Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Virtual Trust in Your Second Life

In my early discussions about the power of the Second Life platform, I discussed what I called "unmediated conversation". Unmediated, in this case, by the real life factors that influence our face to face human interactions. I argued that in a medium where you could be anything, the infamous three second "first impression" rule had to be violated in some way, allowing for a richer, more meaningful initial engagement that transcended appearance and therefore led to deeper relationships.

After all, in a place where one could be any shape, thing, sex, species, etc. why would we allow ourselves to draw conclusions about the person behind the pixels in a mere three seconds simply based on their virtual manifestation? Did I mention that I *assumed* all of this?

This week my good friend DrFran Babcock started to dispel some of the myths I'd formed in my own mind in her Mental Health Missives podcast. DrFran highlights a study by Kristine L. Nowak and Christian Rauh published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication entitled "Choose your ‘buddy icon’ carefully: The influence of avatar androgyny, anthropomorphism and credibility in online interactions". The study hypothesis calls my "unmediated conversation" assertion to task:
The fact that we can separate the avatar from the behavior allows an exploration of the extent to which this reliance on visible information in the perception process is due to the lack of conscious control and the relative stability of the body. Perceivers know that the avatar is consciously chosen, easy to change, and not stable. Therefore, if people rely more on a person’s behavior than on the visual information (avatar) when online, it is likely that people rely on characteristics of the offline body due to its stability and the fact that it is beyond conscious control. However, if the characteristics of the avatar have a stronger effect on the online person perception process than behavior, this implies that people rely on visual characteristics for some other reason.
I know, read it again .. it will make sense. Where do academics learn to write? We digress.

The researchers conducted a survey and an experiment. The survey was used to determine how people perceive a group of 30 avatars in static context created from 3D models using Poser 5 for human and 3D Studio Max for the non-human avatars; those results were used to base the selection of a stimulus for the experiment. The participants evaluated the avatars in terms of their androgyny, anthropomorphism, credibility, homophily, attraction, and the likelihood they would choose them during an interaction. Here are the avatar mug shots.

Figure 1. Avatar images

As you can see there is a variety of human male and female as well as non-human avatars. It's not quite as diverse as that which we encounter in Second Life, but it representative set.

The results from the report Conclusion:
Avatars that were more anthropomorphic were perceived to be more attractive and credible, and people were more likely to choose to be represented by them. The strongest predictor of these variables, however, was the degree of masculinity or femininity (lack of androgyny) of an avatar. Further, those images with strong gender indications (either more masculine or more feminine) were perceived as more anthropomorphic than images (whether human or not) without strong indications of gender. These results also support the claim that people anthropomorphize anything they encounter (Reeves & Nass, 1996), even bottles and hammers, to some degree.

Further, while all images have some level of anthropomorphism, not all images are either feminine or masculine. Some images are both masculine and feminine and others are neither. All things being equal, more anthropomorphic or less androgynous avatars are more attractive, credible, and homophilous, perhaps because androgyny and low anthropomorphism increase uncertainty. These results are consistent with the suggestion that people have higher expectations of anthropomorphic avatars and that there will be consequences for violating these expectations (Garau et al., 2003; Slater & Steed, 2002). The results suggest that less androgynous (more masculine or feminine) avatars may also carry higher expectations.

Finally, it seems that the characteristics of an avatar may at times provide useful, and relatively accurate, information about the person it represents. Although a small percentage of subjects reported a preference for androgynous avatars, a majority reported a preference for avatars that were 'like' them, at least in terms of gender. This suggests that users may also want to match other characteristics such as hair color and race, perhaps sexual orientation, or even hobbies. This means that designers should continue to provide a wide variety of choices. This would not only increase user satisfaction, but could also provide useful information about people in online interactions. Finally, providing minorities, such as Hispanic and African Americans, choices of avatars that match their ethnicity or race may make them feel more comfortable and may also help to prevent marginalizing minorities and other traditionally disenfranchized groups in online environments by making them obvious, visible participants.
I know what you are thinking "So much for your unmediated conversation, Grace." Not so fast, notice that this study was conducted statically. In other words, there was little context nor was there interaction.

I strongly maintain that the three second first impression is largely influenced by the context of the interaction. For example, suppose you are wandering around Second Life and out of the blue you get an instant message from someone you don't know. "Hi Grace". (Yes, I know you aren't Grace, please play along.) What do you do? Do you respond quickly and openly? Do you check the avatar's profile, quickly scanning for hints? Do you just ignore it?

Now consider the next scenario. You teleport into a crowded live music venue where you know no one. Out of the morass, someone says "Hi Grace". Now what do you do? Do you react differently?

Finally, consider the following; you are wandering through the SL Botanical Gardens and you stumble upon an infinitely peaceful setting that is empty, minus a brightly colored dwarf dangling his feet in the water and whispering to the fish. He looks up and says "Hi Grace". Well?

This goes to the argument of whether virtual worlds have to be 3D. The answer is of course no, unless you want to capitalize on the immersive and contextual experience.

What do you think?
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