“VirtualCulture or VirtualCultures” was the question - we were debating the last bit of the title that was undecided: Celia and I were otherwise in agreement about the title, the purpose of the blog, and were and are equally excited to be finally launching it (we’d talked about the idea for some time). Celia favored “Cultures”, and I had initally preferred the version sans “s” but was coming around to her way of thinking. We asked Ted Castronova, who happened to be nearby at the Multiverse booth at GDC 2007, and he agreed with Celia on the plural, and seemed to think the blog sounded like fun (which was good to hear), so it was settled.
I want to bring it up explicitly here as an introduction to my perspective on this blog, why I think it’s potentially meaningful and what I hope to help achieve.
The distinction between the two is illuminating: “VirtualCultures” highlights the variety of specific cultures emerging in the online space, and emphasizes what I think is a radical transformation going as a result: people are able to become members of communities with different and even wildly divergent cultural characteristics easily. By turning on the computer and dropping by the WoW forum, or going into Uru, or joining a discussion at Terra Nova, I take part in clearly distinct cultures. There has never been the ease of exploring social identity, forming new bonds, or experimenting freely with the dynamic interplay of identity and culture as is now becoming ever more a part of our lives. Who we are as a function of our culture has never been so easy to play with, and the vast array of online cultures that we see emerging every day is a testament to how powerful this experience is - we want to find our niche(s), experiment, explore, grow, and online socializing can enable that. The ability to play with, influence, or even create new cultures online is, I think, a revolution in some sense similar to the use of tools. We have never before been so aware, on a daily basis, of the dynamics of the influence of culture on our perspectives, experience, and identity, and this is just the beginning. The realization that culture is a flux, always shifting and evolving, that our participation in our native culture is not something monolithic and immutable, but is something subject to collective influence, subject to change, subject to our desire to modify it… this has never been so clear before. The access to many cultures, easily, brings home the realization of how fluid culture can be, and highlights our ability to influence this very important part of our environment in a way that has previously been the experience only of world travellers and bohemians.
But without the “s” - VirtualCulture - the implication, for me, is of the academic perspective, the study of culture in all its manifestations, all of its different permutations, online and throughout the world. Culture as the web of perspectives and social agreements and survival strategies that groups of people evolve, and tirelessly reinforce, to enable them to thrive, and to communicate meaningfully. There is a wealth of study and insight and research in the various fields of sociology, cultural anthropology, religious studies, communication, marketing, etc. etc. There’s been a lot of really interesting thinking done about what makes human culture, and how this happens, and it is exciting to see bridges being built between virtual world design and the academic understanding of culture. We hope this blog will help contribute to that dialogue, in both directions, as I feel the study of online culture affords many opportunities to understand the dynamics that underly culture in the default world as well.
Of course, I’m a practitioner, not an academic, and am quite happy with the plural. It reflects my own experience managing communities, primarily in gaming, from Mplayer to Uru to my current role working with developer teams using the Multiverse virtual world platform. My background has been in working with these developing experiences of human socialization, ferverishly trying to understand the amazing stuff I was seeing every day, trying to help it grow in positive ways, and rejoicing with every opportunity to discuss these things with anyone I could get to sit still for a while.
So I’m really excited about this blog - there’s a lot going on, I think, in this exciting area, and a lot we’re discovering that is really illuminating about how we people go about this being alive stuff, especially how we negotiate common perspectives, understandings, sharing experience, forming relationships… the list goes on. Lots to talk about!