Reflections on NMRDC Virtual Ethnography Workshop

How do you give a voice, even a body, to a virtual wink? This was the main focus of a lecture and workshop led by Professor Greg Grieve of UNC-Greensboro held last week at Texas A&M University and co-sponsored by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture.
These events provide an overview about the formation of a virtual ethnographic method in the research of Second Life, as portrayed in the forthcoming book: Digital Zen: Buddhism, Virtual Worlds and Online Meditation (2014).

The participants of the Virtual Ethnography workshop got a “hands on” experience building their own avatars and exploring the act of winking on Second Life. The Virtual Ethnography workshop guided by Dr. Gregory Grieve provided the participants with the opportunity to fully engage as researchers on Second Life platforms; reflect on the ethics of such research and come face to face with possible difficulties and hurdles of online ethnography.
Within the workshop we were asked to wink at a random avatar and to reflect upon that wink’s meanings and outcomes.

Drawing upon Geertz’s interest in the act of winking, we discussed the similarities and differences between virtual and actual ethnographies. It was agreed among all participants that the act of entering Second Life as a virtual field of research was similar to the act of entering an actual ethnographic field, as the researcher has to understand the limitation, language and norms of Second Life. We discussed the issue of authenticity in the online research, and raised questions regarding avatars as authentic identities. We asked if such identity can be studied in the field of digital religion, leaving the answer open to personal interpretation of each participant.
Additionally, we found different reactions to the act of winking. Those who were actually able to use the emoticon of a wink properly received a wide array of reactions from other avatars in Second Life: a booty call, a bite from virtual vampire, a ban from participating in a religious environment and a motherly advice on how to conduct on Second Life.

The main conclusion of the workshop is that conducting an online ethnography on second life requires a good amount of familiarization time with the platform before engaging in the research itself.