Dissertation done

It struck me that this news might be worth reviving my slumbering blog for: I have finished my dissertation and handed it in November 1! The dissertation is based on four papers published in different contexts and includes a long-ish introductory part reflecting on the main themes of the project. A short summary can be found on the “PhD project” page on this site.

It was and is a strange feeling – I’m happy that I got this far in the process, but at the same time I sort of miss the bubble-like self-centeredness and immersion of especially the last six months. Writing the thing was actually a good experience and I hope to be able to find that kind of focus again amidst all the other responsibilities of life in academia (well… life in general).

Back to work

I am in the intellectually and emotionally demanding process of bursting the bubble of maternity leave and seeing my little daughter off to daycare in order to start thinking about my PhD project in a serious and productive way. Luckily, I do not start teaching until mid-October, so I now have some time to collect my thoughts and make preparations. Aside from teaching, one of my tasks is now to carry out and write about my study for this year’s Internet Research conference (see previous post). I am planning to focus especially on the methodological issues mentioned in end of the abstract, as this is something that I have been thinking about – in a more general way – lately.

During my time off, I have been pondering about my own place in the research landscape – which field should I primarily speak and refer to, what do I take with me from my background in literary studies, what does it mean to me to be a humanist scholar in an emergent, cross-disciplinary research environment? These are questions that I want to write about and hopefully discuss in the coming months.

Accepted for IR11

In October, I am planning to go Internet Research 11.0 – Sustainability, Participation, Action as part of a panel on mutual surveillance in social media. My contribution to the ongoing academic debate about issues of privacy, surveillance and identity (particularly on Facebook) is anticipated in the following abstract:

“When Avatars Go On Facebook”

In this paper, I explore what happens when virtual communities expand their avatar-based internal relations to the context of the online social networking of Facebook. This is based on an empirical study of two different online communities in which members have expanded, or in some cases, moved their relationships from being relatively anonymous in the context of the community to presenting more of their offline lives in the context of Facebook.

I focus specifically on the communicative strategies which members of these communities employ in order to distinguish between both online and offline selves and between their avatar/alter ego in the community and the offline person they present themselves as on Facebook. How does the communication between members as well as the communication of personal identity differ in these two contexts, and how are the boundaries of informativity managed?

The broader discussion that this study leads to involve questions such as: What does “private identity” mean in the context of the various possibilities of self-representation on the web? And what consequences does this have for the researcher as a participant observer who must respect the anonymity of her object of study?

I am really looking forward to participating in my fourth Internet Research conference. It is usually a vibrant, relaxed and inspiring experience, and I learn something new every time.

On maternity leave

I have been neglecting my blog for some time now, but this is not the time to start posting again. I am now on maternity leave, expecting my second child any day now, and will most likely not be active here until after Summer 2010. But I do plan to start posting more frequently with notes and thoughts relating to my project after being on leave, when I will return to the third and last year of my PhD scholarship!

Notes from Internet Research 9.0 (Part I)

I have now attended two of the conferences arranged by the Association of Internet Researchers, and both have been great fun and inspiring. I will attempt to pick out some of the more coherent and comprehensible notes I took during the IR9 conference at ITU in October 2008:

Mimi Ito gave a keynote talk about “Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: Youth participation in networked publics” – presenting her own research and other findings from the Digital Youth Project at Berkeley. Her main point was that youth participate in networked publics through many different genres of participation, dependent on the situation, and focused on two general genres: The friendship-driven participation, which reproduces existing social relations and relates to the dominant mode of “hanging out”, and the interest-driven participation, which has gotten more attention from researchers, maybe because we see fans’ and other interest groups’ activities as pointing towards the possibilities of creativity and amateur production afforded by new media. Ito had looked especially at “fan-subbing” – anime fans in non-Japanese speaking environments doing their own translations of works. In this type of interest-driven networks, the recognition in the community for their own work is the highest form of validation participants look for. Ito concluded that it’s important to recognize the diversity in genres of youth participation online, and that in the peer-based learning, participation and reputation building, what constitutes a “peer” changes due to a different structure of validation in the online environment.

I attended a session on fan communities, and especially found Natasha Whiteman‘s presentation interesting. She has done research on online media fandom, and has structured her study of Angel and Silent Hill fan communities around events occuring in relation to the product, especially crisis events such as the Angel, the tv show, getting cancelled. The fans’ reactions to these events afforded an opportunity to study how community and identity are negotiated on the fan forums, and what structures and self-regulations the community imposes on “being a fan”. While also observing ethnographically in these fan communities, Whiteman conducted text analysis of forum postings as a primary method. This approach is close to what I am planning to do in my own PhD research, so I am curious about other research of this type. In this session, Trevor Harvey presented his work on online communities around music composition, especially the online music community iCompositions. It was new to get a look inside a creative online community of amateur music-making that I did not know of, and Harvey’s research on the sociomusical construction of community and place was also interesting to me, as he looked at how narratives of place reaffirm cultural values that operate within that shared space (referring to the work of anthropologist Michael Jackson, I think).

There was of course also quite a few sessions on games and game culture. I will post some notes on those in part II, coming later :)

DREAM notes

Suddenly it’s been half a year since I last posted on my blog! I have been thinking about (and procrastinating on) posting some notes from the two conferences I attended in the fall: the DREAM conference at SDU in Odense i September 2008, and the big Internet Research 9.0 conference (confusingly also known as IR9, AoIR, AIR…) at ITU in October 2008. Anyway, the time has come – and I will begin with a few notes from the DREAM conference (seems that the conference website is down right now):

My most substantial notes are from one of the keynote talks at the conference. I found Roger Säljö‘s talk very inspiring – although I am not very familiar with the fields of activity theory and educational psychology, where the concepts presented here are based. What I am conveying here is the part of the talk that was most interesting to me :)

The title of the talk was “Representational technologies, imaginative minds and the social memory”, and as part of this subject, Säljö gave a historical account of the role of media and media comunication in human development. The basic idea is that human beings have always objectified/externalized their experiences, and Säljö looks at how these objectifications are constitutive of cultural transformations and of the development of social memory, and how they shape meaning-making practices. Social memory means, in other words, how we learn to represent our experiences and how we become shaped by these representations.

Representations/documentations rely on sign-making through inscriptions on artefacts (images, symbols, words, narratives etc.). The ability to document and represent our actions is an important part of the history of human development, and all these documentations depend of an interpretive community to give it meaning. Moreover, these interpretive practices and communities entail processes of reification and fixation of meaning, in other words, representations can be seen as reified human experience.

I think that these issues are quite interesting to think about some more in the context of my own research on storytelling in online gaming communities.

Notes from the [Player] conference

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference focusing on the game player at ITU in Copenhagen. I could only be there for the first two days, but I came home with a lot of new inspiration and thoughts about my project and game studies in general. As expected, methodological discussion was in focus, and it was once again clear that as a multidisciplinary research field, game studies are dominated by two different, if not conflicting, scientific domains: the social sciences and the humanities. All in all, there were many interesting talks at the conference, and I want to share some rambling notes here on my blog.

The first keynote speaker was Peter Vorderer from Vrije University, who is a communication scholar doing mostly empirical research on media effects, and in that way firmly rooted in social science traditions. Vorderer made the point that interdisciplinarity is an impossible dream – different methods have different criteria for what is good research, and we are more likely to stick to the approach we think is most valuable. He advocated that we should be more open towards other approaches, and think in terms of integration of methods, approaches and paradigms, although this is not easy. In Vorderer’s research field, what is being investigated is typically the effects of entertainment understood as direct psychological response that can be measured on e.g. a person watching a movie. The content or meaning of the media artefact is not what interests this kind of research, but that is where the humanists look. As far as I could understand, Vorderer’s wish was that by combining these different perspectives, we are able to cover the full aspects of the media experience – by studying psychological effects as well as use contexts, meanings and cultures.

Kristine Jørgensen from Bergen University presented her thoughts on how to investigate the player’s comprehension of the relationship between the game and the rest of the world by the use of qualitative approaches. With this issue, she touched on exactly how social science methods (such as ethnographical observation, video data collecting, interviews) and a humanistic perspective (aesthetics and fiction) might be combined to wield new insights on the relationship between the game and the player. Jørgensen pointed out that the combination of aesthetic and operative elements is central in computer games, because games are both artefact and activity. So, she is embarking on a very interesting research project investigating how these two aspects of gaming are related and experienced.

The first day ended with a panel discussing “The state of modding”. Tanja Sihvonen from Turku University presented some ideas based on her forthcoming, and very interesting-sounding PhD dissertation about modding in relation to The Sims. EA Games has recently started the site Sims Carnival, where users are provided with easy-to-use tools for creating their own games and uploading them to the site. Interestingly, according to Sihvonen, EA Games has officially recognized that the name of the site is also a reference to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his work on the carnivalesque tendencies in literature and culture as collective and anti-institutionalized subversion. But, of course, the question is whether EA Games are really interested in the subversive potential of the users’ creativity or whether they are rather holding on to the existing power relation between the game developers and the users by securing their own control over the framework for the users’ creative activities and potential ‘subversive’ behavior. Alexander Knorr from München University also had a critical eye for the relation between the modders and the game developers, stating that while we often talk of the borders between these are eroded in the modding process, he has found that it is rather the case that the user and the game developer find a shared identity or framework for identity in this process.

On the second day, Jesper Juul presented his thoughts on casual games, and how we can categorize the types of gameplay associated with these games as opposed to ‘hardcore’ games. He pointed out that there is a misconception that people who play casual games don’t play as often or for as long time as hardcore players, when research shows that a large part of casual players play quite a lot. This leads him to identify players of hardcore games as more flexible towards the game (willing to change tactics, put in extra time if the game demands it), while players of casual games are less flexible, wanting to be able to stop the game anytime and not for instance spend a whole night finishing a difficult mission etc. Juul’s view was that design changes leads to changes in player behavior, but players also always play the same game in different ways.

Moving on to gender issues in gaming, Hanna Wirman from University of West England presented her paper on female Sims players creating content for the game, understood through the metaphor of weaving (from Sadie Plant) as a way for women to achieve social power through technology. Very interesting, cyborg theory-like approach to this subject. She also pointed out that leisure activities that are identified as feminine, such as casual games, are often devaluated in culture as well as in research. Jessica Enevold from ITU and Charlotte Hägström from Lund University presented the framework for a project on ‘Gaming Moms’, investigating both how women are represented as gamers, and how they juggle time between play and family life and how they experience their gaming life. This should be a very interesting project to follow! 

Ulrika Bennerstedt from University of Gothenburg and Björn Sjöblom from Linköping University both presented studies drawing on methods from interaction analysis and conversation analysis, one analyzing in-game interaction and the other analyzing interaction between players in the physical space. Bennerstedt had studied situated identities in roleplay MMORPG, conceptualizing the identity play as a form of digital puppetry, where the players have strategies for achieving the different social roles (the fantasy character, the virtual persona, and the physical self). Sjöblom had recorded a play session between four boys playing WoW to study how game/gaming rules become discursive devices in player interaction (how they talk about the rules). It is always interesting to hear about the sort of micro-analysis carried out in this methodological tradition.

Signs of life

After having enjoyed a lovely Summer vacation with my family and in Brussels (celebrating my husband Anders‘ succesful PhD defense), I am now back to work, braving the heat and working on a paper for the DREAM conference at University of Southern Denmark in September.

Surfing around, I found a link on my colleague Marianne Riis’ blog about the fantastic little Wordle tool/toy which generates pretty word “clouds” out of text. I tried it with my last conference paper, and lo and behold – my paper cloud, which actually represents the main issues very well: