There are many vexations in Second Life. Bots, lag, avatars loaded with too many burdensome attachments, and griefers, to name just a few. Among such everyday annoyances, at least for some residents, are students and researchers.
It’s probably true that this particular vexation is no longer as prevalent as it was in SL’s “Golden Age,” from about 2008 to 2010, when the platform was at the height of its hype-cycle; the (temporary) loss of the nonprofit pricing for educational institutions, and the growing sense that Second Life was not going to become the new “3D Web,” as well as the growing attention paid to augmented reality technologies has meant that virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, are not quite the hot research area that they once were.
That said, there’s still a fair amount of research occurring in-world, and on the SL Forums. The reception met by requests for surveys and interviews is generally quite positive — if there is some evidence that the researcher or student has engaged in some background work, is reasonably familiar with the platform, and has given serious thought to the questions asked. There remains among some, however, a great deal of resentment about such intrusions into the virtual sandbox, some of it no doubt the result of a simple anti-academic bias. An oft-quoted passage from Kimberly Rufer-Bach’s The Second Life grid explains the source of some of this resentment:
“Similarly, some of the first educators and researchers in SL were a bit clumsy in their approach. There were early incidents in which Residents felt — rightly — that they were being spied upon or treated like guinea pigs rather than human beings. Imagine how you would feel if an entire class of students set up right next to your vacation hideaway, left trash lying around, logged your conversations, and posted them on the Internet with criticism and mean-spirited comments. This is exactly what happened to some early Residents. Things have improved greatly in the years since then, but sometimes SL Residents are still subject to that kind of inconsiderate behavior. For example, a constant stream of researchers (often students) posts on the Second Life official forums requesting that Residents please take their surveys. Most of these surveys include the same questions that have been asked over and over. Often they aren’t spell-checked, or refer to SL as a game—a sure way to irritate a substantial number of Residents. Some Residents make a hobby of critiquing these surveys, pointing out how the questions and their wording make it clear that the researcher isn’t familiar with Second Life. Some post outright that they are sick of badly planned surveys and suggest that the researchers log in and do their own research.” (From Kimberly Rufer-Bach, The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement)
Well, indeed. Who does want to be treated like a lab rat?
I actually get this, but it can sometimes seem unreasonable. I was myself once banned from a sim merely because my profile mentioned that I was an academic. And there is an element of inconsistency in this resentment: after all, our data is being assiduously scooped up and analyzed or sold for a profit by every social media platform we use. How reasonable, given what we provide corporations for free, is it that we should be annoyed at a student or academic researcher who harvests a tiny proportion of that information, given voluntarily and abiding by research ethics guidelines that are vastly more comprehensive and respectful than anything to be found in a corporate-authored TOS?
Even as an academic myself, however, I will confess that there is one aspect of such research activities that does seriously irk me, and that is that the results of the research are so very rarely made available to those who are its subjects. One will sometimes see on the SL Forums an appeal to the individual researcher that she or he make available the results of the research in question; sometimes, but rarely, the researcher will actually oblige. The vast bulk of the fruits of research in Second Life remains unavailable to the lab rats themselves.
In cases where the research has been for a student project, I am generally forgiving. Students don’t have the investment in academic research that full-time academics do, and they may well (and sometimes understandably) be nervous about posting their own work in public view.
I do have some issue, however, with research by tenured academics that remains hidden behind pay walls where it is, in effect, accessible only to other academics. An instance of this that crossed my Twitter feed this morning, and that I am going to totally unfairly single out (see my comments below), is a new journal article appearing in the February issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Anna M. Lomanowskaa and Matthieu J. Guitton, entitled “My Avatar Is Pregnant! Representation of Pregnancy, Birth, and Maternity in a Virtual World.” It’s an interesting subject, as the abstract makes clear, by two academics who clearly do know their way around Second Life, have written about it before, and have worthwhile things to say about it:
Despite the potential for limitless creativity, many activities observed in the increasingly popular multi-user virtual worlds involve recreating real-life experiences. This is particularly evident in the social domain, as individuals reenact activities that reflect real human social needs, such as interpersonal intimacy. Surprisingly, one aspect of virtual experience tied to intimate relationships that has emerged in this context involves the reenactment of pregnancy, birth and maternity. The aim of this study was to examine how pregnancy, birth, and maternity are represented in a virtual world. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected over a 10 month period in the popular virtual world of Second Life to investigate the individual, social, and environmental aspects of these activities. Four different themes related to pregnancy, birth, and maternity were identified, including medical clinic services, family activities, sexual activities, and retail, with participation varying between female and male avatars. Analysis of related online media external to the virtual world provided further insight into the way that virtual pregnancy, birth, and maternity were constructed and experienced by the participating individuals. These insights are particularly valuable for understanding how intimate aspects of social interactions can be represented in immersive virtual applications for health care and related domains.
This is legitimate and worthwhile research; I look forward to reading it. I can quite see how it might be “particularly valuable” to academics. I can also see how it might be of interest to many residents of Second Life.
Sadly, few of them are likely ever to be able to read it: Computers in Human Behavior is owned by Elsevier, a company so notorious for its jealous protection of “its” copyright, and for its obscene pricing policies, that it has become the target of a major boycott by many academics. Particularly relevant in the immediate context is Elsevier’s recent takedown notices for academic articles posted by the authors themselves on Academia.edu and other open-access repositories. (It is important to understand that Elsevier does not reimburse authors for the articles it publishes: the labour of researching, writing, editing, and revising such articles is provided for free by academics and their institutions. Scholars, or their institutions, must in essence subscribe to these journals to read their own work once it is published.)
The current crisis in academic publishing, and the role of established publishers like Elsevier and “open access” publication (which makes research freely available) is a complex subject which would take too long to disentangle here even in part. There are certainly problems that need to be overcome with existing open access models of publication. (Guitton discusses some of them himself here; he makes some valid points.)
Suffice it to say, however, that anyone not affiliated with an institution that pays a subscription to Elsevier is going to have to pay $19.95 to read this article. Clicking on the “Get Full Text Elsewhere” button will lead one back (surprise surprise!) to the pay wall.
So, most Second Life lab rats are not going to be able to read this.
I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am not trying to “slut shame” the authors of this particular piece. To begin with, I chose this example merely because it popped up in my Twitter feed; I might have chosen from hundreds of other examples. More importantly, both of these scholars (neither of whom I have met) have made some of their research on virtual worlds publicly available. Both Lomanowskaa and Guitton have, for instance, published research on Second Life in the open access Public Library of Science, here. Both have public blogs about their research, and Guitton’s in particular seems quite extensive. I applaud them both for this.
Ultimately, the fault for this situation lies less with individual scholars than it does with “the system.” There are lots of reasons, many of them good, why an academic would choose to publish in a journal that is not publicly accessible. This is particularly true of young academics who have not yet achieved a full-time position or tenure: while there are open access alternatives that are also peer-reviewed (an immediately relevant one is The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research), these, generally, do not have the prestige of established subscription journals, and won’t count as much towards things like tenure.
Still . . . speaking now in my capacity as a lab rat myself (I’ve responded to many student and researcher surveys), it annoys me that research about Second Life residents is not made available to Second Life residents. It implicitly reinforces the suggestion that we have been reified and commodified; that we are being peered at through the microscope, but aren’t important enough to be told why.
Are your ears burning, genericavatar345.resident?
They probably should be: you’re being discussed. Too bad you’ll never find out what they’re saying about you.