Tom Boellstorff, UCI anthropology professor, has received a one-year, $195,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction and the role digital worlds – like Second Life, Animal Crossing and Fortnite - may play in preserving social relationships post-pandemic.

“Due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people have been socializing online, in new ways and for new purposes,” says Boellstorff. “A better understanding of these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness online. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.”

To better understand different forms of digital interaction and the implications of virtual worlds for new digital cultures, he’ll be casting a wide ethnographic net to capture the many ways people “live” online. With the assistance of three graduate student researchers, he’ll conduct interviews with individuals and groups who are both new and seasoned veterans of virtual worlds in order to understand how COVID-19 has reshaped these online societies, their viability going forward and potential for keeping people socially close over a longer term, pandemic-prescribed physically distant world.

“Understanding how co-presence in virtual places can transform intimacy and collaboration may provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing,” he says. “The research will also provide context to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter in the wake of COVID-19.”

Funding for this work began in May and will continue through March 2021.



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