You are here

Uses for Second Life

In the post-lunch session at AoIR 2007, I'm in a session on Second Life, which starts off with Slava Kozlov and Nicole Reinhold from Philips Design (the design division of Dutch electronics giant Philips) in the Netherlands. The begin with an introduction to the many spaces of Web 2.0, and note that many users have existences, identities, experiences in a number of these spaces, engaging with them in a playful manner which includes experimentation and exploration, role-playing, active and imaginary work, and a focus on experience and process rather than efficiency and results. How playful, in this context, is Second Life?

SL users themselves frequently comment that the space is a space of creativity, of interaction, of freedom to explore, of role-playing (even of SL avatars role-playing - a kind of third life...), and of joy and fun. In order to preference, what studies have found that people do in SL is to visit virtual places, to learn, to play, to meet people, and to change identity.

At the same time, corporate culture is about control and management, about efficiency, about managing brand impression; the pillars of corporate culture are physical facilities and infrastructure, company ideology as expressed through slogans and mission statements, and the unspoken, not explicitly defined rules and codes company culture. So what happens when businesses and corporations create their presence in Second Life?

Often, they transfer processes from corporate culture into the new space (selling products, advertising, communication, promotion, training, recruitment, conducting meetings, and doing research) - but SL residents may have very different interests (finding friends, learning new things, role-playing, socialising, exploring, dating, escaping, having fun). How can companies still trace standard measurements such as key performance indicators or returns on investment in Second Life? How do they avoid what may be called a corporate digital neurosis: proceeding through the four stages of denial, fantasy, rationalisation, and sublimation?

Such neuroses may express first in denial - the total negation of the fact that any conflict is present, that the new SL space exists as a feasible environment, and is worth exploring at all. This may need to be treated by exposing people to the reality of the virtual space, gently forcing them to confront it within a supportive environment. A second stage is fantasy, in which media representations and other idealised views of the space are internalised and accepted unthinkingly. This may be treated by exposing people to multiple realities. A third stage is rationalisation, a 'yes, but...' stage in which people employ procrastination strategies to defer real engagement with the space, and justify the status quo using 'rational reasons'. At this stage, treatment may include engaging people emotionally with the realities of Second Life. Finally, a sublimation stage may perceive some elements of virtual cultures as weird and odd, and dismiss them half-jokingly (perhaps hiding an underlying deeper reluctance to engage). A real treatment approach may not be necessary here, as such responses indicate the beginning of an acceptance of the need to change.

Philips Design now regularly uses Second Life as a tool, spending time in the world, building community, meeting, maintaining conversations, co-researching the meaning of virtual worlds, brainstorming visionary concepts, exploring future scenarios, and co-creating solutions for digital and physical worlds.

Up next are Denyse Rodrigues and DeNel Rehberg Sedo, who shift to the question of learning in Second Life. They taught six sessions of fourth-year professional communication classes in Second Life last semester to evaluate the potential of the space as a teaching environment and examine student perceptions of its usefulness. Student assessment consisted of wiki-based group work and a final research paper. Course objectives were to articulate a heightened awareness of the uses of the virtual environment for effective internal communication, to demonstrate the skills necessary for effective communication, and to demonstrate a mastery of basic in-world skills and researching secondary sources.

The classes began with a basic orientation in Second Life, and character design; a second class oriented them in the space by conducting a scavenger hunt in the environment (which proved somewhat difficult in the class environment as the class framework didn't give students a great deal of time for experimentation); a third class began some small group work (and began to discuss their emotional responses to being in the space - with some considerable unease for those who had never heard of Second Life before taking the class). In class four, the group met with CC Chapman - a professional communicator working within Second Life (and here, students began to question some of the meanings of Second Life); in class five, an in-space presentation on library research was presented in a Second Life simulation of a lecture room (and students actually preferred this class to others, even in spite - or because? - of its very conventional setup); finally, class six met in Canada Nexus, the unofficial Canadian embassy to Second Life.

Recommendations from this experience, then, are for teachers to be prepared for giving up a great deal of control by entering Second Life; to prepare for a steep learning curve and technological glitches; to build in opportunities to discuss the dual learning process with the students; to meet no more than once in a lab setting; to utilise small group discussions; and to consider mixing delivery methods across technologies and face-to-face environments.

Next up is Michelle Kowalsky, whose interest is in the use of Second Life by librarians. Activities conducted by librarians are wide-ranging - from book making, book discussions, book talks, intellectual freedom programmes, museum-type exhibits, conferences, storytelling, graduate courses, workshops, and lecture to concerts, fireworks, tai chi classes and many other events. The librarian community in Second Life may constitute a community of practice, then, in which a common domain of knowledge is maintained, and information and practice is shared; there now are a number of Information Islands, Cybrary City, and Eduisland, while various professional organisations (such as the American Library Association) have now also developed their own spaces.

Librarians here are not just a team, nework, or community of interest, because they aim to create, expand, and exchange knowledge, and to develop individual capabilities; there is a self-selection based on expertise or passion for a topic; passion, commitment, and identification with the group and its expertise; and the community has evolved organically over time. A community of practice is autonomous, developing its own domain and ways of formalising it, and participants can engage at whatever level they feel comfortable with - there is no compulsion for all to participate fully, and a centre/periphery dynamic exists.

The community is also a community of innovation, where behaviours are constantly changing as newcomers integrate with existing members and as practice forces revision; there are spontaneously emerging experiments, and reconceptualisations of identity both for individuals and the while group are continuously taking place. Indeed, the community is a community of communities, with splinter groups developing specific interests communities. Coverage of such developments in blogs also shows the growing sophistication and success of Information Island and other spaces, as well as of the community itself, which is also increasingly reflecting on its own experiences and opportunities.

The next speaker is Aleks Krotoski, whose focus is on opinion leaders in Second Life. How does interpersonal diffusion work in a social virtual world? What are the characteristics of the network; what are the characteristics of opinion leaders in this virtual world? Aleks's work builds on a form of communication network analysis which focusses on closeness, normative behaviours, and opinion leadership, and this proceeded by asking Second Life users to share their friends list, and give their opinions about these friends. 750 people responded and named a network of 6767 friends at an average of 7 friends each; the longest distance of people in the network was 16, with 5.81 as the average distance between reachable friends.

This, then, provides an ego-centric view of a partial network, and enabled an in-degree analysis which points to the most popular members of the network - 46 of them, 31 of whom were closely connected directly with one another. Understood as opinion leaders, these people were generally older (both in real life and in Second Life terms): at an average age of 33.7 years, all but one had been in SL for more than a year. All also spent more time online (more than 9 hours on average); 58% were female and only one person gender-bended; 83% were from the U.S. (but Second Life demographics have shifted since this study was performed in late 2006). They were as sexually active online as other users, as likely to have experienced a case of business fraud, and were less likely to have experienced a breach of personal privacy.

Opinion leaders were generally perceived as more trustworthy, more credible, more prototypical of their group, and were likely to be the recipients of social comparison. This group is surprisingly homogenous, then; U.S. culture still dominates (or at least did at that point); and there is overall a surprisingly small and interconnected cohort of people who dominate diffusion in the virtual core - an actual Feted Inner Core, as SL conspiracy theorists have long suggested? Aleks is now following this up with a study of the diffusion of voice communication within Second Life, for which such opinion leaders may also be seen to act as drivers.

The final speaker is Smiljana Antonijevic, whose focus is on nonverbal communication in Second Life. Digital nonverbal acts can be understood as communicative devices, cultural phenomena, and technological artefacts, and Smiljana studied these through virtual ethnography over six months in 108 randomly selected Second Life locations, observing more than 1000 users. The analysis focussed on visible bodily action (proxemic and kinesic cues such as interpersonal distance, body orientation, posture, and gesture). Such actions were categorised as user-defined cues, involuntary predefined cues (determined by the system), and voluntary predefined cues (determined by the user).

User-defined cues are mainly proxemic (interpersonal distance, body orientation) and play an important role in interpersonal communication - these are performed even though in the Second Life environment such proximity changes are not necessary to facilitate effective communication. Predefined involuntary cues are often kinesic cues (hand movements, gaze, and posture) performed automatically by the system, while predefined voluntary cues are performed through in-built, pre-scripted 'pose balls' selected by the user and are often highly context- and gender-dependent. User-defined cues, then, have an important communicative function, while predefined cues may obscure some of the most importtant elements of user interaction and are often not successfully integrated with co-occurring textual discourse; they are also representing gender stereotypes.

Technorati : , , , , , , , , : , , , , , , , ,