Dear Tom Boellstorff,
Your question, “What can ethnography tell us about the virtual worlds?” automatically caught my attention because it unveiled how virtual worlds can be seen as legitimate sites of culture, and since virtual worlds are meaningful sites for social action, cultures in the virtual worlds exist whether we like it or not. I thought your research to this question was done very fairly because you were not concerned to determine if the woman you were talking to was “really” a man in the actual world or if two different people were controlling “her” because most SL residents do not have these answers either. You truly took advantage of the open-endedness of SL.
Daniel Miller and Don Slater’s notion of how Internet technologies are being understood and assimilated somewhere in particular is so relevant in terms of SL because “online cultures are ultimately predicated upon actual-world cultures, an assumption sometimes methodologically operationalized by efforts to meet residents of virtual worlds in the actual world, although researchers have long noted the difficulty of ascertaining actual-world identities” (Boellstorff 62). Even though people know that they cannot know who the people are offline, people in the virtual worlds are still determined to address the actual world- the actual world meaning the only “real” social world. Relating to this topic, I can imagine that the way my cousins participate in SL would differ from the way I differ from SL because events, identities, issues, and ideas in virtual worlds derive and are referenced from the real world.
I strongly agree with your statement, “participant observation is the central methodology for ethnography because it does not require the aspects of culture be available for conscious reflection,” because researchers can become involved in crafting events as they occur, for participant observation is itself a form of techne. Many aspects of culture are imperfectly available for conscious reflection because they take the form of common sense. I also was in the same position as you when you noticed that all of this experience did not give you a totalizing understanding of SL because you realized ethnographic knowledge is situated and partial because so many of the other residents have been immersed in SL much longer than you and had much more knowledge of this virtual world that something second nature to them might have seemed like a difficult task for you and me. Very fascinating article and great insight about investigating the virtual human through the lens of an anthropologist.