and the needs of individuals and the wider community in work, social relationships, leisure, and activities in other arenas that bring society online
  •  shaping the Internet: how rapidly developing ICTs are liberated or constrained, including how the Internet itself is governed.
  •  network economy: how ICTs reshape business models, markets and economic development.

When I think if learning, I think of the minuscule intricacies of the component parts of the brain and at the same time the immense vastness of the known universe.

As humans we are eager to understand everything.

It seems appropriate to marry neuroscience with astrophysics, like brackets that enclose everything. From a learning point of view then ask as you look at a person or group of people, ‘what is going on?’ specifically, ‘what is going on in there? (the brains) and between them to foster insight, understanding, innovation and advancement.

The best interface for this, a confluence for it all, is the Internet and the connectedness of it all.

What has the impact of the Internet been and based on everything we currently know, where do we presume it is going?

Better to forget, or better to remember?

In a series of posts I ask what are the possibilities afforded by our technological capacity to digitize a substantial part of our daily lives. This gadget enabled data harvesting may be automatic or manual, continual or spontaneous. We see it in galleries of photos and grabs, video clips, podcasts and text – expressions of our externalization of our thoughts, desires and interests. Included are biometrics. We wear kit to record our vital signs and become a lifelong patient and test subject.

  • Who and what are we?
  • What makes us tick?
  • What can we improve, enhance, support or fix?
  • What do we do with this record?
  • What purpose might it serve?
  • What problems may it solve or cause ?

Two books are at heart of the start of this journey.

I read them first time through side by side, so they might have been interleaved – one as an eBook on Kindle, iBook and laptop, the other in hardback taking pencil written notes, as well as grabs as tags with a smartphone. 8000 words and a dozen or more images make my first thoughts. Already there are a plethora of further books and papers to read relating to computer science and web science, psychology, neuroscience, creativity, innovation and law.

The books are:

Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmel  (2009)  Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Jonathan started his first diary when he was 11, then took it up in earnest age 13 ¼. He’s been blogging since September 1999.

  • What is the value of knowing how I felt, who I was with and what I did and what I was thinking on many of these thousands of days?
  • How does it inform my understanding of the human condition?
  • What remains private and what should I expose or share?
  • Who cares?

With the birth of my children I looked at them and have been asking for the last 16+ years ‘what is going on in there?’ yet I still don’t yet understand my own brain. ‘My mind bursts’ is now a decade long inquiry which is shifting from the coffee table to the classroom. Join me here, in your own blog, in forums and webinars.

Jonathan Vernon has an BA from the University of Oxford, and is a graduate of London’s School of Communication Arts. He has just completed an MA in Open and Distance Education with the Open University. His career has been spent in video production, learning and development, linear, interactive, experiential and online learning with experience of the creative industries, competitive sports – teaching and coaching (swimming), retail, manufacturing and the health services. He started the Open University Module H809 : Practice-based research in educational technologyy on 2nd February 2013 with the goal to begin a three to four year doctoral research project in October. He is also taking part in the OLDs MOOC 2013.

Working in the clouds

Fig. 1. Study of Clouds, John Constable. Inscribed 31 Sept.r 10-11 O’Clock.

Constable did little else but paint the weather from July through to October 1822, which is why curators can accurately say that the artist did this painting on the 1st October.

I’ve shared my frustrations with Cloudworks from the start of the OLDS MOOC 2013 … and had some experience a year ago on H807 Innovations in E-learning … so entered the cloud with a sense of dread.

I stuck at it and found some odd ways in.

What mattered was the contact with people I got to know – as they gave up it became inevitable that I would do so too, not least because I had more pressing matters. H809 a postgraduate module, partially produced by the same team as it comes from the Open University stable, but a very different beast.

More like getting on a bus with four to five stops a week.

A weekend for an assignment every five weeks and a longer sojourn to produce a short dissertation at the end. Four tutors groups each with less than sixteen people in each.

I liken my Cloudworks experience to Freshers’ Fair … every day of the week.

Every time I came in I wondered around getting interested in what other people were doing, sometimes landing their by mistake. So a Fresher’s Fair with some 12 entry doors on several floors with the people behind each stall mostly changing too. Your brain gets tired of the overload, the lack of landscape and in this sense ‘Cloudscape’ is the right term, for the wrong reasons. A ‘Freshers’ Fair’ is when students invite the entire new intake at a university to come and see what societies are on offer – imagine the equivalent of several village halls, with stalls manned by students, offering everything from ballroom dancing to neuroscience, Pooh Sticks Society to the Conservative Association, Bikers to Chess.

I took some pictures of this Constable painting ‘Study of Clouds’ in the Ashmolean Museum when I was in Oxford on Friday.

What was I doing in Oxford. Hankering after ‘the real thing’ – a chance to meet and talk with some people in the flesh, this at a talk on Virtual Worlds in Japanese at the Centre of Social and Cultural Anthropology hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute.

After a while, all this online stuff has you eager to meet like-minds in person.

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