Virtual Ethnography, or better termed Virtual or Digital Anthropolgy, is the study of humans and technology and more specifically where the two intersect.
In the Boellstorff reading he explains how the issues of viewing and understanding virtual worlds to have the same cultural traits as those in the real world caused it to not be an actual world on its own. That virtual worlds were just an extension of actual life. Even though the people that partake in virtual worlds such as Second Life come from different areas of the world and have grown up in different real world cultures, doesn’t mean that Second Life can’t have cultures of its own. He uses the example of how people in Indonesia would react differently than people who are from Sweden but in the world of Second Life their reactions could be completely different than those that would occur in the real world. Yes, the ways in which the real world have affected them in their actual lives will play a part in how they act and react online, but the actions and reactions that happen won’t necessarily match up to those that would occur in real life. A man in the real world could have a wife and 3 kids while working for a law firm, but in Second Life he could be a gay man who works at a club. Who is to say that the persona that he takes on in Second Life isn’t true? It is possible that the pressures of the real world have led him to suppress who he truly is but in Second Life, with his true identity hidden, he is able to be free and allow his true feelings to be released.
It is situations like that that I believe that the ethnographic study of virtual worlds should be kept seperate from the real world. By comparing the two worlds the researcher would be getting completely different information than he would if he looked at the worlds as individual places. Comparing the two definitely has its place in the study of anthropolgy, but in terms of understanding the culture of online communites as an individual entity, it should not be compared.
Not every person who partakes in a virtual world is going to have different personas or personalities than those exhibited in real life. Some people are the same in both settings. If this is the intent behind a research question then it would be beneficial to compare real life with life in a virtual world. But if you want to understand just the workings of the virtual world on its own, knowing who the users are in real life won’t make a difference in your work.