Where is the virtual self?

Since 2009, Dr Simon Evans has undertaken a long term digital ethnography of the virtual world Second Life. His aim has been to understand the extent to which the increasing use of digital technology and the environments they provide reflect a transformation in the experience of Self in contemporary society, employing an approach influenced by Symbolic Interaction and Activity Theory. While much of the study involves individual interviews and group discussions conducted using avatars in the virtual world, one of the methods used as part of the study is Subjective Evidence-Based Ethnography. This entails meeting Second Life users in the physical world, and adapting SEBE protocol to capturing typical experience of using the virtual world and the physical world setting in which it is framed as it happens. The purpose of this is to understand how the social, physical and virtual worlds inhabited by a virtual world user may interact, intersect with and influence each other, and hence understand the emergence and experience of Self as it happens, and from the perspective of the person having the experience.

The findings indicate that there are several levels of interaction that occur between the virtual world user, other users, the technology of the virtual world, and the physical environment. For the virtual world user, Self emerges through interactions with other users, using the mediating tools of virtual world artefacts (animations, objects, etc.) and the User Interface through which the virtual world is accessed and manipulated. Technology is the overarching mediating tool in the experience of virtual worlds, allowing a Self that is simultaneously enabled but constrained by what is possible through the UI and dependent on quality of computer graphics, Internet speed, virtual world servers etc. The virtual world user is typically simultaneously present in multiple environments, physical and virtual, and yet not necessarily fully engaged in any, while these environments intersect, overlap and influence each other. The contemporary Self is one in multiple locations, bridged by technological mediation, experienced through the fuse of an organic body and technology: in essence, a form of cyborg.

Multiple locations: the POV of virtual worlds user.
Multiple locations: the POV of the virtual world user.
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