How COVID-19, teaching, privacy, and virtual worlds intersect | Interview with Dr. Tom Boellstorff

How COVID-19, teaching, privacy, and virtual worlds intersect | Interview with Dr. Tom Boellstorff

We met with Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Tom Boellstorff to talk about the impact of online, virtual worlds during the pandemic and so much more. Enjoy!

Dr. Tom Boellstorff explores the impact of online, virtual worlds and their growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Boellstorff visits in Second Life with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University. The two professors also discuss Boellstoerff’s studies of LGBTQ+ communities in a Muslim nation (Indonesia), teaching online at the collegiate level, and the challenges of academia.

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Interview with Anthropologist Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

Jed Macosko: Hi this is Dr. Jed Macosko at in Wake Forest University. And we have a great interview for you today, Professor Tom Boellstorff from UC Irvine, one of the leading anthropologists of today. He’s gonna be talking about how COVID-19 has affected education, and in particular, he’s gonna be showing us inside of his special teaching place in Second Life so I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.

00:34Second Life

Jed: For the people who are interview or watching this interview that we are going to edit together at the end, I just want to explain to everybody that what you’ve just been witnessing these past few minutes is a tour through the world that Professor Tom has created for his students, so that he can teach them in a great virtual environment during the pandemic.

Now, my first question to you, Professor Tom, is, what did you do before the pandemic? Did you use this world for any of your teaching?

Tom Boellstorff: You know, I never had. And I can actually send you a link. And, here, I’m gonna pull out from under you, your chair because Kyle’s sitting here, so we can sit here around a circle...

Jed: Okay, well thank you for pulling me out. And so now I can kind of move around.

Tom: Feel free to grab a seat.

Jed: Okay, yeah.

Tom: So, and Kyle can look around as he wants to, but I actually never really did teaching in Second Life before I just did my research here.

And then once the epidemic started and students were so tired of Zoom all the time, we actually did it partially in Zoom as well. But doing it here just gave us a way to do something a little bit different and also give a space for the students to have some down time where they could hang out with each other or watch a movie together inside of Second Life, ’cause you can stream, YouTube.

A few of them actually did some building, I can show you some things. There’s a roller coaster on the island. Some other things like that. So it really was just sort of making the most of a bad situation, and this upcoming year, unfortunately, I’m gonna be teaching several other... Two at least, two other classes on this island because of the pandemic. And it just gives us a way to do something a little different than we would be doing otherwise.

Jed: Wow, well, I can definitely see why you have risen to the top of our influence metric in terms of anthropologists. And maybe while we’re sitting here, I’m very cozy with you here on the couch. Sorry about that. I didn’t know how do... [chuckle]

Tom: Yes you can... If you can change the animations. Yes, there are cuddle animations and things like that.


Jed: I’m like right on top of you.

Tom: It’s perfectly fine. Here I’ll sit in the rocking chair and then I can...

Jed: Okay there we go. That sounds probably a little bit better.

Tom: I can rock back and forth. That way I’m sitting in-between you all.

Jed: Oh that’s very clever.

Tom: I can rock quietly. Yeah. We can...

02:51Starting out

Jed: Okay, so I think... I think that my main question is, how did you figure out that you wanted to be an anthropologist? Like at what point in your life did you decide I wanna be an anthropologist? And then from there, how did you decide that this would be your area of anthropology?

Tom: So I started out doing research in Indonesia, and my first two books are on about gay and lesbian Indonesians, and I came to that research in the 1990s, doing HIV aids work in the United States, and then just got really interested in what was it like to be gay in other parts of the world. Because I’m gay, and so that... I have those interests and sort of through a random series of events, as often happens, I got very involved in Indonesia.

I had done some international HIV consulting in Russia, and Malaysia before. But got very interested in Indonesia, and then ended up doing the typical anthropology thing in a sense, learning the Indonesian language, spending a lot of time there. Sort of looking at how this identity that seems very western gay ends up halfway around the world in a country that’s 90% Muslim. And what it means for people there in their everyday lives.

And so that was sort of the basic idea behind that research to which I devoted many years of my life and have written two books and many articles, and I still do a little bit of work in Indonesia.

But almost 15 years now, ago, I had been doing research there for about 15 years and I decided that I wanted to do something different, which many anthropologists do. Some of us spend our entire career studying one culture, but often every five or ten years, people will move on to new projects, just to keep things fresh and learn about something new, and I was sort of in that mindset, I wanted to push myself and try something new.

And so I had the idea... I had always been interested in technology and mass media were actually very important to how Indonesians were getting these ideas of gay and lesbians, so I had a prior interest in technology. And so I had heard about virtual worlds, and this is 16 years ago now, they were just starting...

Jed: Yeah. I saw you’ve been a member for 16 years in First and Second Life.

Tom: I’ve been in Second Life for 16 years, yeah.

Jed: Wow.

Tom: When I started it, there were only 2000 people in Second Life, it had only opened about 10 months earlier.

Jed: Wow.

Tom: And the idea that I basically had was, what happens if I try to use the classical anthropological techniques that you use to study another culture like on Anjathe or Bali or whatever, and use it to try and study something like Second Life. Will it work or not? And what would you learn?

So I started at a very open-ended kind of experimental way because there hadn’t been a whole lot of ethnographic... Anthropological studies of online cultures, yet at that point. There were some before me for sure. But there hadn’t been a whole bunch. And so it really began as an experiment and then it was a big success.

I found out that I could do participant observation, just like we’re hanging out right here, I could hang out with people and play games and go to a dance, or people do dance music here, all kinds of things in these virtual worlds.

And I was able to use basically the same techniques we use in the physical world to study a virtual world, and then I’ve ended up writing my book, Coming of Age in Second Life. I’ve done a book about Methods, I just finished up a book about disability and... A research project about Disability in Virtual Worlds for which I’ve written several articles. And now I...

And then I was sort of thinking of moving on, away from Second Life, actually, to new research projects, but I’ve been sucked back in, because of COVID. And so, I now have a new National Science Foundation research project, looking at what’s happening in virtual worlds when so many people are coming to them, because of the pandemic.

And I’m doing that with three of my graduate students here in Second Life, but also in Animal Crossing, which is a virtual world in Nintendo Switch, that only got released in March. So it’s very associated with the pandemic, it’s got millions of people in it. And so we’re sort of comparing it and Second Life, and sort of thinking about what we call social distancing is really physical distancing, we could cuddle on this couch, like we just were...


Jed: Yeah, now I’m pretty close.

How are virtual worlds different? Because we could be doing this over Zoom, we could be sending Facebook things, but there's something different about being in a physical space, where we're in an environment.” – Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Tom: And not have to worry about COVID. And so, how are virtual worlds sort of giving us ways to think about intimacy, and closeness, and social activity in different ways? And how could we leverage that? How is it different than Facebook, or Twitter, or email? Whether... How are virtual worlds different?

Because we could be doing this over Zoom, we could be sending Facebook things, but there’s something different about being in a physical space, where we’re in an environment. And so, what does that mean for social interaction? I know I have a rollercoaster on this island, we could be riding it, or whatever.

Jed: Yeah.

Tom: So, that’s the basic idea. And so, it really has, I think like many anthropologists are, our work is a mix of opportunity, and sort of long-standing intellectual interests, and there’s definitely been plenty of both of those in my life.

08:13Pre-COVID verses now

Jed: Wow. Well, I’m just going to pause for a second in our interview, to make sure that all the audio is working, because I was hearing... Okay, good, ’cause I was hearing an echo, and I slid my master volume down, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I hope that didn’t throw everything off.” So, thank you, Professor Tom.

There’s many questions, but I think we’ll just focus on this aspect of going back into Second Life, as a result of COVID. You obviously stayed in Second Life, even though you were planning on moving away from it, because of COVID, and you said a lot of people are going into virtual worlds.

Is Second Life one of those places, where there are many more people than they were before COVID?

Tom: And, by the way, the reason there was a... I paused there for a moment, for your speaker, you can... I turned my sound off while you were talking, to avoid any danger of an echo, So...

Jed: Ah, okay.

Tom: It just means that it takes me a moment to click it back on but you can do that, as well. For the sake of the audio quality. Just click off your little microphone when you’re not talking.

Jed: Okay.

Tom: So, for... It’s hard to know for sure, but it looks like there’s been like a 15-20% increase, at least, in people active in Second Life, in terms of active accounts.

It’s hard to tell for sure, ’cause getting a Second Life account is like a Gmail account, you can get as many as you want. But looking at what’s called concurrency, like how many people are in Second Life at once, it’s gone up, not hugely, but it’s gone up like around 20%, and there are sort of groups and activities that are happening about now that we have to stay at home.

So one thing that we’re doing in the comparison is looking at a place like Second Life, that it’s definitely grown because of the pandemic, but not hugely, versus Animal Crossing, which didn’t exist before the pandemic. And so, there’s a lot of evidence that, even if you’re looking at online games, like Fortnite or whatever, they’re all seeing growth...

Jed: Okay.

Tom: And those companies are seeing a lot of profits, so... Which isn’t surprising. And Zoom, and basically everything online is in a growth phase right now, right? Apple had a record quarter, despite the pandemic, because, obviously, people are going online a lot more than they were before. And so...

Jed: That makes sense.

Tom: But part of what I’m interested in the research is not just people doing it more, but doing it differently, or what’s happening differently?

So, for instance, one early research finding that we’re finding just in the last couple of months having started this research very suddenly, that’s interesting is, there’s definitely cases, a lot of cases, of people coming into Second Life or into Animal Crossing to be left alone.

So, coming into an island like this one that we’re on right now, where there’s no other avatars around, and just walking around to look at the trees, or ride a boat on the water, or just sort of fly around.

And so, in some cases, because of the epidemic, people are in their homes, maybe with four brothers and sisters, and their parents, or with a husband and wife, or a lot of people, and they actually are not isolated in a way, there’re actually people around them all the time, and they want to get away and be alone, and they can’t do it, maybe they’re in an apartment with a family.

Jed: Wow.

Tom: And so, people are going into Animal Crossing or Second Life for some of these other things. Sometimes they’re doing it because they’re lonely and they want connection, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s that they want to be alone. And if they go on Facebook, you’re not alone, you’re reading about everyone’s stuff. But there’s a lot of beautiful sort of islands in Second Life and Animal Crossing that you can just go into and you can purposely find one, where there’s no one else around.

…it's interesting in that sense that the assumption often is that going online is a way to connect, but for some people, going online during the epidemic is a way to disconnect. It's a way to get away from other human beings, at least some of the time.” – Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Jed: Wow.

Tom: So that you can just have some quiet time on a beach. And so, it’s interesting in that sense that the assumption often is that going online is a way to connect, but for some people, going online during the epidemic is a way to disconnect. It’s a way to get away from other human beings, at least some of the time.

12:25To share the experience or not to share

Jed: Yeah. I would never have guessed that.

But after you’re, let’s say, on a deserted beach and enjoying yourself, isn’t there sort of that urge to tell somebody about what kind of fun you just had, or what kind of relaxation you just had, to share that moment with somebody? So how do you see that playing out, in what you’re describing?

Tom: Sure, because it’s not either/or. It’s not that you don’t... That doing one means you don’t do the other. So often people... Like in Animal Crossing, there’s apps like iPhone or Android apps where you can tell people about your island and what you’re doing on it, or websites where you can do that, or you can actually IM your friends inside of Animal Crossing, like you can in Second Life and tell people about the cool island you were just at yesterday and you should go check it out too. So... Yeah.

There's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. And it doesn't have to be either/or.” – Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Tom: It doesn’t have to be... There’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. And it doesn’t have to be either/or. It could be that one evening... It could be in the afternoon, I wanna be alone, and maybe in the evening, I want company, so that absolutely can happen. It’s not... And now that said, there are cases of people who come into these places probably only to be alone, there’s probably cases of people who come in only to socialize, but there’s also a lot of mixing.

Where people might, as the mood fits them, do one or do the other. And actually, in a virtual world like Second Life, you could have as many avatars as you want, so you have your Jed avatar right there. You could, for free, get another avatar. Just like you have two Gmail accounts.

And so we know there’s cases where people will have two avatars and one, they don’t tell other people about. They don’t friend anyone else, and that’s the, “I wanna be alone avatar”. And then the...

Jed: Interesting.

Tom: Other avatar they have all these lists of friends and groups they belong to. And often people will do that, they’ll have a avatar for when they want to be left alone, sometimes they’ll call it a building avatar. ’Cause the thing about Second Life is that you can build in real time and with other people, like I just made this box.

Jed: Wow. That’s cool. [laughter]

Tom: So you can sort of... The way you build stuff in Second Life is you can just do it in real time and you can do it collaboratively, but if you wanna be left alone when you’re building, you might have one avatar that you use for building and another avatar that you use for socializing.

So it’s that kind of thing that you will sometimes see people doing. So there’s a range of ways that people use these things. Very rarely is a one-size-fits-all kind of situation.

Jed: Yes, well, I appreciate you talking about all of this stuff, and I could just picture somebody finding a really picturesque spot like your island, which is so scenic and going there alone, and then maybe can you do this in Second Life, take a selfie of yourself at some quaint spot?

Tom: Oh yeah there’s...

Jed: Okay.

Tom: There’s people with whole Flicker or Instagram accounts completely devoted to their photographic journeys around Second Life or in Animal Crossing as well. So yeah, there’s lot’s of that. There’s lots of that kind of thing.

So exactly, that’s another way that people can save things is they can blog things but they they can also take pictures or do that kind of thing if they want to do that, so... Yeah, there’s definitely those kinds of...

Jed: Oh very cool. Now you’re sitting up there.

Tom: Now I’m sitting on the box I made. Yes, I’m doing a little building while I’m talking.

Jed: Very cool. That’s amazing.

Tom: But yeah, you... People do that kind of thing as well, for sure. And so that’s something... So basically, both in terms of this research project I’m doing and in terms of my teaching, it’s finding a silver lining in a difficult situation to use the virtual stuff for teaching. But also to study what’s happening in these spaces because of the epidemic.

16:30Career path

Jed: Yeah, well, since we did the interview completely backwards from what I was predicting. Why don’t we end on your career path? So you mentioned how you got into anthropology in general, but for example, where were you 16 years ago when you first started this project? Were you at University of California Irvine or were you somewhere else? Were you recruited there? Tell us a little bit about your trajectory and what you think allows you to be one of the most influential anthropologists in the world?

Tom: Well, so I finished my PhD in 2000 and... Then as many of us are, are on the job market for a couple years doing that. Trying to find a job. And in 2002, I was very lucky to get the job at UC Irvine. And incredibly lucky because my husband, Bill Maurer is also. Was over at... Had just been hired there a couple of years before. And in the academic life, it’s very difficult for couples to get jobs at the same place. That’s a very very nice thing when that happens. And you don’t take that for granted.

And so 16 years ago, I was exactly where I am now. I’ve been at Irvine since 2002, because we’ve been lucky enough to get positions together. But also we have a really wonderful Department at UC Irvine and a very open welcoming department, in the sense that when I told my department, oh, I’m gonna shift from Indonesia to this crazy stuff of online, no one said, “Oh, you can’t do that... ”

Jed: Oh good.

Tom: “You have to keep doing what you did before.” We’re a very open department in that we let people do whatever they want to do to sort of follow their bliss or follow what... Their intellectual curiosity.

And so I’ve been very fortunate to be in a department where I was very supported in terms of doing something different than I had done before. And I’m by far... And many of us in the department have careers like that. And so I was very lucky in that regard. But yeah, my career trajectory is not that interesting in that sense, in terms of jobs because I’ve had the same job.

Jed: Well...

Tom: I’ve moved up in my... I’ve been promoted, but I’ve been in the same position, the same department since 2002 because we really like it there. And like I said, to get jobs in the same place is not something that you...

Jed: No it’s not easy at all. In fact...

Tom: Take for granted. Yeah.

Jed: Yes, very much so. I have been in the same job since 2004, and I’m very grateful for my own position, and it sounds like you found a really good place.

There are so many things that we could talk about, Tom, and I just really wanna thank you for taking time to show us your island. We started this interview with a grand tour. I don’t know if you wanna end it with another grand tour of something else that you wanna show us, or if we...

Tom: Oh sure, I can just take a couple minutes. What would you... Like on a different island you mean, or like...

19:46A proper introduction

Jed: No, I was just wondering if you wanted to bookend it with two tours. But honestly, I think the most important thing is we will end the interview with what I should have started with, which was to introduce you.


Jed: Both you, in the image that we are gonna see on the video screen. I don’t know if you can see me waving to you in real life, here. Okay.

Tom: No, I can’t. But hopefully, you can see me, so...

Jed: Okay. I could see you, so.

Tom: So you’re seeing me.

Jed: Yeah. We’re seeing you, and with the magic of editing, I’m sure that people will think that we’re looking at each other [chuckle] in our screens.

Tom: That’s right. That’s right.

Jed: But yeah. So this... Today, we have with us a professor from University of California, Irvine, Professor Tom... Now, how do you say your last name?

Tom: Boellstorff. The first O is silent. It’s a mouthful.

Jed: Okay. Boellstorff?

Tom: Yeah.

Jed: Yeah. Boellstorff. Well, my last name’s sometimes hard to say, too. So, Boellstorff, Professor Tom Boellstorff. And, in the virtual world that we were just in, Professor Tom is known as Professor Tom Bukowski.

Is that how your students refer to you as?

Tom: Sometimes, yes. The way Second Life is set up, especially in the early years, you had to choose a last name from a list. You couldn’t choose your own name, so I chose a long name that started with the letter B. So...

Jed: Ah, okay. So... And you’ve had it for 16 years? That’s very cool.

Tom: I have. I’ve had it for 16 years, that’s right.

Jed: Okay. Well, and then... Just... Were you surprised at all that you are one of the most influential anthropologists, or have you known for a while that both you and some of the other people that we’ve been interviewing are up on that list?

So, for me, it's about a community of scholars and researchers that we're helping each other and working together to address problems in the world, and to understand the human condition in new ways.” – Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Tom: I’m surprised, and flattered, and not quite sure I really am. It’s always really nice to have one’s work cited and recognized, but I always think of anthropology as a team effort, and I do a lot of co-authoring and collaborating with other people.

So, for me, it’s about a community of scholars and researchers that we’re helping each other and working together to address problems in the world, and to understand the human condition in new ways. And so, I’m always happy when... With regard to my work in Indonesia, or in Second Life, or anywhere, it’s recognized or people find it useful, that’s really awesome, I really like that.

But my work only exists because of so many other people before me and alongside me, who are doing really interesting and important work that I cite, and engage with, and build on. So, for me, it’s always flattering to be recognized, but it’s also about us working together. To me, that’s what it means to be part of a science, right?

A kind of scientific endeavor, is that it's really not about individuals. It is, in a sense, but it's also about a community of people working together.” – Dr. Tom Boellstorff

Jed: Right.

Tom: A kind of scientific endeavor, is that it’s really not about individuals. It is, in a sense, but it’s also about a community of people working together.

22:37Sign off

Jed: Exactly. Well, thank you, Tom, for enjoying this time together...

Tom: You’re very welcome.

Jed: And for giving us your thoughts about anthropology. And we look forward to being back in touch with you when this interview gets uploaded to the website. And if there’s anything else that we can talk about at that point, it’ll be fun. So, thank you for your time.

Tom: You’re very welcome. Thanks a lot.