Tag Archives: research

Second Life: conference, land sale

I’m happy to say that I’ll be volunteering at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) conference again this year. It takes place from March 9-12 in SL and OpenGrid and everyone is welcome to attend, no charge. Some of the sessions are also streamed live and recorded to watch later.


And that’s where I come in. Last year I volunteered as a greeter and a mentor: before the event I helped presenters get set up with the technology they needed, I served as on-site tech support during their events, and for a few hours, I stood at a landing point and welcomed attendees. Those weren’t the best assignments for someone who is terribly shy around strangers. Interactions are easier in a virtual world but I still get tongue-tied (finger-tied?) and uncomfortable.

So, this year I volunteered to be part of the streaming team. Not only is there less personal interaction, but I get to have the fun of working the camera and producing video content from the conference. Yesterday I attended a training meeting with other members of the streaming team and I’m excited by the possibility of creating professional grade recordings of an SL live event. I’m looking forward to learning more and playing with the tools in my spare time.

I haven’t been in SL much at all lately, which leads me to my next topic: my parcel on the Heterocera Atoll mainland. If any of you are looking for a quiet, low-lag place to drop a skybox or build on the uneven terrain, ping me (in SL as Kay Jiersen or with that same name – no spaces – at gmail). I’ve already abandoned a couple sections of my land, but I plan to give up another 3000 m² and limit myself to the land allowance on my premium accounts. The region I’m in is almost empty, just two long-term SL residents and abandoned land.  I’d happily chop off a section for one of my blog readers and sell it for L$ pocket change rather than abandoning it to be wasteland. In a perfect world, Linden Lab would say, “Oh, Kay! We’d really prefer you to just keep the land, because you landscape it nicely and don’t run idiotic scripts or put up ban lines, so we’ll waive your tier!”, but let’s not talk crazy.

Yesterday I was discussing my SL land with a new companion. I told him that honestly, part of the difficulty in downsizing is getting rid of things that belonged to Jakob that are rezzed on the parcel: bouquets of flowers, wind chimes, a lotus pond. “Take photos of them, then return them,” was his practical response. “Either way, it’s all just pixels.” True, but that doesn’t make it much easier.

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 26, 2016 in Learning, Relationships


Tags: , , , , , ,

An airbnb roundup

vintage metal sign "Apartments For Rent 2 Rooms"

I hadn’t given much thought to the impact of airbnb, especially the unintended consequences, until recently. Rents where I live are roughly equivalent to what I paid 13 years ago in the external suburbs of DC, there are plenty of units, and there aren’t many tourists. Friends of friends have used airbnb and VRBO to offset the expense of value-adding additions in areas with high home values. As travelers, using airbnb allows us to have a more “local” feeling than staying in hotels, saves a little money, and lets us choose from a greater variety of accommodations. We’re not using it for our entire upcoming trip — of 18 days of travel with my husband, 10 nights will be in hotels and 8 nights in airbnb rentals in Berlin and Prague — but I’m looking forward to feeling like we have our “own place” in the city, even if just for a few days.

So, it’s a good time to look at some of the data and opinions out there. I started with the places we’ll be staying. In Berlin, there has been a battle over airbnb for the past couple years, where it is blamed for raising rents and contributing to the housing shortage. Last year, the city Senate required potential hosts on airbnb or other services to register, which didn’t guarantee permission to operate. Two months ago, they reinforced a ruling that allows landlords to evict tenants who were subletting their apartments. One person parsed the publicly available airbnb data on Berlin in an attempt to contribute to the debate (the site is in German). It’s interesting to see the “power users” he identifies, who each list 20 or more units in Berlin. These aren’t individuals renting out their old apartments when they move to a new place or families offering to host guests in their mother-in-law suite: these are businesses running hotels with disconnected rooms. Our Berlin host is part of a network of people who have combined their listings to share management responsibilities. I’ve looked to see if there is any similar any airbnb controversy in Prague, but I haven’t been able to find anything, at least, not in English. Most of the search hits relate to people being skeptical of listings in Prague, a city with a shaky reputation for honest commerce. Our host there is verified and has only one unit for rent with many glowing reviews.

Below are a few of the better articles I’ve found.  Most of these have a negative perspective because the positive ones were little more than airbnb ads, but I don’t have a pony in this race. Airbnb is good for me, but it could be terrific or terrible for others. Since the sharing economy has developed so quickly, I’m including the location referenced and the date of publication with each one.

New Orleans, March 2014 – UnfairBnB: What Unlicensed Short-Term Rentals Mean for New Orleans from Antigravity Magazine. This article from an alternative magazine is very negative about the perceived impact of airbnb, criticizing disaster tourism, the “museumification” of neighborhoods, and bringing race and class conflict into the mix. The comments give more depth and different perspectives to the debate.

San Francisco, April 2015 – Airbnb Now Says It Has a Solution to San Francisco’s Affordability Problem from Slate. “People couldn’t afford to live in your city if they weren’t renting out part of their space!” seems to be the airbnb’s latest salvo in the skirmish there.

New York City and beyond, September 2014 – Regulate This! episode of the Freakonomics podcast. They talk about airbnb, EatWith, and Lyft, focusing on regulation and impact.

New York City, February 2015 – The Website That Exposes Airbnb’s Parasitic Impact on New York City from Alternet.  This is an interview with the creator of the Inside Airbnb website, which visualizes the company’s listing data for NYC in a map-based view. The title of the article is a bit hyperbolic for the content, though the interviewee says the data clearly contradicts claims made by airbnb.

New York City, October 2015 – Airbnb: Not Necessarily a Wolf, But It’s No Lamb Either on Reevaluate. This blog post looks at housing complaints, safety, and economic impact. It’s not very thorough, but it raises some questions beyond simply the “rent is too damn high” and tax issues.

NYC and beyond, August 2013. The video below is from libertarian Reason and has a more positive spin, partially because they are inherently anti-regulation. They do include a short segment with someone opposed to airbnb, however.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Side Topics


Tags: ,

VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 2)

The afternoon session “Educators and the Second Life Viewer”, led by Oz Linden, wasn’t a topic that had direct impact on me, but I was curious.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one:


Oz began with an overview of how the Lab does viewer development and release and then the questions came flooding in. Most of the concerns involved dealing with viewer updates in an institutional setting, where students sitting down to use machines lacked administrator rights and had to wait for someone else to install the software. At a busy school, the update schedule of the tech support staff can be terribly out of sync with SL releases.

Some worried about potentially losing inventory when testing new viewer candidates (you won’t; it’s stored on the server, not your client viewer). Others asked about screencasting or screen sharing tools. The discussion indicated that other tools do it better, which perhaps didn’t satisfy everyone’s needs. People asked about hair alphas and alpha conflicts in general, which Oz said were always on the LL bug list. A question came up about how to transfer settings from one computer to another (move the settings.xml file). There was a discussion around how to create a shared whiteboard in SL. HTML 5 support will be coming in a few months, which might make it easier to use media-on-a-prim to create a whiteboard, and one educator suggested using Twiddla for that implementation. In the discussion of media-on-a-prim, Oz mentioned Quicktime for Windows and Flash as being difficult to support in-world (personal opinion: they’re outdated and shouldn’t be supported, but we need a media option).  Someone asked about getting an MSI instead of an exe to make installation in labs easier.  I’m sure Oz was flooded with emails mentioning that an MSI can be generated directly from Visual Studio by choosing “Create an Installer Package” from the Project.


People also asked about social media sharing, rendervolumeLODFactor settings, inventory management (!), an export feature (nope), and more. Oz also mentioned render costs and the setting being tested that won’t render avatars above a certain weight.  Not that I have a horse in that race. It was a very informative talk, with a couple of other Lindens jumping in to add details, and I hope it was useful for them as well. The session took place during dinner time, so my software engineer husband was listening with me and often yelling responses to questions across the room; I’m glad my microphone fiasco happened later in the evening.

Speaking of which…

Next, I attended the “Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities” session, where I was able to hear the first two panelists and a small amount of the third. My write-up of this session is limited as I committed an accidental faux pas (open mic in a voice-conducted panel) and lost my notes in the flurry of embarrassment afterward.


Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) touched on library topics — as you might guess from her SL name — but also referenced Alvin Toffler and talked about users as prosumers: both consuming and creating content. She spoke about how important it is to vet our own content sources for credibility and to avoid placing ourselves in an echo chamber where we only hear our existing views reflected back at us.


Renee Brock-Richmond (Zinnia Zauber) gave a presentation centered on creating an “authentic” avatar and reinforcing your personal branding. You might be able to tell from the slide above that she is all about color. She talked about different ways to use color in-world — not only for clothing — and about creating a consistent avatar, including profile, that is authentic to yourself. I found that very thought-provoking. I wanted to agree and argue, so it’s something I might pick up in a future post.


Next up was Beth O’Connell (Beth Ghostraven). She talked about useful communication techniques and tools. She also shared a helpful notecard entitled “Professional Education and Library Resources in Virtual Worlds” that has links to SL and OpenSim areas, mailing lists and groups, and websites. Unfortunately, my gaffe happened during her session. I missed part of it while talking and after being removed from the sim.

I completely missed the presentation by Joyce Bettancourt (Rhiannon Chatnoir), which was disappointing because I had enjoyed the session by her Vesuvius Group colleague so much earlier in the day.

Not being one who can shake off things like that (despite the wise counsel of Dr. Taylor Swift), I didn’t attend the session “Real Democracy in a Virtual World” or the Quill & Quarrel performance later that evening. Today, I’ll be attending sessions from my desktop computer, which has no microphone whatsoever.

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , ,

VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 1)

I’m splitting today’s posts about the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference into two parts, to take advantage of my afternoon break and not overload either post.


I arrived at the first session, “Creating Dinosaurs & Earning Badges”, in my finest pteranodon attire, but since it was as anachronous as my normal shape, I reverted to human to sit in the amphitheatre. Presenter Jeroen Frans is a founder of The Vesuvius Group.  He spoke first about a project they did for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has a summer program in which middle school kids study cretaceous sea animals. The program only lasts two weeks, which doesn’t allow much time for teaching building or texturing skills, so they created a LEGO-like build kit so the kids could make animated models of the animals in a virtual world. In the photo below, you can see the build kit on the right as well as two types of avatar — a skate and an ammonite — that are used in the program.


It got even cooler. The kids were instructed to think about how their creatures behaved, what they ate, where they lived, etc. This shaped how their creations acted in the virtual world.  Unfortunately, they hit technical limitations and had to reduce the numbers that were active at any time. Jeroen also explained how they set up an orientation area to teach the teachers, so that they could train students ahead of time and not have that cost time during the program. Everything about their implementation was awfully clever and I’m looking forward to playing with their build kit.

Later in his presentation, Jeroen talked about two other projects. One was for the World Bank Institute. The WBI wanted to gamify some of their courses, so Vesuvius created a game show and also an ATV race track, with questions to challenge the participants at checkpoints. The second was for the CATEA project (Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access) through Georgia Tech. They created an environment for mentors to meet with disabled STEM students, but soon found that the lecture-type spaces weren’t used.  So, they gamified the process by creating a HUD that allowed participants to earn badges by attending events and doing things online.


The next session I attended was “Transcending Culture in Global Settings”, in which Steven R. Van Hook discussed his own work. His research question was, “How do we gather a group of culturally diverse people in an international setting, and try to get beyond our differences, reaching together towards a common purpose?”  He did this by using a study group of university students (with more than 24 countries of origin) in an advertising class, looking for positive transcultural themes in television commercials. You can find a paper published from his research here: Hope and Hazards of Transculturalism.


I had to leave that session a little early, so I will have to read the paper to learn more about his conclusions.

I’ll post another update at the end of the night. Now, I’ve got to grab a quick lunch before two hours of social anxiety volunteering as a greeter, and then I’ve got a little break before more sessions.


Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , ,

VWBPE conference, day 1

The 8th Annual Virtual World Best Practices in Education conference started earlier today. Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg kicked things off with the opening keynote. The amphitheatre started filling up more than an hour before the event.


I should be jaded after almost ten years in Second Life, but it was still exciting to see five Lindens on the map. This year I wasn’t able to take notes (one of the many advantages of a virtual world conference is that I could attend while cooking dinner) and I don’t see a video of the keynote online yet, but there are excellent posts about it from Daniel Voyager and Ciaran Laval.

Update: here’s the video!

Unfortunately, I missed the discussion on gamification that I planned to attend after that, and I hope to find a summary.

In the evening, I attended two sessions from the tech-savvy educators at the University of Idaho. The first was a hands-on workshop entitled “The Importance of Space”.  We visited three different environments and played with blocks that had some odd physical qualities. I had the pleasure of trying to figure out the blocks with Gentle Heron of Virtual Ability; we both approached the challenge with a similar mindset, though I’m not sure she laughed as loudly as I did when we discovered that if you sat on a block, you would immediately faceplant on the floor. The discussion afterward addressed how we felt in each space, emotionally and physically, and then connected that to principles of design. It’s useful to remember that in a virtual world our meeting spaces can be anything we want them to be.


After the workshop, we went over to the University of Idaho online campus in Idahonia for a research presentation entitled “Comparison of Teen Gamers and Non-Gamers in A Virtual Learning Simulation”. You can find that paper on page 29 of this issue of the Journal of Virtual Studies (it’s easiest to download the PDF and read it offline). The presentation itself was interesting but there was great value in the Q&A session afterwards, where people compared notes on some of the nuts and bolts of virtual teaching experiences: how to get buy-in from local schools when SL has a reputation as an adult space, funding and bandwidth issues, and the advantages of online simulations. I really enjoyed watching educators sharing ideas and links.


Tomorrow I have three sessions that I’m hoping to attend, plus I have two volunteer shifts as a greeter. Friday’s schedule is packed with seven sessions I’d like to see. At physical world conferences I usually hit burn-out and people overload by the second or third day; it’s not so bad for an introvert when I can put down my headset and step away if I’m feeling crowded.

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The efficacy of gamification

On last week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] featuring Canary Beck, there was a short debate about whether gamification would be a useful way to approach education for new SL residents. That got me thinking about the pros and cons of using gamification, so I reflected on a couple of personal examples, looked at a bit of research, and then considered that particular implementation.


What exactly is gamification?

Gamification is more than handing everyone a trophy for things they might or should do anyway. Gartner research VP Brian Burke says, “Gamification is not about slapping points and badges onto an activity and expecting it to magically become more engaging.” Looking at the use of gamification in business, he differentiates it from standalone games and reward programs in this way:

  • Games primarily engage players on a whimsical level to entertain them
  • Rewards programs primarily engage players on a transactional level to compensate them
  • Gamification engages players on an emotional level to motivate them

I think that games and rewards can be part of a gamification strategy, and often are, but it’s fair to see emotional motivation as a point of differentiation. Mollick and Rothbard define gamification as something that “entails adopting the structure, look, and feel of a designed game with the intent of advancing instrumental organizational goals, while creating the same experience for participants that they would have if they were playing a game”. Hamari et al conceptualize gamification as having three parts:

  1. the implemented motivational affordances
  2. the resulting psychological outcomes
  3. the further behavioral outcomes

After all that academic posturing, though, the explanation I like best is from gamification expert Yu-kai Chou: Gamification is design that places the most emphasis on human motivation in the process. In essence, it is Human-Focused Design (as opposed to “function-focused design”). He explains:

Most systems are “function-focused,” designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to. However, Human-Focused Design remembers that people in a system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or do not want to do certain things, and therefore optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement.

Gamification can be used to motivate us to do things that aren’t very good for us; they’re the techniques that drive huge profits for freemium games, after all. But when the goal is something useful and positive, gamification is a way to help us reach it.

Personal example: Nest thermostats

In my view, good gamification isn’t about dumbing things down or giving everyone a participant medal; it’s a way to make use of our inherent drives to promote a particular behavior. The app for my Nest thermostat shows a green leaf when I turn down the heat enough for energy savings. What do I care about a leaf icon? I don’t. Still, it triggers just enough of a reward reaction in my brain that I’ll turn down the temperature one more degree until I see it. The monthly report email from Nest uses other gamification techniques and encourages social engagement:


The fact that I purchased a digital thermostat suggests that I had an existing interest in energy savings before using the app, which is true. The gamification of Nest’s approach helps keep me on my toes, though. I don’t set the thermostat once and then bemoan my monthly bills; I have a visible incentive to push the limits of my comfort and a tiny feeling of reward when I do so. Those are so small that I never think about them until I start doing an analysis like this, yet they motivate me. Does this mean I never give myself an extra degree or two when the house is chilly? Nope. But I do it less often and we’ve been able to get by with lower settings even with record cold temperatures outside.

That’s nice for me, but is it really effective?

Beyond introspection about what works for me and anecdotes from others, I wondered if gamification is more than hype. I turned to “Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification”, a 2014 paper by Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. They reviewed 24 studies in their research and found a variety of techniques used to provide the “motivational affordances”: points, leaderboards, achievements/badges, levels, story/theme, clear goals, feedback, rewards, progress, and challenge. And yes, the studies generally found that gamification was effective. There were some caveats, however. The positive results might have been skewed by novelty. Some users hated the same motivational items that others enjoyed. Even among the majority that enjoyed the gamified elements, motivation varied: some wanted to top the leaderboard while others were content to be in the ranking at all.

In their conclusion, they mention what seems to be a key point for gamification detractors: that intrinsic motivation could be diminished from extrinsic rewards. They provide no follow-up to support or refute the statement, perhaps because it wasn’t addressed in the studies they reviewed.

Triangulating from self-determination theory [7] as well as from the traditional definitions of games [3], both suggest that outside pressures (such as extrinsic rewards) undermine intrinsic motivations (see e.g. [6]) and hence would in essence undermine gamification which is an attempt to afford for the emergence of intrinsic motivations.

Looking at my example above, I don’t feel that Nest’s use of gamification undermines my intrinsic desire to save energy. It keeps me more mindful and encourages me. I may get satisfaction from thinking I’m helping the planet or saving money, but those are less tangible than seeing that little green leaf when I choose 66 degrees instead of 68.

Another personal example: learning German with a game

I’ve spent a couple days playing a new German learning game from the Goethe-Institut, Die Stadt der Wörter. Previously I played their Lernbenteuer games on my phone and frankly, at times they were tough! My German vocabulary is not so practical: I can read a bestselling German mystery novel but I don’t know the words to apply for a job. This new game has basic tourist-level vocabulary. Hotel, shopping, transportation, food, free time. It also uses many different motivational techniques. Since they’ve been teaching German for a long time and have tried other game techniques, I wonder if their new approach is based on earlier results.


The basic gameplay involves going through various parts of a city on short missions, clicking on items and typing their names (as you see the words and hear them used in sentences). You earn points as you complete each mission and are sometimes rewarded with additional gear to customize your avatar. Then, they start to pile on the gamification elements to encourage practice and engagement. You can pick up homework papers along the way; complete them correctly and you earn stars, more avatar gear, and coins toward future discounts in the Institut’s store. You are always given a visual display of your progress in the game and there is an achievement area where you can see your progress toward various goals. To add a competitive element, the top 3 players’ avatars are shown and the top 10 players are listed. You can see where you rank at any time, but it isn’t a persistent, annoying element. The game can connect to Facebook and occasionally you are offered the option to share your progress. You can also play mini-games against friends in the game.

It’s as if they took a list of gamification techniques and wedged them all in there. Maybe that is useful for some learners? For me, I feel like I ignore a lot of the options yet still practice well. I’ll admit I feel a burst of competitive spirit when I see my rank improve, even though I’m still somewhere in the 300s. I am inherently motivated to learn German and I work on it every day; if part of that practice is expressly designed to be fun and engaging, I’m inclined to do a little more. That’s not a bad thing.

Welcoming new SL residents with gamification

Gamification in learning is nothing new. A spelling bee is gamification: there is nothing inherent in learning to spell that necessitates a competition, but ranking, awards, and public exhibitions can drive motivation. So, could it be useful for something like helping new residents in a virtual world?

Well, why not?  Taking into account that some percentage of users would hate a gamified method, if it’s possible to skip ahead or use the methods that already exist (mostly self-education or through volunteer groups), I think it would be very effective. Tutorial levels are a common model in video games and using them in an open virtual world seems similar to me, and could be done in a way that doesn’t give the impression that SL is just a game.

Groups in SL have independently developed tutorial areas for new residents and when I tried the new member experience last year, it seemed that Linden Lab’s intro taught some basic skills, but there was no sense of achievement, progress, or connection. I’ve been daydreaming of an implementation that would teach those skills — giving rewards and useful items along the way — and then branch to allow users to explore specific skills, tools, and landmarks for various possible in-world roles, such as Builder/Creator, Student/Educator, Socializer, Fashionista, Roleplayer, Photographer/Moviemaker, etc. Ideally, someone who passed through that sort of tutorial would have skills to get by and pointers to answer the inevitable “So, what now?” question. (I actually gave this far more thought and went deep into the weeds, sketching out a ten level system. If someone wants my input on it, just ask, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for now.)

When a new resident appears in SL, he has already demonstrated an inherent motivation to check it out and a curiosity about what will be found. The tutorial could be designed to use techniques to enhance intrinsic interest as well as providing extrinsic rewards, and with motivated learners in an environment where gamification doesn’t seem out of place, it would have the characteristics of the most successful implementations reviewed in the study earlier. Why not increase engagement and help new residents get off to a good start?

A final (huge) graphic

Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media


Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Facebook’s trust engineers

If you’re interested in digital life and social science, the latest Radiolab podcast is fascinating. They start with an astounding perspective on the scale of Facebook, use an example of a problem that led to an engineering — and social engineering — solution, and then roll into the emotion manipulation study that caused a flurry of hand-wringing (including mine) last summer. The way that the Radiolab team unfolds this story is smart and interesting, and I recommend listening before reading my comments below.

While listening, I thought of the testing we used to do when I worked at Huge Internet Company. Much like in the podcast, I saw firsthand the differences between running tests that involved tens of millions of diverse people and academic experiments conducted with a few university undergraduates. We had facilities for eye-tracking studies, focus groups, and one-on-one testing, plus we did some in-home observation and beta tests. I led projects that were user-facing and host-based; they ran on our servers, not the users’ machines, and therefore could be updated on the fly.  We could try a product redesign with a couple million people before doing a full rollout or split what we showed to users for A/B testing. It was a marvelous way to learn about human behavior online. Though we weren’t doing things like skewing a person’s feed to have more positive or negative stories, we certainly tested different ways of naming our products and writing copy to increase attention, long before clickbait headlines. We played with color and shape and screen layout, and things as small as “OK” vs “Ok” and whether that button should be to the left or right of “Cancel” on a warning. How many online friends does the average user have, so we know how big the default messaging list should be?  How do people act and feel if their list of friends is smaller or larger than the default? Knowing what we had done, it was hard not to roll my eyes later when a professor would authoritatively cite a study with a test group of 80 American 18-22 year olds.

The Facebook engineers in the podcast clearly think that they are trying to help users. However, the line between help and potential harm or manipulation is thin and blurred. The social scientists in the piece are used to dealing with Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), and being part of academic professional organizations with codes of conduct that are designed to protect human test subjects from even the tiniest possible harm without a means for redress. The mindset of the two groups is very different yet both want useful information and a positive outcome for all.

If we start thinking about all the ways in which we are manipulated by organizations, I’m not sure that Facebook rises to the “most evil” level. Yet. Brand marketing is based on convincing people to buy one product over another, and it’s often done by giving a false impression or obscuring negative truths. Politics and media; need I say more? It can be argued that we have been done great harm by those groups through manipulation to sell a product or idea, rather than to help us solve a problem. Facebook has the reach and ability to manipulate billions of us without our awareness, and maybe an external ethics check would be useful. An IRB model, perhaps. (If you’re unfamiliar with an IRB, a simple explanation is that before research begins, it has to be approved by a board at that institution. They review the research question and methods, protection for subjects, and conformance with ethical rules. If you have been a subject in research and have a question or concern after the experiment, the IRB acts as a contact point as well.) IRBs don’t move at the pace of Internet companies, though — think of glaciers vs lightning, in my experience — and who would judge which companies or which changes require approval?

As a user, I hate the idea of anyone manipulating me for their own purposes, fact of life or not. As a researcher, I see the potential for harm and want ethical oversight, but I’m also excited by the knowledge we could gain from large and diverse subject groups. As a former tech manager, I know the ceaseless push for improvement and results as well as the need to quickly fix things that anger or confuse users. In the end, I’m not sure which voice in my head is the loudest.

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Research


Tags: , ,

Tech trends for 2015

Interested in what’s next or simply trying to keep up with impressive-sounding jargon? I’ve compiled a few lists of tech trends that are expected to be hot this year. I agree with some of them, for better or worse, and others are giving me food for thought as I consider the human implications. Click the links for more details.

Webbmedia Group (the presentation below is worth watching at full-screen, but a summary list of the key points from by Amy Webb in the Harvard Business Review  includes deep learning, smart virtual personal assistants, “It’s like Uber for ____”, oversight for algorithms, data privacy, and block chain technology):


10 Strategic Technology Trends from Gartner:

  1. Computing everywhere
  2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. 3D printing
  4. Advanced, pervasive, invisible analytics
  5. Context-rich systems
  6. Smart machines
  7. Cloud/client architecture
  8. Software-defined infrastructure and applications
  9. Web-scale IT
  10. Risk-based security and self-protection

Tech Trends for 2015 from frog design:

  • Move over “step counters”
  • Ambient intelligence knows what’s up
  • Nano particles diagnose from the inside out
  • The emergence of the casual programmer
  • Eat your technologies
  • The Internet of food goes online
  • Mobilizing the next 4 billion
  • Personal darknets in the spotlight
  • 4D printing assembles itself
  • Digital currency replaces legal tender
  • The rise of cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Textiles get techy
  • Adaptive education personalizes learning
  • Achievement unlocked: you’re hired!
  • Micro-farming networks go mainstream

 The Tech That Will Dominate 2015, from Tim Bajarin at PC Magazine:

  • Apple enhances product resolution and invades enterprise market
  • Increased vigilance against security breaches
  • Tablets as personal TVs
  • Streaming media everywhere
  • Better battery life
  • New MacBook Air
  • Domestic robots
  • Low-end tablets replacing other gadgets
  • Apple Watch more successful that expected
  • Easier ways to design/create 3D products
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Digital Devices, In the News, Research


Tags: , , , ,

Lulz and beyond: an anthropologist writes about Anonymous

Last night, I finished reading Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (thanks to my husband for the Christmas present). I recommend it and think it’s important for anyone with an interest in Internet activism, trolling, hacking, surveillance, or security. You won’t be overwhelmed with a lot of anthropological assessment or theory, and Coleman had access and a background that make her journalistic story a compelling read.

Anon photo by me, staged in Second Life

Coleman’s narrative is told from a near-insider point of view. Studying hackers for many years, she has talked with, met in person, and even befriended some hardcore operators from the Anons and other groups. She had access beyond the #reporter room in the Anon IRC channels with the handle biella; she didn’t go undercover or mislead anyone about her identity or intent. She points out that, of course, this could be risky. A friendly Anon warned her once about overhearing a conversation among others who considered hacking Coleman to give her a taste of what it feels like. Another Anon (the snitch Sabu) hinted that the FBI might be watching her even if she was innocent. She had to remind the Anons that she had no special standing — she wasn’t a lawyer, for example — so for her protection and their own, they should not discuss illegal ops in front of her. She became very mindful of her data security, saying, “crossing a border meant days of preparation to secure my notes and put together a safe travel computer.” (Note that Coleman now lives in Canada: a country that searched my husband’s laptop at a border crossing, confiscated it, and temporarily detained him because of the existence of a common Internet meme image in his browser cache.)

Coleman covers the LulzSec fiasco that was also well told by Parmy Olson in We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency, but that is neither where she starts nor ends.  She gives some background on hacking and trolling, from phone phreaks to the cesspool of 4chan’s /b/ and then dives into Project Chanology, the Anonymous attack on Scientology.  She details the conflict between “moralfags”, “namefags” and those who just want the lulz and the subsequent splintering of Anonymous into smaller and conflicting ops teams. The book continues through the Arab Spring, on through LulzSec, and into the releases from Edward Snowden and Anonymous ops related to rape cases in the US and Canada.

Anthro notes: Coleman’s analysis of lulz is one of the few times the book gets downright anthro. Her anthro roots also show with the frequent reference to trickster figures in myth. I found the trickster framework useful but overdone, one of the pet peeves I developed while reading.  She also suggests that Anonymous can be understoood as the “superaltern” (via Chris Kelty). In comparison to the subaltern, who have no voice, the superaltern are “those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.” She also twisted the James Scott’s term “weapons of the weak” (methods used by powerless populations to express themselves politically in indirect ways) into “weapons of the geek” — “a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life”. She even pulls in some Bakhtin, describing IRC as “polyphony”. She writes about tactics for enforcing egalitarianism in societies, the effect of creating a shared identity stripped of conventional outside markers, and secrets as tokens of exchange.  If you’re reading this with an anthropological background, there is a lot to think about, but these analytic moments are scattered through a book that rarely feels academic and is accessible to anyone.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. Coleman admits to being romantic about Anonymous and making a philosophical choice to “enhance enchantment” in her approach. This has been the chief criticism I’ve seen from other (relatively) unbiased critics. Her discussion of disgusting, racist, sexist, life-fucking, and otherwise maliciously lulzy ops is very limited in contrast to ops of more punk and political activism. She nearly lost me relatively early in the book when she stated that “Ma Bell” was a term that came out of phone phreaking, when it actually predated phreaking by many decades. A small error, but since I’m not unfamiliar with the main topics she’s discussing, it made her sound like an academic outsider. Coleman also writes about the Occupy Wall Street movement as someone who was in New York City at the time, which I believe gives her a very different perspective than how it was seen by many of us outside the area, whether we agreed with the basic message of the protests or not. There are a few typos in the Kindle edition; unfortunately, some of them are at places where they could cause a flash of confusion.

The conclusion of the book is not the strongest part, which is disappointing because I think the messages there are so important. Coleman was trying very hard to avoid cynicism (she says as much). We are now post-Chelsea Manning, post-Wikileaks, post-LulzSec, and post-Edward Snowden. The police took down The Pirate Bay about three weeks ago. People cheerfully share intimate information on social media and carry GPS-enabled devices. She writes:

When this push toward the panopticon is stacked with a litany of broader issues — from growing wealthy inequality, waves of global and national recession and unrest, and the looming prospect of climate-induced environmental disaster — it is not difficult to understand how a disabling, pervasive, and frightening uncertainty has come to colonize our states of being.

She sees hope in the activist-oriented Anonymous ops, and frankly, so do I.  Anonymous is deeply flawed, destructive, and often wrong, but I think we need it. I think it’s important to remember that we can be Anonymous, too. Behind our keyboards or writing letters or out in the streets, we can draw attention to the bullshit.

Oh, and a final note: ffs, encrypt.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 3, 2015 in Culture, In the News, Research


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Does cultural dissonance effect how we value virtual worlds?

I’m a member of the Society for Medical Anthropology, but I don’t often see research in that field that intersects with my interest in digital anthropology. So, I was curious to read “‘I Swear to God, I Only Want People Here Who Are Losers!’ Cultural Dissonance and the Allure of Azeroth“* in the December issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.


The researchers consider whether some World of Warcraft players compensate for a lack of success in their offline lives by seeking glory online (related to the image of “gamers as losers”), but then narrow their focus to whether it is the differential between offline/online success that contributes to gameplay having therapeutic/addictive qualities. In other words, they don’t assume that every WoW player is a loser. However, they propose a concept of “cultural dissonance”, which they define as “how gamers’ subjective well-being is affected by conflicts between socially valued online and offline lives, and subsequent attempts to equilibrate through psychological negotiations and revaluations.”

They began with a couple of hypotheses, which I’ll restate. First, they guessed that the amount of dissonance between online and offline success would be correlated with gamers’ perceptions that WoW has both a positive and negative role in their lives. For some, playing could provide gratification that was lacking offline, but the pull to feel that gratification could lead to problematic, excessive gameplay. Second, they hypothesized that the dissonance would be related to how much players valued WoW, which is then connected to mental health. Being more successful online increases the perceived value of WoW time, justifying increased gaming even when it interferes with offline commitments.

Their method used participant-observation, interviews, and surveys. Their quantitative analysis supported their hypotheses: cultural dissonance was associated with both positive and negative outcomes of WoW play, and the degree of dissonance was correlated with the perceived value of the players’ WoW virtual lives. In straightforward terms — mine, not the researchers — if I feel that I’m more successful online than offline, I’ll prioritize my online life higher. That can have beneficial therapeutic effects, but the scales can shift enough that offline life and mental health suffer.

I don’t think this is surprising to anyone who has spent a lot of time in a persistent virtual world, but that middle step explaining how each existence (offline/online) is valued is important and interesting. We might have multiple lives across physical and virtual worlds, yet there is still only one animating consciousness behind them all, and that consciousness is limited in time. Trying to achieve endgame goals in an MMORPG or running a virtual business or having an active social life online are immersive activities that necessarily use time that not lived deeply in the physical world. Dissonance that shifts how we value each life might come from increased perceived success in either physical or virtual realm. The study didn’t look at this, but I’ve certainly had lots of friends whose lives started to boom offline, leading them to detach from their online lives. When you only have so much time in a day and one consciousness, that shifting of value and balance is essential. That balance, however, is necessarily weighted toward the physical world. Our physical lives require constant maintenance: acquiring food and drink, sleeping, obtaining income to meet needs and obligations, etc.

The title of the article is a quote from a WoW gamer making the point that to run endgame raids, he wanted dedicated teammates without other obligations. “I swear to God, I only want people here who are losers! I don’t want people who have jobs or school!” I think it’s possible to have rich, satisfying, and successful lives in both physical and virtual spaces, but it involves frequent negotiation. Social demands come from both spaces. I’ve been in MMORPG guilds where casual players were treated badly and there was non-stop peer pressure to do endgame group activities at hours that would be almost impossible for someone with a family or job. I’m not sure that someone with an objectively successful offline life could keep up with that. On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of people who can’t imagine that a person perceived as successful in the physical world would “waste time” in virtual worlds. I think that’s connected to the “gamers as losers” trope, because I doubt they’d think the time was wasted if virtual world activities were rephrased as, “hanging out with friends, doing some creative projects, running a small business, shopping, and visiting artistic installations.”

In their conclusion, the researchers touched on some different methods used in studying virtual worlds. It’s an important section, since the question of whether virtual lives should be ethnographically examined as separate from physical lives can be debated. When I gave presentations about a particular aspect of roleplay in Second Life, I carefully avoided the question of why people chose that roleplay. My research was inside SL and I was studying behavior there, not the behavior of the people on the other side of the keyboards. The authors of this article state:

We appreciate how recent ethnographers of virtual worlds — such as Boellstorff (2008) in his study of Second Life — have studied them from entirely within the persistent virtual world in question as cultures in their own right and not mere expressions of the actual world. Still, to address patterns of wellness and distress in WoW gamers’ lives, we have followed others and tried to understand how gamers’ WoW experiences intersect with offline ones (Nardi 2010; Schiano et al. 2011; Snodgrass et al. 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012, 2013; Taylor 2006).

Both are valid but different anthropological approaches.


* Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, H. J. Francois Dengah, Michael G. Lacy. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 28, Issue 4, pp. 480-501.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 1, 2015 in Gaming, Health - Mental & Physical, Research


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: