Forming community

Here’s another one I posted up at The Guardian a few weeks ago that I now realise is relevant here.

Terra Nova guest author Jen Dornan argues in a well-thought out post that interaction in Massively Multiplayer Online Games cannot replace the unique group experience that arises from physically, proximate shared ritual. Of course it can’t replace it completely, but to suggest that there is an inherent difference in brain chemistry produced between face to face and virtual ritual is to suggest that any kind of disproximate interaction is somehow inferior to real-world interaction.

I disagree.

First, this standpoint suggests that community, bound by shared experience or ritual or whatever you want to call it, can only be situated in a physical space. Sociologists like Erving Goffman and environmental psychologists like Harold Proshansky counter that contention, encouraging the idea that there is an emotional component to belonging which makes, for example, a house a home, or give a place or group a shared identity. If place is such an important part of it, surely it’s possible to have community arise out of the shared experiences within a non-physical environment. Then the community experiences are tied to the joint representations of it.

Second, there’s a whole lot of evidence which suggests that technologically-mediated communication is an effective means of extending social networks (Barry Wellman in particular). In the days even before the telephone, communities of practice, of worship, of ritual and of experience grew out of the tap-tap-tap of telegraph lines.

Third, this argument ignores the unspoken rituals that are in-place in online communities that incorporate the norms of the population who exists there. Entrance rituals, like being told what to do by an older member. Going from n00b to experienced. Rising through the ranks. Exit rituals. How to deal with common enemies (if you’re interested in this aspect, read this paper).

This can’t be a binary yes-it-does-no-it-doesn’t argument. In this increasingly disproximate world, people are finding social experiences that form significant communities, strengthen bonds and generate trust via online interaction. These are new rituals with new rules. To suggest they are somehow inferior is to limit your view about virtual interaction. Which ultimately is rather ironic for a new media site like Terra Nova.


~ by aleks on March 2, 2007.

4 Responses to “Forming community”

  1. Good observations. The links also give me some good reading, as well.

    Terra Nova is a curious place. Reading these anthropological posts at TN, I couldn’t help but conclude that the observations were informed by every MMORPG except Second Life. I’m not too sure about the aversion to Second Life there. I’m not even sure aversion is the right word. Dornan made a second post on Terra Nova with a list, for lack of a better word, of cultural criteria she claimed were not fully realized in MMORPGs. Since I’m researching religion in Second Life, and religion was one of those aspects, I chimed in saying that religion (built from the ground up by users rather than imposed from above by developers) is alive and well in Second Life, thought it may be absent in other formats. Let alone ritual – I just participated in a Universal Unitarian service last night that a torch lighting and an invocation – how is that not a fully formed religious ritual?

    Nobody addressed my post in TN. =( Maybe my post was dumb, or maybe it’s a Terra Nova thing. ;D

  2. Aleks, this is very interesting. It does seem that Jen has a quite essentialist view of what constitutes a legitimate community. The uniqueness of physically-proximal group experience does not imply that it’s the sole legitimate form, surely?

    On a related note, I wonder what your views are on the introduction of voice to Second Life? There’s been a lot of debate about this on Terra Nova recently, and some suggestion that useful social capital can be produced by allowing richer ties between people. Again, the assumption is that better = richer = higher-bandwidth, more immersive, closer approximation to the physical.

    I think there’s something that gets lost in that view, which is the importance of the ability to choose what you take to the virtual world, and what you leave out of it. Second Life residents aren’t just an extension of Real Life people, using some kind of “Skype-3D”. As Richard Bartle puts it,

    Virtual worlds are just that, virtual. People play them to get away from reality; they play them to get away from themselves. In a virtual world, you can be someone else. By being someone else, you can become a better you. Why do people play the same game for hour after hour, night after night, for week after week, month after month? It’s not because they like the game; it’s because they like who they are.

    Voice communication might well enhance the strength of social networks between real people, but it seems to me quite likely to damage the ability of virtual people to participate in social networks. It’s a shame that Linden Lab of all people didn’t consider that.

  3. Hey entropy, I saw that you’d posted on TN and am sad no one responded. I think you’ve got some great points. If it makes you feel better, TN has a funny relationship with social virtual worlds; the authors spend lots of time writing about WoW, and before that they spent lots of time thinking about EverQuest. There’s not really been much chat about Habbo or There or ActiveWorlds either!


  4. Astryd,

    I think the voice applications represent another step in Linden Lab’s movement in the direction of creating a useful application for (the extremely lucrative) big business market. They’ve recently said that they’d like Second Life to mediate virtual meetings between disproximate parties, and so it may be viewed as something that sets SL further from a “game” and closer to a 3D simulated web. But that may actually lower the barriers to entry for other people – not just businesses – who may also come to view SL as something worthy for their social communication.

    It could have interesting effects on networks though, by (as you suggest) separating people who were “related” to one another in the network in one modality on the basis of whether they adopt the innovation or not. It may have an effect on the development of technologically-based social strata (see Kitten FLuff). But then again, there are already plenty of user-generated strata in SL based upon who you hang out with and what you do/talk about. It will be very interesting to see how voice diffuses through these networks.

    I agree, voice capabilities should strengthen “real life” network partners, just as interaction outside of SL serves the same purpose. But whether it will affect the nature of the “virtual” is a bit more tenuous.

    30.7% of the 9500+ people in the network I’ve captured communicate outside of second life with one another. It’s a social virtual world; bringing those offline interactions in isn’t as much of a leap as bringing offline social interactions into the role playing games I believe Bartle was referring to. I wonder how many people in MMOGs communicate outside their given games (does anyone have that kind of information?????). I imagine their outside communication is more instrumental (who goes where during raids etc) than the social chat than occurs between people in social virtual worlds.

    Personally, though, I don’t want to know what people in SL sound like. I’m happy with my imagination.


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