Sunday, 19 June 2005

Artificial societies Vs Virtual Worlds

First up some background. Timothy Burke is an academic at Swarthmore College in the US. It's an elite, liberal arts college so I think it's reasonable to suggest that he's not a numpty! While blogsurfing I came across a paper he presented at DiGRA (No idea!) which deals with artificial societies and virtual worlds and it's fascinating! Okay I have to admit that I tend to read loads of stuff like this and about this subject area so I'm already hooked but he poses some interesting questions and I'm not giving too much away by quoting the final line:
  • "The rigorous exploration of concrete explanation combined with the organicism and messiness of real-world sociality seems a fruitful and potentially potent combination."

I'm not doing that to include something which might, at first reading, appear impenetrable but for just the other reason - this guy is looking at how researchers who model artificial societies might sensibly look at some of the virtual worlds already extant on the Internet - in some ways bloggers and blog readers form part of one of those virtual worlds. Read the full paper here, let me know what you think!

16 careful considerations:

Bluefluff said...

High power stuff, Nog! I lack the systems background you'd need to appreciate fully where Burke is coming from, but it seems to me emergence is a key aspect of the blogger community. But perhaps it applies more to the organic growth of network connections than to the behaviour patterns that Burke is concerned with? Cross-linking between blogs, branching out like fractals, puts us in touch with the lives of other people we wouldn't otherwise encounter - but do any of those newly interconnected people act differently as a result?

Nogbad said...

Now here I have a problem because I can only look at this from a systems perspective – I’m simply not equipped to get too far in thinking about your question. Asking whether people act differently suggests that they might always act the same without some external intervention - is this really the case? If we believe that people are purposeful rather than purposive automatons how can we know which of the myriad stimuli they receive (are bombarded with?) has a particular influence? From a Soft Systems perspective i.e. systems which feature people rather than just machines or numbers, it’s usually stated that the act of looking at a system will have an effect. Will reading a blog make someone behave “differently”? I’d guess we’d have to baseline “normal” first is my initial thought.
But let’s take a wider view – if an infinite number of monkeys had an infinite number of typewriters (now equipped with spelling and grammar checkers) etc……….. Might we thus surmise that somewhere in the whole blog world someone is producing poetry or prose to match the real greats? Unfortunately this is rather like mathematicians or physicists who believe that the size of the universe means that the probability of life on another planet is high. Like them we might believe the chances are high but there are still a lot of places to look :-)

Bluefluff said...

I'll grant you that reading a blog will have some effect - any stimulus changes the person we are, however slightly.

But the point I was really getting at is that Burke seems concerned with large scale behaviour patterns & how they evolve in either modelled societies or virtual communities (& thus how the methodologies used to study both might usefully combine). I'm not sure that blogging creates the same sort of active communities - blog-reading strikes me as a more passive activity than, say, killing monsters in a MUD scenario, or participating in an online tutorial. To take just one example, Burke may not be aware that you & I have read his paper... there has been no witting interaction between writer & readers.

I'm aware that the very process of typing this comment partially disproves the point I'm making! My behaviour is different (I would have spent these minutes on something else if I'd not read your blog entry) - but I still don't feel part of a community with Burke, because he isn't "here".

Does that make sense?

Nogbad said...

I think your point is valid and well made with regards Burke and his awareness of who might have read his paper but I wonder whether we might be served better by agreeing a working definition of "community"?

I'm thinking here about how we locate the various "players" in any community. If I think about the physical community where I live there are people I might chat with, drink with, exchange jokes with. There are people more distant, we might nod and say "hi" but that's the extent of our interaction. There are others living in the village who I don't know and who don't know me. Let's look at how we can slice this community up (and this slicing is a characteristic of Systems as described by Pirsig). If we describe the community of people living in this village there is equality - we share a postal district and a physical location, if we describe "my" community some people living here do not form part of it but others, people who might live 5, 10 or 100 miles away (or even much further) are part of "my" community. And my community shifts both physically and emotionally - there are inequalities - but I still consider it to be a viable community.

Perhaps another idea is whether or not "lurkers", passive participants, are considered members of any online community? At it's widest we might consider everyone as part of the community of the world, sub-divide this into those who, for example, are online and further cut it to include only those who have read the Burke paper. If we agree that commonalities are a foundation for community then we have in common the experience of reading that paper and discussing it! Burke is a peripheral part of our community as the catalyst of this discussion whether we feel part of a community including him or not :-)

Bluefluff said...

"Catalyst" is a good term - promoting change whilst remaining unaltered. I'll concede that any blogger can act as a catalyst.

For me, a community needs more than commonality. There has to be interaction & bilateral consciousness of participation. I'm doubtful whether "lurkers" can be truly considered part of a community in most cases. Observers, maybe, but not members. When I read conferences on FirstClass without identifying myself or posting messages, I don't regard myself as a member of the community served by that conference, just as a visitor, an "outsider".

I think the sociological distinction between Gesellschaft & Gemeinschaft is relevant here, even though there isn't an exact match when you apply it to the online world. In terms of blogging, everyone with a blog on blogspot (a subset of everyone with a blog)is nominally a member of the blogging community, Gesellschaft style. But Gemeinschaft is perhaps only achieved within the smaller subsets of people who interact in the context of a particular blog - identifiable (even if pseudonymous)individuals.

I'm not even sure online communities have the same sort of constant identity as offline ones. They escape geographical constraints by not needing to be co-located in physical space. Perhaps they also escape temporal constraints, by forming, dissolving, fluctuating, around temporary focal points?

Tricky stuff....

Nogbad said...

I think we're going to diverge here :-) I haven't been avoiding this but the other stuff was pecking at me, that "real life" rubbish, and I really didn't want to simply send something glib.

There has to be interaction & bilateral consciousness of participation.

Is that really the case? I'm struggling here because because I'm not sure that I can meet these criteria for membership on the community in this village. What level of interaction is needed? What tips the balance?

I'm not even sure online communities have the same sort of constant identity as offline ones. They escape geographical constraints by not needing to be co-located in physical space. Perhaps they also escape temporal constraints, by forming, dissolving, fluctuating, around temporary focal points?

But surely geographical communities have the same fluidity if not more? I work from home but many of my neighbours work M-F/9-5, doesn't this reflect the same dynamic but one which isn't made easier by the opportunities for asynchronous communication? My neighbour might find it very strange if he came home from work to find that I'd thought about the answer to a question he posed and so I'd written a note and dropped it through his door. In fact unless the weather is nice and we are in the garden during the evening I might not be able to answer his question until the weekend. thus we retain this constant identity in a physical community but we may actually have reduced interaction. Thus I'd suggest that the accident of geography is actually not a determinant of "community". If we then look at participation - surely the bloke who sits quietly in the corner is still part of the community? I feel that people who read but decide not to participate are still members of the community in the same way that the bloke in the corner who sips his half of Masterbrew is.

I think I'm suggesting that participants and non-participants are all members of the community and that's much as you said with Gesellschaft & Gemeinschaft except I think that either is inclusive and that anyone who decides to be a regular reader without interacting is still a member of the community. The decisive act of "observing" allows that membership.

Bluefluff said...

I'm not sure we do diverge - it's more likely that I've expressed myself unclearly :-)

There has to be interaction & bilateral consciousness of participation.

You, in your village, meet those criteria. You interact with your neighbours (asynchronicity doesn't alter that)& they are aware of you, & you of them.

The bloke in the corner with his pint meets them too. He is physically present in the same space (it's likely the odd nod or grunt gets exchanged even if he doesn't say much or join in the card game). He is seen by his fellow drinkers & he sees them - that's interaction (albeit limited), & it's also what I meant by bilateral consciousness of participation.

"Lurkers" (unless identifiable via message histories etc.) are unseen, unknown - you cannot interact with somebody who, to all intents & purposes, isn't there, & though they may be participating (passively) the community is not conscious of them. Hence consciousness of participation is one-way, not bilateral.

This is probably going to turn on our definition of "lurkers", isn't it?

My point about online communities escaping temporal constraints was poorly thought through, I agree. What prompted it was awareness of temporary & shifting blog audiences. I might follow a link to someone's blog, read it regularly for a few days or weeks, post a comment or two, then never return. There may be dozens (or in the case of a heavily publicised blog, hundreds) of others doing the same. That sort of transience is less likely to happen, I think, in a physical community.

Nogbad said...

This is probably going to turn on our definition of "lurkers", isn't it?

Without doubt :-)

I'll come back to this after some reflection, I'm aware that people reading this are very precise about language and I really want to make sure I get it right.

kat said...

"Lurkers" (unless identifiable via message histories etc.) are unseen, unknown - you cannot interact with somebody who, to all intents & purposes, isn't there, & though they may be participating (passively) the community is not conscious of them. Hence consciousness of participation is one-way, not bilateral.

.... but sometimes ( even though it may only be very occasionally) ‘lurkers’ write and reply to people privately. These private messages can affect the messages sent to a conference. We are all affected one way or another by what others say even if they only say it quietly and to one or two people. People may be lurking because they actually know someone in the group. What goes on in a main conference is sometimes only be the tip of the iceberg and it may not show the whole picture. Even the main posters might have private conversations. I don’t think the community shows itself all at once.

If people are lurking for any length of time then I suspect it is because they feel a sense of identity with the group. In that case, I think I would personally allow them to think of themselves as members. (Not sure, I have always felt like that about it.)

I suppose the posters should think themselves lucky that there are people out there willing to read their posts. :-)

Nogbad said...

And I wonder if having that choice is also an indicator of membership? It's a key difference between the passivity of reading web pages or watching TV - neither really offer opportunities for direct engagement but some modes (blogs, CMC, F2F) offer a different form of engagement where "members" can decide to actively participate if they wish.

kat said...

And I wonder if having that choice is also an indicator of membership?

Yes I think it is. If you give someone the right to participate then you have effectively enrolled them. It is then up to them as to how active they want to be. I think that is the same in any community - online or off.

Anonymous said...

I think the virtual communities/blogging literature that incorporates systems theory/network theory speaks to some of what I'm thinking about in that paper, yes.

What I think you'd need to identify and think about is what the structures or patterns which "emerge" out of blogging or virtual community activity. That's easy when you go back and look at the early days of blogging: there's a simple initial condition (no blogs, then blogs) and a relatively well understood self-organizing pattern or structure that resulted from early linking practices--basically the power-law distribution of blog readerships and the semi-permanent auto-reproducing hierarchical dominance of blogs like Instapundit, Kos, Atrios and so on.

The much more complicated thing would be to identify contingent points of later perturbation in a virtual community or blogging context which had emergent consequences--accidental events or interventions which produced complex patterns which were unforeseen or unplanned. Though I'm not particularly a fan of the concept of "memes", in this limited context it can be useful--you could look at how certain memes propagate accidentally and become such established tropes or images among bloggers that they affect how people write and communicate. Say, the concept of "fisking".

Tim Burke

Nogbad said...

Thanks for that Tim - I hadn't come across "fisking" before but I think it's a good example of emergence. It begs another question though, and I'm sure it's rhetorical, how do these memes become established? Why might Sullivan gain readership over other - equally credible and erudite - bloggers? How do the power dynamics work now that the blog world has grown so large? Or does the increase in the number of blogs mean that fisking, like Blair Newman's "suicide" will be part of the early online culture but only a small subset will be able to say "I was there"?

Anonymous said...

I think if you follow some version of the concept of emergence as an explanation of causality, you accept that in some cases, a meme or other small change propagates almost by chance through a particular system. The analogy that's used sometimes in complexity theory is of a sandpile. When you're first pouring sand out, the pile becomes more and more conical. At some point, it reaches a kind of criticality--the next grain of sand or the next or the next might be what tips the pile into a landslide where a significant portion of its structure falls down.

At the conference where I gave that paper, we talked some about "determinist" and "contingent" emergence. In some cases, you can pretty well predict what's going to happen in a given system because of some important underlying driver or fixed attribute. So in virtual-worlds games where one of the fundamental "rules" is that characters accumulate power ("experience") and wealth in linear relation to the time they invest, it's extremely predictable that players are going to find features of the virtual world that allow them to maximize risk-reward ratios, generally features that the designers didn't know about or intend to exist. You don't know what they'll find, or when they'll find it, but it's quite deterministic that they will at some point, sooner rather than later. The consequences of their finding this unintended feature will be emergent: that is to say, they'll propagate across the gameworld rapidly and create complex social structures and patterns in an unplanned and uncontrolled fashion.

On the other hand, in many systems, there are things which are truly contingent, e.g., if you could re-run the tape, they wouldn't necessarily happen again. Singular events--like Newman's suicide--might not happen the same way or happen at all. And the fact that they happen creates emergent consequences, surprising systemic and complex results. To take a virtual-world game example, the fact that someone managed to kill the player character of the lead developer during the beta test of Ultima Online created a kind of ripple effect, a ghostly memory of the event that has affected player behavior in beta tests ever since. There's a huge number of blogging/virtual community examples as well. I think there's an endless supply of such events, but as a system evolves, I think it's harder for a new surprising event to "nudge" complexity into a new track or form.

Tim Burke

Nogbad said...

I think it's harder for a new surprising event to "nudge" complexity into a new track or form.

This seems to suggest that maturing systems, through growth or age, reach a stage of stasis. I'd imagine that online gamers who find the unintended feature soon grow tired of "winning" through knowledge of a backdoor so what happens then? Is blogging simply another stage and the early adapters will soon grow tired and move onto the next new frontier?

Bluefluff said...

This seems to suggest that maturing systems, through growth or age, reach a stage of stasis.

Is stasis necessarily a bad thing? Or perhaps what I really mean to ask is: is the 'unstimulated & therefore unsatisfied' stage you describe necessarily a negative development? I'm reminded of Belbin's team roles here & his division of teamwork chronology into the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing. If we equate norming with stasis, perhaps it could be seen as the necessary pre-requisite to moving on to a higher level of performing? In the context of an online community, this could imply creativity rather than stagnation......