Monday, July 04, 2005

"I'm a social psychologist. I think most places are giant petri dishes": On the diplomacy of data collection and in Second Life

This post was originally published at Social Simulation on 4 July 2005

I've spent quite a bit of time in SL since I last posted. I've also started having the anxiety dreams. last night's was particularly bad. Some horrible faceless man was trying to stab me in the throat. i had to run to Glasgow to escape but he kept following me, relentlessly pursuing me and threatening to finish off the job. I think it was compilation of Sin City and War of the Worlds. Need to start seeing some romcoms and drop the paranoid delusions.

I'm beginning to feel empty, lifeless and hopeless. Man do I wish there were other people around me to tell me what is and isn't possible. This PhD is spinning out of control, and I'm totally lost in a world (or worlds) with bright ideas but a stagnant understanding of how to realise them.

Must move forward. This is the latest from SL.

My people are friendly. Everyone with a kind word, advice and freebies. Everyone willing and happy to talk. No one really has the information I need. I need to know where to meet groups of people who meet regularly and have topic-led discussions. I need to meet people who collaborate intellectually or creatively. i need to infiltrate those groups, gain their trust and then ask if i can record them. why is this so hard?

Because I have no idea where to find these people. I have no idea what people DO in Second Life. Do they play Tringo? Do they have lots of e-sex? Do they talk to passing strangers and offer words of advice? Surely they must DO something! There are 34,000+ people who have accounts, over 1500 of them in-world RIGHT NOW!!! What Are They Doing?!!!

There are forums for in-game groups. There are websites, websites, websites and blogs for groups and blogs, blogs and blogs discussions about groups. I've been to some group discussions, I've had a lot of one-on-one discussions. Gonna be hanging out with the Thinkers later on today. I still feel like I have no idea of what's going on or where to start looking.

My brain hurts and I feel sick.

Highlighting matters already of concern to me, I had a long chat with Tony "Zero Grace" Walsh, who runs Clickable Culture. The interview was a veiled attempt at ensuring I was going to treat the residents of SL with their due respect. It seems that there have been a number of occasions in which untowards researchers have stepped on virtual toes. Fully story here, here and here, and for the complete forum discussion, here. To transcribe:
Zero Grace: First of all, may I ask if you made any special preparations with your university or Linden Lab prior to embarking on your research?
Mynci Gorky: yes, i've worked with both my university and Linden
Zero Grace: In terms of human subjects, ethics, etc
Zero Grace: ?
Mynci Gorky: I've signed agreements with LL and am working through the ethics committee of the Uni
Zero Grace: Were you aware of some of the past experiences of researchers in SL?
Mynci Gorky: no, what's happened?
Zero Grace: Ahhhh. Very interesting... well, how much time do you have?
Mynci Gorky: bring it on
Zero Grace: Alrighty, well I will try and summarise as best I can.
Mynci Gorky: i have spoken with other researchers who've been in here. quite a handful, but no one suggested any problems
Zero Grace: Basically a group of students and their prof were "discovered" researching residents. This resulted in outrage among the Second Life community, and a lot of headache for hte Lindens and the researchers.
Zero Grace: It became a huge flame war, and resulted in a lot of damage control.
Zero Grace: Nobody told you about this?
Zero Grace: The residents felt they were being spied on and used, despite assurances to the contrary.
Mynci Gorky: nope, I've read the researcher's agreement and assumed that this was either a retrospective or a proactive measure. quite a responsible one at that. I've not come across any other such documents in other online worlds
Zero Grace: It's likely paperwork that resulted from this and another related incident.
Mynci Gorky: that's why I feel it's best to be up front about the research and include it in my profile
Mynci Gorky: i'm not here to step on anyone's toes
Zero Grace: The Lindens didn't tell the residents that researchers might be observing them.
Zero Grace: Yes, part of the reason for the interview is to demystify what you're doing.
Mynci Gorky: yes, thanks, I appreciate the opportunity to do so
Zero Grace: So, after this first painful incident, the Lindens actually allowed the same thing to happen again, to another class and prof.
Zero Grace: It was the same headache all over again.
Zero Grace: Since then, the arrival of students in SL has been announced in advance.
Zero Grace: And I would imagine that's when LL got serious about paperwork.
Zero Grace: So, given the sensitivity around this, can you explain what sort of research you'll be doing, and how you will be conducting it?

etc.

Sigh.

He did ask the difficult questions, relating to my research, and for that I am thankful. So in brief, this is what I'll be doing...at Friday 1 July 2005:
Mynci Gorky: first, because the research involves describing the social network and there is evidence to indicate that there is a difference between an objective and a subjective social networks
Mynci Gorky: i will be getting the permission of participants in events/groups/places i will be observing
Mynci Gorky: and examining the public logs of event instances for social interaction (interpersonal conversations, how often etc.)
Mynci Gorky: i want to emphasise that the content is not of interest here
Zero Grace: right
Mynci Gorky: it's the links between people
Mynci Gorky: from that data i will create an "objective" social network map which i will compare with a map which is generated from in-game interviews with participants in the events/groups/places
Mynci Gorky: that will take the form of traditional sociometric questions (e.g., who do you know, how close are you, etc.)
Zero Grace: right
Mynci Gorky: again, the content of the information is not pertinent, just the links between individuals
Zero Grace: Are there any functions built into SL that will help you gather this data
Zero Grace: ?
Mynci Gorky: it's primarily chat logs gathered while I'm in situ
Mynci Gorky: or listed on well-publicised beacons.
Mynci Gorky: again, i will be getting permission from all those involved.
Zero Grace: Are you familiar with the Calling Cards functions?
Mynci Gorky: yes, actually, i know about that, and that's going to be included in the inteviews
Zero Grace: Like a list of their cards?
Zero Grace: i.e. who they "know"
Mynci Gorky: e.g., who do you share calling cards with, as well as who do you allow to modiy your avatar
Mynci Gorky: exactly
Zero Grace: right
Mynci Gorky: it's to establish the intensity of relationships.
Zero Grace: How will you be choosing your subjects?
Mynci Gorky: i have no access to that information without actually asking people about that.
Mynci Gorky: i am in the process of going to events, meeting people and gaining a feeling for which events might be the most accessible.
Mynci Gorky: i'm focussing on topic-related or creation-related events. not tringo ;)
Zero Grace: Are you going to familiarize yourself with the various social groups in SL? If so, how?
Mynci Gorky: the requirement is that they meet at least one per week over a period of one month
Mynci Gorky: well, i'm going to lots of events at the minute - when i can find them
Zero Grace: Do you have a particular interest in any of the "mafias" inworld or the "furries" perhaps?
Mynci Gorky: which is proving a unique challenge. someone kindly told me about the groups thread on the forum yesterday. until that point i was looking at the daily event announcements
Mynci Gorky: i'm interested in all sorts of things. the initial idea was to only explore pg events, but mature events have just as much relevance to this work
Zero Grace: There are a zillion subcultures here. It's a bit maddening.
Mynci Gorky: i'm interested in who turns up, who speaks with whom, how often and how close their relationships are
Mynci Gorky: i've noticed, and i find it really exciting
Zero Grace: It is. It gives me a headache sometimes when I think about it.
Zero Grace: Will the results of your studies be available to or shared with Second Life residents?
Mynci Gorky: i find the world a bit empty when i log on, so only know of the subcultures through what i've read or the individuals i've met briefly online
Zero Grace: Most residents are from North America, it seems.
Mynci Gorky: absolutely. this information - all of it anonymous - will be available to anyone who wants to know about it. I've got a website which has details of me, a blog (mostly me getting confused and writing in long words) and links to other work I've done.
Mynci Gorky: http://www.surrey.ac.uk/~psp1ak
Mynci Gorky: many are from the pacific coast too...
Mynci Gorky: ;)
Mynci Gorky: far far away
Zero Grace: What do you think virtual world residents could learn from your study?
Mynci Gorky: ah well, i'll just have to take a trip out to california to visit my family
Mynci Gorky: well, the rest of the study...
Mynci Gorky: (there are still two parts to go)
Mynci Gorky: explores what people a) find influential (using social influence theories, like Latane's Social Impact Theory and Friedkin's Social Influence Network Theory)
Mynci Gorky: including things like status - both visually represented and conceptual
Mynci Gorky: and how information then passes through the social network
Mynci Gorky: whether it follows social influence pathways, subjective social network pathways or objective social network pathways
Zero Grace: right
Mynci Gorky: so what can virtual world residents learn
Mynci Gorky: well, personally i think that there are both similarities and differences to online interaction
Mynci Gorky: i think that each place/environment/virtual space is unique and the residents and their interactions are unique as well
Mynci Gorky: however i do believe that one may be able to generalise (to a certain extent) about social features of online spaces across the virtual medium


And my favourite bit - the point of it all:
Mynci Gorky: while this study may not give one "thing" to residents of SL, i think that it will offer insight into how social interactions in online spaces are unique to virtual worlds, and that this information can attended to in the development of internet social
Mynci Gorky: networks in places which don't yet have the infrastructure that supports such phenomena
Mynci Gorky: practically, i would like to understand what factors influence information to travel virtually
Zero Grace: *nods*
Mynci Gorky: how virtual experience may affect rl
Mynci Gorky: and hopefully offer this knowledge to policy and health


Dear god I hope so.

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