This blog post is based on an online ethnographic study of an web community where members create an avatar (virtual-self). They can have a house, own a car and those objects are given in the default settings. Moreover, they are expected to develop better (richer) visual appearance.
My first observation is that the online community’s name is inspired from one of the ancient Greek gods. The name is given to attract users’ attention and make them feel like they have god’s power in a virtual environment. Basically, I have the feeling that the name of the community implies that if you become powerful enough you can be one of the gods in the arena.
The community has about 2 million members from all over the world and they are mostly teenagers. The communication language is English. In order to become a member, registration with nickname and valid e-mail address is required. The community has pages where users can play games, write on forums, talk in chat rooms, shop and visit virtual spaces (towns).
Here you see the avatar I have created to join the community. In this community I mostly exist as an observer. Although, I had to interact with the website and some users in order to understand the aim of the community and the interaction between members.
To continue with the interactive perspective, when a new member joins to the community, (s)he receives a registration gift of 400 gold coins that can be used to modify his/her avatar. For example coins can be used for buying fancy clothes, animals and jeweleries, or buying new furniture for the house. The website navigates new comers and teaches them how to earn money. Even very simple activities are awarded in coins, such as; browsing the website. Moreover, commenting on topics, walking around the towns and interacting with other avatars (users/members) are also awarded with gold coins. Finally, participants can buy gold coins using real world money paid through PayPal or a Credit Card.
In this community, it is important to create an attractive and different looking avatar to be noticed by other members. Users own cars and they can race with each other, but they may also just show off with their flashy colorful cars. Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater claims that personal artifacts (objects such as; musical instruments, foods, toys, jewellery, ceremonial objects, and clothes) represent the culture and the meanings . For instance, some of the cars have burning tires which, according to my interpretation, create a picture how cool, rich and powerful the car owner is. Although it is hard to follow the conversations in the car race platform, I manage to observe full conversation between two users who had identically the same cars (which implies they are at the same level in the community). Using the live chat, they both expressed their dissatisfaction of owning the same object (car) and left the car race platform afterwards. As an observer I could not understand if they have left to race or they headed to some other direction within the website. The webpage has templates for objects and it is natural that some users would own the same object. Users’ reaction in this occasion shows that they want to be different from the others, not the same or even similar.
According to Sinor and Huston  “ethnography is a qualitative practice that relies on case studies of individuals rather than a quantitative practice requiring large databases”. Adhering to this point of view, I continued to look at the specific patterns of interaction in the community.
The members can interact by commenting on each others profiles, using chat room in each section of games and writing in forums. Another observation is that, they use chat boxes as it is their diary notebook. Basically, instead of keeping diary and write down for example; “Dear diary, I feel so sad today”, they write it in the chat environment. So that other online users can see those instant messages and reply to them. Furthermore, we can also see that some members are virtually flirting with each other, becoming friends or competitors. This chat boxes are one of the ways of making new friends in the community. However, the chat boxes are so hard to follow, since everyone in the area is writing at the same time.
Furthermore we can see that users are encouraged to voice their opinion in the forums. In the main page, users are clearly invited to share their ideas in forums. Moreover, forums have “hot topics” for anime, games, TV series and current news (some news are political) from all over the world. So that any kind of news which attract attention of users can be the hot topic, such as; global warming, a new released game and latest episode of “How I met your mother”. Recently, TV anime series called “The Legend of Korra” is the most discussed topic. One of the members has opened a topic about Korra’s break up with her boyfriend at last episode. So far, the comments on the topic are 4 pages long. It is clear that those comments reflect users’ political view, sexual preferences, and social roles that match with avatar names and their symbolic representation. To give an example, an avatar named lesbianXYZ (name is changed to protect the owner’s identity) writes that Korra does not need a man she should be independent. Another female user agrees that she will be glad to see a leading female character that does not have love interest. Furthermore the user called romanticladyXYZ disagrees with the others and says she is sorry for Korra’s break up with her boyfriend.
It is interesting to look deeper to understand, why do they spend several hours a day and in some cases real money, to create better virtual identity (avatar)?
The representation of virtual-self can be interpreted as role playing. The members of the online community, that are teenagers and soon will become adults, can enjoy the satisfaction of owning a car or property which usually takes years to achieve in the real world. By creating a picture of their real-self in a virtual environment they can keep a level of anonymity while practicing social relations. Anonymity allows them to improve their self-confidence without the risk of serious consequences. The online community also gives the opportunity to act like someone that they probably will never be in the real world.
This comes at a risk; users do face the risk of online addiction. Being a member of this community requires users to be connected to virtual world for long hours. In other words, users are, in a way, forced to spend hours in the community in order to achieve the goals related to self-satisfaction.
Thank you for reading this short research and I hope it gives you a general idea of how the online community acts and establishes relations. As you can imagine, this is such a large community that is hard to categorize users’ behaviors and fully understand the reasons behind it.
1. Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth, and Bonnie S. Sunstein. 1997. FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research. Prentice Hall.
2. Jennifer, Jennifer Sinor, and Michael Huston. 2004. “The Role of Ethnography in the Post-Process Writing Classroom.” Teaching English in the Two-year College 31 (4) (May 1): 369–382.