Running of the Gnomes 2012

Tomorrow night, at 9PM EST, join us for the third annual Running of the Gnomes!



My World of Warcraft guild hosts this event every year. It’s easy — create a gnome character with pink hair, show up at the specified date and time, and come with the group to run together through the world. Hundreds of people showed up last year, and we’re expecting a thousand this year (maybe more??).

The point of this is, of course, to raise awareness about breast cancer. We also have a donation page set up with the Cleveland Clinic for their Tuohy Vaccine, which is almost to human trials. This vaccine can help prevent breast cancer. Click here to check out the donation page. 

This event is really important to me, and to the guild, not only because we’re doing something positive for the world, but also because it shows that virtual worlds can be a great tool for organizing events like this. If you’re reading this, consider joining us! You don’t have to have a current subscription to play — WoW is free to download and play up until level 20, and if you have a lapsed subscription we can get you a 7-day pass for free.

InfoSocial 2012

First thing’s first — wow! What an experience at InfoSocial 2012, a graduate student conference hosted by the Media, Technology, and Society program and Northwestern University. Even though I missed the first part of the conference due to travel delays, I feel like I learned so much by listening to papers and projects from all the interdisciplinary scholars at this conference. From a historical view of the erasure of GeoCities to parent-child usage of Facebook to an analysis of social factors in usage of the Wii Fit system, and even our poster on authorship and attribution in retweeting, it was a whirlwind of different approaches and methods. The students who put on the conference did a wonderful job of feeding us and arranging the whole event, and everybody was remarkably friendly. 

I think the highlight for me, personally, was the chance to play with Omnipedia. Omnipedia is a tool that searches Wikipedia in all languages based around a search term, and shows keywords and concepts related to that search term. The cool thing is that it shows you concepts that appear in each language, including those that only appear in one particular language, and those that happen in language clusters. It also translates this for you! For example, we searched for “beauty”, and the concept “facial symmetry” appeared only in the English version and not in any other languages. For the search term “conspiracy theory”, the keyword “Microsoft Windows” appears in the Hebrew version of Wikipedia. We had a lot of fun putting in the names of our hometowns, famous people in the field, and other culture-based words like “masculinity”. Omnipedia seems like a really fascinating tool for doing analyses, and makes the language barrier much less of an issue. I can’t wait to see what comes out of this tool at the Collablab at Northwestern. 

did I really…?

I just submitted my last “content” chapter of my dissertation — Chapter 8: Deception and Multimodality. I have a feeling this is the chapter I’ll get the most mileage out of, since everybody loves a good story about deception on the Internet.

Now I just have to write a conclusion. How do you conclude an 8-chapter manifesto about the beauties and nuances of multimodality? Can I just write “Hope you liked it, goodbye!”? Or how about “I hope this gets you all nervous about using voice chat in online games”?

And where, oh where, do I put the “giving back” part of the ethnography? Usually this is the section where one talks about what they’ve given back to their community in return for the data that allowed them to write this document. Mine is, pretty much, “my love, and a safe space to play”. So where does it go? In the conclusion? As a post-script? Nowhere?

Eight months ago, I was worried about how to begin this thing. Now I’m worried about how to end it. It’s true what they say, that the writing is really the easiest part; the start and the finish are the hardest.

WoW pet names and breaking the fourth wall

In the World of Warcraft guild I study, it’s not uncommon for the hunter character to name their animal companions after their friends in the game. This usually was done to either make fun of someone or to recognize the help that friend has given them in some aspect of the game.

With the latest patch to the game, all WoW players have the ability to name their non-combat pets. These pets are collectible items that never really had a battle-related function in the WoW universe before — they were vanity items, meant to provide uniqueness to the avatar. You could have your character summon your Worg Pup, for example, and a miniature black dog-like creature would appear and follow your avatar around in your adventures. The non-combat pet cannot be killed but it does not deal damage or affect the surrounding world (in most cases), and there are many rare ones that are worth thousands of in-game gold.

Before, these non-combat pets would just have names like “Captured Firefly” or “White Kitten”; only a select few had names assigned to them, and they were not unique to players. Now, all players can individually name their pets, and this has resulted in a number of interesting naming practices in the guild. As an extension of the hunter pet naming practice mentioned above, several players have taken to naming certain pets after guildmates who are associated with those particular creatures — for example, the pet Lil’ Tarecgosa, named after a legendary staff in the game, I’ve named after our guildmate who spent months and months in her efforts to acquire the staff. There’s the Alliance Balloon pet, which most people in the guild independently named after our druid tank who insisted the balloon pet was his good luck charm.

There are also clever naming conventions, usually involving cultural references. Personally, I’ve named my firefly pet Captain Tightpants, and I’ve heard of others naming cat pets “Cheezburger” and little bear pets “Pedo”.

And then there’s this conversation I had on Facebook with a guildmate with whom I regularly engage in hockey-related banter about the evil Philadelphia Flyers:

(Oh, Ilya Bryzaglov, your fascination with bears and tigers never gets old.)

The naming practices here are another way of linking WoW practices to broader cultural knowledge, which is something that has been done in World of Warcraft for a very long time. With the existence of non-player characters like “Haris Pilton”, who sells overpriced bags and sunglasses, and “Ophera Windfury”, a ‘caregiver’ — this practice of breaking the fourth wall is something that developers and players regularly engage in. These references may be departing from the idea of an ‘immersive experience’, but the practice reflects the idea that virtual worlds and games do not exist independently from the broader society. Especially in a game like World of Warcraft, which is so oriented to player socialization, the player base comes to expect that other players (and the game itself) will bring in elements of the “real world” to the gaming experience. Furthermore, WoW is so well-known outside of gaming circles that it is frequently adopted as a stand-in for gamer culture and even the Internet in general, from South Park parody episodes to the game’s name being a throwaway term in conversations about “net addiction”. In a cosmic reversal, WoW takes elements from the broader culture and makes fun of them inside of its own universe, reflecting the ways that elements of the game are used in other circles.

And now, with the naming of the pets, all players can engage in this practice on their own terms. Whether it’s honoring another player, poking fun at your enemies, or crafting clever cultural references, everybody breaks the fourth wall.

more autotranscribe fun

At least this makes transcription more entertaining – here’s another good one from the automatic transcriber function in ExpressScribe.

“The gill was called refugees and peach effort
Is progress here forever which was a pretty skill
That had 10 of splendid sellers and refugees
A page out of Congress
Are math and I one?
People were constantly 18 to 5/8
And relay friends were gelded
And it is all very fuzzy
Because you know that’s not protecting the women
Thinking about you Slater.”


As an undergraduate (it feels like a previous life sometimes), I was a music major. I spent the first two years of my undergrad experience immersed in the life of a musician – lessons every week, playing in three (sometimes four) ensembles, practicing upwards of six hours a day, taking ten or eleven classes per quarter. It was a rough time, and yet I still somehow found time to socialize and make lifelong friends.

Since I am a linguist now, obviously this kind of existence was not for me. (It was the intense competition that broke me, and the fact that there is an unremarkably small market for symphonic trombonists in the world.) However, some lessons from my time as a music major, and a musician, have stayed with me. Here are just a few that I’ve been thinking about recently:

1. Sometimes you just have to adjust to the people around you. You simply cannot spend your entire existence as a musician doing your own thing, especially not if you play in an ensemble. You have to tune, you have to mimic the style of people around you, you have got to pay attention to your environment. This is why music sounds like music and not a cacophony of randomness. This is a life skill – a good team works well because everybody adjusts to each other instead of insisting that they are right and everybody else had better adjust. Learn to adjust to the rules of the environment – if you go to Rhode Island and you’re trying to drive around Providence and you realize that people just stop in the middle of busy streets, you’d better learn to adjust, or you’re going to have a bad day.*

1a. …except when it’s your time to shine. When you have that solo, you’d better stand out from the crowd, or people will be left wondering what they just heard. When you’re giving a presentation or defending your thesis or leading a discussion or whatever you have to do, it’s your time to shine, and that’s the best time to showcase your abilities.

2. Repetition makes better. There’s the old adage “practice makes perfect”, which all musicians know isn’t true. Most often, this gets modified to “practice makes better”; however, I learned that really isn’t the case. Many times I would practice until I got that lick right and then I would stop and hope it was good enough for my lesson later that day. It never was – I would always screw it up somehow. The key was that once I got it right, I had to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until I could get it right every time. This carries over a lot into my teaching. How do I explain these concepts? I can sit there and write lesson plans as much as I’d like, but actually getting in front of a class – and teaching the same class several times – has made me a better teacher. How do I learn to transcribe so quickly? By doing it a lot. 

3. Good equipment does not make you better… but it sure helps. A great trombonist will sound great on a $20,000 horn and a horn she picked up out of a dumpster. I once knew a guy who played on the oldest, rustiest, biggest piece of crap trombone I had ever seen, but he could outplay me on my Conn 88H with one hand tied behind his back.** However, sometimes your equipment can really hold you back, and if you refuse to at least try to get out of your comfort zone, you may be missing a great opportunity. If you try something and it doesn’t work for you, then at least you tried and you’re expanding your world of knowledge a little bit. Don’t conflate “best” with “most familiar”.

4. You have got to prioritize on all levels of your life. Spending six hours in a practice room eats into your schedule. Some days you have to decide which is more important, practicing or eating lunch. Other days, you may have to choose whether to sacrifice practice time or social interaction time. If it’s always one or the other, you may have to rethink your priorities on a larger scale.

5. Sometimes, you are the supporting actor in another person’s story.*** I have heard this in many incarnations, but most effectively just last year from the composer Sam Hazo. He was explaining to us that most of the band needed to play more quietly so that the melody line could be heard, and he said something to the effect of, “Sometimes you’re the star, and sometimes you’re the tree. Nobody wants the tree to steal the show; a good tree makes the star look better.” Sometimes, whether in music or at work or in a relationship, you have to be a good tree.

*based on a true story.
**not actually physically possible; I may be embellishing.
***often, if you’re a trombonist.

writing into being

I read a phrase in an article today, cited to Sunden cited to boyd 2007, that in digital networks, with the absence of a body, users are required to “write themselves into being”. I’m not sure of the applicability of this in avatar-based worlds, where one can “be” with just an avatar (even if it’s kind of weird if you never interact), but in non-avatar settings, absolutely.

Whether it’s commenting on YouTube videos, blogging, authoring fanfiction, tweeting, or any other of the infinite ways to write online, most of our expression of “self” involves writing. I think about this primarily in relation to fandom – by writing essays, reviews, fiction, guides, or whatever, a fan creates their presence online in the assemblage of other fans.

We do this in academia too, though. In fact, graduate school is arguably about writing ourselves into being. I’m writing my dissertation now so that I have a manuscript out there in the world that begins the definition of who I am in the academic world. (I am lucky in that I have a few other published pieces already out there that have preceded my dissertation, so I’m already on the way of writing myself into existence.)

Is this an outdated model? We always hear “publish or perish”, but we do other things as academics – we record lectures, we have interviews, we create Powerpoints and Prezis, we display posters. We are not just writing ourselves into being, we are teaching, we are designing, we are creating – we are a multimodal society of scholars. I heard a story from Professor Sara Kajder, one of my dissertation committee members, about a graduate student that submitted a YouTube video of his journey learning to dance as one of his writing samples. She reported that many members of the admissions committee did not know what to do with such a submission – they recognized its value but weren’t sure if it counted as writing.

It’s the same thing in fandom. If you are a fanartist, surely you are part of fandom, but that community existed separately from the writing community for a long time. (Interestingly, many challenges in fan communities now pair up a fanartist with a fanauthor, connecting the two in interesting ways.) Many fans make videos of their subjects, or manipulate image stills from movies or games into attractive desktop wallpapers or user icons. Fandom is an assemblage of all of these people who all contribute to the fan culture by “existing” through different mediums – by posting their fanart, fanartists are creating their presence in an online community.

Hopefully, academia is following more and more in the footsteps of fandom in this way. I have a feeling that the new generation of academics (following many members of the current generation, too!) is going to be much more inclined to embrace this multimodal existence, and include things like video biographies as samples of work.