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Creating government in an lawless world


Henry Jenkin’s post on politics in Second Life reminded me of my own observations in Second Life which I’ve been meaning to write about. The interesting thing about Second life is that anarchy is default, yet we witness a terrible situation where a few griefers make life so miserable for the majority that people end up creating strict laws.

The first experience I had with griefers was on Berkman Island when I was taking the CyberOne course at Harvard. To encourage building, Berkman Island had a huge sandbox where people could come and build things. (Most areas do not allow people to build things without permission of the landowner, which makes it difficult for people who do not have a paid account to dabble with the building mechanisms in Second life) The Berkman sandbox was created with good intention, but we soon began to see people abusing it. We had to restrict building to 4 hours, and then we also had to create a monitoring system where people volunteered to be “virtual police” to deal with people who were deliberately trying to sabotage others’ projects, polluting the air with profanities, and so forth. This is an example of a self-monitoring society.

Berkman is an island with an owner; therefore we could impose the regulations. But what happens when you’re living on an island with no owner?

One of the worst-case scenarios happened to me. When I first set up “house” in Boksik, it was a peaceful place. My neighbors were all small home-owners like myself. We created small houses or shops; we all lived by our own rules. Then along came someone who started buying out all of the small plots. He bought about half of the plots in the neighborhood and started an escort service. I didn’t mind so much about the escort service as I did the obscene advertisement towers that he was putting up all over the neighborhood. The ad towers were so ugly and obtrusive, people didn’t like living in that neighborhood anymore, so they gave in to his offer and were bought out. I didn’t want to give him the benefit of getting what he wanted, but in turn, I had to deal with a glaring billboard outside my window.

It made me want to move to some other places like Caledon. In Caledon, which is a Victorian Second Life, there are very strict rules– not just about conduct, but also architecture, language, dress, etc. I was fortunate to be able to talk with residents of Caledon several times and it always felt like being swept back to the 18th century. Many of the sims owned by Anshe Chung also have rules regarding architecture. For instance, in an oriental sim, you can only build buildings that are of certain height and carry some type of Asian architectural motif.

Living in communities that have strict laws is not only expensive (there are even taxes in addition to the steep rent), but there is a high barrier to get in. If you are a poor resident with your small patch of land, you have to put up with obscene neighbors… which, I guess, is very similar to real life. It’s very sad that if you give people the freedom to all be “good” it never really works out because there is bound to be the bad apple that contaminates the rest of the barrel. Even in a virtual space, if you want to ensure the quality of your life, you have to pay that much more to go into a “barrel” that is highly regulated.

Why people play social network games…


(cross-posted on Play As Life)

Why do people play games? A lot of scholars and market researchers have looked at game motivations and have pretty much come up with similar results. People play for several reasons, some of which include to be social, to engage in competition, to immerse in fantasy, etc. etc.

But why do people play games on Facebook? We would expect that a lot of motivations that apply to regular games would also apply to Facebook games. However, maybe Facebook games are different. Compared to MMOs, they are most definitely smaller in scale. Also, with Facebook games you are more likely to play with your existing friends (yes, you could play with your existing friends on MMOs and Xbox Live, but with those games you don’t necessarily need that friendship tie in order to play). The games are also mostly asynchronous, browser-based, and easier to learn/play.

So we set out to see why people were playing Facebook games– and especially, in the context of social network sites– if people were playing for social reasons.

A few colleagues and I did some empirical tests and turns out, yes and no. We focused on non-game-specific motivations (we didn’t look at competition or fantasy elements) and found four distinct motivations. People said they played games on Facebook because they:

-Wanted to achieve common ground (get topic of conversation to talk with other people)
-Wanted to engage in reciprocity (give gifts, get gifts, etc.)
-As a coping strategy (relieving stress, getting enjoyment, etc.)
-To relieve boredom

Because people could answer these from a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, although we found these four factors, we saw that the first two reasons had pretty low means. Which means that more people DON’T play social network games to achieve common ground or engage in reciprocity.

So that is the bad news. People aren’t playing because they expect to get social outcomes. A isn’t playing Farmville with B in order to improve social relationships with B. A just wants to relieve boredom or play for his or her own enjoyment.

BUT that isn’t the end of the story. Just because you don’t expect something doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get it. Our next step is to see if playing social network games actually generates some positive (or negative) social outcome. And we strongly believe that it does, because gift-giving and reciprocity are very strong elements of the game play. Even if people are only giving gifts because the game forces them to, they may get some unexpected social outcome. We have anecdotal cases that support this– in the coming months we will be trying to get some empirical evidence of whether or not this is true.

I will be presenting our preiminary findings of social network game motivation and uses at CHI next week. Stay tuned for more interesting research on social network games!

Getting news from your social networks


About a week ago, I was telling my colleague about how we should do a study about how social network sites are increasingly becoming people’s initial (if not primary) news source. “Someone studying journalism has probably already done that,” she said. Not surprisingly, today Pew reported about how people receive news from people they follow on social network sites (the main report was about how the Internet is now an important platform for news). The three main points (3Ps) that Pew made were:

• Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.
• Personal: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.
• Participatory: 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

I’m working on a theory which I’ve named “crystallization theory” which is an adaptation of cultivation theory (hopefully no one will steal this idea; I’m always torn between getting my ideas out there and waiting for the long turnaround of academic publication since by the time it’s published, the idea will probably be stale). Cultivation theory says that TV, as the main media, shapes what individuals perceive as being reality and creates a “mainstream” perception of reality. My crystallization theory is that the Internet (mainly social networks) shapes what individuals perceive as being reality, but since everyone has different networks and preferences that create strong homophily effects, this will result in different clusters of “crystal” realities in which everyone thinks they are mainstream, but there is no true mainstream. I’m trying to think of research designs that would empirically prove this.

But going back to the idea of getting your news from your social networks…this isn’t so much of a new idea, since old studies have already shown that people get their news from their friends or work colleagues (although in those days, they were referring to offline word-of-mouth, not the Internet). Last year, I remember David Weinberger also saying something to this effect: he said the emails were how people were getting their news. So what with emails, RSS feeds, Twitter, and services like Google Reader already in existance, I was extremely annoyed that Facebook got a patent for its newsfeed. Hopefully it will not abuse the patent, like has been doing. Having said that, perhaps I too should file a very general patent about technology and human behavior and retire early.

Meanwhile, I’m working on refining my paper on Tweeting About TV, which presents a nice method (if I may say so myself) of analyzing social message streams, although the main focus is how people are engaging in social television-viewing behavior. I will be presenting this paper at ICA in June.  Email me at yvettewohn[at] if you would like to see a draft.

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