I just finished reading the fascinating study "The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments" led by Nick Yee of Stanford University, with Jeremy N. Bailenson, Mark Urbanek, Francis Chang, and Dan Merget. Yee et al. were interested in examining if norms about social space in the real world map into how avatars act in relation to each other in virtual space. To study this, they examined dyadic (two-person) interactions in Second Life, carefully measuring how close two avatars were in relation to each other and calculating their "eye gaze sum," i.e. to what degree the avatars were looking at each other while interacting. Their basic findings were that, similar to the real world, male-male dyads tend to stand further from other and look at each other much less than female-female dyads.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon that I hope they do a more in-depth examination of.
After reading the study, some questions come to mind:
- In the study, Yee notes that in the large majority of real world studies female-female dyads tend to stand closest to each other and make eye contact the most. This finding was not supported by their Second Life study, which found that mixed dyad interactions tended to have the most eye contact. Male-male dyads had the least eye contact while female-female dyads were in between. I’m unclear on if this means that in virtual environments, mixed-gender interactions are more intimate than female-female interactions or require less social space?
- Reportedly Second Life’s owners Linden Lab are working hard to integrate voice chat into their client. How will this effect interpersonal space issues? An examination of There seems in order, since voice chat has long been a part of that virtual world’s interface.
- What does this study say about people taking on the roles of opposite gender avatars in Second Life? Do we inhabit the gender roles of the avatar, leaving our own gender behind? Or is it some mixture of unconscious gendered habits combined with more intentional gender roleplay?
- How do non-human gendered avatars act as opposed to human gendered avatars? I.e. furries, aliens, robots, etc? Several of my friends in SL are obviously non-human but also male or female in appearance, including myself.
- This study looked at interactions across various sims. How do these findings map onto the different sub-cultures in SL, particularly ones with intentionally created / enforced gender roles. I.e. Gorean, Victorian, traditional Japanese, etc?