Book review of: Online a lot of the time

On: September 13, 2009
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About Denise Pires
Denise Pires is currently a MA New Media student at the University of Amsterdam. She has a bachelor degree in Interaction Design (Hogeschool van Rotterdam, Communication and Multimedia Design. Denise works as an usability researcher at valspat | usability onderzoek in Amsterdam. She does research on the efficiency and effectiveness of websites, games and other interactive products. Her main fields of interest are the digital identity, Augmented Reality and RFID.


A slightly contradictory book title due to medium in which it was written and the issues it addresses, but a rich volume in theory and striking examples about the virtual phenomena of avatars, webcam personas, rituals, fetish and signs. It’s a must read for everyone interested in the field of virtuality. A book that has grabbed the fullest of my interest due to my own personal interest in the virtual phenomena of avatars, the rituals in play and the digital ‘body’. Which one? ‘Online a lot of Time’ (2009), by Ken lot has been written about virtuality, avatars, webcam personas etc., but Hillis presents his arguments about the virtual phenomena in a very concise and outstanding way. ‘Online a lot of the time’ (2009) deals with the virtual phenomena from a theoretical – and historicized – view. Hillis researches and theorizes the changes that have taken place when rituals were brought to web based settings. These theories are supported by clear studies of specific web based settings like the avatar-driven chat application of Second Life.

Rituals are known to take place in a certain private sphere. They are never detached from their culture, consequences, power and desire. But these rituals that formerly have taken place offline are now being held in the public sphere of web based settings. Hillis argues in his book that these online rituals have been adapted to online settings and that they facilitate new possibilities for rituals that otherwise wouldn’t exist. These practices have been renovated though new media, and according to Hillis, web based rituals are more than just useful use of utilitarian tools online. These rituals create meaning to the user and most of the time users experience rituals in basically the same way as rituals held in the offline world. We are using these online settings as a virtual surrogate from the ‘offline’ world.

The above statement is supported by the idea of the sign/body. Avatars that are often created and used in web based settings – or in other words the sign/body created by online forms of signification – reveal to have a broader meaning. They are placed between being something more than just an image and the autonomous object. Avatars have become indexical traces of the actual human being. People can identify themselves with their avatars but also distance themselves from their characters.

Interesting observations looked at how settings like Second Life are really starting to feel like having a ‘second life’. Looking at my own experiences with Second Life it seems to me that a huge factor in determining whether or not we can relate to our avatar is determined by the setting in which we are and the individuals we interact with; because I can relate myself to my avatar but this is in a less deep way as when having a conversation, ritual, with a acquaintance or a friend through for example a webcam facility. So from my point of view the web based setting and the figures that we interact with play a role whenever we distance from or identify deeply with our sign/body.

The questions set out in Hillis’ book are more ore less in line with the observations made in a Dutch program called ‘My second life’. In this documentary, that takes place in Second Life, Douglas Geyton investigates the life of Molotov Alva from California. Molotov had disappeared from the real life, or like some call it ‘The first life’. After his disappearment he appears in a series of video diaries in Second Life. Questions are: can the virtual world be the same as the real world? Or does the line between the real and the online experience blur? Interesting is that the thoughts of Hillis and Geyton eventually differ. Where Hillis arguments that rituals created and experienced online come close to the ‘real experience’, Geyton concludes in his documentary that it is hard to see the virtual as ‘real’. So this example shows just how complex the theorization of the field of virtuality is.

The book has also a ‘mission’ if I can put it that way. According to Hillis scholars need to reshape the way they think about how they perform internet studies and how these studies cross with media studies. They need to fill the gap between the object oriented approach and the theoretical approach.

“One goal of this volume is to help shift the emphasis in internet studies (and related fields interested in digital humanities) toward research organized around objects but also more centered in critical, philosophical, and theoretical engagements.” (Hillis, Ken p. 31, 2009)

Hillis has tried to fill this gap by dividing this volume into two sections. In the first section Hillis discusses the theory about rituals, fetishes and signs. Hereby Hillis uses a wide range of theories. The second section is dedicated to two studies of web based settings as the chat-application of Second life . It weaves together the historical account, the application of theory introduced in the first section and analytical, political and the subjunctive interpretation of practices of users.

To be honest Hillis had made a good effort in trying to fill the gap between these two approaches. And this is what makes the book very interesting in my opinion. You don’t have to read the first section to have a clear understanding of what Hillis is trying to explain through his examples (studies) in the second section. Both sections have a clear link with each other. So this book is a keeper, you should try it!

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