Reputation-building in social virtual worlds like Second Life

How do people develop reputations online? Is it quality of content? Is it how much they give away? Is it dogged determinism and dedication to their cause (in as public a medium as possible)? I’ve been looking at reputation in social virtual worlds like Second Life in the Methods chapter of my PhD. These are unique online  environments for reputation development, as the reputation systems are based on the balance between the gift economy of online and the currency-based economies established by the world designers.

Raymond (2000) argues that the only way to gauge success in online communities is to compete over reputation; prestige has greater value in virtual than offline worlds (Sun, 2006). Because Second Life perpetuates, Residents’ online identities also embody the reputations that have been formed through interpersonal interaction over time. In an environment that is characterised by generalised sharing (Bergquist, 2001; Rheingold, 1993), where there are few methods of determining value, and gifts are frequently exchanged, Bergquist (2001) argues that social relationships are not based upon what individuals can control, but on what they choose to give away. In some virtual environments, this practice is viewed as a public service duty (Taylor, 2003; Sun, 2006). Gifts in online situations are still relevant as social practices, but they are used in different ways. They have a socially-binding power (Giesler, 2006; Taylor (2003) observes that part of the socialization process in online communities is learning the rituals and rules associated with gift-giving.

Although gift-giving in cyberspace usually implies giving information (Giesler, 2006), the object-creation component of Second Life provides another aspect relevant to the development of reputation. Object creators have options for their output: they may give it away freely and allow others to share it, they may give it away but not allow others to share it or they may sell it in exchange for Linden Dollars to a single user. The monetary value associated with some objects undermines the gift-economic basis in this online community, yet the free sharing of objects and information, based often on abundance and ease, creates a system where peer review is still a valid basis for the Second Life reputation (Hemetsberger, 2002; Raymond, 2000; Bergquist, 2001; Chiu, 2006).

High status means having access to restricted assets, control over the community and other privileges (Taylor, 2003; Correll, 1995). It can also be gained through quality contribution. Objects aren’t the only assets that can be high quality; the development of close online relationships is correlated with high-quality disclosure (Leung, 2000). Interpersonally, Residents may develop reputations within their immediate social circles, or they may develop social capital throughout the virtual world. However, notable areas in which Second Life-wide reputation is attained is in business, building or by providing a service (Au, 2007), suggesting that in this virtual community, the network’s hierarchy is dominated by its creators.

What do you think?

~ by aleks on April 22, 2009.

8 Responses to “Reputation-building in social virtual worlds like Second Life”

  1. I can’t speak to the creator/giveaway aspect as I am a consumer primarily, not a content contributor. But I would like to comment that this subject of reputation is one I often bring up in my own conversations, particularly with new Residents of Second Life.

    At first, the “wowee” factor and fun override any attachment or identification with the avatar, but over time people discover that they are creating a reputational niche for themselves and may need to reconsider the more serious aspects of digital existence.

    This attention to reputation should begin at the very beginning, even when doing something that many do flippantly and then regret later; i.e., the choice of character name.

  2. Translation: Everyone wants to be liked. People like those who help them, talk to them, and give them gifts best.

    I think a healthy dose of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” might be in order for those really wondering and concerned about reputation.

    But this very astute and academic approach could cause some readers to methodically approach these great social tools the wrong way. The point is to have FUN, not worry about your reputation, title, or what you’ll get. Like I added to my profile early on, and STILL need help remembering so very often:

    Second Life is successful because it is fun, period. All the rest, the business, the education, and whatever other value, stems from simple fun. Find your way to relax, be creative, and have fun and you will succeed. Save the stress, judgment, and drama for RL where it counts. Be nice or be somewhere else.

    Thanks for the article.

  3. @Caliburn – completely agree: think about the implications of your actions now because the platform engenders consequence, especially for those who engage with it.

    @Mo, great comments, and yes, I agree these spaces are for enjoyment. But they are also extraordinary models of human social behaviour that economists, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists are exploring because they replicate offline so beautifully. We can observe the emergent norms and systems in ways that are impossible offline – primarily because they happen so quickly! – in order to understand better what’s going on offline.

    Publishing this was not to provide a dictum for people who want to win friends and influence people; on the contrary, I think it’s cautionary! The bottom line (through all the academic-speak; this is an extract from my PhD) is that people need to put in the time and produce goodness for the community if they want to rise through the social ranks (and some people do!). They’ll only do that if the space is fun for them.


  4. And I’m so glad you did! This stuff is fascinating @akrotski.

    By the way, have you been lured into the qualitative v.s. quantitative debate around Dr. Robert Bloomfield’s prediction that qualitative research will diminish in the face or such tools as Second Life for more quantitative research? Very hotly debated topic. I haven’t been following very closely, but it might interest you.

  5. @Mo – cheers for the tip. I”ll wade in at my peril. I come from both sides; my Masters was qualitative (questions about online-offline identity and virtual possible selves in online games/social virtual worlds for people who have disabilities) but my PhD is clearly quant. I’ll also be sitting on an ESRC-funded session on qualitative internet research ethics for the BPS, so debate around either is really relevant!


  6. Found you in my Google Reader and love the article… we’re fans of the SL platform as a social network and have been supporters / advocates for a few years.

  7. This isn’t right! people Who get caught up in this kind of thing are putting themseleves in danger of their own health!

  8. Aleks, I am a current graduate student and am very interested in your Master’s work related to those with disabilities using virtual worlds…as I am embarking on similar research for my thesis. Is it possible to connect with your research?

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