Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Visceral & Negative Reaction to Virtual Worlds

Location: Pondering

Reading Hamlet Au's interview with Rod Humble, Linden Lab's new CEO, coincided with an event in class that merits some prognostication.

I've long called for a new name for the product, but I fear that Linden Lab and other VW makers face more of a challenge than that.

Mr. Humble will need to figure out a way to earn the trust of more Millennials, if that's a demographic LL wants. I encountered a visceral, rather angry reaction from a small group of 18-22 year olds today after one student simply asked "what is this Second Life thing you research?"

A short, non-evangelical reply of mine followed, explaining what I've done in SL and now am doing in OpenSim. I noted how embodiment leads to more participation at meetings than does a teleconference, and I explained how a literary simulation in a virtual world expands the notion of reading to a different sort of participation.

A heated but interesting discussion followed, mostly about how the avatar masked a person behind it and could lead to increased mistrust. Something about having an avatar mask and another name pushes so many buttons in my "typical" group of bright, careerist students (one exception, a blogger/gamer in the class).

Paraphrased reactions:
  • Our generation wants transparency
  • How do you know the person behind the avatar is who they say they are?
  • This will *never* fly in a business setting, especially if someone comes to a meeting wearing a set of wings or a raccoon head
  • Even a setting like Protosphere, with business-only avatars (I got a quick screenshot) is not serious enough and could lead to mistrust.
Etc. etc.  I could argue that they'd change their minds after a few weeks using a virtual world, but the class is not even remotely related to the topic.

I get this negative reaction in every class that hears about virtual worlds. I hear similar stories from colleagues at different sorts of schools.

Maybe we educators are wrong about these spaces. They'll have to be photo-realistic and connected to real-life identity, even more surely than a Facebook profile, for them to reach widespread adoption. For Gen-Xers, however, that sounds too boring to contemplate. We were used to identity being in flux.

It might help if young people learned to relax and have fun again. And that is not only the voice of a grumpy geezer, but a voice that inverts the usual "you young folks need to work harder!"

Yet I've never seen a more serious generation of students, in 25 years of teaching, than these. And they are sheltered. That worries me, because even with complete transparency and apparent knowledge of others, you can be cheated and abused.

Sad to say, but they'll just have to discover that without a virtual world.

Update 2/10/11: Students e-mailing to say how much they enjoyed the debate: good sign of more to come.  Also fixed spelling of "Visceral."  I had "Viscereal": strong cereal, indeed, these debates.


=IcaruS= said...

i'm truly concerned because i think you're right - i'm part of another vibrant global internet community completely unrelated to 3D virtual worlds with a similar demographic to your students - and i can almost "see" eyes glaze in a lively chat session about all sorts of media and technology if i get near the topic of SL or OS - happily tho i can report a 13 year old nephew joyfully terraforming, building and adding simple scripts on one of our own (locked) OS grids - within a half hour of being introduced to it - hoping that will be the generation to embrace the metaverse we're pioneering (some traits are said to skip generations...) regards, Nyx

=IcaruS= said...

sad but i'm afraid you're right - i'm part of another vital, global internet community unrelated to 3D VWs with a demographic very similar to your students and i can almost "see" eyes glaze over in the middle of a live and lively chat about media and technology etc. if i get anywhere near SL or OS - happily tho i can report a 13-yr old nephew who was joyfully terraforming and building within half an hour of being introduced to a blank (private) OS sim - his region now has a volcano (he''s working with particle scripts), underground caverns and the beginning of a fortress - perhaps these millennials are not the ones to inherit the metaverse - but i hope there are those not far behind who will appreciate our pioneering

Iggy O said...

Nyx, I agree with you so much I approved both comments.

Younger Millennials may be different from the wading-pool crowd in Facebook; I feel that sort of online engagement betrays the entire heady and utopian promise of the early Net and even the BBS era.

I hope that 13-year-old nephew of yours is representative and his enthusiasm doesn't wane when he discovers the "wonders" of Facebook.

A future worth inheriting was never built by the timid and conformist. And, yeah, I feel like a crazy pioneer some days.

Your comments boosted my mood for sure :)

Miso Susanowa said...

Perhaps I am getting older :) This attitude seems typical of the young and politically naive.

Transparency has never been 2-way.
If you want to engage this issue,
talk about recent events in Egypt; talk about Google and Microsoft turning over dissident-user information to the Chinese Government. Talk about Julian Assange & Wikileaks, then talk about the material released by them, and the subsequent media propaganda blitz.

If they cannot or will not come inworld, have them watch my State of Mind video.

I do not want total subterfuge, but I do want anonymous capabilities - the US Mail used to be one; telephones used to be one. It is fundamental to our freedoms that we have the means to communicate in private and anonymously.

TOTAL transparency is a foolish and dangerous chimera and has been proven so many times. It ain't gonna happen, and I do not want the windows to be one-way. This issue needs a lot of exploration and debate before we sign away something we won't be able to recover.

Mera Kranfel said...

Very interesting and scary. Transparency can be a very dangerous thing and they are very naive, even for their age I think. But I guess it is as u say, a generation think. The "facebook" generation is "destroyed"...

But this is in the western world. In japan then dont like facebook and they hide behind avatars in the japan version of facebook. I think they are more mature than us in the western hemisphere when it comes to dealing with the internet and related issues...

Link about japan and FB:

thanks for interesting post!

gotVirtual said...

i see the same reaction amongst secondlife users. in fact, i am surprised i even bothered to read a blog post even remotely related to 'business meetings on the grid'. i think people in general just see it as something not worth pursing, and something that has distracted linden attention for too many years. people are tired of buzzwords and hype over frivolous things like virtual meetings. reckon the corps are going to update ever comp in the office with 512mb vid-card? not likely. its already dead in the water. why should anyone continue to soldier on with such a hopeless idea?

Skylar Smythe said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. There is distrust due to the anonymity of online interactions. Perhaps that is in fact why Facebook does so well? It is an authentic profile of a real person.

I engage in virtual worlds as the real me, simply protected by a pen name but everything else is authentically my own self.

Few people operate on that level of personal authenticity inworld though. It makes it harder to conduct fantasy lives, RPG, cheat on spouses etc. if the online and offline identities are linked.

I often wish for a "real person only" version of Second Life where everyone feels empowered to use the tools... but be transparent identity wise. The potential for friendship, networking and intimacy would be so much greater built on truths... rather than portrayals.

Aweome post.


Iggy O said...

Note to any students reading this: see how nearly every respondent is using a handle?

There's a generation gap, for sure, here.

Signed, transparently,

Joe Essid

Iggy O said...

Oh yes, this on how Facebook can be used to spoof an identity (hat tip to Viv Trafalgar and her real-life identity). Viv, you up for writing about this issue, too?

Here's "The Robin Sage Experiment" that will merit a blog post by somebody:

Blogasaurus said...

Hi Joe, yeah, I have had a similar reaction with my Millennials. First of all they are fiercely interested in their real world persona at that age--to see and be seen. I try and reignite the playfulness of learning, but they have become so "serious" it is hard to remember imagination. We speak of 'innovation' and its need to revitalize our culture, but innovation is disruptive and antithetical to institutional structure. This is scary for many kids--heck, for many of us. And yet, there is nothing like logging into an empty sim, and the infinite possibilities it offers. Not all students are meant to be adventurers. Keep up the great work!
aka Pausanius Raymaker Sl and RG

Unknown said...

I too find this in my classes where students are required to use SL. Consistently about 15% just don't use it (missing out on points towards there grade).

I am trying to figure out why such a visceral loathing for SL occurs with some of my students but it doesn't with the other technology tools I require them to use.

I don't have answers but I think it has to do with misconceptions of what virtual worlds are and a failing on my part to better explain how a student will benefit from using the virtual world.

All that being said, I've published research that basically found if we as educators provide a pedagogical approach that is different from the way students feel they learn, they won't use the tools. (blatant plug: Hornik et al. When Technology Does Not Support Learning. Journal of Organizational and End User Computing (2007) vol. 19 (2) pp. 23-46)

Sheila Webber said...

@Skylar: I think you yourself were troubling the idea that Facebook "is an authentic profile of a real person", and I'm not just thinking of scam profiles. I don't put misinformation on my facebook profile, but anyone looking for "authentic me" on Facebook will the piece together a very partial idea of what I'm about and won't even get that many "factual" details. You'd certainly get more of an idea talking to me in SL... Altogether it is rather innocent to imagine that you are neccessarily getting the "authentic" person just because they are giving you their official name, and that people are authentically the same with everyone they deal with (rather than humanly adaptive to different people and situations).
At the moment some of my social networking/Web 2.0 things are in this name (that is my label in things like payroll and my bank, but which is not actually what I was born with, since I did change the 2nd bit on marriage..) and some with my SL name Sheila Yoshikawa. It's all bits of me (and hey I choose BOTH parts of Sheila Yoshikawa, which makes that name sort of special). Also - do these "transparency" fans not have email addresses that might be supergirl27@ or at least harry666@, not actually the thing their friends call them?

Mera Kranfel said...

Thanks for The Robin Sage link!

(I just wish I could remember to read my comment before posting *spell like hell* ;)

Iggy O said...

@Robin, for that 15%, do you ask why?

I always let students know what is ahead, those first days of drop/add. Every time, "roughly" 15% (3 of 18) would drop the writing class.

Only once did a student tell me: "My mom freaked out b/c she saw the CSI episode and thought I'd be stalked."

I talked to the student and parent (by phone), and in the end, the student not only stayed in my section but mom read and commented on her final class-project at the wiki.

The student is now one of my employees :D She no longer uses SL, like every one of the kids who have been my classes, but that's a different story.

Unknown said...

@Iggy O,

I haven't up to this point asked why some just don't use SL. My hunch is that the non-users fall into several groups:

1) Students who don't need the additional work SL provides, they can just read the text and do well
2) Students who don't have a powerful enough computer to run SL and don't want to use the computer's in our campus labs
3) Student's who convince themselves its just to much effort
4) My reference to the study I did, students who just don't see it as a way they will learn, so they just block it.

LindyO said...

Great post
Some thoughts:
The 'generation' is "driven" by a world that tells them they must achieve. Seen this film yet?
Now there's a film for getting a debate going with this kids!!

They are doing this at a time of fear that may just be affecting their optimism for a bright personal future...economic crises, terrorism fear (over an hour to process 30 people at security yesterday at the airport in Seattle), high divorce rates (loss of family fear), pressure from the inundation of 'beauty' industry to be slim and perfect.

There is a huge "stranger danger" push with both Internet management awareness in schools (teenand respected members of society making headlines for leading young people astray and taking advantage.

The stereotype of the "gamer" being a fat, unpopular, socially inept (teenage male) loser is strong in the media despite its total inaccurate portrayal of the demographic.

There sure is a rich research paper investigating this for someone with an interest. Tom Boellstorff leaps to mind.

You have made me think hard about our deployment of OpenSim and Second Life as 75% of our students are online students but from a very wide demographic. I am thinking do I pitch it to them to get broader uptake. Glad a few people here aren't shy and are sharing their own papers!!!

Thanks for the post. It made me think harder about this.


Second Life & ReactionGrid - Decka Mah

Project Officer - Collaboration and Virtual Worlds, Australian Digital Futures Institute, University of Southern Queensland, Australia

ADFI Virtual Worlds Blog:

JS Clark said...

I've had negative reactions from students as well, partly the unstructured aspect, partly the name ("I already have a...") and of course the moral-panic counterhype. But good grief, students who think Facebook profiles or even RL self-presentation is "authentic" or "transparent" are, as several have pointed out here, headed for some ugly experiences. You might point them to some of Walther's work, which predates graphical MUVEs and the social web, such as Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3-43.

JS Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm torn about what their reaction may mean. The push-back could also be because someone outside of their own demographic talked up a technology. "Don't trust anyone over 30" now translates (I have a a hunch) into "Don't trust anyone who invaded our Facebook playspace". Get them talking to their age group or about their age group and you'll hear just as many "handles" and generation-specific speak. They probably don't want to consider Virtual Worlds less because of wings or raccoon heads (have you seen some of their facebook profile pictures? This isn't an unimaginative generation in the least) and more because their parents and older are there. Or at least I think that's an unspoken factor.

Iggy O said...

Michael, I'd accept your claim if I had "talked up" virtual worlds.

I will disagree about their imaginations: studies of their age-cohort (Howe & Strauss and Moser's studies are my primary sources; there are many more studies) reveal little time with unstructured play or daydream-time.

They are a driven-to-succeed generation. It scares me because one faculty member after another remarks how critical-thinking skills and self-reflection are weak in this group.

I'm not down on them. If anything, I hope they'll fix the messes of their elders. At the same time, some of my most "Millennial" students, after doing some self-study of media habits, are down on themselves:

--We are addicted to online contact
--We do not self-reflect or pause

And so on in their blogs. The worst response, from a person so young?

"Our generation is doomed."

I don't believe that, but if the writer had said "doomed to be surprised and overwhelmed by ambiguity," I'd agree.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Iggy. The students I work with just don't like their parents or anyone older than their generation in their digital space. They are quite direct about saying that. So while I do agree that the practice of self-reflection has been disrupted for just about everyone these days, I'm not hearing the doom from this generation that you're hearing. Are they upset about the economy? Absolutely. And even with that upset, I'm hearing more a sense of entitlement...although some of that has been tempered from the economic reality absolutely. I consistently hear a real desire to express themselves. But as much as they want transparency, I do sense they are more interested in going down a digital path very much of their own cohort. I'm not suggesting that's the *only* factor...I do think it's a one that shouldn't be overlooked.

Christopher Helton said...

I have to say that I think people are looking in the wrong places if they aren't seeing "Millennials" in their Second Life. The music-centric communities are stuffed to the rafters with them (some of them running indie music clubs from their dorm rooms).

I've never really made a difference between SL and RL. I'm in world as Walton Vieria.

ps. Hey, Soup Lady.

Iggy O said...

Chris/Walton, show me those Millennials in-world and I'll buy you a fake beer.

I need an excuse to get back to hear some live music, anyhow.

=IcaruS= said...

ok - i concede on Vanish's point - perhaps not a generation thing but a mind-set - a "beginner's brain" at any age - open to possibilities - and love that the conversation has turned to music - can anyone recommend a vital music scene in virtual worlds in 2011? (erm - am i totally out of my league/off topic asking Edus) Crap?

Christopher Helton said...

Well, if you're going for live music you're probably not going to find them.

Look around some of the indie music DJ clubs and you'll find Millenials. Lots of them.