Accepted paper:

Mapping virtual communities by their online visual artefacts: the example of the Second Life Steampunk Community


Cécile Cristofari (Laval University)

Paper short abstract:

We studied the visual artefacts produced by a virtual community in a customisable immersive online environment, in order to understand how the identity of a community could be described through a quantitative and qualitative study of its specific aesthetics.

Paper long abstract:

In the digital era, where the rise of information technologies has tremendously increased the amount of visual stimuli available as well as their exposure, communities are often structured around a common aesthetics. Virtual environments offer spaces that can be customised by users, and where rules and canons get more labile, allowing communities to design their own identity with a great degree of freedom. Arguably, one of the best models to study virtual communities' aesthetics unhindered by real life constraints are the communities of fan of imaginary universes. Steampunk, for instance — a genre that could be described as neo-Victorian fiction with a science-fiction or fantasy twist — has given rise to a large community of fans. Although this community is not organised in reference to a definite canon, it is very active both in real life and in virtual spaces. By collecting and analysing hundreds of visual artefacts generated by members of the Steampunk community of the immersive virtual world of Second Life, we identified a repertoire of characteristics which allow to visually identify the community. In addition, examining the characteristics displayed by artefacts from other communities allowed us to map relationships between different aesthetics. This data demonstrate that photography at the digital age can be of considerable hep for anthropologists to describe, qualify, and quantify human communities on emergent media. Furthermore, various online communities' aesthetics are not distinct, but seem to be forming a network where differences are visible, but fluidity still dominates.

panel P01
Anthropology and photography in the digital age