CBC Article Reports on Flawed Research



The CBC has reported on some (in my estimation) flawed research by Nick Yee of Stanford University. Here is Yee’s paper, which has just been published in the February 2007 issue of CyberPsychology & Behavior. Much discussion about this article is also to be found here, in response to Yee’s blog post about his research in August 2006. Here is my dissection, titled Eavesdropping in SL – The Unbearable Weight of Erroneous Assumptions, published in the Second Life Herald and reprinted after the jump.


Thisbe, John William Waterhouse, 1909

According to Nick Yee, of Stanford University, and his colleagues, Second Life, and by extension other virtual environments, is an ideal place to test paradigms of real-life human social interaction. In the paper The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments, Yee asserts that:

Overall, our findings support our overall hypothesis that our social interactions in online virtual environments, such as Second Life, are governed by the same social norms as social interactions in the physical world. This finding has significant implications for using virtual worlds to study human social interaction. If people behave according to the same social rules in both physical and virtual worlds even though the mode of movement and navigation is entirely different (i.e., using keyboard and mouse as opposed to bodies and legs), then this means it is possible to study social interaction in virtual environments and generalize them to social interaction in the real world.

Although it sounds plausible on the surface, Yee’s conclusions are based on a raft erroneous assumptions. Of the five variables that Yee observed during avatar interaction – gender, interpersonal distance, mutual gaze, talking, and location – only interpersonal distance and location can be accurately measured by simply observing avatars while they communicate.

For all of the others, Yee has missed the boat entirely. Observations were made in-world by research associates who used a script to collect data. He reports, “When triggered by a designated key press, the script would collect the name, Cartesian coordinates (x, y), and yaw of the 16 avatars closest to the user within a 200 virtual meter radius. The script would also track whether the avatars were talking at that given moment. The script would then store the information as a text file.” This text file is called a ‘snapshot’ in the study. The snapshots were then analyzed to isolate dyads (pairs) of avatars who were talking to one another. No indication is given whether the snap-shotted avatars were asked whether or not they wanted to participate in this study.

After the snapshot was recored, Yee’s assistants determined avatar gender. He notes “In many cases, however, the gender of avatars was unable to be determined, as users chose to be androgynous or non-human. Each dyad was then coded as male-male, female-female, or mixed.” Although it is generally possible to determine the gender of the avatar by examining their appearance in SL, it is impossible to know the gender of the real person controlling that avatar. Therefore, Yee’s conclusions based on avatar gender and their relationship to real world observations are invalid. An observed female-female SL dyad could easily be the result of two male real life Second Life participants – there is a least one well known relationship where two real-life men have female avatars who are ‘partnered’ in SL.

Yee’s mutual gaze measurements are also problematic, as the user behind the avatar must accomplish a sequence of deliberate keystrokes to direct his/her avatar to look at the avatar with whom he/she is speaking. It is a personal observation that there is very little importance ascribed to maintaining eye contact during chat, as user attention is usually directed to the UI chat window anyway. And since avatars don’t automatically emote (although emote animations can be triggered by the user) there is no body language feedback to be gained from maintaining eye contact during SL chat. Circumstance is more likely to create a mutual gaze – simply walking toward another avatar can cause spontaneous eye contact, as an avatar’s eyes automatically look in the direction of travel.

Additionally, Yee states, “If users were in this ‘is typing’ mode, they were coded as ‘talking.'” Although it is true that the default state of an avatar is to show the ‘typing’ animation when chatting, there are numerous animation overrides that are commonly used by experienced SL residents that suppress the typing animation, overriding it with a different, customized action. Therefore, two avatars who are standing adjacent to one another, but are not showing the typing animation, may indeed be chatting. Yee also excluded dyads that were observed as being more than 3.7m apart, as this was shown in real world studies to be the distance further than which social interaction does not occur. Again, however, this assumption is false in SL, where chat can be ‘heard’ for 30m and use of the ctrl-alt keys allow the avatar’s camera (the view the avatar’s user sees on his/her computer screen) to zoom in on the chat partner without physically moving, allowing for effective chatting outside of the 3.7m range. Yee’s observations also ignore the use of SL instant messaging, which is commonly used by avatars to chat privately, and is invisible to any external observation or scripted eavesdropping.

There may be patterns of social interaction observable in Second Life, these patterns may give the observer some insight into the behavior of avatars, and this insight may lead to generalization about the social norms of virtual online environments as a whole. But, without detailed information about the people who are driving these virtual interactions, drawing parallels between real world norms and observed ‘virtual norms’ seems both erroneous and premature.


3 Responses to “CBC Article Reports on Flawed Research”

  1. You raise some interesting points. However I think your not getting what’s most interesting about the gender issue.

    Whether or not the gender of the person matches the gender of the avatar, that Yee’s research finds that the female-female dyads stand closer to each other than male-male dyads (matching the findings of real world research) is still potentially an important finding. That is, a male operating a female-appearing avatar still seems to follow gender roles even in a simulated environment. I find that fascinating.

    Also measuring gaze and distance is interesting in the sense that avatars seem to try and face the person they are talking to, even when not really required for the conduct of a text chat. You can’t control the face direction (easily) but you can control which way your avatar is facing, whether they are on the same level of the other avatar, and how close or far they are.

    True, I could have a chat with someone 30 meters away, but I don’t. I move in closer and face the other avatar, and so do you. Why is that? Because it’s a social norm that we learned from real life.

    More of my take on Yee’s study here: http://www.rikomatic.com/blog/2007/02/dont_stand_so_c.html .

  2. 2 Nick Yee

    Hi all – Fiend also made this post over at the SL Herald. I’ve addressed some of his concerns there: http://www.secondlifeherald.com/slh/2007/02/eavesdropping_i.html#comment-61475436

  3. 3 johnettebasham

    I am not sure where you’re getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this info for my mission.

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