Sometimes we're the ones under the microscope
Second Life can provide a rich resource for study. Since it is a ‘second’ life, it can provide a laboratory for developing or testing theories about ‘first life’. Since it also is a one of the new ways technology is changing our sociocultural landscape, we can also study that.
I came across the proceedings for a conference on weblogs and social media sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. While this kind of reading may be a bit wonky if you are not a researcher, it can still be interesting to see what kinds of things are being studied, the methods they use, and what kinds of conclusions they draw.
For instance, if we want to study the role of social structure in economic activity, it is difficult in the real world since most of the structures are hidden from the economists and the sellers. The authors of this paper were able to use anonymized data provided by Linden Lab with snapshots of social and group affiliations, chat patterns of users, and free and paid transactions. From this they can analyze the patterns of transaction activities and the relationship to social indicators of the buyers and sellers.
There is poster paper presented by Chen-Yuen Teng and Lada Adamic of the University of Michigan, who studied user retention in Second Life. We watch Linden Lab going through a number of changes and try to decipher their motivations and vision. A study like this that looks at what keeps users active would be of interest to anyone in the business of virtual worlds – what are the most important predictors of whether users stay or leave?
There are also the many businesses and other groups that have come to set up shop in SL. Remember some of the large companies that jumped on the virtual world bandwagon, bought sims, paid for someone to build there, only to get basically no traffic? My guess was that they got excited to see hundreds of thousands of active logins and all the other indicators that SL was an exciting place, but yet they had no idea what the actual juice of that excitement was. Maybe studies like this will help give people a clue.
Of course, if you’ve been a resident of Second Life for a relatively long time, you don’t really need this study to tell you why you have stayed, or how much SL has become more or less interesting to you – you’re living it. What you might interest you in the paper is how researchers get the data to crunch to do their analysis. For instance, one of their measures of social network is to look at how often users chat with others, as well as transactions (buying/selling or giving/getting items).
Another poster presented at the conference used chatbots to record public conversations in several sims to identify social network structures and then compare the difference in those structures between the different sims. I won’t try to comment on their conclusions because I think that the usefulness of their work may not be what they think they found, but in their learning how to set up ways to measure and analyze social interaction.