The ACP Virtual Worlds Conference in Philly

Well that’s enough book promotions and griping about bad service for a while. I promise. I want to get back to the focal concern of this blog, and that’s exploring the interface between business and academic research as it pertains to online communities, technology, and entertainment,

I’m in Boston today at a retreat for the Convergence Culture Consortium’s partners at MIT. Writing this from my hotel in Cambridge. We’re going to have a very full agenda that combines academics with businesspeople, and these events are always very stimulating and thought provoking. I’ll post an update for you after it’s done and fill you in.

But first I wanted to provide a little update on a wonderful conference I attended lat week on May 1-2 in Philadelphia. It was the 27th Annual Advertising and Consumer Psychology conference on the topic of “Virtual Social Identity and Consumer Behavior.” The conference got a lot of interest and, again, was one of those boundary-spanning events that drew both academics and working practitioners.

Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford talked about how applications of psychology work out in the virtual world of avatars. His work does a lot of testing of different social psych theories of attraction and repulsion. So, for example, tall avatars are liked better and are more popular than short avatars. Better looking avatars also have an easier time. And, using software, if you get an avatar to mimic your own gestures, or to facially resemble you (with a sort of morph), you will like and trust that avatar more. That was pretty cool stuff.

Lyle Wetsch from St John’s Memorial University presented some very promising and intriguing research he’s doing with students on the socialization in Second Life—they are keeping logs of their own socialization experiences as they move into the culture of Second Life. Alison Bryant from Nickelodeon and MTV, and Anna Akerman from Adelphi, presented fascinating work on the match between kids and particular virtual worlds, and how this linked to their stage of cognitive and social development. I’m over-simplifying, but it was sort of like kids begin with Webkinz tamagotchi-like play world, then they move up to Habbo Hotel, then they get into some of the TV properties like Virtual Hills, and then they graduate into places like Second Life and World of Warcraft. A life cycle of virtual world migration.

Rockstar Georgetown marketing professor Gary Bamossy gave a wonderful presentation on the sacred and profane aspects of online game playing in China, based on his research with Jeff Wang and Xin Zhao. And I thought Bill Minnis, from the company & Billion People, gave a really interesting talk about the problems with online retailing and where it would need to go in order to become as popular and as acceptable as physical retailing. He also compared Second Life programming with cave art and Harry Potter—wondering if the “next Harry Potter” would be a virtual world or a game. This comparison of world creation to art creation is very appealing to me, and I think that conceptualizing these sorts of creations as forms of art could be enlightening to our conceptions.

Newcomer Leila El Kamel from the Universite Laval gave a very scholarly and thorough linkage of Metaverses as Consumer Experiences that drew on a lot of interesting and relevant postmodern theory and philosophy. In such new places, we almost need to draw on elements form science fiction (this was a continual theme) and postmodern theory (Leila was one of the only ones to really push this important point).

Lauren, me, and Ereni

I also like newcomers Lauren Labrecque and Ereni Markos presentation on consumption, marketing, and flow in Second Life. Their research explored the implications of marke4ting and brands in Second Life with a number of interesting observations. I also liked that they got theatrical, dressing up in wigs and gloves so that they physically embodied an “avatar-like” presence during their presentation. And, of course, I also loved that they quoted this blog during their presentation. How cool is that? Readers, you are not alone. In fact, this blog is getting some impressive readership now, well over a thousand unique visitors a day, and rising.

Seeing Lauren and Ereni walk in with their wig and costume on while I was presenting (with my co-author Richard Kedzior) was a Burning Man moment for me. It made me remember just how Burning Man Second Life sometimes feels. This Frontier sense and Wild West mentality with different rules, different social structure, a love of technology and technological possibility, a loose feeling of social chaos, of possibility, of anything can happen. Except that I think Second Life’s lack of rules and greater freedom actually makes it a less interesting place than Burning Man. Burning Man has new rules, participative rules, collective identity rules, rules that build community, while Second Life more anarchist approach actually ends up with a more barren, individualistic, predatory feel. Or maybe that’s just because Second Life has become overly commercialized, while Burning Man has kept the black hounds of business at bay….

The best part of the conference was the conversations. One lively discussion was about the future of Virtual Worlds and who to understand them. I made the point that we really don’t have an adequate overview of the different kinds of virtual world marketing elements that are out there yet, and a link to how that relates to our business models. Are they games that are pay-for-play or subscription? Are they advertising, which supports content development? Are they like e-commerce, stores where we buy something online and which replace brick and mortar? Are they add-on services, providing things like customer service or access to a community? Are they themselves a different kind of service, separate from a game, offering some new element to our product? We just don’t know.

There was also a nice set of volleys about whether there is anything really new here at all. Professor Bamossy made some very good points that there wasn’t anything all that theoretically interesting being show here. People were just showing that theories that apply in one domain (like tall people are more successful and more well-liked) also apply in the virtual world domain of perception. Okay, that begs the crucial question: so what? Richard and I had tried to argue that there were key elements of virtual world experience that were actually quite unique. I’ll share those with you another time. But Gary was pretty adamant that we didn’t need new theories to explain how people behaved, even under those new circumstances or contexts, and that the old ones seemed more than capable of doing the job. Goffman explained how people presented themselves in avatars pretty well. Piaget explained the way kids moved through stages. Freud explained why there was so darn much sexual activity in Second Life. This didn’t seem like it was really “new” at all. It’s a very interesting and important point, and certainly in a half-hour of discussion we only got to dig underneath the surface level just a bit. But that’s what these conferences are great for.

On the plane ride home, I began to sketch out a way to understand and focus our attention on virtual worlds, to organize what is still, in a lot of ways, the Wild Untamed West for Consumption and Marketing Theory and for Business Practice.

So thanks to Natalie Wood and Mike Solomon of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for co-chairing and organizing such a stimulating and exciting conference. I think the ripples from this conference will continue to spread and build into many worthwhile contributions to our growing knowledge of this fascinating development of virtual world.

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