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Sep 25, 2014




I've been a long time reader, and am sorry to see your blog close. I don't show up as a reader as I subscribed to updates via RSS. I originally started following your blog years ago when I was still into Ultima Online (which incidentally, is still kicking!). Good luck for your future projects!


Virtual worlds and their scholars: alive and kicking!

Since this comment is on the long side, thought I might as well give it a title…

First of all, let me thank you so much for all that you have done with Terra Nova. For many years this blog has been a source of ideas, community, and inspiration, particularly when I was just starting out in terms of thinking about virtual worlds. While I have been a journal editor, I have never tried to manage a blog and I have the utmost admiration for those who do. It's a lot more than sticking some Duplo blocks together (inside joke from a conference Ted and I were at not too long ago).

All that said, I do think it's important to clarify a couple points, because the end of a blog is not the same thing as the end of the topic that blog focused on.

Different kinds of publishing genres do different kinds of work, from books and articles to journals, blogs—even hashtagged threads might be seen as a kind of publishing genre. With regard to the blog genre, I've always thought there should be a clearer idea out there that blogs could be set up from the beginning with an "expiration date." Like the Star Trek Enterprise, they could have a five-year mission and then come to an end. Some blogs do keep going for years and years because they have the staffing and support to do so, but others cease and I don't think of that as a "death" but the end of a successful mission.

In what I'll heuristically term "digital cultural studies," there has been a worrying tendency to equate the meaningful with the new or big—and if something isn't new, big, or at least rapidly growing, then it's "R.I.P." time. My concern is that this is a way of thinking shaped by the hype and anti-hype cycles of the tech industry and its entrepreneurial "evangelists" rather than reality. In January of this year (2014) I wrote about this on the Culture Digitally blog ("Trending Ethnography: Notes on Import, Prediction, and Digital Culture"). The example I used to get the discussion going in that post were claims that Facebook is "dead and buried."

It's striking to see the parallel between that language and your "R.I.P." language, because you seem to be applying that language not just to the Terra Nova blog but to virtual worlds themselves, as when you say:

"For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin. As these applications grew in popularity, the need for a core intellectual group about virtual worlds themselves waned. The community dried up and the conversation dwindled."

But this is not accurate. First, immersive 3D communal spaces can be "things unto themselves" and still be linked to all kinds of other things in the physical world, and in other digital spaces too. That is certainly the case with the disability communities I've been working with in Second Life recently. So there was always "unbundling" in that sense. And sociality has not just gone to Facebook: it's still there in World of Warcraft, or EVE Online, or that virtual world that Microsoft just paid a couple billion dollars for. Virtual currency did not just go to Bitcoin: there are many other virtual currencies still around. And so on.

There are dispersions and resonances, but that doesn't mean that virtual worlds are not still an "important offering" still to speak. From my own perspective as an anthropologist, I remember how ethnographers do important, broadly relevant, cutting edge research on small-scale societies of a few thousand or even a few hundred people. Those smaller groups are valuable to understand for their own sake and also because they teach us things of comparative and generalizable value. Anthropologists do not just study India and China. Similarly, as the previous commenter noted, even Ultima Online is still around and doing fine. Second Life has over a million active users doing fascinating things and people are doing new experiments with it all the time (as I just noticed on my feed this morning). There are new virtual worlds like High Fidelity in development, and thousands of virtual environments for kids, for gamers, and so on. Some are more clearly self-contained virtual worlds, others less so, but they are all alive and kicking. Often what is more at issue is the attention span of researchers, particularly if they feel pressure to justify their work in terms of talking about the Hot New Thing, or the Next Big Thing. (No one ever asks me "why are you still interested in Indonesia" they way they sometimes ask "why are you still interested in Second Life?").

And I think what's happened to the intellectual community is similar. There are things like the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that keep a focus on virtual worlds. But there are so many blogs, journals, and so on nowadays that welcome scholarship on virtual worlds. (Quick plug: this includes the Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology book series from Princeton University Press, which I coedit. Send your work our way!) Our community is connecting up to so many others, and that is true in terms of the research agendas of so many of us too. A lot of my work is nowadays on topics other than virtual worlds (like big data), but I like keeping up some connection to the fascinating topic of virtual worlds and find that working on other domains feeds back into that interest.

So pat yourself on the back for your amazing and continued success—you and all who made this blog such a wonderful gift. And do not worry: virtual worlds are not going away. They are not going to take everything over, but I don't think that's the standard for being substantial or important, or for being worthy of scholarly interest. Best wishes and I'm sure we'll be stacking Duplo blocks together again at some point in the future!


I agree with Tom. Virtual worlds are not dead, their study is not dead, and there is still work to be done.

I think the reason this blog has been defunct is largely that the authors have moved on to doing other things. And I'd note that this was true even in the early days of Terra Nova. Some voices were prominent in 2003-2004. In 2007, some of them had moved on and other voices were more prominent. (It would be interesting/fun to do data visualization on how that changed over time.)

I think from 2004-2009 or so, many of us were interested in digging deep into virtual worlds as a subject in itself, including reading outside our disciplinary comfort zones and discussing/debating issues with those from other disciplines and generalists. We did a great deal of that and I think many of us learned a great deal from those conversations. And then many of us thought about what we learned, wrote articles and books, and moved forward in our own directions.

I would certainly enjoy continuing our conversations, but I think that, for many of us, the need to publish meant that our interest in the topic became more focused and closer to our home disciplines (or practices for the developers). And many of us are interested in things other than virtual worlds. By analogy, it wouldn't be surprising for a group of scholars researching the life of Thomas Jefferson to set up a vibrant collablog discussing his life in various ways. But at a certain point, some of those scholars will become interested in other topics (e.g. Alexander Hamilton) and the conversation will lose focus.

But none of this is to say that Thomas Jefferson isn't a topic worthy of discussion or that parties to the original conversation don't want to talk about him anymore. In fact, I think almost all the Terra Nova authors are continuing to publish, at least occasionally, on topics originally discussed here. And many of us are still in touch with each other, meeting at conferences, chatting via Facebook and email, and sharing ideas about those topics.

So while this particular tool is largely defunct (I think I was the only one who posted during the last 6 months or so, right?), the collaborative conversation is still continuing.

I would make suggestions on how to reinvent an online forum around the topic, but for various reasons I think that's a task best left to others at this point. Good on Ren for giving it a go.



As a regular reader/commenter from back in the heyday, this makes me kinda sad. But I understand the need to move with the flow.

That being said, the topic that seems (to me) to be almost the inverse of the whole virtual world thing is the Internet of Things. Instead of a virtual world populated by real people, we have a real world being invaded/visited/suffused with virtuality.

I'd pay attention if some/all of the TN gang started blogging about IoT.


This is a sad event for me. As a guy who has had to fight his way through homelessness and poverty to get through school, Terra Nova was always a tremendous source of inspiration to me.

Edward Castronova, Virtual Worlds was a book that really helped me focus on some of what I was seeing my friends go through and it has helped me focus my own set of inquiries as I have gone through the system. In fact, your involvement in TUG from Nerd Kingdom was the reason I began to talk to others about that project.

An email from Aaron Delwiche during a particularly troubling year about a paper I had put on a live journal kept me going through my undergrad. I had actually made an appointment to talk to someone about officially withdrawing from the university just before getting that email.

I didn't go.

Mia Consalvo was on my thesis committee because of this site and because of the work I learned of through Terra Nova.

I began to do more design work because I started talking to Mark Chen about Terra Nova at a conference recently.

At least for this particular reader, it is depressing to see such an inspiration go. I suppose to use the content of the site, it's like having your favorite mmo's servers shut down.

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