warehouse warehouse

Bursting Bubbles

By Alexander Knorr,  translated by Pierre Schwarzer

In one of my phantasies, there’s an analyst at the NSA responsible for me. If this person has no extended knowledge of video games – especially what is done with them and what happens around them – s/he must have jumped out of the window out of desperation merely because of my friend list on Facebook. At the moment, the list counts about 2000 people from all over the world. This is not particularly remarkable in itself. But the list contains an excess of obvious oppositional pairings, respective clichés of animosities, as described, prescribed and reproduced by the traditional mass media: Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, Indians and Pakistanis, Tamils and Singhalese, Chinese and Taiwanese and so forth. If the imagined analyst uses the NSA’s mythical resources for deeper research, s/he would notice that the members of these groups – always propagated as inimical to each other – constantly communicate and interact with each other online. Thereby destroying usual, widespread views on the world. [Read on]

What is the deal exactly with that list?

The entire network reaches back 20 years ago. Back then, I began to frequent online groups intensively. Contrary to Malinowski, who was roaming the geographical space far from Europe, I reached out into the faraway corners of what the German Chancellor has called “Neuland”. This has led to an ethnographic field research lasting almost a decade. It revolved around people exclusively interacting online around their hobby of “game modding”. This means the re-working, up to the creation of entirely new games based on commercial video game softwares. Due to the complexity of the task, this is generally not faced by individuals, but in social formations that allow division of labour. Such circumstances make phaenomena like this generally interesting for ethnology, the social sciences and cultural studies. Or at least they should.
The members of the community I was engaged with most of the time – and which became my friends are truly spread all over the globe geographically. Most of them have never – and will never meet face-to-face. However they interact online intensively and durably.
Soon after becoming a member of the community, I noticed that a part of the conversations stop to revolve around the core topic of re-programming video games. Many private and political issues were discussed. The grounds for this are threefold:
Firstly these people are virtuose users of online services and know exactly how those technologies work. They are no strangers to electronically transmitted modes of conversation. Their use is as effortless as chatting around a cup of coffee for them.
Secondly the members of such communities work together in a self-organized fashion on intense, hard and demanding projects. Most of the work, often of professional quality, is unpaid, without contracts or institutional security, relying solely on informal agreements. From this experience, everyone knows they can rely on each other.
Thirdly – at once the basis for the second point – all have the dominant impression to take part in something together, their core interest which brought them together in the first place. This leads them to respect each other and in another step, be interested in each other’s lives.

With clear willingness to understand the views and the situation of the others, they discuss what is happening in the world and send each other links to news articles of their country on religion, politics, economy, society … and even read them. Despite all the developed national, political, economic, religious, and sociocultural differences in general (which constitute what is different and foreign in the first place), these individuals meet eye to eye and communicate.

This is the core of my opposition to one of the premises of warehouse.The argument developed via Malinowski’s impressions on Trobriand, that the encounter of the other engenders the radical attraction for sameness, leaves out the manifoldness of being-attracted-to-the-same. With all the obvious differences between the individuals in my example, their personalities are similar in an essential aspect. This sameness, the root of their common interaction, empowers them to cross the threshold of difference – and it is exactly what they do.

With all the obvious differences between the individuals in my example, their personalities are similar in an essential aspect. This sameness, the root of their common interaction, empowers them to cross the threshold of difference – and it is exactly what they do.
Rightly so, one may criticise my ethnographic example for dealing with a milieu of extremely tech-savvy individuals spending most of their time with technology. This is true – and indeed two thirds of “my people” have since then wandered over to the professional side of game development. It is no surprise that such people, through their tech-savvyness, can interact much more densely online than the majority of users. Furthermore, the ethnographic case – starting in 1999, long before Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Whatsapp even existed – is almost to be considered as historical. [Read on]

Thus, let’s move to today!

In the last couple of years I have become part of a scene that arose around a mobile game and is mainly organised in facebook groups. These games are particularly widespread in the less industrialised world regions. Where the bigger conflicts roam, those that fill our daily news. From these areas stems the biggest followership of the game. This is usually because mobile networks are better developed there than landlines – and also because smartphones are economically much more accessible than PCs and video game consoles with a stable internet connection.
This is the background for the many opposing pairs in my friendlist. And look at that, because those people share a common interest, the game, they not only organise competitions and global ranking lists, but also take part in the same discussions than in my example before: Extremely private matters are discussed, just like global news with mutual respect and eye-to-eye, thereby bursting the filter bubbles.
To return to my NSA-phantasy: through a “big data” analysis alone, the composition of my friend list is not comprehensible. And even less the connections and interactions between the people on said list. This is due to the basic feature of such data, namely their degree of abstraction. This is not to imply that such data are worthless, but that one needs to be clear about what they can render legible, and what not.
Of course my eternal dark shadow at the NSA know immediately, that the absolute majority of the befriended facebook-accounts revolves around one and the same mobile game. Yet, this only hints at where it is worth to look, nothing more. From the connection alone one cannot gather the meaning of the game for said individuals, that it constitutes a common activity, leading them to take each other more seriously and respond with interest to the situation and positions of one another.
For this, one needs to be accepted in this scene, take part in its practices and conversation, thus, practicing ethnological field research – like Malinowski on Trobriand.
Now one might want to counter this by claiming we are dealing with a special case, a niche of aficionados. Negligible, because it is not statistically significant.
If a mobile game – as in the case of the one I am writing about – has been downloaded over a billion (!) times, then one can effortlessly find hundreds of thousands of people, which remain true to said game durably and intensely. My friendlist merely represents a microsocopical sample of this social biotope of the digital.
The markets with such orders of magnitude please the soft- and hardware industry of mobile devices. And yes, it is exactly these industries, which continue to burst the large-scale utopia of the 1990s. Back then, many op-eds propagated the dream of a global democratisation through the “free technologies” of the personal computer and the internet.

In elongated sobriety we have since then witnessed, how the giants of the industry, from OSes to online services have covered these technologies with technically and jurisidictionally closed systems.
The thereby domesticated and tamed Leviathan of the market of mobile applications grows globally and is flourishing. Games make out its largest share. But in their being lies a social practice. The players contact each other, create social formations and the described phaenomena arise. This cannot simply be turned off, because the online markets rely on it.

Here, one may say, lies involuntary resistance. Games are a starting point for – one may forgive the antiquated, almost reactionary-sounding term in German – “intercultural understanding“


Alexander Knorr is a German ethnologist and lecturer. He researches and teaches in the field of cyber anthropology. Knorr studied Ethnology, Psychology and Theater at the University of Munich, wrote his doctoral thesis on metatrickster in 2002: Burton, Taxil, Gurdjieff, Backhouse, Crowley and Castaneda. Since 2009 he is at the Academic Superior Council at the Institute for Ethnology of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich.