IDEA 2009: An Interview with Thomas Malaby

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As IDEA 2009 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Director of Events and Marketing for the IAI, I fill a variety of roles and lead the charge for the IDEA Conference this year, as well as get to Interview the IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Greg Corrin in this case).

For this interview, I was able to ask a few questions with Thomas Malaby. Malaby is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has a forthcoming book titled "Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life" from Cornell University Press.

You recently finished a book about Second Life and online communities titled “Making Virtual Worlds” (Cornell University Press). Can you describe how your research process was structured for this writing effort? How does one conduct ethnographic research in online communities effectively?

The rise of digital technologies poses many challenges and opportunities for ethnographic research. Because this project centered on the makers of Second Life, Linden Lab in San Francisco, to a certain extent the familiar form of face-to-face ethnographic participant observation and interviewing was possible. But nonetheless even within the company an enormous amount of communication occurred through technologically mediated channels, including multiple email lists, wikis, an IRC channel, instant messaging, plus all of the tools for communication found within Second Life itself, wherein a great deal of Linden employees’ work was done.

What are some of your key research findings about Second Life? How is this community progressing from a sociological perspective?

My primary finding concerned the way in which the ostensibly “user-generated” world of Second Life was nonetheless shaped so deeply by the values and expectations that the makers at Linden Lab inscribed into it. What emerges is that while we may be tempted to think of the communities (and there are many) within Second Life as existing in a somewhat “natural” state, free to develop as they wish, in fact all users of Second Life are always already acting within an environment that makes assumptions about what kind of people they are. The inscription of property rights into the world is only the most obvious example of the ineradicable ideological assumptions that are part of SL.

Do you have any advice for professional or other organizations as to how they could use Second Life to help foster increased activity amongst their members?

Second Life’s advantage is the wide bandwidth for nuanced social action that it provides. That is, moving about as avatars within the environment broadens the scope for meaningful expression in ways that can form the foundation for powerful applications. From my point of view, the most promising of these are educational and therapeutic — uses that leverage the real human connections possible in an environment that allows people to express themselves so broadly.

Did you find in your research that Second Life is evolving in a unique way compared to other communities?

Certainly, but in a sense any given community changes historically in a unique fashion. We are always tempted to find some common sequence or pattern to how societies change, but overwhelmingly the evidence that anthropology and related fields have found about all communities is that they change historically, in contingent ways. There are some patterns we can observe that hold across some if not all cases, but no universal path. This is a facet of all change (even evolutionary change) that Charles Darwin deeply appreciated, but it is often forgotten in our desire to have universal answers.

Do you care to make a prediction on the future of online communities? Will Second Life shape any primarily online social world going forward, or are other systems innovating in other more interesting ways?

I think Second Life already has. Metaplace, the new virtual world by famous game designer Raph Koster, owes an enormous amount to Second Life in its conception of what users want (ideas that more deeply connect with longstanding assumptions about people, authority, and technology in postwar-U.S., especially the Bay Area).

Do you spend much time actively participating in communities online or are you always wearing a researching hat? If so, in which communities do you spend your leisure time?

I spend a great deal of time in virtual worlds, and almost all of it is in World of Warcraft, where I lead a guild of academics and their friends and family.

There are many different online and mobile applications that allow people to find new methods of connecting with very little overhead.  How do you think SecondLife can compete—or work in conjunction—with these?

With any networked technology (really, any technology) we must always be mindful of the specific experience of using it and the affordances it brings. There are things that Second Life and similar worlds are good at that mobile apps could never hope to achieve, and it is the same in the other direction. We don’t need killer apps, we need killer uses– and those are far harder to anticipate and encourage through design.


About Thomas Malaby

Thomas Malaby is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has published numerous works on virtual worlds, games, practice theory, and indeterminacy. His principal research interest is in the relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, particularly as they are realized through games and game-like processes.

You can learn more about Thomas on the Speakers Page and the Program Page of the IDEA Conference website.

About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access) 2009: Social Experience Design

IDEA2009 brings together the world’s foremost thinkers and practitioners: sharing the big ideas that inspire, along with practical solutions for the ways people’s lives and systems are converging to affect society.

These days, you can’t be socially engaging without considering the experience design. IDEA2009 brings together like-minded people who want to continue the exploration of Social Experience Design.

One comment

  1. This is something like I read in one book that the next generation will be knowledge generation. At the moment we are still in information and technology generation. We’ll see!
    I like the opinion about online communities.

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